There are European literary precedents informing Reza Aramesh’s work that offer an insight into his subject matter and method. Taken together with his origins in the Middle East a fascinating convergence of influences emerges.
The 20th century existentialist writers Jean Genet and Albert Camus provide a schema of ideas that both concern the place of the outsider in society, detached from its moral norms but emotionally charged. Genet, whose writings describe the cloying stylisation of power in its most absurd extreme is the prisoner of the establishment whose celebration of society’s taboos sets him free. Camus, the Algerian interloper onto European territory, describes the individual as an onlooker, one who chronicles their own state of being in the context of others from whom they are disassociated. Thirdly, Bertolt Brecht, essentially the contemporary of Camus and Genet, who saw society as a manifestation of political values and placed an emphasis on the collective endeavour rather than the condition of the individual.
These three iconic writers represent distinct but canonical moments in art and their threads weave together to a profound extent in Reza Aramesh’s works. The complexities of all three defy the easy categorisation that perhaps the paragraph above implies. It is not possible to separate the political from the personal in any of their works. And it is this same association of political consciousness associated with a critique and subversion of moral norms that characterises Aramesh’s practice. Violence and pain is a complicated subject but it is something that Aramesh approaches head on. In attempting to unravel it’s complexities he adopts a simple unifying image, that of the male figure. These figures appear in various scenarios that examine the humiliation of men when they are subjected to the destructive and cruel might of war or violation by authoritarian regimes. Throughout his practice Aramesh is constantly moving backwards and forwards between the imagery of press war reporting in conflicts that have taken place around the world over the past fifty years. (His earliest reference is to the Korean War in the 1950s) and the high culture of the Renaissance or his re-readings of press photographs as a repost to, for example, Goya’s Disasters of War.
Art’s institutions themselves create a forum in which the meaning of art is acknowledged. The world’s grand historical museums as much as the contemporary art gallery play their part in establishing the context for appreciating the meaning and value of art. Conscious of this Aramesh has chosen to show works outside this context. He has mounted works in phone boxes, in nightclubs, in shopping malls, employing the language of historical art along the way. This language, the language of the art that we now usually only encounter in museums, in Aramesh’s hands also manifests a duality. It expresses the condition of the universal man using the vocabulary of elitism. Cruelty, Aramesh asserts, must be confronted but there is an imperative to regard it in a way different from the standard models set by entertainment and news media. He considers that High Renaissance and Baroque artists, by so effectively developing a vocabulary of form and materials that expressed the sensuality of the human body under stress, succeeded in expressing the picturing of violence to an extent that contemporary artists have not yet matched. Intrinsic to this is a veiled eroticism that belies the overt subject matter, something that Aramesh echoes, particularly in his sculpture. The fundamental forces of beauty, sex and violence shape the theatrical premise upon which his sculpture is based. These sculptures beautifully carved in marble or lime wood, glisten with realism. His figures, exclusively young and male rendered in positions of helplessness, inevitably establish religious associations but their secular sources deny the possibility of redemption. The influence of Aramesh’s beginnings in Iran are less obvious, his sculptures produced between 2008 and 2012 clearly stem from a Renaissance tradition, one that is very different, for example, from the god centred world view of 16th century Persian miniaturists. As an artist who has adopted such a strongly constructed position in relation to the history of western art as far as his form and materials are concerned, Aramesh’s link to the Arab world is more revealed in his subject matter that, while it is concerned with the great injustices of the day, is non judgmental. His art exists to reveal not to heal.
Each of Aramesh’s works is entitled ‘Action’ then numbered sequentially. The four works on show at Ab-Anbar; Action 72; Action 114; Action 140; Action 141 do not include carved sculpture, instead they employ a range of other media that are also included in Aramesh’s oeuvre; large scale photographic tableaux, the projected slide and 16mm film. Aramesh’s discourse with 16th and 17th century European art is less apparent in these works although there are associations with Renaissance painting and the sublime agony of religious beatitude. What are the actions that these works refer to? Are they events from the past recorded by the Press that he has later appropriated, or are they the actions that occurred in the making of his tableaux? The term ‘Action’ when used in the context of contemporary art usually refers to live or performance art. In the large photographic pieces there is a clear reference to the oeuvre of performance documentation and the black and white photographic language of early conceptual art that blended with it. And there is an obvious performative element here. Groups of men cower and huddle in submissive poses; they are laid out in lines and crouch in corners. Once more Aramesh is conflating various visual languages to make a statement in which the multiplicity of his references are distilled into one image that bears the imprint of the original act.
