With work so brilliant that at first it’s just bewildering, is Shirin Aliabadi the Lady Gaga of Iranian art?
Shirin Aliabadi’s first international solo exhibit was hotly anticipated. The Iranian artist’s past photographic work deftly explored the tenuous line between freedom and conformity in the adoption of Western ideals in Iran, and it left us hungry for more.
In 2005 ‘Girls in Cars’ ‘papped’ Iranian women cruising in their cars, a rare glimpse into the fun that can propagate in the country. In 2006 she teamed up with her artist husband Farhad Moshiri on ‘Operation Supermarket’, in which they repackaged advertising images to eerily highlight commodity fetishism. In 2007 she stuck with gaudy, saturated colour with the ‘Miss Hybrid’ series, capturing young Iranian women wearing peroxide blonde wigs and coloured contacts, donning plasters over the bridge of their nose, suggesting they had surgically removed their Persian heritage, opting for a Nicole Kidman nose instead. All three of these collections struck a chord.
As an artist she successfully turns Orientalism on its head, cheekily mirroring Western perceptions of women in Iran. In ‘Eye Love You’ she sticks with aesthetics as her weaponry, but this time chooses a beauty trend that is Iranian through and through: the excessive eye make-up seen at Persian weddings.
She presents the exhibition in the form of a dreamy adolescent girl’s diary, scribbles in a notebook that represent the summits and valleys of human emotion. This is a nice idea, but it seems to have created traps for the artist. Teenage girls are fickle and their scribbles amateurish – two adjectives that could be used in reference to the work itself.
The exhibition is composed of A4 size sketches, imposing 240cm x 190cm paintings and a poem that makes up the titles of the show (…Eye don’t want to get married/Eye want to be famous/Eye want a hybrid car/Eye want everything). The use of colour is bold and some of the details wonderful, but there are only so many glittery, neon eyes that a viewer can palate, and it feels as though it mimics a girl’s diary and doesn’t go any further in exploration. On the larger paintings there are faint lines across the canvas, adding to the idea that you’re peering into an exaggerated diary, but the technical precision with which factories strike their lines is missing.
The ideas behind the collection are poetic, but we’re left yearning for the control that the artist showed in her images. ‘The great thing about photography,’ she explains, ‘is that you don’t have to create an illusion as you do with painting or drawing. You just point your camera and press a shutter and you capture reality, which is always stranger than fiction. Only this time my idea was supposedly inside someone’s head, and I couldn’t photograph that. I had to find some way to draw what they were thinking, like little sketches in a diary.’ Sound points indeed, but should the medium ever be sidestepped for the message?
There’s no doubt Aliabadi is compelling as an artist: she has a refreshing take on the world around her, but there is some doubt in our mind about this exhibition. We were left staring at these eyes, objects that are so loaded with meaning in this part of the world, both transfixed and bewildered, wondering if it was us that lacked brilliance, or the works that lacked direction. The show is like Lady Gaga in her futuristic and freaky garb: it leaves us questioning whether it’s her outfit that’s in bad taste or our tastes that are too safe. And the more we think about both, the more confused we are.
How should an audience look at your art? It helps if they’re in love.
The story behind this work… A young girl is about to get married and she starts to sketch her eye make-up for her wedding night. She gets carried away, exaggerated eyelashes with gold dust, love birds flying above the sky, hearts and blossoms blowing in the wind.