by Seyed Alavi
In general usage, sustainability has become almost synonymous with the notion of renewable resources. Without question, this is a positive thing, to begin thinking about the future, trying to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (The Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development). However, this strikes me as only a portion of the story.
To sustain a rosebush involves caring for it in order to prolong its life, so that it will ultimately present whole and healthy flowers. However, the ability to truly nourish a rose requires a deep understanding of the entire rose plant as well as the conditions necessary to provide for and promote its growth and well-being. Superficial attempts to sustain the rose will ultimately result in an unhealthy plant. To know or to understand something involves a complete comprehension of its meaning, purpose and function. In other words, only once the full meaning of something is recognized and understood can it truly be cared for, supported, and sustained. Where can this deep understanding be found? How does one come to recognize meaning and embrace it?
In order for us to come to know a rose, we must begin by asking, what is a rose? This single question inspires a multitude of others. Is a rose a plant which grows in soil? Is it something that develops roots? What are the functions of the stem, branches, and leaves? How does a rose gather the necessary nutrients from its environment? How does it eventually produce flowers? As one researches the answers to these questions, one realizes that although a rose includes all these aspects, they do not seem to fully encompass the intricate totality of a rose. What of the more delicate aspects of a rose, such as the scent or its interrelationship with the sun, or the process of photosynthesis? And what about the other thousand and one facts that have not even been discovered yet? It soon becomes clear that a rose is part of a vast complexity of interconnected and unified parts, elements, and situations. And every one of these seemingly separate entities also has their own network of interconnectivity, as well as their own particular meaning or purpose for being. In this context, meaning may be seen as all-encompassing, the foundation that sustains everything that exists.
therefore, is relative to the depth of knowledge one has explored, and
the wealth of meaning that one has discovered. Obviously, a superficial
understanding will only result in short-lived sustainability, while a
more comprehensive degree of knowledge will lead to more successful efforts.
Recognizing and accessing the web of interconnectivity concealed within
the realm of meaning seems to be a necessary step toward any harmonious
and long-lasting effort for sustainability.
Iranian artist Seyed Alavi illuminates language at SSU
By Gretchen Giles
From the outside, it appears that the University Art Gallery at Sonoma State University is perhaps undergoing a spate of remodeling. The glass is completely covered with thick, light-defying paper, and the doors, which would normally be open to welcome the Indian summer air, are both firmly closed. But step inside the unlocked entry and the refusal of light and air suddenly makes the eeriest kind of sense.
Inside the entire gallery space, the only illumination comes from the neon twists of cursive-wrought individual words hanging face-down eight to 20 feet from the ground, which itself is completely covered with an inch of fresh, thick, dry dirt and scattered leaves. The electric words, taken from the Hafez poem printed above, may only be parsed by standing directly beneath them staring straight up, and their wild diction only randomly surmised as one wanders from one singular piece of deconstructed text to the next.
In each of the two blackened gallery spaces, whose walls are entirely spun with hand-smeared swirls and long, thin drips of Sumi-e ink, are a few casual scatterings of black tables and chairs. And upon this furniture just as randomly sit nine black wire cages, each housing its own live, brilliantly yellow canary. The sound is spectacular, as the birds trill thrillingly, catching up each others songs and then falling swiftly silent upon a visitor's approach.
But sit quietly on one of the hard chairs in the eerie acoustics of this artificial cave and the birds soon forgive and begin their thin, sweet sound again, singing to each other unseen from room to room with the pleasure of calling a mate who is also trapped, as am I, as are you, as are we all.
Titled Renunciation: A Requiem, this installation by Iranian-born conceptual artist Seyed Alavi, showing through Oct. 19, encourages the visitor to consider nothing less than the false security of existence--because, after all, what can we be absolutely certain constitutes true and full freedom? While the birds are clearly caged, a brief glimpse at the gallerys wire-crossed ceiling reveals no less a prison.
Yet surely the visitor can exit at will, stepping back out into that fresh Indian summer air, and be free. Furthermore, a conscious individual visiting this installation can surely understand with rational thought what is being shown within it, because seeing, surely, is believing. Surely. Yet what Alavi has also just as surely wrought is a version of Plato's cave, in which perception isn't an assured marker of reality, and freedom is just a construct created both collectively and individually with differing boundaries--all of which are, in fact, quite firmly bound.
