Making The Blind Owl sing

How Iranian artist Pouran Jinchi took on the controversial novel with art

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Pouran Jinchi talks to Peter Feely about the Iranian novel The Blind Owl, the inspiration for her new show.

Showing at Al Quoz’s The Third Line Gallery, Pouran Jinchi’s mixed media calligraphic artworks use text from one of the most important Iranian works of fiction in history. The book, which caused controversy and was eventually banned, raises wider issues about themes of censorship, truth and the relationship between power and corruption. Here Jinchi explains the methodology behind her work and why she chose this particular text.

Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl is banned in Iran. Why is this?
I do recall that The Blind Owl was banned in Iran. What I remember more vividly though is that it was banned by my parents in our household. My parents, and many of my friends’ parents, were terrified of this book without even reading it. All they had heard about the book was that it told a dark story about a man who corrupts a child’s mind and that anyone reading it would commit suicide. Of course, all this did was fuel my interest and it led me to make sure I got a copy of the book so that I could read it.

Why did you decide to use the text of the book in your exhibition?
I came across the work again a couple of years ago and it sparked a certain interest in me because it tells a story about death, loss, youth and nostalgia. I had recently experienced a loss in my life and the text affected me deeply and led me to create a whole series, interpreting the book through my art. In this exhibition, I use specific quotes in some of the works and the whole book in some others. The text is interpreted with drawings, paintings, and sculptures executed with a variety of materials.

Sadegh Hedayat attacked corruption in the monarchy and the clergy in the book. Are these ideas that you would like people to consider when they see your show?
I think there is more depth in his writing than just viewing it through a political lens. I am sure his environment and the politics of the time had a significant influence on his writing as much as those factors are a direct influence on all of our lives. Like many great writers, he was probably affected by socio-political problems of the time. Hedayat’s genius laid in how he was able to write in a way that allows you to get into his mind and feel a sense of isolation and madness. You never leave his side once you get drawn into this investigation of the human soul. I appreciate the fact that Hedayat initially self-published the book himself, giving 50 copies of handwritten text to his friends while he resided in India. He had a note on the book that said ‘Not for sale in Iran’ due to censorship. The idea of the author writing the book so many times by hand is what I would like people to consider when viewing my work at this exhibition.

What do you think of the idea in The Blind Owl about death destroying imagination and forcing people to look beyond the false aspects of their lives?
Well I believe technically and philosophically that would be correct – death does have a certain ability to pretty much end everything, especially imagination. Hedayat dug into the darkest sides of a human soul. He allows you to experience what it is like to have a dialogue with yourself.

Is there any significance with Hedayat’s decision to use an owl as an image in Iranian culture?
In The Middle East, an owl is linked to destruction, ruin and death. The choice of the owl makes sense, considering Hedayat’s fascination with death within the novel and his suicide aged 48 in 1951. Most cultures associate owls with death in good and bad ways. Of course, owls are nocturnal creatures and they are not interested in being among people or other birds or each other. They live in isolation, perhaps similar to the narrator in The Blind Owl story. His owl is blind maybe because he couldn’t bear to see what was around him.

When you think about your work, do you have ideas about expressing a certain form first or do you choose the words first?
I usually choose the words first. The words can be poetry, an entire book, a quote from a book, single words or simply alphabets. The choice of the text normally has something to do with my own life experiences. The choice of The Blind Owl was an emotion evoked by a personal experience of death and loss. Once I reread The Blind Owl as an adult, not only did it bring back a lot of memories of my homeland and youth, but it also struck a chord with its ideas about the fragility of life.

You use different materials, such as on your plexiglass and permanent marker piece. Do you like to explore different mediums and can you explain how this piece was created and the idea behind it?
This series was created around 2010. I was annoyed by the hypocrisy of governments on the issue of human rights and how this issue is manipulated to fit certain agendas. I came across a text written on a clay cylinder by the ancient Persian king, commonly known as Cyrus the Great, who declared one of the original charters of human rights. I was able the get the translation of this text from the British Museum, where the Cyrus cylinder is housed, through a friend that works there as a curator. I was looking for a material that invokes transparency and contemporary times. I then incorporated the text into transparent and cylindrical sculptures.

Where do you create your work?
I have a studio in downtown New York but unfortunately, the rents have gone up a lot in the city, which is making it impossible for artists to stay there. I will probably follow many other artists and relocate to Brooklyn.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘The Blind Owl’ runs until October 17 at The Third Line, Al Quoz (04 341 1367)
Artist: Pouran Jinchi
Price of works: On request

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