Published on Ocula
Shirazeh Houshiary was born in 1955 in Shiraz, an Iranian city known for its rich literary and art history. She came to London in 1974 to study at the Chelsea School of Art—five years before the Iranian Revolution broke out. It was her sculptural works that first garnered attention in the 1980s, and which also earned her a Turner Prize nomination in 1994, along with Willie Doherty, Peter Doig, and Antony Gormley. Although she was part of the New British Sculpture movement at that time, Houshiary’s body of work encompasses much more than sculpture, extending to painting, video installations and in more recent years, virtual reality.
Houshiary’s paintings bristle with contradictions. Genesis (2016), is a molten pool of black and red pigment and pencil on aluminium, which hints at both creation, as the title suggests, and destruction. Veil (1999), a monochromatic acrylic paint and graphite work made up of layer upon layer of pigment both reveals and conceals, giving the impression of both translucence and solidity; it initially appears completely black, but on closer inspection a square form emerges that recalls Malevich’s iconic Black Square (1915). Unsettling, calming, metaphysical and mystical; these are demanding and time-consuming paintings that can take several months to complete. Laying the canvas horizontally on the floor, she pours washes of pigment on them before moving to layers of detailed textures in pencil or paint, some featherlike and others like ripples of water, others still like traces of breath on a frosted windowpane.
Much like water and pigment, breath is a central element in Houshiary’s practice. ‘I set out to capture my breath’, she said in 2000, to ‘find the essence of my own existence, transcending name, nationality, cultures.’ From breath and water, Houshiary creates a universe where forms dematerialise and materialise in a veil of colour and repetitive forms. Her work draws from connecting shamanism with science, and poetry with physics, drawing a balance between creation and destruction, chaos and order. ‘The universe is in a process of disintegration’, she said in a 2013 interview with her gallery, Lisson; ‘everything is in a state of erosion, and yet we try to stabilise it. This tension fascinates me and it’s at the core of my work’.
Mark Rothko once said that his colour field paintings should be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, in order to dominate the viewer’s field of vision and thus create a feeling of contemplation and transcendence. Much the same could be said of Houshiary’s work. From a distance, her detailed monochromatic paintings resemble the cosmos, or microbial matter under a microscope. It is only once you step closer that the patterns in her compositions reveal themselves to be miniscule writings: Arabic letters that swirl, undulate, and dissolve into washes of colour. Some works resemble soundwaves, nebulae, or the movement of gas as it disperses through the air; they quiver and vibrate, giving the impression of atmospheric phenomena and energy that appears barely contained within the frame of the canvas.
Soar (2015) is a haze of blue and violet pigment on canvas, across which the words ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’—one an affirmation of self, the other a denial—are repeated in pencil in Arabic pulsing across the surface until they dissolve into a thin veil of clouds. Words play a great role in Houshiary’s work; with the simplest repetitive gesture of writing a simple self-affirmation (or denial), she creates a space in which different layers of consciousness emerge. The order of our language, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – an influence on Houshiary’s work– proposed in his collection of fragments of works, Zettel, arises out of chaos and nothing. So too, Houshiary’s work suggests, does our understanding of self.
I spoke to Houshiary about her practice in Hong Kong in March 2018, where Houshiary was being honoured with Asia Society’s Asia Arts Game Changer Award alongside Subodh Gupta, Ju Ming, and Park Seo-Bo.
What kind of art were you initially making when you moved to London?
In Iran, I was more interested in theatre, so the change was dramatic. My real art education was in England. As an art student, I was making a lot of installation art and experimenting with light—it was about how you can intervene in the environment on a large scale. That’s how I started, and I moved to sculpture from there; and from sculpture I moved into everything—painting, sculpture, film. I hated these boundaries after some point, because I think these are all artificially created by us. When you’re involved with a visual experience, you will experiment with very different tools, and each tool allows you to discover a new vocabulary. Because the tool is new, it gives you a new vision and revitalises the process.
Your sculptures are like three-dimensional versions of your paintings. What is the relationship between them?
There is a connection. And I make film too—animation films on computer, because I’m also interested in the virtual world or the world that doesn’t exist, and where the role of the body is in that. In my paintings, the role of the body is very clear, and in my sculpture the body is present. It’s really about understanding your position and moving from one experience to another, because all these experiences are available to us as human beings. We are each inside a body—we cannot deny that. We understand the world through our senses, eyes, and ears; and we are constructed in a particular way that limits our vision of the world outside. So, it all affects the way we see the world.