Speaking by phone from his Oakland home, Alavi kindly explains that he hate[s] to present that it is like a puzzle, because its not at all like a puzzle. My hope is that Im presenting a poem or a koan. Because I myself am not completely aware. Im not presenting an answer; Im presenting a possibility. This is my understanding of the phenomenon thats represented by the poem. And my understanding is that in the case of the canaries, its the matter of the cage. They are there and theyre being fed, so theres a little level of comfort, but theyre not free.
And here we are sitting, looking at the shadows. There is a known factor, and we feel OK about it. There might be, he chuckles dramatically, a lion out there for all I know! Its a dark installation, both physically and metaphorically. But I'm inside the cave, too. Its a sad thing, but inside its comfortable. Its warm and womblike and comforting but nevertheless . . . . He trails off reflectively.
Alavi, 44, left his home in Iran as a student, immigrating to attend San Jose State University. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he is now an instructor, and his large conceptual work invariably springs as much from the site where his work will be housed as from wordplay. He avers that he doesnt know what hell do in a particular space until hes visited it. It doesnt dictate the concept and I dont come with a concept, but it definitely influences what happens, he says. I dont consciously have anything in mind. I go to the space and I begin a dialogue.
In past installations, Alavis dialogue has included carving the rapturous words of a 14th-century mystical poet into a wooden table and overflowing the incised letters with honey. He has placed mirrored poems into a pool, their meaning obscured by random water dropped from the ceiling when a motion detector sensed a visitor; hes used the language of saints from different faiths to examine their sameness; and he's lettered the mellifluous Farsi of his homeland onto walls and even Post-It notes to express the broad, shuddering grasp of desire, embrace, and enduring love. Why is language such a huge force in his art?
Its a very vast thing for me, he replies in his excellent English. One perspective is that I look at language as just another medium such as paint and clay and bronze and glass. From an art-history perspective, artists from the late 19th century or even earlier have used texts in their work. Its semifamiliar to the audience. From another perspective, I think that language is a very democratic medium of communication, and a slight part of my interest is to make my artwork accessible to the larger public. Its a very familiar medium [that] bridges the gap between artists and the public. . . . [I like to use] materials that are approachable and familiar--in this instance, dirt and leaves and canaries.
Another perspective, Alavi continues, is my upbringing, in that I was born and raised in Iran and left when I was 17, so a good deal of my childhood and upbringing were influenced by that culture, and in that culture, text is definitely a part of the everyday context. Language is everywhere, from the architecture to the dishes to clothes to vases for flowers--text basically surrounds the culture. And I could also think that being bilingual, Im very conscious of language and both its power and its limitations for communicating ideas and concepts. Im fascinated by that.
Alavi has worked extensively with teenage artists, using the communication tools of graffiti and comic books to help the youths express their own democratic yearnings to make a mark on society, quite literally by adorning East Bay freeway underpasses and creating the thought-balloon cartoons painted on walls in San Francisco streets. And while he is dedicated to making his work as populist as possible, his private aspirations remain concerned with achieving the egoless state of the mystical experience. I am hoping that the work can stand for itself and by itself without . . . for example, me introducing mysticism or a particular branch [of spirituality] that might alienate a part of the public, he explains. Through utilizing formal constructs, I would prefer it that way. Having said that, my own personal interest is the same as the scientists are concerned with, that the philosophers are concerned with. I havent been able to answer the simple questions of my life: who am I and why am I here? Thats what concerns me, and interests me and, he finishes simply, I can't see anything more important than that. And with Renunciation, Alavi has created an astounding space for such reflection.
by Chiori Santiago
Seyed Alavi: Sacred Text
The scenes are ordinary Oakland, insists Seyed Alavi. The where of them isnt obvious, however. In these ink-on-paper landscapes, familiar outlines of coast redwoods and California hills are transformed into muted, mysterious other worlds. And even this renderingis an illusion; what appear to be brushstrokes are really the manipulations of a digital image, magnified to a blur as if costumed in fine mist. This is a pretty ordinary view of Lake Chabot, although the way I've represented it, it looks fantasti-cal. The picture, propped in his white-walled studio, is almost as tall as Alavi, almost big enough to step inside. More than the sum of Bay Area landscape, Alavi photographs its parts: the presence of cloud cover and moisture-filled air, the diffused light, the effect of water on this slice of seaside geography. Climate is his medium.
