Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Taraneh Hemami: Most Wanted

Intersection for the Arts
Closed June 30, 2007

Taraneh Hemami is a San Francisco artist whose work could not be more timely. Raised in Iran and exiled as a teen, she is adept at expressing both the allure and the extremism of her given homeland and her adopted one alike. I had the pleasure of working with Taraneh in 2006 when Homes was installed at ZeroOne San Jose. Homes is part of her project CrossConnections, in which she collects images and impressions of Iranians and Iranian-Americans in presentations that emphasize her community's peaceful self-awareness. The project is ongoing, with Taraneh currently traveling to Iran to realize a new chapter in the coming year.

Most Wanted has an entirely different approach, in which Taraneh looks at her people of origin through the eyes of Americans and finds distortion. In early 2002, an image was circulated widely over the Internet showing the US government's supposed priority security targets, whose faces were reproduced in such low-resolution as to be almost comically indistinct. Not content simply to point out that this popular image reduces individuals to a collection of universal characteristics (beards, veils, dark skin), Taraneh took apart and reworked this image in a variety of conceptually skillful ways. The showstopper is a large beaded curtain in which each glass bead works as a pixel, faithfully reproducing the obscured faces of the original. Each iteration of the found image in this show further strays from representation, as in the animated video where the faces morph into one another.

A curved row of steel structures from floor to ceiling suggest a screen or perhaps a jail cell, each one framing a single face from the poster. These come to resemble "martyr" posters of militant Islamists killed in conflict, superimposed with stylized flower patterns which Taraneh explains are reminiscent of the decorations found on such posters in Iran today. Gridlike, they also evoke paint-by-numbers or needlepoint patterns, and so their funereal power is diffused by domesticity.

Taraneh also tests the limits of another form of representation, names, which she prints on a carpet leading up the stairs to the exhibition. In Eastern traditions, it is forbidden to step on a text (all books being worthy of respect), so it was a bit unnerving for me to walk up the stairs and stomp on all these Muslim names. The same names are translated into Farsi and painted on a gallery wall in transparent glue, only made visible by the soil which Taraneh and a team of assistants brushed over the surface. Again the means of representation are thwarted, specific meaning lost in translation and a generic "Iranian" or "Islamic" entity comes up in its place.

In light of the communication impasse between the US and Iran, the work of Iranian-American artists like Taraneh Hemami serves the important social role of pointing out the fallacy of easy assumptions and making us appear more human to one another. This kind of cross-cultural dialogue is essential to maintaining peace between the two countries. It's remarkable that, here in the US, we can turn to our neighbors to give us perspectives on everywhere else in the world. This diversity of viewpoints is what will save us from the narrow, prejudiced militarism of our day.

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