The more we try to see the world on a different level, for example, by seeing it through a virtual lens or through your body or your mind, maybe then you can glimpse a reality. Stephen Hawking once wrote in his book that we are like gold fish in a glass bowl. The gold fish’s vision of the outside world is distorted because he sees the world through that glass. This is our condition too—we see the world through our glass, which is our senses, our bodies; even our ethics and moral structure. These are all limitations. So how do we see the nature of our reality when nature has created us with limitations? In a way, to go from one way of looking to another—say, from two-dimensional to three-dimensional to no dimensions or infinite dimensions—allows me to maybe glimpse at something that is in between all these stages.
The paintings are more of a field, the sculptures are more of an architectural body—but my paintings are definitely a field. I think fields are very powerful. I was studying the quantum world, and how tiny electron quads are affected by a beam of light, completely distorted and affected by a field. We don’t even realise that our body is affected by a powerful field of energy all over the world. You’re sitting here before me but you’re nothing but energy, and I’m nothing but energy. Even our minds are energy. My paintings have that dimension: creating a field in the vision of the viewer.
The expression of opposing forces encapsulates your work very well. Your work is very much about binaries.
Yes, because if you look at my paintings you see these two sentences, ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’: they are two opposing forces that are a condition of who we are. Our existence and the universe is constantly in dialogue and not divided. We have a space between the two that is in constant collaboration. To be certain and to be uncertain is part of the same story, but we only take the one side. We like the certainty of existence and being sure about the economy, politics, society, our opinions, who we are. We look for certainty, but if you accept uncertainty as part of the same story you will see that your whole perception changes.
Your paintings require a lot of repetitive gesture and concentration. The words ‘I am’, and ‘I am not’ are pencilled in over and over—it seems almost ritualistic.
I’m interested in this idea of process and ritual and your experience of it in the work. In a way, I’m trying to understand my own existence in relation to the world around me. I’m trying to dig deep down into primordial sources of myself. This is why I think process and ritual is a way of framing; for me to understand all of this. Because if I didn’t understand, it would be reflected on the surface of my work for the viewer to experience. That surface is purely a reflection of my understanding of what I have been going through. It cannot just be an intellectual activity. This is a combination of intellectual activity and physical activity—it’s both. It’s almost like being a scientist, you experiment to understand what the nature is of what you are trying to understand. What is energy? What is matter? Who am I in all of this? Where is reality? Do I see the nature of truth or do I not see? I have to understand all of this to make a work.
Ritual has been instrumental in building community and civilisation.
Yes, shamans did that. This is why image-making is part of the evolution of our brain, in a way. The shaman wanted to connect to the world of spirit, to something bigger than himself. He found his own limitations in his own existence, just like that goldfish in the glass bowl. His perception is completely distorted and he has to connect to something else to have a connection to the outside world. This has always been the role of art, I think: to connect to something universal so that it can connect to other people.
Is this why you leave your works quite ambiguous and open?
People can take whatever they need out of it. They don’t have to necessarily understand what I’m trying to get at, but it’s a reflection of them. I become a mirror for them to see themselves and find their own way through this conundrum of ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’—of the polarity of our existence.
The linking of the small to the large is what I enjoy more than anything else. From different distances, you’re more aware of this field—it’s more ethereal on the surface. The moment you come close it’s a tiny structure that is very concrete. So, both illusive and concrete, fragile and strong. They exist simultaneously and I’m trying to show that sometimes our understanding of the world is very limited, because we cannot see that opposing forces are continuously in collaboration. They dance together, they are not separated. We are the ones who separate it. And that’s why we have a lot of problems and tension in our lives and in society.
Can you discuss the importance of water as a medium in your work?
It’s a necessity for life. Water flows, just as society flows. Culture flows and shifts and changes. Ideas and thoughts shift and change. I like the movement of water because it flows and cannot be fixed. If you understand the nature of water—that it constantly changes—then you understand that everything changes. Everything is in a state of flux—nature, the world, us with it. But we don’t realise that. We create fixed stories about ourselves, our cultures, and there is a tension there. We like to fix everything because it feels more secure. We have a home, stability, a context and narrative, but these are all artificial. You have to go with this flowing movement. It’s hard for us to do that. We struggle with it.
Is making the intangible tangible part of what you are trying to do in your art?
Yes, I would like to say that for me what is intangible and invisible is more important than what is visible and tangible. The intangible seems to be something that is more appropriate to want to grasp, for me. And the world around me, actually. The much bigger picture.
Tell me more about your VR work. Does it allow you to better navigate around these limitations?
Yes, but it does also have its own limitations. I’ve been working with VR since 2003 so I was really working with it from its inception. In 2003 we had very little, actually. I did quite a bit of work with breath on the video screen. For Breath (2003), I choreographed breath from four different vocalists from four different heritages. I tried not to use the technology as a space of emptiness, but as a tool to reach for what is intangible and inaccessible to my senses. There is an awful quality of VR that offers you emptiness.
