in Features | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

I Am An Image

Exploring the currency of categories such as still life, portraiture and landscape, Shirana Shahbazi has had her photographs replicated by sign painters, woven into rugs by Iranian carpet weavers and turned into posters

in Features | 02 MAR 08

Curve Art Commission (2007), installation view

‘Photography is a simple, stupid medium,’ says Shirana Shahbazi, and indeed, her photographs often imitate the look of simple, stupid pictures pulled from stock image banks to furnish the pages of tourist brochures or billboard advertisements.1 The new bride clutching a bouquet in one of Shahbazi’s photographs could be smiling at us from behind the plastic wrapping of a cheap frame, while her picture of a pot of orchids, reprinted on several different coloured backgrounds, could be one of the anonymous compositions that advertise reproduction services at a copy shop, showing us the colour ranges available from an inkjet print or the possible dimensions of black and white photocopies. The kinds of images Shahbazi produces, or reproduces, function as placeholders – as generic rather than specific types. Most of all, they don’t engage in the kind of reportage or storytelling that might round out a cliché of a female artist from Tehran. As Shahbazi puts it: ‘I try to be polite and let my images introduce themselves: Hello! I am an image! And there might be a story I would like to tell you, but time is short, so maybe next time …’2

If Shahbazi’s images do tell a story, it’s one about artistic media and the currency of classical categories of still life, portraiture and landscape. Though her recurring subjects are ephemeral things that can intimate symbolic meaning, they’re more often presented as samples or specimens; fruits, flowers, fish, babies, birds and brides fall just short of metaphorical meaning. In her installations, these images appear and reappear in different sizes, formats and combinations, and not always as photographs: Shahbazi has also had her pictures reproduced by sign painters, woven into rugs by Iranian carpet weavers or turned into posters. These multiple incarnations encourage us to consider the array of formal and technological possibilities and means of reproduction with which signs can be rearranged and recycled. The distance that can open up between an original and its reproduction – and the infinite concatenation of representations that can unfurl in between – underpin Shahbazi’s precise installations.

In her most recent exhibition, at The Curve at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, Shahbazi displayed painted murals, large-scale inkjet prints on canvas, glossy C-type prints and even wallpaper along the black-painted walls of the massive curving corridor. Her images form simple constellations: a moth with its wings spread to reveal its markings, single stones or chunks of minerals placed on neutral backgrounds, varieties of orchids, women’s faces. Each is pictured with precision and isolated for observation – arranged in a studio and arrested with flash lighting against colourful backgrounds or appearing to be suspended in black space. Some of Shahbazi’s shots look like they could be taken from the pages of a stock photography catalogue, the colours rich and bracing enough to sell a product, while the still-life arrangements of pears and plums could have been assembled by a food stylist for a commercial shoot.

But we don’t get to contrast one variety of butterfly with another, or a frontal portrait versus a profile. Rather, Shahbazi creates a more oblique formal taxonomy, juxtaposing orchids with coral, irises with birds. We’re invited to compare their surfaces and the techniques used to render those surfaces. A woman in a black and white photograph glances over her shoulder toward a mural-sized painted image of another woman. Hair cascading down her shoulders vaguely echoes the fragile stems of the orchids in a neighbouring picture. The fine hairs on a butterfly’s thorax are as delicate as the peach fuzz visible on the woman’s cheek, as if, when re-ordered by a new method, they could belong to the same species. Given these pairings, it’s tempting to imagine a comparison between the exotic and the ordinary, the unique and the generic – but it’s impossible: we find elements of both in each. Though all these perishable things are laden with symbolic baggage, Shahbazi manages to render their symbolic meanings equivalent, in exchange for drawing attention to the ways they’ve been represented and reproduced.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is an expansive wall painting that stretches over much of the length of The Curve. Shahbazi commissioned an Iranian billboard-painter, who has reproduced works for her previous installations, to translate one of her precise studio-photographed still lifes onto the black wall of the gallery. In the mural, oversized plums, which appear blemished and unwashed, tumble from a severed tree branch, while a copious bunch of grapes spills forward. Incongruously nestled behind them are two squat pickles and a large cucumber, adorned by chrysanthemums. Bare, spindly vines and lush leaves decorate the left side of the composition, where three apples are nestled in a cove of foliage. It could almost be an elaborate supermarket advertisement for fresh produce, were it not for the glaringly white dome and vacant eye sockets of a human skull set in the middle of the composition, its upper jaw seeming to balance on the black surface. But the mural doesn’t sell anything or send a single message: instead we’re invited to compare its enlarged, exaggerated surfaces, rendered by the painter’s hand, with the surprisingly similar photographic compositions hanging nearby. How are we to measure this print against that painting, or this particular selection of fruits and flowers with another version, in which clamshells and pearl strands replace plums and roses? The adequacy or accuracy of these representations can’t be judged – each depiction is simply a version of another one, an approximation of a lost original.

