BY Ian Bourland in Features | 03 JUN 19
Featured in
Issue 204

Serious Play: the Democratic Ideals Behind Siah Armajani’s Public Sculpture

For more than 60 years the Tehran-born, Minneapolis-based artist has made work about community, coexistence and the experience of exile

BY Ian Bourland in Features | 03 JUN 19

On a recent afternoon, a sculptor friend and I paid a visit to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where Siah Armajani’s Bridge Over Tree (1970) has been temporarily re-installed. First realized in a Minneapolis park almost 50 years ago, the work is both inviting and confounding: an example of what curator Janet Kardon once described as the Iranian-born polymath’s ‘perverse bridges’.1 Entering its corridor of trusses covered by a shingled roof, you are unable to see the other side. At its centre, the ‘bridge’ slants abruptly upward, making way for a small tree below. Both absurd and playful, the work is exemplary of an insistently public and polemic career now entering its seventh decade.

Armajani’s First Bridge (1968) was executed two years previously, in a suburb of Minnesota – the artist’s base since fleeing Tehran in 1960. That same year, he sketched out plans for his fantastical North Dakota Tower (1968), which, rising 18 miles high, would have cast a shadow from one edge of the state to the other – some 360 miles (or about the distance from London to Glasgow). Too colossal to be realized, it invokes the modernist hubris that drove communist world builders such as Vladimir Tatlin no less than the engineers of Armajani’s beloved Apollo Space Program. (The artist commemorated the lunar landing by hand-tracing a 21 July 1969 edition of The New York Times.) What remains of his own project – its careful stipulation of problem and solution in spare Helvetica and mathematically modelled diagrams – reads, too, like a NASA briefing.

Siah Armajani, Dictionary for Building: Tabletop Bookshelf, 1982–1983, wood, paint and book. Courtesy: the artist and Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis and Max Protetch

Such experiments were of a piece with the groundswell of conceptualism that marked Western art of the early 1970s. Art & Language, Ed Ruscha and many others postulated bureaucratic banality as an aesthetic language, even as Sol LeWitt assured readers that art was a practice of the mind, its execution a mere proof of concept. Armajani plainly drew on these peers, especially their willingness to work speculatively, but he never fully absorbed their deadpan attitude or commercial canniness. He forgot neither the quixotic promise of the avant-garde nor the perils of intolerance and illiberalism. 

The latter was, after all, fresh in his mind. During the closing years of the 1950s, as a student at Tehran University, he immersed himself in the politics of the city’s southern district. Since the CIA and MI6-orchestrated overthrow, in 1953, of Iran’s popular nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the area had been a bastion of dissent. Armajani yoked his fortunes to the young leftists protesting the autocratic regime of the newly empowered Shah.

Armajani’s works from this ‘Persian period’ have the cast of illuminated manuscripts – scroll-like collages of ink, watercolour and pencil, with scrawls of text and imprints of family heirlooms. Some seem to be transcriptions of the words of everyday people; many are imbued with the black and red palette of Gustav Klutsis and the Russian suprematists.

In those early years, Armajani found his first public not in museums, but through hand circulation of his image-texts under the cover of dark. In these moments, the artist foreshadowed what would become the defining through-line of his practice – language as a vital medium of dissent, indeed of freedom. Even as his script was stripped, in later works, of referential meaning – via the openness to chance touted by John Cage and the sort of repetitive gesture made famous in Jasper Johns’s crosshatch paintings of the 1970s – the formal structures of language persist: taxonomy and syntax, and words themselves, emblazoned on metal or bound between covers. 

Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3, 1988, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis; photograph: Bobby Rogers 

The move from flowing script to large-scale installation is explored in ‘Siah Armajani: Follow This Line’, which opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last September and continued to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer building in 2019. The Met Breuer installation focuses, to great effect, on small-scale projects. However, amongst its larger installations is a restaging of Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3 (1988), an array of wood-and-steel tables, chairs and shelving units, stocked with pencils, books and periodicals. Two cubic structures with subtle apertures offer a degree of privacy – they, like many of Armajani’s ‘open’ sculptural forms, are made to shift our behaviour from spectatorship to participation. They feel at once intimate and immense, hiding us in plain sight.  