I tend to come up with an elemental reason for every emotion, he says. Thats why fog plays an important role in these pictures. Fog mystifies a place, fills gaps. It turns normal settings into extraordinary places. Alavis art urges viewers to re-envision the ordinary. He created one of his best known challenges for a show at Richmond Art Center several years ago when he handed out stickers announcing There is no place like here. He could have been countering Gertrude Steins oft-misused comment about her childhood home: There's no there there. In Alavis art, there is wherever here happens to be, particularly in his public installations. I want to say: This is what we have, lets look at everything with a beginners mind. Everything has potential to be used in poetic way. The ideal setting for me is a garden, because it's a place for reflection. The more you bring to the setting, the more it presents itself. I get a kick out of letting people come upon an experience in a public setting without having a predefined notion of it. All my public pieces have in common promoting a sense of thinking about place. The landscape prints are basically a packaged contemplative space. The freedom to reinvent his personal reality revealed itself to the teenage Alavi, who arrived from Iran to study engineering nearly 25 years ago. Far from his family, and plunged into the relaxed, unrestricted environment of San Jose State University, that sniff of freedom gave me the inspiration to walk over to the art department and sign up for one elective. The next semester I dropped my engineering classes and registered in the art department. My father was surprisingly supportive. My mother said: How are you going to, be a doctor? A degree in graphic design seemed a reasonable compromise. I had come from a culture where art could be considered graphic, design, so I rationalized that way; besides, it was practical, Alavi says. But by the time I graduated I was very much disillusioned with the practice of design. Conceptually, I couldnt agree with selling a product. He spent time in the Arts and Consciousness program at John F Kennedy University, then studied sculpture at San Francisco Art Institute in 1989. That was the beginning of the time when students were wanting to explore new genres. I went from department to department, excited by the possibility of expression in every art form. At the same time, I was influenced by the arte povera movement that happened in Italy in the 1960s. That was the beginning of my moving into installation and using the materials of everyday life. To make his packaged contemplative spaces, he starts with tools of modern life, a digital camera, a computer and a bit of everyday open space. In the studio, he edits the digital image until I feel happy with the result, then generates a digital plate. The image is printed on damp rice paper dyed with watercolor. I like the oozing feeling of the wet paper, Alavi says. The result is more monotype than digital output; the computer is a brush used to manipulate the image rather than a way to produce editions. Its not that different from any classical landscape you've seen where the artist decides where to set up the easel and edits the reality, he points out. Theyre like the early photos of California that were intended to look like paintings. The computer simply gives me the freedom to make a stroke and say Yes! For another series, Alavi writes passages of Sufi poetry using a digital input pad and stylus. A software program translates his hand into a typefont. He layers the words on screen, flipping and turning the lines of black script to create a pattern of background noise for a single emphatic line oftext. He says of the texts, The language itself is sacred. What I feel about this background pattern is that its like my own background, its cluttered and illegible so that you cant read it any more, yet there is meaning hidden in the words. I dont feel American, but I dont feel Iranian either. I consider myself from everywhere and nowhere.
Associate Editor Chiori Santiago is author of Return to Medicine Mountain and a co-author of The Spirit of Oakland: An Anthology.
By Christine Laffer
California artist Seyed Alavi sits at an unusually long, narrow table which he made of heavy fir and then incised with the above quotation in large roman letters: a horizontal monument. It had once formed the center of an installation where honey filled and overflowed the deeply cut letters; now it serves as a useful object in daily life. Alavi prefers household materials like wood, honey, wax and water for his installations, and has even used those little square Post-ltsTM Which appears stuck to the computer monitor on the other side of his main studio in Oakland.
