|We Are Standing Outside Time
An Ongoing Artistic Collaboration Between Shahram Entekhabi and Behrang Samadzadegan
In Between Identities: Tilting the Hourglass
Sophia A. Schultz in conversation with
Shahram Entekhabi and Behrang Samadzadegan.
Hi Shahram, hi Behrang. After having looked at some of your photographs I feel the urge to intervene and mediate. I am standing between the two phone booths, I am sitting between the two of you on the fountain.
I wonder why there is so much space in between you two; within the frame of the picture you look so close to each other. All this action without interaction. Walking next to each other in one room – I really like that video (Limbo). I could not have kept a serious face for so long, but that is how we often interact with each other: We take life so seriously, we cannot allow ourselves to speak to each other, only for each other, but that’s another story. I don’t wish to speak for you, which is why I would like to ask you some questions. I will address each of you separately; I don’t want to break the silence, would that ruin the collaborative artistic project? For now, all I can do is stand in between. They say art speaks for itself, so perhaps artworks can also speak to one another. So, let us speak about you for now.
I remember you, Shahram, told me about the software program most people in Iran use instead of Skype, which is called Tango. I am thinking of this style of dance now, which necessitates two partners. You and Behrang are collaborating, but not on the images the spectator sees. The spectator is left wondering and wandering from image to image. Isn’t this also the case with identity politics? There is the same ambivalence. On the one hand there is the person who looks at you and defines you and on the other there you are, putting yourself in front of a mental mirror, asking who am I? Who am I?
This question did not bother me when I was still a child. I think the first time I consciously realized I am “half-Iranian” was when we moved to Washington D.C. Surrounded by international students, the concept of “being German” was a prevalent issue, and therefore other identities came to the fore as well, they assumed shape. I still feel uncomfortable when asked to make statements on “how Iranian/German I feel.” In the end, aren’t we influenced by so many real life experiences, mere national or ethnic questions of identity have an almost arbitrary 43
feeling to them. But then again sometimes arbitrary stereotypes can work to your advantage. When I’m late, I tell my counterpart, “Oh you know I am half-Iranian!” And I smile and for some reason it makes a lot of sense in that moment. When others are late and I become anxious about it, I tell them “Sorry, I am German!”.
This makes me think of an hourglass, and how the amount of sand does not change, similar to our physical being, we are one whole person. However, our identity is fluid, and feelings of belonging are not loyal. The feeling of in-between can be described as the moment when the grains of sand fall from one side to the other: it’s a free-flowing state, sometimes you fall headlong and you are in limbo. Tilting the hourglass. Liberation and limitations: Who do you want to be and who are you in the eyes of others? How much time do you have left?
Shahram, you recently jokingly introduced me as being 35% Iranian, given that I don’t speak Farsi very well! Speaking about percentages of identity, where would the two of you position yourself and your art on the maps, and in the categories of how we define identities these days? Would you add one or two percent of an Austrian identity to your own identity now that you have lived in Linz for a while?
In conversation with Shahram Entekhabi:
Sophia: You were born in Iran, then you moved to Italy, and from there to Germany, where you spent the biggest part of your life. You have travelled the world, you test your boundaries in your art – so where are you now? How would you describe how the places you have lived in and travelled to have influenced your artworks?
Shahram: The transitory is an important motif in my work. Initially, things appear to be “in transit” and indeed it takes a while until this state changes into an “in-betweeness.” Physically spoken, the state of “being on the move” is a firmer aggregate phase than the transitory state, one that leads to your skin becoming permeable, you absorb elements of your surroundings and your solid state “liquefies.” The production of art, in my case, is connected to this fluidization; in a way it is its outcome. If you were to ask me what my art would look like if I had stayed in Iran, then I would not even be able to answer. Nor could I answer the question of whether I would have become an artist at all. It is as difficult to point to specifically German or Italian traces in my artwork. In the end, it is actual persons who leave traces, not countries.
Sophia: The issues of migration and “otherness” take a prominent place in your art. You worked with Mieke Bal, (1) you reflect cultural stereotypes – would you describe your art as global art and which other topics are important to you as an artist?
Shahram: It seems to me that my personal experience with migration functions as some kind of precondition for my work. And that of course is a global theme, a global field. This is a very interesting mind game for me, one that I often go through in my head while planning a new project, namely: how, on the one hand, will this work be read here in Europe, my main place of residence? What cultural knowledge forms the basis for the work to be understood, where does a piece of art “meet” the spectator? On the other hand, I think about how it would be to show certain artworks of mine in Iran. But I don’t mean it in the sense of ideological requirements to exhibit art in the Islamic republic; I am wondering whether the issues that I present in my works would have the same “urgency” in Iran. This depends on many aspects. Migration, for example, is also a significant topic in Iran, a multi-ethnical state, where Persians, Azeri, Kurds, Lurs, Arabs, Baluchs, Turkmen, and others live together. However, this is not an issue frequently dealt with in Iranian contemporary art. That is why it is interesting to open up a dialogue about my artwork there. The same applies to exhibitions of my work in China for example; do my works function differently there? How do spectators read particular motifs; for example, my play with Western stereotypes of the “Oriental man” embodied by myself. It is as if my own fluid state – on the backdrop of my experience with migration – shapes my personal reception of my own works.
