Online Edition: Fall 2010

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 by Ann Klefstad

Minneapolis sculptor Siah Armajani was recently honored by the McKnight Foundation with its Distinguished Artist award, a recognition of an artist’s lifetime achievement that comes with a $50,000 prize. Previous awardees have included sculptor Kinji Akagawa, painter Mike Lynch, poet Bill Holm, director Bain Boehlke, and other artists across the spectrum of media.

Born in Tehran, then the capital of Persia (now Iran), Armajani is the son of a prosperous and highly cultured merchant family: in a recent Star Tribune piece by Mary Abbe, he remarked on his family’s collection of thousands of books and his father’s habit of reading him poems at bedtime. He attended the Presbyterian Elementary School Mehr and then Alborz High School, where he assimilated both traditional Iranian culture and Western culture. He began making art on paper, using Persian script in drawings that bear a resemblance both to Western abstraction and Persian miniatures. This combination of text and idea/imagery has been a continuous thread in his work ever since.

Armajani has made his home in Minnesota since arriving in the state in 1960 to attend Macalester College. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in philosophy, a discourse that continues to flow though his work. His affinities—philosophers of the Frankfurt School such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, as well as American writers from Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau to Wallace Stevens—he quotes, inscribing their words on inspired creations that have their genesis in his experience of Minnesota vernacular architecture: anonymous, useful, often beautiful structures. Rural bridges, sheds, and porches, houses, and dormers are found throughout his body of work.

During the 1960s, the young artist/philosopher created art at this juncture of built culture and written culture. His drawings became models, wooden maquettes depicting bridges and buildings whose titles referred to figures about whom he was thinking. “Bridge for Robert Venturi,” a model in the Walker Art Center’s collection, is one example: the small black span shows its structural framing on the outside. This homage to Venturi, a champion of vernacular architecture, is not a bridge per se, but it is about bridge-ness: as Janet Kardon remarked in her 1985 exhibition catalogue, Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building, “Armajani’s houses are not houses but functions of their properties.”

As Armajani developed his unique lexicon, he built a number of these models, scaling up some of them in his studio and later dismantling them. Eventually he moved his work into the public realm.

A PUBLIC ARTIST

In the late 1960s, Armajani began to think of his role as that of a deliberately “public artist,” uniting his thoughts on democracy, anarchism, and the social realm. His bridges and gazebos, sheds and openwork “houses,” reading rooms and shelters, usually inscribed with texts, create a discourse of civility and reason.

Increasingly, he was able to build permanent structures in parks and on campuses around the country. From the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988) in Minneapolis—for which the poet John Ashbery wrote an original poem that is meant to be read while walking its span—to the Olympic Cauldron for the 1996 games in Atlanta, Americans have had many opportunities to see his work in this vein. “All buildings and all streets are ornaments . . . [giving] a place to the representational arts of poetry, music, and performing,” Armajani has said.

Still, his public work had self-imposed limitations. “When I was a public artist between 1968 and 1999, I was harnessing my personal emotion and ideology,” he remarked to Abbe in an interview. “I was always very discreet, but in 1999 and 2000, I just could no longer withhold my personal feeling, so I became overtly political.”

A PRIVATE ARTIST

There has always been a valorization of the individual and personal choice in Armajani’s work, but after 2000 it seems there is also a meditation, perhaps in part driven by events in the political world, on the costs of individual isolation as well as the need to be private.

Josie Brown, director of Max Protetch Gallery and a longtime friend of Armajani’s, is quoted in the Star Tribune piece as saying, “Politics has always been huge in his work, but he’s also concerned with the individual, so there has always been a sense of humanity in his work.” This humanity is often represented by something like “the humanities”—that is, human beings at their most thoughtful. His domestic spaces, conceived as homages to thinkers, have become more politically charged over the years.

Although usually somewhat reclusive, Armajani himself wrote about his work Glass Front Porch for Walter Benjamin in 2002 for the journal Critical Inquiry. A photo of the piece is included, showing the tiled glass of the walls and the spare emptiness of the liminal space—an open door, transparency, but no place to rest—and a locomotive steaming into some indeterminate future, adorned with the Paul Klee drawing, Angelus Novus. Armajani’s piece evokes the well-known exile’s fate: to die on the road, in flight from tyranny.