This is one of four such installations – the first of which was displayed at Kunsthalle Basel in 1987 as part of Armajani’s inaugural European retrospective – memorializing the martyred anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and their spirit of transgression. For The Met Breuer iteration, artist collective Slavs and Tatars culled a reading list that links anticapitalist histories in Russia to the Black Atlantic world. For Armajani, such mutability and reliance on the words of others has long been the point. His collages and installations alike serve as discursive frames: sites of potential, inviting provisional completion through dialogue with others.  

Armajani’s ‘Persian period’ pieces were, by necessity, coded and allusive. But for all his adeptness at navigating the currents of what was permitted and what was not under the Shah’s regime, the artist’s family – prosperous, Christian – feared for his future. In 1960, at the behest of his businessman father, Armajani flew from Tehran, escorted by a bodyguard.

What might have been a temporary relocation became a condition of permanent expatriation following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Armajani settled in Minnesota, studying philosophy at Macalester College, where his uncle, Yahya Armajani, was a distinguished professor. There, he set about planting roots. At college, he met the love of his life, Barbara Bauer, whom he eventually married. And he availed himself of the local high-tech sector, collaborating with the University’s NASA-sponsored Hybrid Computer Laboratory in 1970 to make a digitally assisted 16mm film and computationally based drawings including Tree of Babel, a sequence of triangles comprising stacked lines of numeric factorials. Nonetheless, as ‘Follow This Line’ curator Clare Davies observes in her catalogue essay, the ‘migrant and the exile stand perpetually at the centre of Armajani’s long-standing practice’. His own concise artist’s statement is simply titled ‘Notes on Exile’. In it, he cites Theodor Adorno’s formulation, in Minima Moralia (1951), that ‘it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home’ as a guiding principle.

Siah Armajani, Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, 1998. installation view. Courtesy: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; photograph: Barbara Economon

Armajani’s early work, however, is imbued with a sense of serious play. One of his first gestures after college was to purchase a minute plot of land in all 50 US states (Land Deeds, 1970): a literal anchoring against the precocity of exile, but also a mordant inquiry into the correlation between land and power in his adopted home. In 1974, he began his Dictionary for Building, a series of over 1,000 maquettes built over the course of two years: small structures that reverse-engineered the vernacular architecture of the American landscape. The dictionary induced a structural grammar from the built environment. Those fragments were recombined in whimsical or confounding ways in the years ahead, in his many plazas, gazebos, bridges and reading rooms – each evoking lattices and trestles, the armature of industrial-era infrastructure. 

Minnesota provided fertile ground for such work: its wide agrarian plains and mining belt object lessons in functional architecture, its cities home to a long progressive tradition. The Walker Art Center – a regional hub for landmark shows of postminimalist sculpture, performance and film under the direction of Martin Friedman, from 1961–90 – was an early and important patron. The institution purchased his Prayer (1962), a seemingly abstract canvas dense with whorling excerpts of Sufi poetry of the 13th and 14th centuries. Between 1968–74, he taught at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where his partner in crime, artist Barry Le Va, recalls that the pair challenged the academic orthodoxies of the time: ‘They didn’t see us as troublemakers, but they were frightened of us […] We both liked the attitudes in minimalism – that you could make art from the hardware store.’

