Four works by Rokni Haerizadeh point to the beast in us all, and aim to ‘re-sensitise’ viewers to the violence and political unrest we see increasingly normalised in the media.
Rokni Haerizadeh is an Iranian-born, Dubai-based painter and animator who has garnered international attention for his lyrical social critiques painted in a contemporary Persian miniature style. He began making art from a very early age, and later trained with renowned Iranian artist Ahmad Amin Nazar before completing a Masters degree in painting at the University of Tehran.
These works (each of which is titled Subversive salami in a ragged briefcase) are from Haerizadeh’s most celebrated body of work, ‘Fictionville’ 2009–ongoing, in which he paints over photographs and video stills of demonstrations, violent incidents and political events from the media. The individuals who originally appeared in these images are here transformed into surreal characters, emphasising the inherent elements of the grotesque within these real-life scenes.
Haerizadeh’s appropriation of political events and their reception in the media highlights the complexity of contemporary geopolitics and the way the media contributes to its convolution. The artist initially came to prominence for paintings that critiqued the lavish indulgences of the ruling class and religious clergy in Iran; since moving to Dubai in 2009 his focus has shifted to global politics.
One of the works depicts a procession of human–beasts who are holding shrouded small figures dressed as the Egyptian gods Amun and Horos. The original image is of mourners in Gaza carrying two young Palestinian children Muhammad and Suhaib Hijazi who died in an Israeli missile strike.1 The second painting is of a hybrid mosque–sea creature ablaze, which appears to scream in anguish from its mouth–windows. Cow firefighters surround the beast, seemingly helpless against the flames. The work resonates in the Australian context where arson attacks on mosques have occurred around the country.
The remaining two works refer to the 2013 Paris iteration of an international day of protest, controversially called ‘Topless Jihad’ by the activist group Femen, held in solidarity with the arrested Tunisian Femen activist Amina Sboui (also known as Amina Tyler); in their attempt to ‘save’ Muslim women, Femen was criticised in the media and accused of playing up to colonial attitudes. In one painting, an orca with human arms and ‘freedom for [w]omen’ painted on its chest, stands on a blazing street, while a ghostly white crocodile cowers in the opposite corner. The other work captures a group of animals who surround a screaming figure with ‘FREE AMINA’ written on its chest.
These works contain many art historical references, including Goya’s frank depiction of the brutalities of war in the series of prints entitled ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’ (‘Disasters of war’) 1810–20; JMW Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons 1834; the surreal, beastly figures in Francis Bacon’s triptych of 1944, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion; and the tradition of Persian miniature painting. Haerizadeh is inspired by the rich history of social satire within Persian poetry, miniature painting and theatre, particularly in the golden era of Shiraz from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.
Arts writer Negar Azimi notes that the ‘Fictionville’ series has a more recent ‘spiritual ancestor’ in the Persian musical play Shahr-e Qesse (or ‘City of stories’, more commonly known as ‘Fictionville’) 1969–70. The play’s composer, Bijan Mofid (1935–85), used animals to critique society and power in order to avoid falling foul of the authorities. Its central character is an elephant with a broken tusk — an allegory for the fate of Iran — that a naive village community tries to help. Despite their good intentions, they disfigure him to an unrecognisable degree, and he is forced to assume a new identity.
Rokni Haerizadeh also transforms people into animals to point to the ‘animal instincts’ at work in large demonstrations and in acts of violence: ‘In my work, I am depicting people as animals not to dehumanise them, but rather to emphasise the dear beast inside all human beings’.2 Recent public discussion has pointed to a growing apathy towards violent imagery in the media; by transforming these images, the artist enables us to see them as if for the first time as well as drawing out the universality of many of their themes.
Ellie Buttrose is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, and former Associate Curator, International Contemporary Art, QAGOMA.
This is an expanded version of an article originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.2, 2017
Endnotes 1 Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 2013 World Press Photo of the Year competition with this image; he was accused, and later cleared, of creating a composite image for political reasons. See Stan Horaczek, ‘Experts confirm “integrity” of 2013 World Photo Award Winner’, 15 May 2013, www.americanphotomag.com/experts-confirm-integrity-2013-world-press-photo-awardwinner,accessed 10 April 2017. 2 Artist quoted in ‘Rokni Haerizadeh’ by Naomi Lev in Artforum, 25 August 2014, www.artforum.com/words/id=48045, accessed November 2016.
