In one of Behrouz Rae’s Gulliver series, the artist stands behind a couple who sit barefoot and laughing on bright red sofas. They look like they could be in a design catalogue, and are the perfect picture of contemporary Ikea bliss. But Rae stands behind them like a shadow. He appears to be cut out of the conversation and stares half-cynically at the off-white carpet.
When we meet with the artist at XVA he explains that he wasn’t in the conversation at all. In fact, he wasn’t in the room. ‘I insist on being virtual, I don’t like to be real,’ he states, wearing dark sunglasses and cutting a figure like an Azeri Bob Dylan. ‘I like to take pictures and put myself in there. This was a picture from a magazine in Moscow. When I go to cities, I really don’t care about going to the famous sights there. I prefer to see postcards, because it’s the best light and I can sit in my place with the best temperature and look at the postcard. It makes me exhausted going to those places, but I can put myself anywhere I want, virtually.’
Rae was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to Tehran just as the USSR was fading. He explains that growing up in Tehran was hard. ‘I couldn’t understand Iranian culture. I arrived in 1991 and had come from a country that was completely communist.’ However, he’s quick to insist there’s no melancholic search for identity going on, ‘Obviously it was a journey, but there’s nothing spiritual about it. It was just my daily life. There’s nothing about immigration in my works.’
Yet it’s hard to agree with Rae on this. The entire series of photographs is addressed to Jami, his mother who now lives in the US, and each image is accompanied by a dash of Rae’s handwriting in cryptic, broken English. ‘I do not expect Jami back any minute,’ he writes next to a strange shot of himself sitting bare-chested in a hotel room. ‘I just called her to go out together’, and beneath this is ‘1979’ in bold and ‘from motherland’ with ‘land’ crossed out. There’s something sad about these notes, while the barren austerity of the scenes that Rae digitally superimposes himself into are equally melancholic. Even the presence of the date 1979 on each of these pieces (the year of his birth and, ominously, the year of the Iranian revolution) suggests that after 29 years Rae is still struggling to comprehend the place that he’s found himself in.
He points to a picture of himself standing on a beach, tinted gold by an unseen setting sun: ‘This was a picture that my mother sent me from Miami. All the time she sends me pictures because she wants me to be there, so I’ve put myself into the picture.’ Immediately the illusion is broken and it’s obvious that the perfect miniature dunes at Rae’s feet have been moulded in his studio.
But it isn’t clear why he doesn’t join his mother in the US. He’s even quite vitriolic about Tehran. ‘The people, the culture, the religion is all strange to me. Tehran is hell, but I like hell. I feel that this is modern life and you must confront it.’ Yet a city that he sees as ‘like hell’ continues to inspire him, ‘I like Iranian TV particularly; it’s always lying – everything in that city is like art for me.’
Rae’s desire to constantly evade reality is perhaps the most interesting element in these works. In one image we see a ghostly shot of Rae running from the camera through a field of long grass. The shot is overexposed and distorted, and the artist explains that he was trying to recreate a nightmare. Yet he went out to that field and shot it, and still insisted on photographing himself in a studio to place himself into the shot. Why does he always return to this desire to be ‘virtual’, as he puts it?
It’s as if he seeks to avoid definition at all times. Keeping himself at arms’ length from the material he’s working with is a way of controlling what the world will stamp on his work. Depersonalised, he’s in control and can shape his image as he wants.
As we talk, he keeps coming back to this idea that his art is in no way about identity or immigration. He becomes quite animated, insisting that the boom in interest in Iranian art is down to the West’s need to see stories of identity, and perhaps this depersonalising ‘virtual’ aspect in his work is a way to distance himself from that trend. ‘So many Iranian artists just talk about their identity. What is this? What happened to individuality? The West wants artists who can talk about their identity,
their oriental identity, and demand a tourist’s view. The third world identity is the thing they want. It is like a souvenir for them.’
XVA Gallery (04 353 5383), Bastakiya. Until January 30