mise en abyme

Curated by Sandra Skurvida

Presented at:
IRANIAN ARTS NOW festival and exhibition, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, 25 June – 24 July, 2012
Sazmanab Platform for Contemporary Arts, Tehran, 22 August 2012
Cinemática Festival at La Elástica, Montréal, 22-25 November 2012

Morehshin Allahyari, Mehraneh Atashi, Maneli Aygani, Bahar Behbahani, Negar Behbahani, caraballo-farman, Samira Eskandarfar, Nooshin Farhid, Amen Feizabadi*Barbad Golshiri, Anahita Hekmat, Zeynab Izadyar, Sohrab Kashani*Nosrat Nosratian, Amitis Motevalli, Neda Razavipour, Hamed Sahihi, Bahar Samadi, Farkhondeh Shahroudi, Negar Tahsiliand Kianoosh Vahabi.

*included in presentations starting November 2012

In short:

The encrypted figure of mise en abyme is a signifier of a fractured subjectivity in resistance to national legislations and their imaginal hegemonies. This collection of video art tangential to Iran demonstrates modalities and vicissitudes of belonging, as it spans the discursive space from the origin to representation—from Iran to Paris, New York, Montreal, and back to Tehran. Art practices that address the current conditions of life in Iran seldom trade in the branded imagery—such as the “triple crown” of chador, calligraphy, and carpeting—instead, they struggle to create a shared public space within the private domain of an artwork. This virtual world is highly autonomous, yet it can be shared and collectively inhabited via spectatorship, that can open it up. If “Iran” is conveyed in the selected works, it is seen en abyme (in coat-of-arms designs, a shield bearing at its center a miniaturized version of itself at the heart point), a figure offered as a decryption key for this program.

Curator’s essay:

I don’t know what mise en abyme means, to paraphrase Barbad Golshiri’s aporia.

This encrypted figure, mise en abyme, signifies the sites of art within the subjective fissures in the sovereignties of national states. These virtual, personal e-states may be at odds with dominant hegemonies and their iconicity. Signifiers of  an imaginary “Iran” — such as the “triple crown” of chador, calligraphy, and carpeting — are seldom seen in current video art beyond the marketplace. If reflections upon an entity such as “Iran” could be conveyed in the selected works, “Iran” would be seen en abyme (in coat-of-arms designs, a shield bearing at its center a miniaturized version of itself at the heart point). Increasingly void signifiers of identity draw us into the spiraling abyss of an absence. Instead, a multitude of reflexive relationships to oneself and to others are drawn in the artistic practice with political effects, manifest via common experiences in ever shifting sites of togetherness, cooperation, alterity, and resistance — in the occupied squares around the world, affects are expressed, produced, and trained. The collective performative power and its dissemination via image networks produce a new aesthetic engagement. Since non-homogeneity is its most distinguishing trait, one’s belonging to a totality is setting oneself at the point where a segment resembles and differentiates the entity to which it relates — such as “I” in “Iran.” This collection of videos tangential to Iran demonstrates modalities and vicissitudes of belonging in absentia.

The first-person point of view, phenomenologically conceived and performatively conveyed, is shared among the works in this collection. Yet video performance is retroactive, its life suspended in this “cool medium,” the past and the present looped together. Realignments of narratives, recurring images, split screens, blind spots, mirroring and embedding of images within images — all are formal devices of mise en abyme.  Furthermore, it is a point of view conditioned by the recent social, political, and ideological upheavals in and in relation to Iran. The featured works zero onto the personal in the political, as their makers and viewers alike try to determine their own stances vis-à-vis predetermined positions of power and control. In search for specific terms to address this strife of self-determination in the idiom of its origin, another cypher appears in the notion of Fitnah (fétné), found in the Quranic verses and Persian poetry, as well as in the ideological lingo of the Islamic Republic. Fattan/Fattané (masculine and feminine forms) refers to a person who mesmerizes and arises a rebellion; this could happen both in love and in upheavals. Repression of the uprising for freedom, democracy, and equality in Iran has been framed in the idiom of “blinding the eye of Fitnah.” Art, too, can cause arousal and bewilderment in the sociopolitical realm, which can be seen through the “eye of Fitnah.” This video program is about a struggle to see in sometimes blinding circumstances. Multiplicity of meanings is inscribed in the ambivalence of these gliding figures — it depends to what purpose they are utilized, as their meanings manifest in the use. This fungibility of meaning is particularly pertinent in the context where censorship underlies the construction of visual codes, where the unexpressed but intended reflects the unintentionally expressed.

Fitnah may refer to seductions in and of art. This potency of passions to destabilize positions of power can be defined as a feminist position conveyed in the artists’ works imparting the personal into the political, in an equal difference. What unfolds is a political passion play in multiple acts, spiraling into the abyss of your eyes.

mise en abyme in Tehran 

Transnational curating entails transformations of meanings in different contexts. A re-turn of mise en abyme to Tehran engendered a review of the title term, first culled from the French structuralist and post-structuralist theory, in response to the inaugural presentation of the program in Paris. A series of translations and correspondences ensued.

To and from: Sandra Skurvida, Barbad Golshiri, Abouali Farmanfarmaian, and Sohrab Mahdavi

- Can you tell me what this means; and would it be possible to transcribe it on Google or something into type?

- Can’t decipher it properly, though it is decipherable. And yes, once it is deciphered, it can easily be put into Farsi type… it’s the ‘abyme’ part I can’t decipher, because I guess I don’t know the word for it… It’s basically saying something like ‘thrown to the abyme.’ Not sure who can give me the word…

- It isn’t easy to read the handwriting, but my problem is not with the last word (افکندن) but with the middle part (one or two words?). That’s a runic character of Arabic-Persian letters. The art of calligraphy actually has to do with the difficulty of reading a text drawn by a calligrapher – the handwriting here is aesthetically pretty and tasteful (these things used to be really important. Someone with good handwriting was well respected, whether s/he deserved it or not).

- I cannot read your handwriting. When I first glanced at it, it looked like (به معنای کار فکر کن), or “think of the meaning of the work.” It wasn’t. The last word is definitely افکندن, which, depending on the context, can mean “throwing,” “putting off,” “projection.” The first word is a connective (به), say “to.”

- My interest is pricked. Let me know if your friends know what the middle part is. It could be a proper name.

- So you haven’t found out anything more then. Cause that is exactly my problem, the middle word, for abyme… I have a feeling there might be a confusion between abyme and abyss, which would explain the use of the word “thrown to” (Afkandan), but not sure until I know what word is used… So just ask him to send you an English transliteration of the middle word… I think it reads something like maghak-a or moghak-a – which could be a version of maghak, or a cave or endless hole or abyss in some post-Sufi sense.

- the middle word is “مغاک” judging by the french, equivalent to “abyss”, certainly poetic in usage like its english counterpart.

strange though that the letter “ک” at the end of “moghaak” is written not the way it usually is. perhaps the calligrapher did it intentionally to confuse the reader.

thus the transliterated sentence: be moghaak afkandan = to throw (hurl, place) into abyss.

- Nothing is left to tell.

- Will write you more my dear.

They know that they do not know, thrown into the abyss of un_intel_legibility.

In Tehran,  mise en abyme has appeared in many guises unseen in Paris – from the Islamic designs in reverse mirror mosaics radically reconfigured by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (the poster image) to patterns encircling the Toranj found on carpets in many Persian sitting rooms. A video entitled Telling a Story (Dancing Toranj II) by Amen Feizabadi has been added to the program after the screening in Tehran.

Reflections by Sohrab Mahdavi on mise en abyme in Tehran

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