Yes, I’m not interested in that. It’s a cliché. But what is interesting about it is that you can connect to things that you have no access to; that you can’t understand because you’re limited by your senses. Perhaps with this medium you can connect to something very powerful that you cannot find within your ordinary experience in your physical body. It’s a difficult area, I have to be honest. I have only done five pieces up to now—and I’m making the last one now. I’ve been struggling for five years to get it right. It takes me two to three years to do one work and they’re very short—five to seven minutes maximum. The virtual can be quite useful to convey certain experiences if it’s handled well and not turned into some sort of kitsch spectacle. I just try to use the media available to me to convey what I feel but is sometimes difficult to express through other media.
I remember seeing Breath (2003) seven years ago in London at Lisson Gallery (No Boundary Condition, 12 October–12 November 2011). That was my first encounter with your work.
I made Breath in 2003. It was one of the pieces I showed at the Venice Biennale in 2013. I wanted to see who I was—the closer I was to the mirror the less I was able to see, but when I stepped away from it I could see my breath.
This is interesting in relation to Lacan’s concept of the ‘mirror stage’, when an infant recognises itself in the mirror, which in turn gives rise to the affirmation of the self; the ‘I’ or ‘I am’. Except here you are no longer able to see, or recognise the self. It’s the breath you see instead, not the reflection.
Exactly. I discovered that Einstein did a similar thought experiment about human identity. Einstein said, ‘If I moved at the speed of light, what would I see when looking into the mirror?’ He wouldn’t be able to see an image of himself because the light wouldn’t have time to go back and hit the mirror and reflect his image back. He realised it wasn’t fixed. I didn’t initially know about this experiment; I only discovered it a year ago, yet I’ve been talking about it for the last 10 to 15 years.
My experiment was really about identity—whether it is a fixed proposition or whether it is shifting constantly. I realised that it is constantly shifting, and the agony of humans is that they don’t like that, and we are constantly trying to fix it. The conflict is huge, and on the individual level it’s also a crisis, because identity cannot be fixed. It’s impossible, but that is the nature of it. Einstein realised he could not fix it; the speed of light is always stable—light would not be able to come back and hit the mirror so he would have a void.
Everything else in this universe is related to this idea of fixity. Fixity and change shift constantly in relation to each other. But we are only aware of the fixed, not the shifting process. We get surprised about how much we don’t understand. We think time exists, but actually in this process time doesn’t exist—it’s movement that gives the sense of time. Perhaps it’s heat that gives us a sense of change; and when it’s cool, it changes. Change is time.
It’s funny to think about mirrors in an art fair context. Reflective art works attract scores of people who look at their image on the surface of them, taking selfies.
Our biggest problem is that we want to fix that image in the mirror, and there is nothing there. That’s why we’re attracted to shiny art. It is a desperate affirmation that we exist. It’s the uncertainty we don’t like.
You once stated, ‘I set out to capture my breath, to find the essence of my own existence, transcending name, nationality, cultures.’ Your works emphasise the similarities between people. That we all strive for the same thing, understanding of the self, our place in the world.
Yes. You will begin to see within yourself and the world around you the same thing constantly at work. Then your prejudices drop. That allows you to get rid of prejudices, intolerances. They are a part of all of us and there is so much intolerance in the world we’re living in. This is the problem today, even in a democratic country like the United States, and England with Brexit. So much intolerance has surfaced. It doesn’t matter where you are. We have to dig down to the source of intolerance.
We’re all unique and the same. It’s like a drop of water. All the droplets in the ocean are different, and yet they are the same. They are each individual droplets, but each shape is unique. It’s quite amazing. I was shocked when I discovered this, that each droplet has got a particular shape. No two droplets are the same.
Just like every snowflake is individual.
Yes. Can you imagine that? Yet, they all have the same structure. Water is an amazing substance. In my work, from afar the paintings look like the cosmos, but actually when you get up close to them the patterns reveal themselves. They have their own identity, like a fingerprint. Our fingerprints are all different. You know where they come from? When we are in the uterus of our mother in a watery environment, the water has left a pattern on our skin.
Yes, it is! It’s not the same pattern, ever. Before we even take our first breath in the world, the memory of the time in our mother’s uterus is imprinted upon us. And when I understood this I was completely overwhelmed by it. We have so much to learn about who we are. And this is part of our identity. The fingerprint is the only thing that doesn’t change. Our face and bodies change, but not our fingerprint.
You engage so much with physics in your work. Did you never want to be a scientist?
I did actually. But I loved art too much.