Ziba Rajabi in Conversation with Shahrzad Jahan17 Aug 2022
The following text which is part of a series of conversations I had with artists whose work I keep track of and occasionally talk to is a section of an interview with Shahrzad Jahan, prepared after her "Blooming Lights" show at the O Gallery (September 2021). Sharzad Jahan is an interdisciplinary artist who graduated in Fine Arts from Kingston University in London and is the founder and director of the II Platform. After engaging in pleasantries and talking a little about why she became an artist in the first place and when she realized that she wanted to become an artist, we reached the topic of her first show, “Foliage”, held in 2017 at O Gallery.
This show is also influenced by nature. Even its title is "Foliage". Some of the works are specifically foliage images; the ones that are relatively more abstract are still inspired by nature.
I spent my childhood in Zahedan. Dad always did a lot of flower gardening. In Zahedan, which was relatively dry, he had created a garden that was outstanding to me; its colors, and the name of its flowers. Dad always asked me, "do you know the name of this one? Do you know that one? How should you take care of this flower?", my involvement with plants began at that age. When we moved to Tehran, we did not have a garden, but always had apartment flowers. We used to go to the flower market every week. Dad even plants flowers in the alley. The "Foliage" show stems from an experienced time and a stretched and long-lasting visual memory, containing parts of my childhood to adulthood, the memory of plants, planting and tending, vegetation in such geography where access to water is not easy and in the case of the next place that was Tehran even access to soil.
Held at the O Gallery a few years later in September 2021, her "Blooming Lights" display is again about another visual memory, but a shorter one: a "Chaharshanbeh Suri" (The Scarlet Wednesday) and an explosion. The source of both is the artist’s visual memory though the images are not as accurate and high-quality as the moment they were viewed since time has passed upon them.
The image that remains in the memory loses some of its original quality, depending on how long has since passed, the number of times it is recalled, and where and under what conditions it is reviewed; sometimes it is even altered and distorted. This is very similar to the process of downloading and uploading digital images many times over and is very similar to some of Hito Steyerl's work, especially what she addresses in the text, "In Defense of the Poor Image" (2009) comes to mind that how a temporal image that has a dimension and a body then transforms into a mental image, remaining in the artist's memory and changing over time, and over the years, the artist, consciously or unconsciously, draws the images out of the recesses of the mind which become the visual source of creating new images and of the special freedom they bring along. In general, I find the relationship with the image in the works of these two series intriguing.
I like Hito Steyerl's work very much and it was interesting that you mentioned her, but that digital connection is not part of my artistic processes, and I do not enter that field at all, that is, distorted images, for example. For me, the image comes more to my imagination and is about how the thing it reminds me of relates to my present. More importantly, my visual sources have been videos of other people from around the world. I photographed them and was more fascinated with what was happening to that collective memory, and how my memory might be reminiscent of the things that happened to other people. This part was more important to me. I do not use image (digital) distortion in my work. My work is more leaning toward a novel illustration that is a little imaginative yet almost wholesome; I mean, I think my pictures are quite shipshape.
I do not see the impact of the digital image in your type of illustration either, but I can detect the influence of memory on it, especially in the type of image that is made; for example, your visual elements do not have sharp edges and appear as if they fade. This blurring of images reminds me of visual memories that I recall, but cannot remember many of its parts correctly, or the images I see in my dreams and try to recall later in the afternoon. The images that you create have the same character: they do not have sharp edges, are blurred, the number of colors you use in them is limited, and are sometimes even monochrome. At the same time, the color combinations used, although limited, induce a certain sensation. This separates the image drawn out of the memory from the one created using other visual resources.
In my (archive of) images, I look for those that resemble my memories and combine them to achieve that thing in a form that is, as you say, blurry. I think this happens more in the works that are a little more abstract in which the objectivity that I sometimes insist on disappears to some extent.
The recognizable form in it dissolves and all of these are accumulated to the point that they guide the viewer towards a visual experience - as if it is a curated one, whether being its emotions, colors, or memories. It is a set of such experiences gathered on one page and transferred to the audience.
An experience of a digital image related to this collection just crossed my mind. There was a photo of a firework on which I zoomed in a lot and took a picture of it again with my phone camera. It was a reddish part where the pixels were crystal-clear and very bloody. I think that image abstraction originates from there, meaning those zoom-in and zoom-out processes and that suddenly one thing reminds one of the other things that are not supposed to be there, but because of the memory you have, that image comes to your mind.
One of the characteristics of memory is that after a while the mind adds or subtracts a series of concepts to the scene that actually happened. It can also recall, analyze, and ultimately extract new meanings from that experience. In other words, while this image is a fixed moment, in a specific place and time, it is dynamic enough that concepts could be added to or subtracted from it. It often becomes far from reality, but the question is, what exactly is reality? Is it the moment we experience with the five senses, or the thing that emerges after our analysis?