In the past, Shahbazi’s series have been based on specific geographic locations, incorporating less staging and more contextual detail than her recent still lifes. Nevertheless, these series are also classified according to pre-established genres in Shahbazi’s own project, rather than a desire to record the particulars of a place. The arrangement of a woman in a clerical office behind a humble wooden desk reappears in ‘Painted Desert/USA’ (2004) and again in ‘Real Love/Shanghai’ (2004), with only minor variations. A bride in a photo studio in Tehran is just as stiffly posed as one reclining on a lawn in Shanghai. Shahbazi’s photographs of minarets in Tehran, Bonsai trees in Shanghai or skyscrapers in New York speak more about the equivalence of these places, and the pervasiveness of clichés in terms of their representation, than their uniqueness.

Her best-known series, also produced as a publication called Goftare Nik/Good Words (2001), focused on her native Iran, which she left for Germany when she was 11 years old. Now living and working in Zurich, Shahbazi doesn’t try to hide the fact that she approached Iran as both insider and outsider. ‘I consider a balance between distance and proximity a good point of view,’ she has said.3 And indeed, her series shift from familiarity to detachment, while Shahbazi, as the woman who took the photographs, remains cloaked behind them. ‘Goftare Nik’ is not a travelogue of a displaced Iranian who returns home, nor an intimate personal diary of daily life: in images of a young girl wearing rollerblades or a woman bending down to tie her son’s shoelace, it’s not obvious whether the artist knows her photographic subjects.

The series also resists the clichés of photojournalistic reportage in a highly politicized country. Before becoming an artist, Shahbazi wanted to be a photojournalist, but found that even this medium resulted in banal imagery: ‘I looked at images of Iran and they just seemed to tell me things that had already been said.’4 Instead, Shahbazi photographs from her own detached position. Some images from ‘Goftare Nik’ look like tourist shots stripped of their attractions. A photo might show a woman in a headscarf or a cityscape of Tehran, but these are the kinds of illustrations you might find in a travel guide in a bookshop’s bargain bin. They are neither snapshots nor monumental visions: a woman opens the drawer of a filing cabinet; a man holds a remote control in his living room. The backdrops, if any, reveal little in the way of culturally specific details, save for the visible corner of a Persian rug or a fragment of Arabic writing. Is Shahbazi spurning the banal representational strategies that are symptomatic of outsiders photographing foreign places, or is this the reality of banal life, in Iran as much as anywhere else? In Shahbazi’s view ‘everything is ordinary’5, and, through her lens, even that which is different is ordinary too.

1 Quoted in Tim Teeman, ‘The Epic in the Everyday’, The Times, 4 February 2006
2 ‘Shirana Shahbazi, Interviewed by the Wrong Gallery’ in Accept the Expected, exh. cat. Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Walther König, 2005, p. 97
3 Ibid., p. 98
4 Quoted in Tim Teeman, ‘The Epic in the Everyday’, The Times, 4 February 2006
5 ‘Shirana Shahbazi, Interviewed by the Wrong Gallery’ in Accept the Expected, exh. cat. Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, Walther König, 2005, p. 98