Featured image detail: Rokni Haerizadeh Subversive salami in a ragged briefcase (from ‘Fictionville’ series 2009-ongoing) 2014
Koji Ryui is known for metamorphosing humble materials into texturally delicate and materially wondrous sculptures and installations. Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10), Citadel 2021 converts a 17 metre wide and 7 metre high gallery wall into a vertical landscape of assemblages made from household items and wood-shop detritus. The installation rewards close viewing; bringing into focus formal juxtapositions and changes in texture, light and matter.
Although Ryui incorporates a plethora of found objects in this installation, it is dominated by sand, wood, metal and glass. By covering wood and repurposed articles in sand, the artist generates the appearance of discrete forms emerging from a larger mass, like a sandcastle along the beach. Some of the materials are chosen to draw attention to the transformation of matter: sand grains fused by heat to create glass; a clear surface turned cloudy by sandblasting. Rather than ‘making’ an artwork, Ryui describes his role as teasing out the material possibilities inherent in the objects that he accumulates.
Due to the installation’s restrained palette, its texture takes on a heightened role. The distilled materials in Citadel temper the complexity of its overall configuration while providing a visceral viewing experience.
Watch our installation time-lapse
Clusters of objects in Citadel are balanced precariously and littered across the wall’s expanse. While abstract compositions are predominant, recognisable forms arise, including ceramic figurines, wire lampshades, scalloped dessert bowls, disposable coffee cups and champagne flutes. Ryui animates these nostalgic found objects, ensuring that this poetically opaque installation is also familiar and delightful.
Ryui questions the pretensions of rarefied museum objects by creating art from everyday items and incorporating a sense of play. Groupings of objects are shaped in his studio and then interchanged, adapted and transformed during their installation in the gallery.
Citadel sits at the threshold between multiple rooms, with visitors approaching and passing the work from various sides as they move through the gallery. This awareness of liminal space is echoed within the installation: while there are numerous sculptures of various sizes, the voids between them are as much a part of the installation as the objects themselves.
More than just evoking the idea of in-between spaces, Ryui creates a sense of nebulous time. He does this by summoning the moments at dusk and dawn when the illumination of streetlights melds with natural light. This can be seen in Citadel when light emanating from globes in the artwork intermingles with the gallery lighting and daylight streaming in from the adjacent space. The indiscernibility between the artificial and the natural could also be seen as a visual metaphor for the moment when dreams and memories become hard to distinguish from reality. In Citadel, Ryui revels in these points of indeterminacy as moments of potentiality.
Australian artist Yasmin Smith is known for her research-based ceramic installations that formally and chromatically evoke the landscape from which they are produced. As part of her investigative method, Smith gathers natural materials and, through analysis, determines how she can harness their chemical properties. Key to the artist’s process is burning plant material as a basis for glazes. The minerals, nutrients and toxins absorbed from soil and water remain in the ash, resulting in fascinating colour and textural variations in the glazes that cover Smith’s earthenware and ceramic casts of the original plants.
Watch: Yasmin Smith introduces ‘Flooded Rose Red Basin’
‘Flooded Rose Red Basin’
Flooded Rose Red Basin 2018 draws upon ancient ceramic traditions in China while also referencing the rapid development that is changing that country’s rural landscape. The ceramic sculpture was made while Smith was in residence at the Jinhui Ceramic Sanitary Ware Factory near Wuchangzhen, in Sichuan Province. Ci zhu bamboo was collected from the nearby Shiyan village, in Jiajiang County, known for its tradition of bamboo paper-making. Segments of the stems were cast at the factory in collaboration with the workers who usually produce toilets and sinks. The plant material was burnt, and the remaining ash used to glaze the stoneware objects.
Smith’s initial interest in bamboo was spurred on by recent scientific investigations into the material as a possible source of biosilica for future electric, solar, satellite and phone technologies. During her time in Sichuan, however, the artist noticed established plantings of Eucalyptus grandis — a species endemic to Australia, commonly known as flooded gum or rose gum. Eucalyptus was first introduced in China in 1890 as an ornamental planting, but it was not until the 1950s that large eucalyptus timber plantations were established.
Encountering this Australian tree far from its original habitat, yet deeply embedded in the Chinese landscape, prompted Smith to create a set of stoneware eucalypt branches with a syrupy, gum-ash glaze that are presented alongside the sections of cast bamboo.