I was an only child and always imaginative; I remember some things falsely. As a result, this border has always been very smooth for me. I still feel like this and am suddenly thrown into another world. Something happens unexpectedly in the present that takes you back to a thing you did not remember at all, as if bringing it forth from the vaults of your memory. For example, last year, as there was constant news about the possibility of a war, it felt like I was returning to the experiences of my childhood and the Scarlet Wednesdays. The anxiety I felt of seeing that explosion suddenly re-emerged, urging me to work on all the memories I had of blasts and fireworks. This process was very therapeutic for me. It appeared as if I was redrawing the fear I had always carried and the bad things that had happened to me. Another thing that was striking to me, which is more related to flowers, is that there are parts of the memory that seem insignificant, like a funeral, a wedding, or an Iranian carpet, where flowers are always present; they are so much there that you tend not to see them anymore but have, in fact, taken up a large part of your memory.
There are lots of pines in my paintings. Some time ago I went back to Birjand, where I was born, and realized that the only distinctive tree there is the pine. In the dark and desert environment, the light that shines from behind the trees is like the light I have in my paintings. It means that even the things you do not think about anymore are also recorded, and that was entrancing to me.
In your recent shows, there are instances where the line between the flower and fire is blurred and they intermingle; they complement each other yet elsewhere it is not clear which is which.
I began to notice this more later in the series, like the pink work in which a flower explodes ("pink vibration"). I think there are two main reasons: firstly, I am used to writing, in which I describe an explosion as a peony that blasts and catches fire. Fireworks materials usually explode like flowers. Apparently, in Japanese, there is a fire flower or something like that, which is why I named one of my books "Fire Flowers". This was the same book that was in the exhibition. In the end, it was not only formally appealing to me but it also seemed like the work from the previous collection was back.
Could you talk more about your book?
The first thing the collection started with was a photo. For a long time, I took pictures of my computer screen with an analog camera. It was essential to me how that digital light was converted to analog in the process, and what happens when this process, which normally happened, was reversed. I developed a few roll films until the university's darkroom had to shut down due to the Covid pandemic. The visual resources I had were photos and videos that people had uploaded. I would re-edit and play around with them. The pictures in the book have become abstract in some places, and I think the resemblance to the flower form was greatly influenced by those photos as well. However, it was a reference book in which the pictures were quite frozen. It was compelling to me that although the book was at the beginning of the show, people would go to it at the end as if it brought about a pause after seeing all those colors. This was the main feedback I received.
This collection began with photos and books, and six months after I started painting. I did not do photography for about a year until I began working on a show and returned to the archive I had to produce the book. In my opinion, that contradiction and contrast were necessary for the artworks of the show. Another reason is that I think photography, especially analog photography, has a great impact on the image you remember whereas painting never does that. Painting leaves room for imagination, providing a space for the artist’s manipulation while in photography the image is relatively flatter and seems to capture a frozen moment, and I found such features quite engaging in that process.
The definition of time in painting is different from that of photography. The two may eventually reach a common outcome, but in photography, the camera shutter captures an image in a fraction of a second while in painting, it takes much longer to create an image. This makes our relation to and experience of time different. Even the image you are working on, the fireworks, happens over time, that is, this explosion and firework take place in a multi-second process, where every hundredth of a second has a different visual property because it is in motion and ends very quickly. It is an experience that happens over time and we are very selective about which image to keep in mind.
I remember two things about this. For the performance I had at the II Platform, I asked my friends to come and film. We are talking about experienced people, but, by the time, they came to themselves and pointed the camera at the sky, the fireworks were over. It was funny and, at the same time, the fact is that the moment has a glory that is very short and completely memorable. The other thing I recall is about going from light to darkness. The light is so bright that for a moment everything around it darkens, and the image seems to belong only to itself.
Another subject that I would like us to talk about is the aspect that I see, especially in the work of several Iranian visual artists of the same generation, and that is the issue of literature and narrative (not that it is unique to us, but that it plays a significant role); that is, consciously or unconsciously, there is a narrational story and a connection to language behind the works we do. This is sometimes in the form of an internal narrative and sometimes in the form of a title. We may use a title that is either poetic or attempts to add a story. For example, the combination of two or three words could be narrational. This was also an aspect of your work. For instance, when you read the title, your interpretation of the image will be affected, if not completely altered as in "Blood is Dripping from my Fingertips", or "Celebrating a Failed Assault". What is your view on this?
What you are saying is interesting. I did not feel the connection by not being in this geography, but writing was quite prominent to me during my university years abroad. Generally, it becomes more predominant because you can not communicate with people as before. And this entered my artistic processes and stayed. overall, I had a lot of poetry, and a lot of texts, from rewriting a memory that had a peony in it to memories that were not relevant; it could have been a romantic memory or something irrelevant about which I wrote very emotionally. In choosing the titles, I used them as well as taking fragments from other writings; for instance, historical news sources. From those writings, I would take something out that would both have room for imagination and guide the mind in the direction where the event actually occurred. For example, "Celebrating a Failed Assault" is about the November 5 incident when the British Parliament was supposed to be blown up by a terrorist, but he was arrested and the explosion never took place. From that year onwards, this date is celebrated every year. Celebrating the anniversary of a terrorist act is itself an interesting paradox that can be reminiscent of other things.