Siah Armajani, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Hengameh Fouladvand, Nicky Nodjoumi, Nahid Haghighat

The Passions of the Fragment
Sponsored by Center for Iranian Modern Arts

The Passions Evoked at this first exhibit of the Center for Iranian Modern Arts, of recent works by Siah Armajani, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Hengameh Fouladvand, Nahid Haghighat, and Nicky Nodjoumi, are the passions of the fragment. These passions are, to borrow a fragment of the contemporary philosopher Jacques Derrida, the passions of, "displacements, withdrawls, fragmentations, play with identities, with persons, with titles." If there is any theme through which one can understand the vibrant but diverse works at the exhibit, it is this exploration of the act of taking apart and bringing together, of dematerialization and rematerialization, of breaking down and building up. Together, the works are an essay on the fragment and the dream of wholeness.

In the untitled mixed-media constructions of Monir Farmanfarmaian, which incorporate a collage of ancient and modern images in a miniature architecture of diorama and display, this dream emerges through implicit narrative. Each of these gem-like sculptural assembles a spiral of text and image, (sometimes incorporating jewelry, a tiny toy bird, and other found objects), appears to imply a story. This recalls the box sculptures and especially the intricate dioramas of 1940s outsider artist Joseph Cornell. But the meaning of each story is sufficiently ambiguous, the assembly sufficiently suggestive, for each viewer to assemble their own story out of the construction. These constructions invite and reward the viewer providing the whole story, of which the construction is a fragmentary illustration.

In the paintings of Nahid Haghighat, the viewer's assembly of meaning is not so much in the story one tells, but in the layer on which one chooses to begin one's gaze.  These exquisitely crafted works, which assemble acrylics, gold leaf, collage, and heavy glazes on boards, also incorporate suprising juxtapositions of text and image. As in the standout Dawn's Bliss  (1998) fragments missing on one layer appear on another: a riderless horse at one corner of the painting is haunted by a fragment of gold leaf, which in this setting suggests the ghost or memory of the missing rider. In Glass Vase (1999) and Lecture on Love (1998) the play with layers is combined with a play on framing: there is a play between the edge of the image, the edge of the glazing or gold leaf, and the edge of the picture itself, that begins to suggest an ambiguity of what image is within what image, which layer is remembering which, where the artwork ends and where the world begins.

In Dictionary for Building: House Under Bridge  (1974-5) the one work of the artist-architect Siah Armajani on display, there is another play on framing. In this wooden sculpture, a small house sits framed under a more modern bridge that passes overhead. The implied story here is between the domestic and the public, between the old-fashioned house and the industrial bridge. But if we look longer, we see that the divisions are not so clear: viewed head on, the profile of the bridge has the same old-fashioned pitched roof as the house below. Ancient and modern are unexpectedly brought together. It is an effect that recalls the larger whole of Armajani's architecturally-scaled works, in particular his Lighthouse and Bridge in Staten Island, New York and 1996 Olympic Tower and Bridge for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Just as Dictionary for Building assembles fragments that imply a landscape, so do the semi-abstract but suggestive lines of Hengameh Fouladvand's acrylic painting: Bound (1998). In a rich and liveley palette of colors, of reds, yellows and purples, this lively and oversized image has a play between surface and depth, abstraction and representation, that recalls the late landscapes of Cezanne or early Kandinsky. The palette itself, appearing to reflect the traditional colors of miniatures and illustrations, continues the dialogue between ancient and modern.

In the three exhibited paintings of Nicky Nodjoumi, the palette is limited to a strict vocabulary of greys and greens and browns, acrylics and gouach on paper and canvas, deeply worked and scratched in a texture that recalls the work of Anselm Kiefer. The paintings are surreal. In The Guardian, we see a couple in a forest clearing. The couple are in traditional robed dress, but the woman is suspended in a glass vitrine, atop a precarious pedestal; the lower half of her Chador is drawn back, beneath which she is naked. And yet this is not necessarily an allegory of modesty or immodesty: the woman meets our gaze while the man, although holding a pistol in a sign of possesion or protection, averts his eyes both from the viewer and the spectacle before him. In Two Adults on the Scene, again we see a clothed man and a nude woman on a pedestal; but here the man himself has become the pedestal: in modern Western suit and tie, he kneels on all fours, while a woman, nude but for heels and a mask, sits perched on his back. Again, the woman meets or gaze, while the man looks away. In Study for High Note, a suited man is again suporting a load on his back, the woman has been transformed into a tree. It is an image of loneliness, of loss and burden. There is a play in all three paintings, between Eastern and Western, Traditional and Modern, Male and Female that suggests an allegory about how human relationships, particularly romance and marriage, are shaped by the cultural expectations that surround them.


In these paintings one woman can stand for an image of All Women; the fragment of suit and tie can stand for a totality of Bourgeois Western Man. In his discussion of fragmentation, of the demolition and rebuilding of stories and ideas out of puzzle pieces and collaged odds and ends, Derrida asks, "Has one the right to do this? Who will declare the right?" At the risk of essentializing the contemporary Iranian-American experience, one could suggest that these artists have a distinct right, even obligation, to explore themes of fragmentation and displacement in time and space; as participants in a cultural conversation that has undergone upheaval and fragmentation, revolution and displacment, these artists are attuned, perhaps, to the task of weaving together new meanings out of a new combination between East and West, Fragment and Whole, Traditional and Modern.

Thomas de Monchaux , Princeton University.