Picture this. You are walking back from work down a pedestrian suburban street, and through the window of a terraced house you glimpse a group of Middle Eastern men lounging around in armchairs, wearing balaclavas. At a time when terrorist activity saturates popular visual culture, this simple tableau contains all the ingredients of tabloid sensationalism - the unexpected and dangerous combined with the neighbourly and familiar, peppered with a pinch of xenophobia. It is with such scenarios that Iranian artist Reza Aramesh adroitly explores his identity as a Middle Eastern man, as well as the complex relationship between East and West, in his recent show 'Picture This'.
Aramesh transformed the gallery into a plushly decorated sitting-room, complete with a chaise-longue, stuffed monkey, potted palm tree, drawings and photographs (all works untitled, 2002). Following the lessons of René Magritte and Robert Gober, the artist subverts his childhood experiences of a modern Iranian interior into a provocative environment. The fenestration of the room itself is echoed in the drawing of a bird's nest, creating the illusion of a second window in the gallery's back wall. While the cast of a couple of theatrically staged photographs features only hostile-looking men, the household context - a traditionally female domain - settles the viewer and heightens our response.
Of the two photographs, the more striking features a group of young Arabic men in another Westernized apartment. Dressed in the pinstripe suits and shiny shoes of the Western professional, the men hide their features under thick balaclavas. Although the overriding atmosphere is one of lethargy, no one sleeps. Rather, each individual stares uncomfortably, waiting to be called into action. If this is not unnerving enough, a fair-skinned boy sits in the centre of a Persian rug with a lamb's carcass lying limply by his side. Aramesh deliberately includes the dead lamb to refer to the sacrifice of Isaac. Grinning out at the viewer, the child's unmasked and slightly unfocused face partly contradicts the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation, while creating an incongruous symbolic relationship with his captors. By applying Renaissance conventions and symbols Aramesh plays with formulaic contrivances of the Western art canon designed to stabilize our reading of the image, in order to further explore misapprehensions of identity by both East and West.
This mixing of conventions and stereotypes is typified in the untitled photographic portrait of a single masked man. Dressed in a pristine pink shirt and tie, he smiles charmingly back at the viewer, although most of his features are obscured. As in a typical studio portrait, the man clearly takes pride in his appearance, as his iconic image is framed for posterity on the living-room wall. Like the Surrealists, Aramesh uses the masquerade to question the identity behind the mask. Drawing on his own experiences of living in both Iran and the UK, the artist explores how he himself is perceived, and the various fallacies on which such perceptions are founded.
While Aramesh's work deals with larger issues of race and the dominance of the Western canon, this project should not be simply understood as a disparaging review of the West's attitude towards the East. The installation is also intended as, in his own words, a 'critique of the Iranian middle-class aspiration to an idealized notion of Western culture' as well as an investigation into the 'notion of masculinity within the Islamic cultural context'. The overall feeling of the interior and costume is Westernized, although the inclusion of the palm tree and monkey alludes to a 'foreign' influence. Through unseen but detectable presences 'Picture This' obscures a straightforward interpretation and successfully undermines both the artistic and cultural conventions that Aramesh employs.
Given the present political and cultural context, Aramesh's installation is an ambitious project. Through his humorous typecasting and references to the familiar and banal the artist confronts a range of complicated issues while deliberately holding back from suggesting solutions. Although the surfaces of his pictures and interiors are slick and comfortable, the spaces beyond are fraught with tension, as the process of unmasking and unframing both destabilizes and enriches the viewer's understanding of the identity of the artist and his work.