Art Papers  

more from the
Sept/Oct 2013 issue:

Farming in Europe: Four Character Studies
by Calla Henkel, Pablo Larios, Max Pitegoff, and Dena Yago

Victory Against Time:
Demonstrative Urgency of Performance
in the State of Resistance

Text / Sandra Skurvida

"I don't have many new works to show you, since we were having a revolution and were out on the streets," explains an Egyptian artist friend of mine, Ahmed El Shaer, when we finally meet in his studio at Art Omi International Artists Residency. As I watch him play his video game, Nekh1, I think about all the artists I know animating the crowds in Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus, Tehran. ... I picture them leaving their studios—with would-be spectators following them, streaming out of exhibition halls like workers leaving a factory—until everyone assembles in the square in a mass action that swells up and subsides. Then it repeats in a different square, in another country, splashing unexpectedly onto the screens of political analysts and curators who follow the action around the world.

Ahmed El Shaer, Nekh, 2011, video game screen captures (courtesy of the artist)

"No more art!" declared Henry Flynt in 1963, in a proto-conceptualist Fluxus lecture at Walter De Maria's loft in New York, standing slightly stooped under the authoritarian gaze of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Did Flynt include his art and his revolutionary (or even reformist) artist pals in this rebuttal? The search for an exit continues, and it has been recently demarcated by Suhail Malik in his Artists Space lectures "On the Necessity of Art's Exit from Contemporary Art."2 Where is art to go?

The most interesting theater today—the ontological-hysteric theater—can be found on the political stage. As performance artists of the recent past stare into the void of a museum, impersonating Pharaonic statuary, performants of the present sit at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; or eat pizza while sequestered in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow; or plant vegetables in Gezi Park at night, to be bulldozed the next morning. As Gean Moreno asserts in the editorial for an issue on accelerationist aesthetics in the e-flux journal 46 (July 2013), "Past the edges of the art world, however, where the condition of privilege doesn't haunt every gesture with the possibility of contradiction, less ‘sober' engagements with the social are awake and on the prowl." This is not to say that the artists, intoxicated with street action or transfixed by the quantum behavior of their personal computers, do not care about their art. They do; we do. But one way out of art's aesthetic servitude is for the artist to join others who occasionally refuse to serve the existing institutions

Ahmed El Shaer, Repetition in Action Time, 2011, video still (courtesy of the artist)

Institutions are built from the stuff of their societies—what is within comes in from without. We are in a relationship with our institutions—a relationship that may be working or that may need work. When artists are unequivocally divorced from their home institutions—as is the case, for instance, with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (most artists have boycotted government-run institutions in Iran since around 2005)—should we expect the artists' eventual return or anticipate a final departure toward a new art? When glimmers of hope appear, as they did after the June 2013 elections in Iran, the artists who have maintained the possibility of change by keeping the private-public channels open in their artwork wondered, if the situation turns out right, would there be anything left of our art or not? Would the art that exists and matters today still be there as a standpoint when the state eases its grip on the public, or will it exit the public consciousness, perhaps even "withdraw" in a manner described by Jalal Toufic in his study The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surprising Disaster (Toufic interrogates the case of surpassing disasters, such as wars, in which the material loss is exacerbated by immaterial withdrawal)? Will it be irretrievably transferred to those who did not belong to the community prior to the change? Will the body of art be returned for indeterminate suspension within a museum, or will it, perhaps, reanimate the museum?3

In a society where the private sphere of being—both phenomenological and ontological—is radically separated from the public sphere of action and expression by legislation (the divine, not merely the societal, law), the impact of an artistic act on the public accelerates exponentially, perhaps even transcendentally—the propulsion of art is free from institutional drag. An artwork is a booster rocket designed to deliver private content into the public sphere. These carriers are trained onto a noosphere, while trying to evade interceptors on the ground. In Iran few artists dare to engage the public out in the open, rather choosing semi-public art galleries or cafés. By their nature ephemeral, such performances seek publicity and hide from it at the same time—marginality is their site of resistance. In this game of hide-and-seek, the stakes are high, and its risks include a disappearance from the discourse. Such erasure could be mitigated were I to insert here a project description and performance snapshots. Or shall I not tell this story, and let it withdraw into a limbo of resistance, so I could skirt the presumption of authority in my rewriting? Does the warning by bell hooks apply to me:

[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. ... I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.4

After all is said and done, the story is ours to tell. Especially when the state authorities are after it, too.

