Artist Statement: The Yield series is an ongoing body of work where I explore various galleries and respond to their spaces and architectures. I then create a copper foiled area in the tradition of Iranian mosaic structures that I grew up around. Viewers can step into the work (onto the foiled floor) and be engulfed in the installation for a full sensory experience. Each site-specific piece from the Yield series honors the architecture and history of the spaces in which it is installed.
How does the experience of viewing the piece change when you're physically standing on it versus standing at a distance from it?
Standing from a distance, it's like looking at a painting in 3D. You're kind of just observing: you can walk around it, but it's a very controlled, polite distance.
But when you're surrounded by it, there's a lot of light that comes off of the foils that engulfs you. Anytime I walked into mosques or other buildings that had these kinds of tiles, I always felt that: you’re suddenly in the middle of the artwork, and it takes over you.
Because you grew up in Iran, right?
I was there until I was six and then I moved to the US. We go back every once in a while, and that's something that stands out in the culture: these beautiful buildings. They’ve imprinted themselves on me.
Are you revisiting them in some way with the Yield series?
I'm not necessarily revisiting those memories, but they're undoubtedly a part of me. When I moved to the US, it was jarring — we were not accepted in the US readily, at the same time as losing the extended and supportive family we were always surrounded by. It really taught me what loss was and what identity means.
A lot of people get their identity from the people around them, the architecture they're surrounded by, the objects they interact with — all of this forms them and defines them, even though they think they're defining themselves. Sometimes people think that they have a very solid sense of self because they've been in one place, or they’ve been a part of a dominant culture, or they’ve been part of a place that doesn't have too much upheaval. So they may — or can easily be led to — think, Oh, I have a definitive identity, my life is linear, it all makes sense, it all falls into place. But for a lot of other people, that's not the reality at all. Increasingly, the way our highly migratory world's working now, things are just not that solidified and definite. The world is always shifting, always moving. And nothing, including identity, is going to last forever.
That bleeds into every work I make: this agitation over not being able to hold on to things forever. There’s a writer, Cooper Johnson, who noticed this “vague sense of panic” in my work. I was really excited that he caught that, because that's what I’m imbuing in my installations: these wonderful, engulfing moments, but they’re just temporary.
Can you talk about the way that your work explores seemingly insignificant moments?
I try to get elements or essences off of people, places, and objects — and then create a piece out of that. That's my way of doing a portrait but also distancing the viewer from the original. Because for me, the original is always lost, but we can always have some kind of moment or trace left over from that. These moments sometimes include things or people that might seem insignificant, but all those things and people are forming us daily. In the end, these seemingly insignificant or merely mundane moments that I try to capture in some of my work end up being the significant instances that make up most of our lives.
So is your goal then to make the impermanent permanent? To capture and preserve those moments of impermanence? Or do you see yourself as instead celebrating — or at least accepting — that impermanence?
That's a good question. In a way, I have both happening at the same time because I still have an existential anxiety about loss and not being able to get back to the original (whether that is a place, person, or identity, for example). So there's a bit of an anxiety and a sadness, but also the acceptance that everything is temporary. That's the state we live in.
Sometimes I use traces or do rubbings of a place on a material that I hope to have last quite a while, but on the other hand I've done work on materials that are precarious and easy to tear. I’ve used paper-thin copper — and every time we move the piece it changes shape — or types of latexes that only have a 20-year shelf life. All of these are on purpose. That's the acceptance part: using materials that themselves don't last so that the record will never last either. It's kind of a wink wink at our state of affairs.
What have you been working on in Wassaic, then?
Here at Wassaic I've been talking to a lot of people around town, and people have been connecting me to others to get access to their historic homes or barns. It's been amazing. There's this whole history of places that people have walked [through] and touched in Wassaic. This morning, I got permission to go to someone's house near the factory. They had a beautiful stained glass window and an original plaque from the Bordens — the family in town that was affiliated with the factory — so I did a rubbing of [those]. And I've been rubbing the second floor of the barn across from The Lantern. That second floor actually had a fire in the 70s. They were able to save it, but much of the wood is charred. And so I went in and I did rubbings and got some really beautiful patterns.