Since his thought process follows a philosophical and metaphysical quest that tries to re-place mental life into physical form, Alavi's oeuvre resists categorization. Besides installation, he also collaborates with young people, undertakes public art projects, explores computer imagery and prints, and has a website at http://www.netwizards.net/~here2day. These different mediums and working methods accompany specific. questions that arise out of the various projects he encounters.
Considerable variation in the resulting artwork arises from two factors: first, Alavi's fascination with poetic expression; and second, his organizational ability to take on large projects. Poetic expression, of the sort that is based in a desire for the intangible, means that a playful wandering and free association accompanies his aesthetic sensibility. Organizational ability means that he seeks situations and people who have experience of certain social issues, so that their stories, thoughts and desires give shape to the final form of the art.
However diverse the results, Alavi insists that it is all the same as if to indicate that the differences between urban murals and a gallery empty of all but a table overflowing with honey are superficial and only conceal or distract the viewer an apprehension of a simple underlying principle. The metaphysical leap seems vast, even to an adept thinker.
His own life covers a similar extreme leap between two cultures--a step that was easy to make in the sense of buying a ticket and getting on a plane, but difficult in the sense of making a large shift in language, family, social structure and religious context. Alavi was born in lran and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17. Excited at first by being in this country, he chose to study art at San Jose State University.
Feeling peculiarly dissatisfied after completion of his undergraduate degree, he wanted to pursue his interest in mysticism. At first he thought he might travel to some other far-off place. Instead, he stayed in the Bay Area and enrolled in the graduate program of Arts and Consciousness at John F. Kennedy University. There he was able to feed that void inside in an art environment that focused solely on the parts that are not even touched on by regular art schools. The program allowed him to open the doors where life became art and art became life, an approach he has continued to explore even after finishing his MFA degree in conceptual art and installation at the San Francisco Art Institute.
For me, Alavi says, mysticism comes from mystery, and mystery has come from the questions of who am I? What am I doing here? Where did I come from? Where am I going to? To me, there is nothing more basic than that. [...] I think for me, the basic thing is that search, and then however and whatever you reach, would be your personal experience of that mystery. Alavis study has led him to read a wide variety of texts, including religious writings from many traditions as well as poetry. To attempt to understand a mystical experience through words produces an almost deconstructivist approach to the text. The idea of meaning as fixed or definite must be questioned from the beginning point.
I think the main thing is the personal experience, and nothing--nothing--can relay that personal experience. He goes further to explain: A text can refer to it, but if youre thirsty and I tell you everything there is to know about water, it wont quench your thirst! Or take honey. If you never had honey, I can describe everything about it. Well, its like grapes. I can use language; I can draw it for you, but until you have that experience.... Words fail him.
Although aware of the difficulties of conveying experience, Alavi does not undermine the value of a text, or the experience of a text itself. lt is basically the record of someones experience or some time period, and it is enlightening. It shines light on that experience. The idea that honey tastes like grapes may not have occurred to someone familiar with both, but forging a new link between the two can itself be a new experience. Making the leap between otherwise disparate things, connecting them, enlightens.
In his 1998 installation, Canticles of Ecstasy, at the University of Santa Clara de Saisset Museum, Alavi brought different poetic texts of several cultures together in a spatially linked sequence of rooms. With this installation in particular, the project grew through textual linkages. He started with the basic words Santa Clara, and looked at the lives of Saint Claire and Saint Francis. Then, he looked at St.John.
And hey-- he says, laughing, they were all talking about the same thing! It was about the mystical experience, this experience that goes beyond an individual self. It is larger than what is contained within this physical body. I mean--through what I have read, not what I have experienced--it is an expanded consciousness. I may be using a vocabulary that is already there since I dont have any other tools, but it is a sense of something beyond me as Seyed. It has a sense of the totality: this strawberry is me; that sugar is me; everything is me. I was already very moved by this idea, so when I started reading for the de Saisset project, I was inspired to put them all together and dive more into what it was that they were talking about. And just like a scientific experiment, I decided to bring everything into the laboratory, all of the cases, line them up and look at each case and see if maybe I could learn more.
