An Opening to an Engaged Art

Farshid Rahimi

By inclusion of art as a mode of production within the social relations and eruption of the conventional assessments an art work as a product, commodity, and object based on the economic system of exchanges, alienation has epidemically become infectious. In such context, to return to autonomy and to develop radical qualities of art as an indictment against the existing realities through articulation of the noble appearance of ‘beauty’ on the one hand and, critique of political economy on the other, are indispensable.

It is through such a critique that art as a negation of the realist-compromising mindset provides a ground to set itself free from the domination of bourgeoisie moral and behavioral codes, the prevalent drift of aesthetic criteria and instructions of commercial art, standards of the educational system, and evaluations by art institutions (i.e., GalleryAcademy). In effect, this approach clearly turns art into an expressive tool to express ‘the problem’; a tool, that more than any other thing, threatens the integrity and authority of the ‘situation’, the naïve realism, and its compromising nature.

Hence, the non-normative and engaging nature of the autonomous art through its inherent conflict with the embodied rationalism of the social and artistic institutions organizes an action throughout which the institutional rationality and authoritative relations hidden in the political economy of art encounter autonomy and its realization in ‘freedom’ and ‘beauty’; where, the latter pushed the former back.

Taking place in the liminal and in-between situations, and through non-normative behaviors and complex configurations of the body, there arises a space for the oppressed, excluded, minority, muted, and marginalized. This puts another face of reality against the face of artists, audiences, and societies.

Ideological and ahistorical representations of the existing reality through an identical system and to make appearances and signs equivalent to the unchangeable rules of nature, and to produce cultural and artistic contents which are affirmed by the existing power and dominant bloc are not the exclusively limited to the art staff of the powerful and its missionaries.

This form of market system alongside with the private art institutions and the dominate relationships based on competition driven from social Darwinism (manifested in art festivals and competitions) with an increasing emphasis on private property and monopolized right to identification of an artist as the only way for him or her to carry his or her activities in the society leads to impose compromise with the supply-and-demand chain and consolidates ideological apparatuses.

Thus, not being aware of the mechanisms rendering the ‘situation’ and not applying a dialectical method in observing and practicing art have been resulted in the alienation of art and its fall into the decadent and reactionary realm of bourgeois art. This drags the compromising minds more and more in such ‘situation’.

The alienation and contention of the established institutions with the vision and method of dialectics and, also, historical materialism in analyzing the established situation in order to provide inquiries on the relationship between the ‘problem’ and the established order is the most significant sign and rationale that makes return to autonomy and radical acts in art necessary; the task by which, art, as one the most revolutionary individual and social tools, unsettles the rigid social relations and thus,opens the path toward the reunion of the aesthetic, truth, autonomy, and freedom.

Performance is one of the most significant realms to set art free from the modes of production and commodification of art. Ephemeral, non-normative, and improvisational characteristics of a performance, more than a positive intentionality and designed plans by the artist, comes out of the performance’s detachment from the established art media and also from its negation of the conventional communication systems, as well as the dominant production modes. Performance as an intervention is aimed to portray artistic chaos and unrest; one that rests within the realm of freedom and autonomy.

Performance provides a momentum to create an unexchangeable art. Relied on the essential nature of arts as the unnecessary and useless, performances revolt against determination and compulsion; thus, irreconcilably they stand against ‘law’ and ‘morality’, the two universal holistic thrusts of any balanced social systems.

Based on what remains at the heart of the art institution and performances’ undaunted nature the task is to move beyond the any predetermined form of regulations, instructions, and institutional-academic value systems since whatever is social is institutional; thus, the institutional due to the formation and embodiment of the collective rationality remains trapped within the frames of stahlhartes Gehäuse (lit. iron cage) of rationality. Hence, whatever remains outside of the such institutions’ perceived scheme or list is to be perceived illegitimate and disturbing to the social equilibrium. Performance is such a disturbing momentum in the social equilibrium.

The aforementioned introduction sets the author’s approach to performance based on which Amir Mobed’s performances are going to be investigated.

In 2010, Mobed performed ‘Come Caress Me’ in Tarahan-e Azad galley, Tehran. In a white bodysuit and covered head with a protective metal box, Mobed stood next to the center of a bull’s-eye painted in black, blue, red, and yellow in the center; inviting the audiences to shoot him while putting themselves on three specific distances. Mobed was shot more than fifty times that day; tens of them directly Caressed his body. Notwithstanding the visibility of pain and physical damages in the artist’s body, the shooting continued until one of the participants broke down the gun

and performance came to its end.

The audiences’ engagement in ‘Come Caress Me’ was manifested in the highest level of agency. The artist made the realization of the performance conditioned to the audiences” participation throughout direct shooting to an innocent individual with no conducted risky behavior, manifesting one the most brutal actualization of the human violence.

Mobed demonstrates how conditions and situations might organize violence and how symbolized body of an individual as a target might be targeted by nonmilitant, ordinary citizens. The focal point in the performance was the audiences’ incurious disinterested attitude toward consequences of shooting. Based on the documents and Mobed’s statement none of the participants questioned weather the gun is real or not, not did they asked about the consequences of shooting. No one hesitated.

Moded perfectly demonstrates how gallery, as a distinct social space opposite to the street and public arenas, manipulates viewers’ perception of it as a controlled and safe space; where, just because an artistic event happens in it, the physical damage becomes impossible. And ultimately, the performance shows how in the absence of legal responsibilities, a gallery could provide a space to shoot to a human being; wherein, a participant heedless to the tangible materiality of a gun, pain. And suffering keeps shooting going to the end.

