This month Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai shows ‘Obscure Stream of Life, But I’m Still Having My Afternoon Cuppa’ by Iranian artist Bita Fayyazi, with whom we talk for this week’s Six Pillars to Persia.
Comparing Fayyazi’s decisively instinctive modus operandi and her tumultuous underlying concerns to the stream-of-consciousness writing of a towering figure of literary modernism: Virginia Woolf presents itself not only as a method of understanding both Fayyazi’s work and personal response to life today, but also the lasting concerns of Woolf’s writing, for the two are so interlinked. Stream-of-consciousness writing, of which Mrs Dalloway is a famous example, established itself only after the advent of widespread publishing of women writers, and so the hitherto male-dominated and narrow voice of the omnipresent, knowing narrator gave way to the flitting, all-encompassing narration of multiplicitous viewpoints, of which there is no better illustration than Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.
In Obscure Stream of Life but I’m Still Having My Afternoon Cuppa, Fayyazi tackles fundamental ideas and concepts that have underpinned her other work: Performance 1388/2010 (pictured) and Grind, in which society at large is processed through the intensely personal spectrum of Fayyazi’s own emotional responses. This juxtaposition of the very personal and public space work well for Fayyazi. The gallery write of her: “The chaos and disorder of everyday life, the frailty and futility of thwarted human ambition and greed, set within a framework referencing structures of birth, life and decay, all refracted through Bita Fayyazi’s practice, here becomes a powerful set of artworks.” (Van Enyde)
Similarly via the characters in Mrs Dalloway Woolf assesses both the intensely personal struggle to find space for meaningful communication, for privacy in a world where the rules of society stringently modify behaviour, and how the balance between the two is painfully and frustratingly difficult for each of her characters, therefore us, to attain.
There is also a similar defiance in Fayyazi’s work that the inner Mrs Dalloway expresses in her admiration of the rambunctious and rebellious Sally, and the inner turmoil thrown up by the novel’s context of widespread disillusionment with the British Empire, just as the flood of negative world news of this era has effected Fayyazi, a kind of disillusionment with democracy and progress to which she responds unbounded and spontaneously.
“The nine mannequin pieces in the show, (‘oddities and hybrids’, according to the artist) continue Fayyazi’s formal investigations into seemingly disparate materials and found items, woven together with ostentatious care and prominent knots, ties and bindings. Balls of yarn, hair and wire mesh are wrapped to chimney hood vents, funnels, fiberglass, armatures and plaster, creating grotesque figures that ooze (literally, in some cases) with angst-ridden turmoil. In these figures, Fayyazi presses deformities, desecrations and physical exaggerations into service of her analogies of a ‘crippled, dysfunctional society’. The anger is resigned and philosophical, the mannequins are comically absurd in their twisted impotence and thwarted physicality.” (Van Eynde)
Motifs in Mrs Dalloway often refer to the constant anxiety of the threat of oppression that the sensitive felt at the time, oppression from religion, science, or social convention. As Fayyazi portrays the overbearing flood of world news and global violence as chaotic, deformed beings, all sculptures without words Woolf uses via her words the image of floods to signify oppression – for in her view traditional English society itself pulls under those too weak to withstand it. Lady Bradshaw, for example, eventually succumbs to Sir William’s bullying, overbearing presence. The narrator says “she had gone under,” that her will became “water-logged” and eventually sank into his. Septimus is also sucked under society’s tide by pressure. Earlier in the day, before he commits suicide, from the window he sees everything as though it was underwater. Trees drag their branches through the air as though dragging through water, the daylight is “watery gold,” and his hand on the sofa reminds him of floating in seawater. Interestingly the dress pictured here in Fayyazi’s performance resonates with the colours of Mrs Dalloway’s own dress. Peter sees Clarissa in a “silver-green mermaid’s dress” at her party, “lolloping on the waves.” Between this mermaid’s dress and her ease in bobbing through her party guests, Clarissa manages to stay afloat. However, at points she identifies with Septimus’s purpose in fighting the cycle and going under, even if she won’t give in to the temptation herself.
And so perhaps the defiant but anxious, cathartic works of Fayyazi are part of her own mermaid’s dress, helping both her and the onlooker to stay afloat in times when the flood of consciousness and all the gore that it brings threatens to take us under also. Thank goodness Fayyazi takes after Clarissa then, in her navigation of the stream of life, and not Woolf whose own sensitivities swallowed her up entirely in the end driving her to suicide. Rather than twist and turn in the tide better to tackle the evils society throws at us any way we can and stay afloat, one method for which would be to take the occasional break for a simple cup of tea.