Hadi Nasiri, Radical 57, 2007, performance documentation
(courtesy of the artist and Aaran Gallery, Tehran)

Radical 57 by Hadi Nasiri was performed in 2007, on the anniversary of the Iranian revolution of 1357 (1979) in the port city of Bandar Abbas, Iran, where the artist was born. Five men entered the square, carrying individual rectangular enclosures made of wood frame and stretched plastic (referred to as "wombs"). First they spoke about the revolution in spontaneous utterances and rants, without a script. Then performers shed their enclosures and engaged each other in heated debates, leading to fistfights; onlookers joined in and began assaulting the performers. The police intervened and got beaten up by the crowd. When the injured performers exited from the scene, they left behind copies of a manifesto scattered on the ground. All other documentation of this performance was confiscated; the artist had to leave his hometown, and subsequently his home country as well.

In a society where public manifestations of the private are restricted, the question of an artist's participation in the social life falls flat—participation is implicated by one's being an artist. Willingly or not, the artist is always present in the body politic, at the core of the crowd ready to pounce at the order that denies it the right to assembly, the right to performance. As the artist Barbad Golshiri wrote in a letter to me after the recent Iranian elections, "Vote or not to vote was not even the question, the question was how to create and use such situations. I personally voted to open our way to the streets and the day after, we took to the streets in hundreds of thousands and chanted: Free political prisoners, Free Mousavi and Karroubi, and Rohani we will guide you! Till there are no serious organised alternatives one has to vote, even for a moderate government."5

Jinoos Taghizadeh and Behzad Nejadghanbar, Numbers, 2012,
performance documentation

Artists Jinoos Taghizadeh and Behzad Nejadghanbar started counting and writing down numbers on the walls of an empty gallery-like space on June 15, 2012, in remembrance of the third anniversary of the election on June 15, 2009, the contested results of which marked the end of the reform period and triggered a public uprising—millions of people walking in silence from Engelab (Revolution) Street to Azadi (Freedom) Square. The artists marked time in this durational performance:

The days passing by one after another, the days of attainment and prison, the days of exile ... 1275, 1276, 1277, 1278, 1279 ... the days of fear, horror, indecision ... 2823, 2824, 2825, 2826 ... the days gone, the days ahead...6

The counting was to continue on the election day of June 14, 2013, but the announcement of unexpected results offered a promise of change, and crowds were back on the streets in jubilation. Therefore, only the documentation of the previous performance was included in the exhibition,7 signifying the transition from the present into the past. If a comparison to neo-avant-garde performative works comes to mind—those of Flynt's vintage, such as Roman Opalka's number paintings gradually fading into white, or On Kawara's ongoing date painting-series—the main difference is between the subjectivity of the time of the avant-gardes and the sociality of the new art. Accounting for time is the domain of a political economy, and it is a shared, common time that Taghizadeh and Nejadghanbar were counting—and stopped as soon as the times somewhat changed.

The artist's time, even the time spent alone in the studio, has a peculiar, intrinsic social quality that is particularly evident in performative timebased work. (Here I would like to refer to the meaning of "contemporary" art explicated by Boris Groys as not necessarily being present, in the here-and- now, but rather "with" time—as a "comrade of time," collaborating with it, helping time when it has problems, when it has difficulties, filling time with meaning.8) But consider the time of theocracy, in which the present is suspended, and the social drive of the time of art is restrained. Such a time no longer behaves in a comradely fashion; it becomes hostile, turns against itself, and starts devouring its future. Unlike the benign, unproductive time of contemporary time-based art that Groys had described,9 this reverse, antagonistic time (and time art) can ultimately be liberating as it consumes itself. Like Kronos, artists devour time from the pantry of God and the State.

Jinoos Taghizadeh, Fatness upon Fatness—100, video stills (courtesy of the artist)

A time-based performative video Fatness upon Fatness—100 by Taghizadeh opens with a picture-perfect panorama of Tehran—the Milad Tower, urban sprawl, and snow-dusted mountains under the blue-green sky. Suddenly, a fork pokes into the picture, made of frosting on cake, and starts scraping at the edges until, in some 20 minutes, the sugary picture as well as the slab of cake it decorates is gone. The artist's voice on the soundtrack delivers musings about gaining weight and its possible causes, until a nauseated, self-inflicted gag from food stifles her voice.10 The second part of the video, +/- 100, starts where the first left off, but in reverse; it builds up the topology of Tehran in cake, accompanied by the nonsensical sound of speech in playback—words spelled backward can be detected only in the subtitles. In this video performance, the officially sanctioned time (signified by the postcard image) is literally devoured, and its reversal is represented in the playback of the second part.