The connection between these mystical experiences, between these texts, is tangible to Alavi: I feel the connection is there; I think the connection is there; I see the connection is there. Here is a test that I have put to myself: I can give you a [fragmentary] piece of writing and I can ask you to identify its spiritual background. And you won't be able to.
Alavi is implying that various traditions claim the same experiences. The writings of St. John of the Cross, the Japanese poets writing haiku, and poems from other cultures use ways of symbolizing, and ways of talking about their experience that are the same. As he puts it succinctly, lt is basically that on our level, on my level, it is love they are talking about.
This love he refers to is not a romanticized, or courtly, or complicated emotion, but an elemental, even simplified, concept. I look at it as if these mystics and poets are talking about it in scientific terms like gravity. They are talking about the pull between bodies and masses. How else can you experience love? I mean ´there are not many different or diverse experiences of love. Ultimately, there is one experience of love. It can be sensed and seen differently, but they are talking about the same thing. All of these people are using their experiences as a reference for language, which is reflected in a similarity in their poetic expression and in their choices of symbol.
This comes dangerously close to eliminating difference altogether, although this is not his intent. What he wants others to perceive are the similarities, an impossible project without seeing differences. Distinct cultural heritage and traditions remains important to Alavi. He does not see any need to mix the cultures, or to make them one and label them all under the rubric of multiculturalism. When he undertakes public art projects, often this term comes up as many times as he has worked with children at inner-city schools. Alavi dislikes the implications and usage of the word multiculturalism and feels that the system which generated it has distorted the original healing intent. In his view the word is not necessary.
For example, he worked four months in an Oakland high school producing large murals for highway underpasses. The focus of the project arose from his realization that here in this country everybody is separated.
Teenagers are here, he says, elders are there; the young are over there; everyone is divided up on a social level. Whereas on a personal level in Iran, there was still a kind of networked family and everybody lived together. Here I am grouped by my age only. I want everybody around. I want to be around kids. And on a social level, I feel that they are being segregated.
Alavi proposed the project to the city. Here in Oakland, teenagers get criticized as troublemakers with graffiti problems. Wait a minute! What is wrong with that? They are just writing on the wall! Take the same things: take the writing and take the wall. Everybody knows those gray walls are ugly. And I said to the kids, 'lets use the highway underpass, and lets use text. This is a familiar medium to you. Let's do art And that was the main structure.
Having resolved the way the finished pieces would be produced, he could focus on content. He asked them, What is it you want to say? The choice of the fonts, the design, the colors, what the concept is--all that is up to you. Then, he challenged them. If they proposed War is bad then he would say, Everybody has said war is bad from the beginning of time. How can you say it in a different way so somebody can look at it in a fresh way like from a child's perspective? He brought them poetry and urged them to loosen up, to drop their sense of rigid language structures and be playful. The result was a series of billboard-scale modified words: INFORM(N)ATION, eRACISM, and others.
He has started referring to this way of working as a program.´ Much as an architect might list a variety of functions required by a given building product, Alavi has found he can distill a project into a sequence of instructions that allow a variety of unpredictable, even poetic, solutions.
The public art project that he just finished also involved kids, and it clarifies what he means by a program. In 1997, he received a grant from the Creative Work Fund in San Francisco to do a project based on the same graffiti concept. He proposed to create text murals working with street artists and graffiti artists. However, this time the text would be in the shape of a thought balloon. This time he went to the young muralists and graffiti artists, and said, Okay, what you guys do is fabulous: its beautiful; it's fantastic; I love it! However, the public is criticizing it. So one of the things I would like you to do is to make your text legible because I cannot read it. I just enjoy it visually. Can you make it legible?
They agreed that they could make it readable. Then he said, And since comic books are your books, lets look at comic books. Its your forte. But I am going to take sentences out of context and we will present them as thought balloons in the city.
The muralists had no problem with that idea. They brought comic books, and they started taking sentences out of context, and then selected from those. Altogether they painted 24 thought balloons around San Francisco. It is called the What Do You Think? project.