Action 72: April 14, 1950, ten miles northeast of Seoul, Korea, a large black and white photograph, is the earliest of the works in the exhibition. Aramesh’s research notes about this state:
April 14, 1950, more than two months prior to the beginning of the "hot" war, thirty nine Korean civilians "suspected of being communists" were tied up to poles and blindfolded, with bull's eyes pinned over their hearts, just before being shot by South Korean Military Police firing squad, ten miles northeast of Seoul, Korea. Six U.S. Army officers observed this execution including the U.S. Army Attaché. (Source: Brian Willson)
Aramesh amassed a body of press photos and reports from the period and the specific event on April 14th, trawled through them editing and isolating specific figures, and as a result moments, in the narrative that the photos reveal. He then makes a cultural leap and transfers the idea that these pictures suggest to another setting, this time highly artificial but equally charged, Kenwood House. This former home in the 18th century of one of Britain’s most eminent judges, holds an impressive private collection of fine art, one of the best in the United Kingdom and Aramesh’s performers are humbled before it. The actors in Aramesh’s photograph portray the Korean ‘communist’ suspects described in the quote above. They are placed in subjugation huddled on the ornate floor posed in a manner drawn directly from one of the press photographs. To the left of the picture stands the beatific form of a young man that evokes the legend of Christ but is in fact based upon the contorted figure of an executed Korean man lashed to a stake.
Action 114: Baqouba, Iraq, Friday July 30, 2004, is in the same vein. Drawn from a later era, the conflict in Iraq, this triptych again has its basis in press photos. A line of slain Iraqis laid out in a trench flanked by figures in forlorn and resigned postures taken from other photos from the same incident, is recreated in the luxurious interior of the Palace of Versailles. Constructing his own dialogue between the desperate, barren environment in which human devastation has taken place and the opulence of the centre of power in pre-revolutionary France, Aramesh illuminates the inescapable question about how power and authority are exercised. In this picture the grandeur of the Palace is at odds with the plight of the men but the iconography of power is, if anything, made more potent as they are lain out in the magnificent immensity of Versailles, a symbol of absolute monarchy.
Action 140: 12:30 pm Tuesday 20 December 2011, West Bank city of Nablus. A blindfolded figure walks across a gravel yard. He has his back to the camera and is wearing only a pair of black underpants and white ankle socks. The viewer can imagine his discomfort, walking without shoes on rough ground and what the anxiety of being placed in such a state of physical unease must feel like. In Action 140 Aramesh changes the role of the photograph from that in his earlier works. Whereas in the Action 72 and Action 114, the constructed scenarios are derived from an original event and therefore have a secondary relationship to it but, on the other hand, are a primary record of a performance, in Action 140 the image is taken directly from a photograph. This time of a Palestinian suspect being marched to a checkpoint in Nablus. Aramesh has intervened, however, but in a more direct way by editing out the figures of the group of Israeli soldiers who in the original photograph are shown to be surrounding him. Isolation and its concomitant fear whether in the presence of the army or not are accentuated as the figure assumes the identity of the eternal and ubiquitous prisoner. Aramesh’s earlier ‘Action’ photographs were produced on a large scale as hand printed silver gelatin prints mounted on aluminium. His perfectly carved lime wood sculptures are of single figures picked out from press photos. For Action 140 he has discarded the highly polished black and white photograph in favour of the slide projection, one image on a blank painted wall that can be any scale that the projector allows or the artist chooses, but retained the idea of the lone prisoner stripped of his context as much as his outer protection and dignity. Vulnerable and alone he remains one of the same cadre of the persecuted from across history.
Action 141: not what was meant is a 16mm film, Aramesh’s first foray into moving image. The film is looped in an algorithmic system of paired still images in which every image creates other possibilities that direct another probability. As it generates and regenerates the imagery establishes a procedure that unfolds according to the work’s own inner laws of progression and/or reduction. The film incorporates a sound work made in collaboration with the Iranian sound artist Pouya Ehsai and, like the slide image in Action 140, the film is projected onto a white wall and can be any size. Action 141 depicts men shooting guns over and over again for eternity. An endless round of aimless violence, the poetry of the testosterone fuelled orgasm.
The aestheticisation of violence in art can both diminish revulsion of the subject by consigning it to an autonomous fine art condition but also accentuate its horror by focussing upon brutality to the exclusion of extraneous concerns. Society’s fascination with violence, exploited by mass media entertainment in television and cinema along with ceaseless, sensationalised and partial accounts in the News, adds a further dimension to a contradictory sense of allure that borders on the prurient. This contradiction is at the heart of Aramesh’s work as he poses questions about isolation; powerlessness (and by implication of course the exercising of power); what constitutes beauty and how dreadful circumstances can be spun into quasi-glamorous events. There is consequently another contrast here between a libertine spurning of a morality sanctioned by society, as in Genet, a personal philosophical rectitude seen in Camus, conflated with an ideological critique exemplified in Brecht. Aramesh asks his audience to consider the extent to which these contradictory elements can coalesce and in doing so he highlights the manner in which information generally is disseminated in a mass media driven world. One that almost unconsciously, through a parallel museum culture, is also aware if its historically established cultural precedents. This whole package of art, history, politics and mass media is brought together by Aramesh in an apparently simple but, in fact, exceedingly complex whole. It is a measure of his achievement that he is somehow able to distil the essential contradictory aspects of this history of images into a form that cries out about the plight and condition of oppressed people.