Barbad Golshiri, Cura; The Rise and Fall of Aplasticism, 2011, Moscow performance documentation (courtesy of the artist, Solyanka State Gallery/Moscow Biennial, and Aaran Gallery, Tehran; photo: Sergey Morozov)

Time as orgiastic, cannibalistic, self-consuming is at the core of Barbad Golshiri's "theater of cruelty," and further conceptualized in his text works. His 10-day play Cura; The Rise and Fall of Aplasticism, first performed in Moscow and then in Tehran in 2011, offers an artistically inscribed body for audiences to consume—to take in, and ingest its message. The body of the artist is situated in a darkened exhibition room (that of the 0.10 Suprematist exhibition). It is swaddled in black, with only two orifices left open: the mouth and an abdominal wound with the text (in Braille) cauterized into the flesh. Spectators can touch it and read it with their fingers but not see it, because the lights switch on and off with the touch. The next day, the square of skin with text is surgically removed and placed into the salt-filled frame signifying Malevich's Black Square. The dead, deadly, deadening time is cured, preserved for a future reversal: ... aiming for his goal, arriving halfway only to aim for the next half, and then the next half but not ad infinitum, because when so close to the object/goal, it appears that s/he is not moving forward; that s/he is in fact marking time. S/he is in fact moving downward, worstward, ever worsening. S/he is going on, but worsening on too. One, who is aware of one's répétitions, worsens on.11

God unwilling, there will be more art, time after time.

Abbas Akhavan, and after and after, 2003/2009, digital print, 7 x 10 centimeters (courtesy of the artist)

Sandra Skurvida is an independent curator, writer, and scholar based in New York. She works at the intersection of art and politics, as exemplified in the project She is currently convening a symposium, Iran: Art and Discourse, at Asia Society in New York.

1. On February 2nd of the Egyptian revolt in the spring of 2011, the Egyptian government sent attackers riding horses and camels against the protesters in Tahrir Square. This is now known as the "Camel Battle." In the end, protesters told the government, "Nekh!" The word Nekh is used by camel owners to order their camels to "sit down." We use the word ironically when we tell someone to surrender. "Nekh" is a one-player "art game" where the player must choose on what side of the game he will play—the side of the Man or of the camels. In the 8-bit art game, the Man uses such items as a Twitter icon to fight against the camels, who use swords. However, no one wins. IssuesID=9
3. Artist and writer Abou Farman proposes a post-secular aesthetic in afterlife art: "It would be fitting to start a cryonics museum. It would free us from making art altogether. All we'd have to do was die under the right circumstances and be stored properly, still full of potential, nothing but potential …" e-flux journal 45 (May 2013),
4. bell hooks, "Marginality as a Site of Resistance," in R. Ferguson et al. (eds.), Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990), 241–243. Quoted by Shaheen Merali on Facebook June 27, 2013, and "liked" by many.
5. Private correspondence, June 26, 2013.
6. Jinoos Taghizadeh and Behzad Nejadghanbar, Numbers (Artists' Statement).
7. Still Lives & Selected Acts, curated by Sohrab Kashani and Sandra Skurvida. Dastan's Basement, Tehran, June 21–26, 2013.
8. Boris Groys, "Comrades of Time," in Going Public (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 84–101.
9. As Groys contends, "[T]ime-based art is not based on time as a solid foundation, as a guaranteed perspective; rather, time-based art documents time that is in danger of being lost as a result of its unproductive character—a character of pure life, or, as Giorgio Agamben would put it, ‘bare life.'" Ibid., 95.
10. The Artist's Statement accompanying the installation is more explicit about the causes: "They devour, consume and get fat; fatter and fatter ... nobody likes them ... they want more and more. They have to stay strong, they have to devour, they need to satisfy their appetite. They are short of breath and are breathing heavily. They are tired but they are still devouring like a sick person, they consume."
11. Barbad Golshiri, The Rise and Fall of Aplasticism: An Aplastic Performance, 2011.

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