Sophia: Your work is clearly autobiographical, different contexts influenced you, and certain perspectives. So, what exactly does “the state of in-between” mean to you personally?
Shahram: As already mentioned, liquefaction is exactly what describes this state of in-between. One can find the element of uprootedness in it – the fact, that you don’t belong anywhere, you went to a kindergarten where you played different games than your own children do, you learned a different little song and the first sentence in your schoolbook was another one too. Yet, I experience the state of in-between as a fertile condition. Effectively, by the use of art I was able to turn it into a fertile state. This might have been one of the reasons why I quit working in the field of architecture, my first and old professional interest. Art in some ways is faster, produced in a quicker manner, more quickly perishable, easier to transport from A to B. This mobility and velocity represents me better. This is just to name another example for the state of in-between…
Sophia: What motivated you to collaborate with Behrang? How did the city of Linz influence you? What are your expectations?
Shahram: We know each other from Tehran and Behrang was an important point of reference for me when I planned my first exhibition in Iran. The stipend for the residency in Linz was awarded to us independently from each other. I was very excited to meet Behrang in European, more familiar surroundings, and to reflect exactly that in conversations but also in the form of art projects. I am curious what Behrang will say about whether the city of Linz left its mark on his artworks…
In conversation with Behrang Samadzadegan:
Sophia: You were born in Iran and you live in Iran – do you think that your art in any way represents the current Tehran art scene? Does something like “authentic Iranian art” exist in your opinion?
Behrang: Well, there are emblems of being Iranian in my works, definitely. But I am sure that my art is not a good example to represent the “Tehran art scene.” What I deal with are the historical and political aspects of my social identity, which means that I am absolutely inspired by the history and society that I come from. But this is something that many artists experience, who are interested in social, political or historical aspects. Their work will definitely include local references, too. I don’t try to visualize the traditional idea of Iranian authentic identity. Instead, I try to focus on how I, as an individual, respond to the history that I am living through as well as to the distances between me, and the rest of the world.
Sophia: One often hears the theory that censorship “helps” to spark the creativity of artists, what are your thoughts? Which experiences have influenced your art?
Behrang: I have never had a certain answer for that question. I believe that limitations may have both positive and negative influences on artistic creativity. By the way, I believe that the positive influence results from self-made limitations, but those imposed by systems and authorities will absolutely cause negative influences on artists’ creativity. However, I have never had the experience of being censored, perhaps because of my indirect style of processing concepts, or maybe because I am used to social and cultural limitations.
Sophia: Do you believe that one can perceive a difference between the “iranianess” of art sold in the Middle Eastern art scene compared to that sold in the Western art scene?
Behrang: If we separate what is “shown” from what is “sold,” my answer is no. Both Middle Eastern and Western major markets are interested in selling art, which can obviously be tagged as being “Iranian.” I would say what is sold in the Western art scene is less superficial but the general vision is the same. This however, is a very general comment and there are many exceptions, certainly. I have to add that I always believe that Iranian artists who are now considered as a part of the global art scene are different than those who are in the focal point of the “Iranian art” market only.
Sophia: What motivated you to collaborate with Shahram? How did the city of Linz influence you? What are your expectations?
Behrang: Basically, Shahram has always been one of my favorite artists. I believe he is very successful in creating a realm of ethnic-global identity in his art. Sometimes he may use social-cultural stereotypes thematically but makes up some new visualization out of it.
Actually, we started to think about collaborative projects four years ago. That was when we had our first conversation about the miscommunication between Iranian artists inside and outside of the country. The opportunity of staying together in Linz, made it possible to summarize our previous thoughts and conversations about some themes like identity and the position of Iranian artist in the contemporary art scene, about how we think and about how we are tagged. What we believe and what is expected from us, etc. This led us to start an ongoing project, which is basically focused on the question of whether the two of us have different visions of what it means to be a contemporary Iranian artist. Meanwhile, the main focus is how we object to the manipulative vision of neo-Orientalism and to how our identity is judged.
Sophia Ayda Schultz
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
1)- Mieke Bal, Cultural theorist and critic, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
* We Are Standing Outside Time, published on the occasion of the exhibition: THE STATE OF ‘IN-BETWEEN’ IN CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN ART, curated by Julia Allerstorfer, Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, Austria 2012