In its essence, the liminal and in-between nature of ‘Come Caress Me’ displays the split between art and morality. As if in the shambolic sphere, all moral obligations could be transformed, neglected, and redundant. This, in principle, could illustrate an emphasis on the unlimited symbolism and boundless framing by the media, news institutions and apparatuses on the one hand, and the potential violent abilities hidden in the nonmilitant, pacifist, and in certain cases amongst the audiences of the art world.

In ‘Opening’, another Mobed’s performances; the artist tries to represent the existing censorship in the ideological systems and institutions’ violent and depriving endurances. Dressed in black and equipped with tools such as scissor, clipper, knife, and other similar instruments of cutting, modifying, and censorship, Mobed stands at the entrance of a gallery in the opening day of a visual art exhibition. After his horrifying gesture imitates the audiences, Mobed covers the exhibited art works using black fabrics in order to block paintings and videos in the exhibition to represent the socio-political strangulation in art and autonomous spheres.

The performance recasts the existing censorship in its super-structural level, performed censorship detached from its establishing elements, existing forces in cultural policymaking, and ideological drawings; thus, neglected the seemingly invisible elements of oppression and censorship. But at the same time, drawing a conceptual and situational relationship to interfere in the opening process of the exhibition to some extent depicted the trauma caused by oppression and intimidation.

The reality of shooting and damages caused by it in ‘Come Caress Me’ which criticizes the homogeneity and integrity of our perception of violence and reveals the split between the moral and symbolic-artistic situations, all in ‘Opening’ were replaced with an exaggerated unrealistic playfulness; therefore, undermined the concrete relations in the performance. ‘Opening’, hence, lost its critical potentialities in facing the fundamental and basic elements of the ideological system and apparent existing censorship in the society in favor of its surrealist theatricality and emphasis on the super-structural symptoms.

In other words, the evident and superficial violence in behavior, clothing, and tools used in ‘Opening’ made the existing censorship and restrictions unreal, impossible, and absent from the existing reality in the society. For all are aware of the fact that auditors pretend to act as polestars and kind friends; who, even before creation of an art work, triumph the state-supported art scene to suppress the autonomous work of art. In this framework, not only does the gallery is a space to exhibit art works, but it also is a space to exhibit what was already permitted and authorized.

Undoubtedly, though, the core idea of ‘Opening’, apart from its theatrical display and minimum level of engagement with our socio-cultural condition, still could risk the integrity and unity of the status quo and change the rigid elements of the existing cultural reality.

In ‘Field’, ‘50% off’, ‘Repetition’, ‘Hypocrisy’, ‘Homeland’, and ‘Virus’, Mobed puts his body in dangerous and grave situations. In ‘Field’, he reenacts an execution scene wherein he hangs himself while an ice cube beneath his feet is melting down. In another performance he encloses himself with red fabrics while he tolerates extreme pressure. In another one, he puts his body under a massive amount of feces. In another performance he splashes his blood on canvas. In all these performances, Mobed puts his audiences in unpredicted and unforeseen situations.

In ‘Field’, where an execution is enacted in its prevailing public mode in Iranians’ everyday life, Mobed hangs himself in an extremely powerful performance. The symbolic aspects of the performance, such as the red paint pending out of the melting ice, intensified the audiences’ reactions. While the ice was gradually melting down and the security team as preventing audiences to intervene and rescue the artist, shaking convulsion reached its highest point.

This time, the performance came to its end due to the unified and joined demand of the viewers. The very reenactment of an execution scene, high frequency of the attended viewers in the performance, and the severity of the moment wherein it might had caused a serious damage to the artist unified the audiences to stop the performance. Such unification might just take place in a gallery space and with regard to an artist. There exists a long way ahead to witness such reaction to be realized in a real situation in Iran.

In ‘50% off’, the artist’s body is tied to one of the pillars of the gallery. To put the body under a severe concrete pressure in this performance, to me, represents the artist’s subjection to the existing mechanisms in the galleries and his dissolvement in the supply-demand chain, ruling the art market. Such performances, in fact, emphasizes on the identicality of a set of particularly salient elements in the performances, as well as the painful nature of the existing reality in the society. Here, the artist vividly and directly draws on blood, feces, clamor, audiences’ outcry in facing an execution scene, and body tied to the gallery that all need no decoding processes by the audience. By encountering the audience with the most intimate and concrete manifestations of pain, decay, and reek, these performances try to force the audience to react.

Through these performances, Amir Mobed, in fact, tries to direct his audiences’ attention toward the existing pains and infinite chain of restrictions and oppressive social relations. In order to preserve and bolster up the class relations, one serves himself with the most brutal processes, the most painful experiences possible, and sever discriminations and trainings. Mobed’s profound significance lies in production of violence and pain for himself in order to engage audiences through innovative productions and continued pain. He makes his audiences to react; sometime as a pain producer (in ‘Come Caress Me’), sometimes as who stops a violent act (in ‘Field’), and some other times as a mere observer and companion. In fact, Mobed directs his audiences’ attention toward actualization, authorization, and possibilities to interfere in the seemingly unified and integrated situations. He invites his audiences to act, affect, and disrupt the status quo; an invitation that one perhaps needs to accompany it with shooting or to provide a possibility to stop an execution. Whatever it might be, in order to fully actualize his audiences’ potentialities, Mobed is putting his life at stake.

Translated by: Mohammad Sarvi Zargar

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