The rubbings are becoming like collages, and they'll become installations once I take them back to LA. It’s all coming together as an essence of Wassaic — with traces of the old and undoubtedly, of course, the new.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the rubbings? Both materially and process-wise.
Sure. I'm using both archival and non-archival materials since I work in those two veins. I've been using both compressed charcoal, that is easier for rubbings, and burnt wood that I find in different fire pits around town — using something from the town to imprint the town.
I've actually been doing drawings on mylar off of a lot of these rubbings. I layer [them] with the rubbings to create this misty, veiled effect with the installation so that, again, the viewers are seeing it, but they're also distanced from it. And then to add another layer of distance, I also take those mylar drawings and I make screen prints from them. So the art pieces keep becoming something else in each subsequent process, and eventually I bring them all back together into one piece. But it all starts from that original rubbing from the wall, floor, window, or whatever it is, from an actual structure in town.
I want to return to our conversation about impermanence and connect it to your personal history. You emigrated from Iran at a young age and moved from place to place throughout your life — how does that inform your practice and the way you think about impermanence?
I left Iran when I was six, and we moved to Switzerland for a month while we were dealing with getting our visas ready to come to the US. I also wasn't even born in Iran. I was born in London while my mom was studying — so I wasn't even born in my own country. And then we came to Massachusetts after the hostage crisis, so there was a lot of hostility towards Iranians. Someone spit on my sister, and we’d be told to “get out of my country you fucking A-rab.”
I mention these because they need to be mentioned. Usually the dominant culture doesn't want to really see the weight of it, and sometimes they treat me as if I am recounting a sob story or that I'm focusing on the negative. But this is my trauma. I have not always been made to feel comfortable living and existing in this country, so I don't know what belonging is. Whereas others may know what it's like to belong. Even seemingly little things like what it's like to go into a restaurant and not be placed near the bathroom on purpose, or be served on time. We would sit in restaurants for an hour while they would serve other people that came in after us because they were xenophobic. That’s what our life was. So I never knew what it was to be accepted, to belong in my formative years.
And so what happens is you collect traces of places, of people. Things that you can hold on to even briefly to feel like you're sort of “grounded” — but always in quotes, because you're never really grounded. That became my life. I hold tidbits of people because I'm trying to have a story like other people have. My work ends up being collecting traces and imprints because that's how I function in the world. It’s the only way I can deal with and speak in my own language about what it's like to exist as this person that's been displaced so many times.
I recently acquired a house. I'm excited, but at the same time, there was an odd moment where I was like, “oh, but I don't want to lose these myriad experiences.” You develop a resistance — you don't want to belong after a while. Because what happens if I belong? Then I just lose everything? Am I going to become someone that only has one story instead of the many that I have created so far?
Shiva Aliabadi is an Iranian-American artist living in Phoenix, AZ. Aliabadi’swork has recently been exhibited at the Torrance Art Museum in Another Thing Coming, the Yokohama Triennial in Japan, and Tip the Wink at the Institute of Jamais Vu, London, England. Her work is included in New American Paintings, issues #115 and #117, and Christopher Knight’s article in the L.A Times, “Object Lessons at Torrance Art Museum’s ‘Another Thing Coming’.” Upcoming exhibits include Doppelgänger, featuring German and LA-based artists, at the Torrance Art Museum and Geometry in the Expanded Field, in Fine Arts Complex 1101, Tempe, Arizona.
Much of Aliabadi's work deals with capturing traces and histories of people, moments, and places. She attempts to create a record of instances in the face of our existential reality that things always change, people are not permanent in our lives, and we are ephemeral beings. These records are not always permanent themselves, often being made out of non-archival materials. No matter what the medium, Aliabadi wants to talk about the moments in our lives that can seem insignificant; yet, it is all of those little moments that make up the most of our histories. Mundane conversations, everyday objects, interactions with strangers, process time in our studios-- all comprise seemingly insignificant moments that are actually the meat of our life and just as significant as the larger, flashier instances we tend to notice and celebrate. As an immigrant from Iran, and having moved so much in her life from country to country and US state to state, she is very sensitive to losing people and places and tries to make them important, because loss is very real, painful, and oftentimes unfair. How do you hold on through all these shifts and how do you make them all seem important in the end?
Now, more than ever
2019 Summer Residency