The glazes are unrefined and freely stream and pool across the body of the branches and stems. Although it might be assumed that the high amount of silica in the glaze would produce a glassy finish, the bamboo glaze is matt with speckles of sand-like deposits. Meanwhile, the high amount of iron and manganese give the eucalyptus glaze its amber-olive colour. Hairline cracks appear on the surface as a result of the object expanding and compressing at a different rate to the glaze during firing. While the bamboo stems and gum branches are repeated forms made from industrial stoneware, their idiosyncratic glazes make them unique objects.
In Flooded Rose Red Basin, Smith utilises available organic matter to elegantly reveal the ecological, cultural and economic history of the emblematic bamboo and gum, and in turn the distinct connections between Australia and China.
Ellie Buttrose is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA
This is an edited extract from the QAGOMA publication The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art available in-store and online from the QAGOMA Store. This essay draws on conversations with the artist in January and April 2020 and May 2021
Brisbane-born Lindy Lee’s engagement with Buddhist thought has become increasingly important to the way that she both conceptually and physically approaches the creation of new works. Reflecting upon the inspiration for her bronze sculptures, Lee cites her desire to extend the traditional Chinese meditation technique of flung ink calligraphy, ‘in which you meditate, then take up a flask of ink and you splash it on paper and everything in the universe has conspired until that moment to deliver that action.’1 After learning this technique in 1995 during a residency in Beijing, Lee incorporated the action into her painting practice on return to Australia. It was not until 2009 that she began to test this approach in the sculptural realm, making a series of ‘flung bronze’. Organising herself into a meditative state, she would then pour liquid molten bronze onto the foundry floor without trying to dictate the shape. Once polished, these flat, shinny, fluid forms were mounted onto the wall in circular and rectangular shapes with a clean and crisp geometric outline.
More recently, however, Lee has expanded this technique into standalone sculptures, such as the impressive Unnameable 2017. To create this artwork, Lee hurled molten lead into viscous custard. The resulting shape was then 3D-scanned to create a scaled-up mould, which was used to cast the final bronze piece. The result is a lively form that has the dynamic appearance of liquid suspended in motion. The forces of gravity, space and time appear to have been exceeded, yet harmoniously balanced.
Unnameable captures one moment in time which cannot be repeated. Moreover, it also contains every moment that preceded it and all that will follow — asserting a sense of continuum. This directly ties into the understanding of Cha’an meditation as a practice that links the body and mind in the present moment to the eternal cosmos. For Lee, the gesture of throwing ink or bronze is a meditative practice — focussed on the action of creation rather than a series of aesthetic decisions — that leaves an object which can also engender a meditative state in the viewer.
Unnameable also connects to ‘gongshi’, the Chinese aesthetic tradition of scholar’s rocks. Like the most revered gongshi, Lee’s sculpture is asymmetrical with a rippled surface and glossy finish. The naturally formed stones are prized for their capacity to convey the idea that transformation is central to understanding nature. In this respect, gongshi function as microcosms of the universe. Lee notes that time and change is at the centre of her artistic practice and has been since the 1980s, even if she might not have understood this earlier in her career. She explains:
Time is the most basic component of our humanity, but it takes a long time to realise that. My work is all about time. In Zen Buddhism the essence of being — or the fabric of being — is time. The primary truth is that everything changes from moment to moment – nothing is permanent. That means us too. For me, this is a very beautiful and poetic way of describing and embracing existence.2
Lee embraces change as a constant presence in her work. With more than three decades of practice behind her, Lee continues to deftly express the infinite expanse of life and art.
Ellie Buttrose is Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, QAGOMA This is an expanded version of an article originally published in the QAGOMA Members’ magazine, Artlines, no.2, 2021
Endnotes 1-2 The artist in conversation with Peter McKay, Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, and Ellie Buttrose, Curator, Contemporary Australian Art, 21 February 2020.
All this time recently stuck indoors has had me thinking about artists along the lines of the ‘ultimate dinner party’ game where you dream up a list of people from throughout history that you would invite to a magnificent meal. Which artists, I have been wondering, would be most fun to bunker down with to survive the pandemic?
