Setareh Shohadaei's write up on Sacrosanct
Three terrains of intervention: face, violence, sacred (the inviolable)
Let us put the “Workers” collection aside for a moment. The thread that links all other pieces together is a direct face-off with politics: the repetition and the automatism of the state, within a bounded territory, and addressing a known population. Facing Farideh’s work, we are then in a face-off with politics itself, except that in this duel, the Other is faceless. The face as we might know, has been theorized by the philosopher Immanuel Levinas as that which calls us into the ethical relation that is a non-relation. Levinas teaches us that our ethical relation to the Other through the epiphany of his or her face, is infinite and therefore not predetermined by an established arche. It is an-archic and so a non-relation. So what is a face? We might ask Levinas, to which he answers: “The face resists possession, resists my powers… [It] speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge” (TI, 198). The face of the Other is, for Levinas, the call of alterity, that of transcendence, not a transcendence that is posited against immanence, but one that in the immanence of the face, its absolute nudity and destitution, infinitely resists my desire to kill it.
In the Sacrosanct of politics proper, the face of the Other has disappeared, and with it, withers away the necessity of our ethical relation towards the Other. “Toppled” gives us the body of the dictator, Saddam’s extended arm, Stalin’s coat, and Ceausescu’s hair due. The dictator did not need a face; he has always been the same symptom of the larger structures of power, and as such cannot afford to speak to us, beyond the power of history that is exercised upon him; or so “Toppled”, the statue but also the logic of toppling reminds us.
Then there comes the erasures of “Untitled”: the juxtaposition of ISIS and NASA images of explosion, which as the artist tells us, is concerned with the question of the “how” of the possibility of humanity’s simultaneous and visually indistinguishable orientation towards the “unknown” (in the case of NASA), as well as humanity’s “defacing of history” (ISIS). The images, are of course, either devoid of any faces or with the face turned against the spectator. The absence of the face marks the very overlap between the “unknown” and the “human race”: humanity is the unknowable. The opposition between the unknowable outside and the knowable inside, between religion and science, cannot uphold itself. Minarets erect towards transcendence give way to space shuttles erect towards the cosmos, we cannot tell the difference: both are exploding. One destroys the earth, the other the heavens, and we cannot tell which does what. The “Defacing of history”, the phrase with which Farideh has described the ISIS images, can no longer remain on one side of this equation. Is not every escape to the unknown, as we see in the NASA pictures, signaling humanity’s turning of its back to its history? More importantly still, the equation does not even have only two sides. The artist mimics this back turning, forcing the spectator to encounter a faceless politics. A faceless because two-faced politics, that is. If NASA and ISIS are the two faces of humanity, neither one “speaks to me”, neither is nude, nor destitute. Neither calls me to the infinite possibility of an ethical relation to it, at least not in this collection. The two-face bitch is defaced.
A couple of steps down the curtains fall on the stage of politics. So what if they’re shower curtains, are we not all singing to ourselves behind closed doors at the end of the day? The pedal is operated by a ghost, or perhaps it is something like Walter Benjamin’s Ottaman automaton that is controlled by the dwarf of theology sitting underneath the chess-table and winning every game. The Iranian case has its nuances. Theology is not the dwarf that must operate the puppet of historical materialism while remaining out of sight. Theology is the puppet, the automaton, the pedal. Underneath the stage sits the haunting ghost of a man called rational modernity which the revolution thought it had killed. The interests of power are dictated to God, who calculates with extreme precision, brownie points for every chant that you repeat. God never had many differences with the calculator to begin with. The crowd chants, there are faces, but replicated ones. Every few men the famous loose-mouthed basiji is refound. These are not faces that “speak to me”, their mechanical repetitions in words or pictures are total and finite, not infinite. What could have been an expression of their singularity beyond limits is the traces of their writings on their signs. But the signs are blank, erased, effaced. They mirror the blank piece of glass in the shower. We cannot tell if the glass is a mirror or a window, if we are looking at the outside or the inside, the outside is the inside. And lost in this simulacrum is the face of the Other. Once again, the violence is double: in one turn, the absent face of the dictator projects itself onto the crowd rendering into annihilation, the crowd’s ability to speak before him. In its return, the artist empties the stage, its background and foreground, of any traces of faciality, any words towards which we can hold ourselves responsible.
It is a haunting aesthetics: can politics be anything but this mimetic violence?
This affirmative mimesis of violence shows itself, perhaps most prudently, in “Tehran a Loud”. The brilliant wordplay in the title signifies the permission required for the presence of bodies and faces, but also the loudness of silence, not only because much of those street marches were decidedly silent, but because the act of silencing that which already claims its own silence as its weapon, situates us in a futility, a lack of purpose, or an absence. Once mimed by the artist, whether in the carving out of the path of demonstrations, or in what resembles windows overlooking the streets, either carved out or confronted with still images of devoid of presence, we are faced with what I think is the most powerful problematic of the political: a politics beyond the simple opposition of presence and absence.
Much of Farideh’s work is playing with this possibility, inviting us to question the authoritative boundary that any discourse of power including the State, religion, or science, imposes between the real and the ideal, the sensible and the absurd, the immanent and the transcendent. It is only in this deconstructive gesture, this affirmation of both sides of the oppositions imposed upon us, that we can play against that which is Sacrosanct, that which is inviolable. What remains to be addressed in my encounter with this work, is the question of our ethical responsibility towards the Other, even if the other is my oppressor. Farideh opens her exhibition with a quote from Paulo Freire’s Pedogogy of the Opressed:
“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guideline are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.”
The play of freedom that we are facing in this exhibition, precisely through its mimesis of violence, I would argue, situates us within this very therapeutic politics of “ejecting the internalized image of the oppressor”. Our question however then becomes, how is such a void “replaced with responsibility” (I’ll leave autonomy out of this because that’s a whole other can of warms). We know that the danger of mimesis has always been (since Plato), a production of repetition without difference. If the violence of the oppressor is a defacing by which he relieves himself of his responsibility towards the other, then how do we not entrap ourselves within the exact same logic of politics? I do not have an answer to this question, but I think the difference that I have tried to sketch out here between a work like “Toppled” and one like “Tehran a Loud” might provide us with a clue. In Toppled, the face of the Other is erased; in Tehran a Loud, both me and the Other are erased. In Toppled it seems, we are involved in the exact same gesture as the dictator, in Tehran a Loud, we are involved in the exact same gesture of the dictator, yes, but we are also something more, something in excess of this erasure, which is also the absenting of the self. We too are erased along with the perpetrators and the scene of the crime altogether. The void and the silence that remains, speaks to us in its nudity and destitution of the necessity of the appearance of the face of the Other. I think this remainder, this lack and thus necessity of the ethical relation, is the most crucial gift of the work of art, within politics and indeed within art.