In the article, Armajani first offers a number of quotations—tiling them almost, as in a building process—including passages from Nietzsche, Benjamin, and Klee. Then Armajani cites the famous passage from Benjamin describing Klee’s “New Angel”: “He would like to remain, to awaken the dead, to rejoin what has been smashed. But from the direction of Paradise there blows a storm which has caught his wings and is so strong that the angel is no longer able to close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of rubble before him grows up to heaven. This storm is what we call progress.”

Finally, shifting to his own voice, the artist gives a brief, kaleidoscopic, visionary cultural history of glass, its transparency and its fragility, which leads into a longer meditation on the meaning of early American construction techniques, ending with this: “In construction one part did not mask the other. One part was always next to the other part as a chair was next to the wall or a table was by the window; one resided next to the other. One looked after the other. One belonged to the other and the two belonged to a totality.”

The Glass Front Porch itself, of course, must be experienced, not merely seen in an image—that is one of the defining aspects of Armajani’s work. His pieces are a disposition of space as well as of materials, and the presence of one’s body within or outside the created space is essential to the nature of the work. Glass Room for an Exile (2000), in the lobby of the Walker Art Center, is like this. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has also recently acquired a very recent example for its permanent collection: An Exile Dreaming of Saint Adorno.

Finished this year, Saint Adorno, with its inclusion of a human spine, a figure slumped at a desk, and a haloed figure, links the earlier thinker-homage-spaces to the more overtly political works, Fallujah (2004) and Murder in Tehran (2009), made in response to violent events in Iraq and Iran.

POLITICAL WORK

Fallujah represents a house destroyed by the ruthless American campaign in the city of Fallujah in 2003. Its bloodless ruins hold evidence of the deaths of a mother, a father, and a child, and the survival of an orphaned infant. Certain gestural graphic details refer to Picasso’s painting Guernica, which protested the Fascist bombing of the civilians of the town of Guernica in Spain; Fallujah was first shown in Spain on an anniversary of that event. From there, the piece traveled to a number of other venues, and it will eventually enter the Walker’s collection—which already contains the model for the work.

More pieces of this kind were to follow. After the June 2009 elections in Iran, citizens took to the streets to protest the results. The government reacted violently, and a young woman, Neda Soltani, was killed, on camera, and became a symbol of the opposition. In response to these events, Armajani created Murder in Tehran, which was shown in the Max Protetch Gallery project space in November and December of last year, along with a suite of drawings based on Goya’s Horrors of War etchings.

Murder in Tehran refers to the sacrifices of women in the struggle against the current tyranny in Iran, and to the rooftop protests that continued for weeks. An eleven-foot tower is topped by a bloodstained hooded faceless figure, and under it, in a heap of crushed glass, are white body parts—hands and feet. A passage from the 20th-century Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou (“The man who comes in the noon of the night / has come to kill the light / There the butchers are posted in the passageways / with bloody chopping blocks and cleavers . . .”) is written across the structure, and continues, “Satan, drunk on victory, squats at the feast of our undoing.”

This explicit grief and rage is a far cry from the more muted or private mourning seen in the show that Max Protetch held in its main gallery just a month earlier: there Armajani showed three works constructed between 2004 and 2008. One Car Garage (2004), Emerson’s Parlor (2006), and Edgar Allen Poe’s Study (2007-08) all use the familiar Armajani lexicon of the transparent room, but in these pieces the room has become increasingly dark. One Car Garage’s shelves of models seem to bid farewell to work that is now in storage; in Emerson’s Parlor, a table is tipped over, a scarecrow made of a man’s overcoat hangs in an alcove. Poe’s Study features stair treads made of bloody saw blades leading to a barrier, and a game of solitaire is laid out on a table.

It seems that the hope once represented by the American experiment has been extinguished. Nancy Princenthal’s review of this show in the October 2009 issue of Art in America says, “Spatially, conceptually, and iconographically complex and wide-ranging in its references, Armajani’s work would never be mistaken for political cheerleading, but it has always supported social engagement. So it was something of a shock, and deeply moving, to see him turning inward in his majestic recent work.”

EXILE

In Mary Abbe’s recent interview with Armajani, she asks if he feels himself to be an exile, even after five decades in a country he fiercely loves. His answer, a simple “Yes,” is telling. It is possible for a place to change so much that it becomes foreign to itself. How many of us, no matter where we were born, now feel like exiles as well?


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