At grunt gallery until February 21
The language of exile, the condition of loss, and the adaptive nature of creative expression are themes that suffuse Ahmad Tabrizi’s mixed-media exhibition Crossed. Consisting of 40 image-text photographs, mounted in crossword-like formations on the grunt gallery walls, and a video surrounded by a large, pin-cushion–like frame stuck with straight pins, this new work also alludes to the failures of revolutionary movements, past and present.
Born in Iran, Tabrizi wrote poetry, studied comparative literature at the University of Tehran, and was active in the prodemocracy student movement before fleeing his homeland in 1984. He travelled through Pakistan, India, and Japan before seeking political asylum in Canada in 1987. Feeling “muted” by his initial incomprehension of English, he took up a visual-arts practice that included performance and mixed-media work.
“Visual art is like sign language,” he said recently as he previewed his show for the Straight. Tabrizi also established himself as a costume designer for film and TV, and often designs and makes his own clothing and accessories. These avocational activities are not incidental—they inform aspects of this exhibition, as does the loss of his studio and all its contents through fire in late 2009.
The photos are variations on the same multilayered visual devices. Anchoring each image is a fragment of Persian poetry mounted on a piece of wood and overlaid by a thick, prickly circle of loose quilting pins (which are larger and scarier-looking than dressmaking pins). English words and phrases are scrawled in blood-red capital letters over the pale bluish-grey ground of the Persian script, and a pair of brown eyes—Tabrizi’s—look out through two round peepholes.
The poetry is Tabrizi’s own, and although it’s not translated here, he says that it employs the classical ruba’i format, a concise quatrain that he likens to Japanese haiku. It also uses metaphors of light and darkness to lament the betrayal of the Iranian Revolution’s democratic aspirations. “It pretty much says, ‘What the hell happened to the revolution? We’re all screwed again,’ ” Tabrizi explained, then added: “In the Persian literary tradition, code words were used to sidestep the censors. The sun is the revolution, the night is the repressive regime.”
The English words in red are fragments Tabrizi recalled from poems that were destroyed in the studio fire, assembled in parts that form a new whole. They may function here as mouths in the “faces” outlined with the circle of pins, and they may be edicts or graffiti written across the doors on which the pins form “wreathes”. The expressions conveyed by Tabrizi’s eyes accord with the English words, and range from denial to fear, and from suspicion to surprise. Read vertically or horizontally, the phrases express longing and anger, alienation and defiance, and a degree, perhaps, of self-loathing.
In the video, which repeats the photographic devices, we hear Tabrizi’s classical Persian poem sung beautifully and plaintively by a male voice. This audio component is overlaid by the artist’s recitation of observations of the Occupy Vancouver movement he participated in five years ago. Again, Tabrizi laments the failure of an attempted social revolution. “This crowd will never unite,” he intones. “This crowd enjoys its differences far more than its cause.…And yet again our enemies become our leaders.”
Just before the exhibition’s opening reception, Tabrizi was sticking hundreds of quilters’ pins into the cushiony surround he had created for the wall-mounted video screen. (One of its allusions is to the kind of big tourist map that visitors stick with pins or tacks to mark the place they come from.) The contrast between the soft frame and the long, sharp pins was powerful—as was the impulse to join the artist in the improvised action. A number of viewers, including this critic, started jabbing pins into the cushion and it was a strangely satisfying way to express latent feelings of anger and aggression. Strangely appropriate, too, as if we were all stabbing pins into voodoo dolls fashioned to look like our most loathed political leaders. Stabbing the people who stole democracy away from the revolutionaries.