For my ultimate dinner party I am always trying to rack my brain for people with eccentric anecdotes, a wide breadth of knowledge and witty banter. But lock-down is more drawn out than a dinner party, so I think this crew needs a little more absurd humour and do-it-yourself attitude! For my ultimate iso housemates I have chosen Cindy Sherman, Yvonne Todd, Anne Noble, Takahiko Iimura, Tony Schwensen, and the late, great John Baldessari.
Cindy Sherman is renowned for her witty and biting character studies. She appears twice in Untitled, as a pair of champagne-fuelled fashionistas desperately seeking the social photographer’s attention. Over four decades of practice, Sherman has deployed an impressive array of wigs, costumes, makeup, and prosthetics. The days and weeks of isolation would pass in a flash if I had the chance to dive into Cindy’s treasure trove of props.
The title of Yvonne Todd’s series ‘Cabin fever’ sums up what many of us are feeling as the coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. The artist has a keen eye for the absurd, especially when it comes to beauty and fashion. Lockdown days with Todd could be spent competing to find the most bizarre pictures in the deep depths of Instagram.
Working with her daughter, Anne Noble created the ‘Ruby’s Room’ series over a period of six years. These closely cropped images of young Ruby’s little mouth are simple yet unnerving, and take on heightened meaning during COVID-19. During this pandemic many things in the world that were once familiar have become strange and I think Noble could infuse the current weirdness with intimacy and humour.
In Performance: AIUEONN Six the experimental filmmaker and performance artist Takahiko Iimura enunciates and holds the vowel sounds from the Japanese and English languages. As he makes the sounds, his portrait becomes distorted with grotesque and exaggerated results. After the first sequence, Iimura plays with repetition and delay until the sound and image no longer match up — making everything even stranger. Making videos at home with Iimura during quarantine would definitely give you TikTok clout.
In the video Hamburger boygroup, Tony Schwensen dances to the 1999 song Keep on movin’ by the British boy band Five, which reached number six on the ARIA charts. Reducing their highly choreographed dance moves down to a single repeated step, tubby Schwensen distills overproduced pop culture into an endurance performance piece. Iso dance parties in the lounge room with Schwensen are sure to go until dawn — but the poor neighbours might get annoyed with the same song on repeat!
In 1970, John Baldessari burned all the artworks he had made during the late 1950s and early 1960s to create a new work titled Cremation Project 1970 — that’s a lot of great paintings up in flames! The comparatively new technology of video enabled Baldessari to reinvent definitions of art through actions, text and sound.
In the seminal work I am making Art Baldessari uses humour to parody the hermetic aspects of contemporary art. With galleries, studios and art supply stores harder to access due COVID-19 restrictions, I think Baldessari would remind us that we all already have what we need in order to make art.
Featured image detail: Cindy Sherman Untitled 2007/2008
From the factory to the office, and from the studio to the streets, ‘Work, Work, Work’ brings together artworks from across the globe that respond to the ideas of labour. The concept of ‘work’ expands beyond the eight-hour working day as artists explore how we invest time and effort in education, the creation of artworks and the importance of social engagement.
A towering three-and-a-half-metre mosaic titled Work team contest 2009, by North Korean (DPRK) artists Kim Hung Il and Kang Yong Sam, depicts blue- and whitecollar workers celebrating their collective achievements. This is the artwork that greets visitors as they enter the GOMA exhibition ‘Work, Work, Work’. Moving through the exhibition, haunting photographs of decaying factories appear before us, along with stark images of gleaming glass, of steel office blocks and of slick shopping centres. What most obviously comes to mind when thinking about the theme of labour might well be images of workers and industry; however, ‘Work, Work, Work’ includes gems from the Collection that embody this idea in a more expansive way.
Works borne from laborious dedication feature throughout the exhibition — the stacks of hand-drawn newspapers by Mathew Jones, and Maria Taniguchi’s repetitious ‘brick’ painting, are just two examples. The hand of the artist is clearly visible in Jones’s About 1,000 copies of The New York Daily News on the day that became the Stonewall Riot copied by hand from microfilm records 1997. It took the artist ten months to laboriously hand-copy every word, photograph and advertisement that appeared in the Daily News on 27 June 1969, reproducing the newspaper’s industrial typeface in shaky and inconsistent handwriting, while the photographs are reduced to shading and hatching. In Taniguchi’s Untitled 2015, we can see gradations of blacks and dark grey on the surface of canvas; an effect she created by varying the amount of water and acrylic as she painted each small rectangle, painstakingly moving her way across the expanse of the canvas. Both Taniguchi and Jones, living in the digital era, emphasise their dedication to the handmade through the meticulous, gradual and labour-intensive process involved in creating these artworks.