Alavi enjoys the humor and social criticism generated by this particular program: lf someone sits underneath some of the pictures, it looks as if they are thinking that thought. It works immediately. The kids were mesmerized. [...] They were having a blast! I mean there are so many psychological aspects just because they felt proud! They were doing something! Since they had gone the route of thinking society was not going to accept graffiti, they had done it illegally. The kids figured out that the basic activity was the same and that what had changed was conceptual.
Currently, Alavi works on proposals for further public art projects, since there are no installations in the near future. And in typically unpredictable fashion, he has begun producing prints in digitally-based new media on handmade paper. This shift to computer manipulated photographs on a modest scale (roughly two by three feet) strikes an amusing chord. How does this fit with either conceptually-based art or mysticism?
Taking his own pictures, or using found images or his familys snapshots of nature, he feeds them into the computer. Then, he says, I sit at my canvas on the computer--metaphorically--and mix and match, and put in clouds and change the shape of the trees.
He smiles as he talks about the apparent ingenuousness of what he is doing. Most of the time, you wont be able to tell where the landscapes came from. At first, I wasn't feeling right about it. But then I thought wait a minute! Cezanne was doing the same thing. He would go back to the same spot, and the clouds would have changed. I mean in one hour, clouds change. The composition was basically a composite image of several days or months.
Since this work is just developing, he hesitates before trying to explain exactly what intrigues him. I like nature; I mean it is very complex. I havent really been playing with it long enough to know how to explain it logically. I feel like it is the same. Landscape has a language that everybody is familiar with--a visual language. And there are only so many elements or vocabularies: trees, rivers, and rocks. In different compositions, these elements allow me to express or communicate a different mood.
Alavis images feel smudged, and rather generic, although dream-like. The scenes are familiar without being specifically recognizable. He thinks of them as romantic landscapes.
The whole concept of art has gotten so limited again that I think going beyond the boundaries is very inspiring to me. Everything is multi-faceted. I am really concerned with making it accessible. And that concept of making it accessible requires removing the quotations from around the word art.
Christine Laffer is an artist and writer in San Jose.
M A R C H / A P R I L 2 O O O
By Christine Laffer
To chant a text as a canticle is to transform it. The words take on a mood, become a shared experience of rhythms and intonations that add depth and meaning. In Seyed Alavis Canticles (de Saisset Museum, University of Santa Clara, September 26- December 18), the artist transforms several texts by rewriting them onto architectural space in deceptively simple ways, filling four rooms with quiet elation.
One enters through a large foyer awash in huge arabesques of blue calligraphy, a poem written in the Farsi language that speaks of thirst and of wandering in search of the Beloved. At the center sits a three-tiered fountain, filled with water. The high walls of the room run with long drips of paint, as if the waters of emotions-laden text overflow. Angling from the lower left to the upper right, if read as westerner would, the anonymous author sends his words to heaven. If read properly from the right, then the words tumble down, falling like drops back to the earth. To read this script as a visual form and not as a text sets up a problematic relationship between intuitive or body-based reading (as in determining ascent versus descent) without cultural self-awareness and literacy.
Around the foyer nestle three rooms, the furthest one topped by a softly-lit mezzanine where a distant mirror glints down from a blue wall. As the central fountain suggests a circular order, so the path begins at the right like a Farsi text. Here the room1s wall are tiled with Post-It notes, each carrying lines of mystical love poems. Lines of poetry literally become lines of Post-Its that mount halfway up the walls, undulating in waves as they approach the top. A single fold at the bottom of each aqua-colored tile catches the light, spilling just slightly into the room and towards the viewer, inducing a sense of immersion. The texts are partial, discontinuous, and hard to read in their unusual font with elaborate flourishes. Instead, they read symbolically as a whole, as the motive outpouring of thousands of carefully wrought odes to love.
In contrast, the next room is full of shadow with small bare lightbulbs hanging at various heights. Dimly perceived at first, a series suddenly blinks on and off in gentle pulses. The next pattern of lights follows a different path through the space. Several sequences, programmed and controlled by a computer, trace lines that undulate like distant echoes of Arabic calligraphy. The only text appears in the artist1s statement-with a reference to the cave of Platos Republic- which sits by the door. Are we the captives Plato describes, forced to see only the shadows of reality and finding the light of truth painful to bear? Or do we have here new and unfamiliar paths of illumination suspended in a dark museum-cave?
