Stickers and graffiti cover the walls, the ceiling, and the floors as you ascend the interior stairwell of the Luggage Store Gallery. Over the years, many artists, and indeed many visitors, have made their mark here. Taraneh Hemami’s Fist (all works 2013), a powder coated aluminum and Plexiglas sculpture of a clenched fist raised in solidarity, is positioned at the top of the stairs, increasingly visible with each step. It presents a striking emblem of the Luggage Store’s long legacy as a fundamentally gritty alternative nonprofit arts space and embodies the same spirit of the layered stickers in the long entrance. It also offers visual entre to Hemami’s solo exhibition of largely sculptural new works that explore the visual history of resistance leading up to and beyond the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The work is a mix of industrial fabrications and hand wrought objects. One corner of the gallery presents Notes from Evin Prison, a series of seven wall-mounted, powder-coated aluminum graphic sculptures. In one work, a cluster of upraised fists increases in number with its shadows. Evin Prison, located in northwestern Tehran, is renowned for its detention of political prisoners before, during and after the revolution; it has often been referred to as “Evin University” because it housed so many intellectuals.
Taraneh Hemami, Notes from Evin Prison series detail, 2013; Courtesy of Luggage Store Gallery.
Taraneh Hemami, Theory of Survival, book covers, 2012-2013; Courtesy of Luggage Store Gallery.
Further along the same wall is Theory of Survival, book covers a grid of nine wood panels that depict key revolutionary figures. Following the fall of the Shah, these activists were martyred for their efforts. Hemami has assembled these portraits from glass frit, small shards of crushed glass that exemplify for her “the shattered ideologies” of the some 4,000 people who were imprisoned and later executed after dedicating their lives to the movement. Luggage Store Gallery co-director Laurie Lazer noted the challenge of installing the work: the next day her palms were covered with dozens of tiny cuts, too small to see and yet irritating. Hemami notes that she often bleeds while assembling the work and concedes that her visceral experience of pain is essential to recognizing the dedication of the activists who gave everything in an era of palpable and diverse convictions. For Hemami, who was born and raised in Tehran, the work is a path towards understanding her own obscured history and a way to place these stories in the broad history of activism.
Taraneh Hemami, Curtain of Blood, 2013; Courtesy of The Luggage Store Gallery.
“Art is an interesting place to address these issues,” she noted in an interview for this article. “It allows you to bring in a lot of different voices.” While artist-in-residence at California College of the Arts’ Center for Art and Public Life in 2005-2006, she put out a call to the Iranian diaspora community to assemble an archive of materials from the revolution. She later used another opportunity at the Lab to organize the result and the larger archive is now catalogued in the Persian studies department of the Library of Congress. During this project, Hemami became aware of the fracturing between armed resistance and nonviolent tactics in the Leftist movement leading up to the revolution. From this, her recurring investigations into “theories of survival” have spun an ongoing multimedia portrait of modern dissent within Iran.
Near the window a bank of fabric bolts are hung on the wall. Untitled Prison series features commercially printed rolls of digital prints on cotton and silk. The systematic pattern of the motif appears decorative from across the room; up close, it’s another story. Seeing the images “disappear” into the pattern has the effect of an ocular trick; you see the image, but it also retreats and consumption becomes subliminal. The exhibition of these fabricated objects is “Phase 1” of a larger project for which Hemami won the prestigious Creative Captial Grant; “Phase 2” will present these objects in a live bazaar at Southern Exposure next year. “The project at large,” she said, “is to organize a dialogue between different generations of activists. My interest lies less in the details of theory, but is focused on the many thousands of students who were active in the student movement in general.” Now, while working in residence at California Institute of Integral Studies through May, Hemami is conducting research towards this ever-widening project, which spins a universal narrative about strength of convictions while unearthing redacted histories. Taraneh Hemami’s commitment to this incendiary moment in Iranian history extends the work of her revolutionary predecessors. Movements happen in stages — and preserving alternative histories is it’s own form of radical activism.
Taraneh Hemami: Resistance is on view at the Luggage Store Gallery though February 23, 2013. For more information visit luggagestoregallery.org.
All photos: Jay Jones.