While replication highlights the hand of the artist in the aforementioned works, Robert MacPherson and Martin Creed deploy repetition using mass-manufactured products to downplay the technical skills of the artist and reflect on the often-overlooked devices on which artists rely to create their art. Working in the lineage of conceptual art, MacPherson collected 33 standard house-painting brushes and repeated the design and colour of their handles across 33 canvases, which are then presented alongside the original objects in Scale from the tool colour group 1977–78. In Creed’s Work no. 189 1995, 39 identical metronomes sit in a line along the floor, calibrated incrementally across the full spectrum of tempo speeds (from fast, presto, to very slow, lento). Set off all together, the metronomes — whose sole function is to keep time for practising musicians — produce a cacophony that seems, ironically, to lack musicality. The ‘tools’ used to create artworks are rarely on display in a gallery space, but here, they become the works under aesthetic scrutiny.
Part of the success of MacPherson’s and Creed’s artworks is their use of an accumulation of forms to create artistic weight. In works by Kiri Dalena, and by Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano, people are united to become politically persuasive. Dalena’s Erased slogans works of 2012–15 appropriate archival newspaper photographs of protestors in the Philippines. The digital erasure of the messages on the placards more tightly focuses our attention on the body language of the protesters. In Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s video There is no there 2015, performers collectively re-enact gestures the artists have gathered from news images, and from observations of the broader Australian social climate. The accumulation of people and the repetition of their movements in these works remind us of not only our shared corporeal reactions, but also of the choreographed nature of political events.
English duo Gilbert & George have worked collaboratively for over 50 years. Leaners 1989 is a strong image of how individuals within collectives can and must rely on each other. This monumental acid yellow-andpink multi-panel photograph has the artists sharply angled towards the centre of the work with their heads almost resting together, giving the appearance that if one should move away, the other might fall. This sense of entangled collaboration is also present in Warlpiri artists Jimija Jungarrayi Spencer and Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson’s striking painting Wakulyarri Jukurrpa (Rock Wallaby Dreaming) 1987. Not only does the artwork capture the shared cultural knowledge of these two important painters, but also it demonstrates their painterly finesse, creating a work that is full of tension, in which form and colour push and pulse against one another. Despite arising from different formal approaches, both Leaners and Wakulyarri Jukurrpa express a commitment to collaboration.
The desire to share artistic expression and knowledge unites Kota Ezawa’s three-channel video and the proto-cinematic paintings of the patua (artists) of West Bengal. The patua would historically travel from one village to another, slowly unrolling the patachitra (painted cloth scrolls) to reveal stories in sequential frames, and singing the tales depicted. More recently, the makers of patachitra have incorporated local and global events in their works, highlighting the shared narratives of ancient mythology and contemporary geopolitics. In Ezawa’s Lennon Sontag Beuys 2004, cartoon renditions of musician John Lennon (1940–80), writer Susan Sontag (1933 2004) and artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86) argue for the power of art to effect social change. The three subjects speak simultaneously, competing to be heard, and the audience must actively listen to understand what is being said by each — a salient reminder in the current ‘noisy’ political climate.
The news cycle repeats pictures of environmental and social degradation. Brook Andrew’s nuclear clock, in TIME I 2012, with its hands ticking down the half-minutes to zero hour, reminds us that life as we know it may end. Yet, by emphatically dedicating themselves to communicating with others, artists continue to affirm life, leaving the rest of us with the decision to either watch the clock or start collaborating on a more promising future.
Ellie Buttrose is Associate Curator, International Art, QAGOMA.
‘Work, Work, Work’ featured creative output across media: some artists use photography and video to document people at their day jobs and to study the architecture of our working environments; while others create sculptures and installations from industrial materials and the motifs of bureaucracy. Regardless of the medium employed, these artists reflect the influences of the workplace on society, and those of society on the workplace.
Featured image: Installation view of ‘Work, Work, Work’, featuring Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s There is no there 2015, Kim Hung Il and Kang Yong Sam’s Work team contest 2009, and Mathew Jones’s About 1,000 copies of The New York Daily News… 1997 / Photograph: Natasha Harth
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art stands and recognise the creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.