By the late 1970s, Armajani had developed a reputation as a conceptual artist, showing in iconic group shows such as ‘Art by Telephone’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1969 and ‘Information’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. But, with his portable bridges and reading rooms, he was poised to ride the wave of two important developments. One was what Rosalind Krauss, in a famous 1979 essay, described as the ‘expanded field’ of sculpture; the other was an uptick in interest, through the 1980s, for public commissions – from challenging site-specific works to corporate ‘plop art’. Armajani was represented by the New York dealer Max Protetch, whose stable included LeWitt, the architectural theorist Robert Venturi and other key conceptual figures. Protetch also worked with the sculptor and editor Scott Burton, who noted in 1990 that Armajani ‘brought about a significant mutation in what art is […] He probably couldn’t have done it if he’d been born here.’2

Siah Armajani, Before / After, 1970, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

There were ready patrons for such mutations: plazas in Ann Arbor, Münster and Manhattan; a garden in Nice; the idiosyncratic platform for the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1996; and the iconic Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988). The latter is a study in canary yellow and powder blue, merging elements from Dictionary for Building and connecting Loring Park to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened that year. From the relative seclusion of Minnesota, Armajani’s work reached a broad global audience. During this phase of his career, he also refined his ‘Manifesto: Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy’ (first published 1978), an enumerated polemic in the spirit of earlier avant-gardes, which begins with an Emersonian embrace of ‘the common […] the familiar, the low’. Many writers have engaged with Armajani’s public structures of this period, and they tend to highlight two things: on one hand, they are, in form and substance, inspired by the utopian projects of the 1920s; on the other, they are grounded in the present, by their utility in demystifying art and engaging the body and mind of the user.

As Davies astutely notes, however, Armajani’s interest in democracy is not populist, but ideological. As he wrote in the 1993 version of his ‘Manifesto’, public sculpture is ‘a logical continuation of the modern movement and the Enlightenment, which was tempered and conditioned by the American Revolution’. Democracy – and the public sphere itself – is a condition of possibility, a process of becoming. And sometimes we fail at that calling. This is perhaps why, since 1999, Armajani has created spaces of alienation and enclosure: cenotaphs and collapsed buildings mourning the battle of Fallujah, the murder of Iranian protesters in 2009 and the ‘interment’ of the liberal ideas that long animated the Western project. Not that such a project was or could ever be complete. 

Armajani’s most recent sculptures are addressed to the migrants and asylum seekers of the world: 3D-printed models of cell blocks, cargo containers and checkpoints. Seven Rooms of Hospitality: Room for Deportees (2017), first shown at the Walker, balances ominous razor wire with a bench and a chair – small gestures of respite. Inside its guardhouse hangs a framed photograph that I long ago made note of in the artist’s studio – a picture of several men under a wooden bridge, manning an upturned wagon that seems to plow into the earth. Armajani called this a picture of the ‘Iranian Space Program’ – and it was hard to tell if he was making a joke or issuing a challenge. But then, as now, he makes this much clear: freedom is not something that we can possess but, rather, a ceaseless endeavour. 

When I spoke to Armajani several years ago, in the context of an important show at London’s Parasol Unit, he was contemplating one final tomb: for himself. Like his other tombs, this is less a literal place of rest, more elegiac monument. It marks the limits of an idea: a liberalism beset and frayed by years of endless war. In the wake of the political events of 2016, this sense of catastrophe has, for many, only compounded. For the migrant and exile – as for us all – there’s no rest for the weary. 

Siah Armajani is an artist based in Minnesota, USA. He has been the subject of more than 50 solo exhibitions since 1978. His retrospective, ‘Follow This Line’, runs at the Met Breuer, New York, USA, until 20 June and his sculpture Bridge Over Tree is installed in Brooklyn Bridge Park, USA, until 29 September.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the headline ‘Limits Of An Idea’

Main image: Siah Armajani, Seven Rooms of Hospitality: Room for Deportees, 2017, metal, wood, barbed wire, mailbox, hat, purse. Courtesy: the artist and Rossi & Rossi

1. Janet Kardon, Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building, 1985, exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, p.14

2. Calvin Trillin, ‘The Nobility of Usefulness’, in Find Beauty and Holiness in New and Necessary Facts, 2010, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis, n.p.

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).