The fourth room glows with thousands of handmade glass tears on powdery blue walls. In the middle stands a long table covered by a cloth, unadorned save for the burnt trail of an incised text. The words excerpt a passage of desire and need written by the 13th century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, who addresses God as intimately as if he were her lover. Her craving mixes with professions of love and echoes the balance of warm and cool, of horizontal writing and vertical crying, of joy and sorrow, that is delicately handled throughout by Alavi.
Passing again through the foyer, it is as if the path of viewing has returned the wanderer to multiple points of origin while simultaneously transforming them into sites of personal re-cognition. In the intertextual dialogues of love and enlightenment which can be read forwards and backwards, a certain cultural commingling enhances and alters perceptions much as a glass of water can act as a lens or quench a thirst.
The Iranian born installation artist Seyed Alavi creates works which transform the exhibition space itself into sculpture. He has exhibited throughout the United States, most recently at Franklin Furnace in New York, The University Art Museum Cal. State Long Beach, SITE in Los Angeles, The Museum of Santa Cruz County, and San Franciscos Capp Street Project. His public art projects include Words by Roads in Oakland, Poetry Garden in San Francisco, Selected Words in San Rafael, Neptunes Gate in Manhattan Beach, and Forgotten Language for the City of Palo Alto. The following conversation took place on November 29, 1996 at his studio in Oakland, California. Colin Wood is a writer living in Los Angeles.
Colin Wood: Seyed, you've described your work as visual poetry. What do you mean by that?
Seyed Alavi: Art, for me, is poetry.
CW: What was the poetry of Garden of Secrets?
SA:The totality of its experience. The piece was about the process of letting go of the lower self, which is a limited understanding of self- our name, our family, our job- and connecting to the higher self, which is limitless.
CW: Do you want the viewer to experience this process through you work?
SA: Yes I do. So I try to create a setting, where the viewer can be inspired to look inward and see parallels between this inner place and the piece itself.
CW: How did you do this in Garden of Secrets, for example.
SA: In Garden of Secrets there are lots of elements adding up into a kind of metaphorical journey, the most immediately accessible being the text around the house, a line from a poem by Mahmood Shabistari, which the piece was designed to interpret.
Shabistari uses the image of house cleaning for the process of losing the lower self, so that once the house is empty, you experience this infinite self, this infinite being. The house encloses a fountain and has walls of translucent rice paper with no entryway. The text, was written with melted beeswax and allowed to drip down and harden into rivulets. You can see butterflies inside the house and hear the fountain. It´s a kind of magical center that attracts you with sights and sounds but that you can't enter physically without altering your being. There are also butterflies-three thousand of them--on the ceiling and walls of the space around the house. And because this piece is located in a museum within a library, I used pages from books of Sufi poetry to make the butterflies; so as you read, you may not know the entire poem but can get a sense of it from a few lines. On one level you can imagine the space as a garden with a house in its center that´s a hatchery of winged language. Also, the butterflies were dipped in beeswax; and depending on how long I held them under, some wings got burned darker than others. Classical Sufi poetry uses the metaphor of the moth and the flame for the relationship of the lower to the higher self. The moth is attracted to the flame and is annihilated by it. Also, beeswax is what candles are made of, so this connection, though it's a little more refined, is still accessible--if you were from Iran or knew Sufi poetry, you might see it more quickly.
CW: What is the role of text in your work?
SA: For me, text is just another element in the larger composition. Also, I come from an Islamic culture, where language is the primary medium of expression in all the different arts-- there is text on fabric, on ceramics, on metalwork, on jewelry, on architecture; text is a painted form; and language in Islam is associated with the Koran, the word of God, and has a sacred quality not found in the West.
CW: My feeling of your work is that it speaks on its own behalf, not yours.
SA: That's my hope. A long time ago I heard a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: I want my writing to be as clear as the water to see through, without my being in-between in any way. That became my motto.
CW: So what finally occurs is transparency.
