Art / History / iran / Radio

Canary in a Coal Mine


13.30 Monday 23rd, 20.30 Sunday 29th January on established artist Farhad Ahrarnia discusses the concepts behind his work, how he became interested in the medium of embroidery and his opinion on the driving forces of foreign policy in the press.

Ahrarnia’s current solo show Canary in a Coal Mine continues at Rose Issa Projects until 25th February 2012, 260 Kensington High Street, W8 6NA.  The domestic, and so caged, canary – compelled to sing even in the dark of sooty and cavernous mines until the moment it dies – becomes a symbol for the role of the artist, or perhaps ‘the one who is aware’, the one who sacrifices themselves in warning of oncoming crisis to others. Ahrarnia, from Shiraz in Iran, lives partly in Sheffield a town that played an important role in the UK’s long mining history and legacy.

The seemingly coded stitching on Ahrarnia’s work is reminiscent of the encoded signs of surrealist Miró or Kandinsky and if they had perhaps not been carried out in the considered form or embroidery, might appear to be the kind of action painting we’ve come to know from experimental artists like Pollock, or the automatic drawings of André Breton. Ahrarnia stitches on images from found material, and often pairs them images of the east that appear as if they were made using the cut-up technique of the surrealists, but in fact are disembodied fragments of architecture –  easily recognisable as eastern but not easily identifiable.

Like Maurizio Anzeri, Ahrarnia uses found images as his starting point. The significance for Ahrarnia is the shared legacy Iran has with the West: the translations of Western films into Iranian made them extremely popular, now they are banned. How much of the fibre of Iran is made up of these images? It is perhaps beyond measure, undoubtedly significant. Both Ahrarnia and Anzeri contrast the vintage images with bright modern-looking thread, Ahrarnia going so far as to use large sequins and shimmering string especially, he says to refract light back to the onlooker. This stark contrast suggests modernity layered over the past, and the creation of a space where the two worlds converge and where the still image, embedded as it is in our history, is disturbable, is something we can yet interact with and perhaps rewrite.

With Ahrarnia there is none of the stringy trailing of Ghada Amer’s work, or the figurative decoration of Michael Raedecker’s embroidery. In fact his very measured and geometric designs, while left unfinished and often trailing, speak more of mathematics’ Voronoi diagram than decoration, of meditation and strategy rather than accident. Ahrarnia tells me that while the work in fact takes shape during it’s making, he lives with each piece of work for some time contemplating the work until he considers it finished.

Also in this show are the popular silver-bronze shovel heads and dustpans that Ahrarnia displayed in Art Dubai 2011, called Dustpan of History. The details in these refer to the pre-Islamic history of Persepolis, Mesopotamia, and Pharaonic Egypt. There is a resonance between the pointed tips of the silver shovel heads and the embroidery needles left in mid stitch in the embroidered works:  both suggest the action of piercing or digging into our past, uncovering layers of things past and disturbing the surface.

They remind me of Heaney’s famous poem Digging where the poet describes both his father and his grandfather in the act of digging:
He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

– (1966)


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