SA: Transparency in the sense that my being is not there. Art today is so much about ego, about signature, that it often hardly matters beyond the person who signs it. What is a Picasso worth without his signature?
CW: So in the same way that ego limits self, you remove yourself from the piece to make it limitless. What similar understanding did you bring to Remembrance that you brought to Garden of Secrets ?
SA: Thematically, the two are similar in that both talk about the process of annihilating the self. Remembrance is about the relationship of a single drop to the ocean: when it falls into the ocean, we call it the ocean. In essence it is the ocean.
CW: For me, Remembrance was a temple: a blue pool with a poem at its bottom cut from mirrored glass...
...ochre walls with arabesque patterns of purple chalk; drops falling into the pool like rain, breaking the poem into lights that flickered on the ceiling and walls. I liked that the drops began only when I entered the room.
SA: I tried to create a contemplative environment: you enter and leave the noisy world behind. Sometimes I try--and it's difficult and more subtle--but I try to make the architecture analogous to yourself, so you enter yourself. The house in Garden of Secrets was in the center of the space, so architecturally it referred to the heart, a house within a house. In Remembrance , before the viewer enters, everything is still, like the quiet self. But when this stillness is interrupted from outside, it agitates. It causes the self to lose its focus, its clarity.
CW: But it turns into beauty.
SA: You say it as though it shouldn´t.
CW: I mean that beauty can arise as much from disruption as from tranquility.
SA: I think of it more as you can´t know on unless you know off.
CW: In the way the wall pattern comes off if you brush against it.
SA: Yes. I wanted to heighten the awareness of the temporality of this life. The pattern on the surface is so beautiful, so seductive, but it's so temporal that it's almost gone.
CW: You said earlier that language in Islamic culture has a sacred quality. Would you describe your work as sacred?
SA: I don´t know what sacred means. It´s a loaded term, like love, religion, God. I´d have to redefine it before I used it. If you call what a scientist does in his search for answers to questions such as, What are we made of? Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? What´s the purpose of life? and so on--if you call that sacred, then I´d say yes, what I do is sacred, or I hope for it to be sacred. I like to see myself as a scientist, with my primary question being Who am I? And this question isn´t independent of any other. You can´t ask Who am I? without considering the time, the space, our origin and our destination. They come together in one bundle; they´re interconnected: I´m connected to this life, how was I created? Who made me? Is there a creator? What´s the creator like? Once you get into this realm, the questions multiply. And that´s the realm of poetry.
Sometimes simple questions yield complex answers. Fairfield, CA, situated about 40 miles east of San Francisco in rolling orchard country, asked, Where is Fairfield? and its citizen responded with diverse answers. The question struck a chord: Fairfield, like many communities across the United States, is in search of itself. As part of the process, the town asked the question through a public art event occured April 7, 1995, and learned much about its image. Many of the projects produced for the event were temporary works, designed to draw the maximum number of citizen into the event. Other works have had long-term results and continue to generate discussions within the community about urban identity and sustainability. Nearly a year after the official event, organizers of Where is Fairfield? continue to debate the results of the disparate public art projects and are hopeful that their considerable effort have put down a solid foundation for subsequent public art events.
This project was designed to engage the entire town in the process by asking the populace to respond to the question of Fairfield´s image and how it distinguishes itself from similar middle-size communities across America. The goal was to elicit responses from the community about its past, particularly expressions that revealed the complexity of identity embedded in the community. All segment of the community- business, government, education- were drawn into the process.
Unlike the relatively homogeneous middle-sized communities of a generation or two ago, the Fairfields of the United States are now socially comples towns manifesting economic and ethnic diversity. The project included the town's divers groups in the process and produced a list of 30 smaller projects to engage a broad spectrum of the local population, from established artists to the elderly, from business to the town´s youth.
Just how effective the efforts to engage the community were was evident in the days preceding April 7. At the local high school, students settled on the concept of designing chairs as symbols of places within the community. A community college art class produced street-lamp banners that communicated the location of the town in fact and in memory.Grade schoolers designed postcards that depicted personal impressions of Fairfield, which formed a bold collage along the walls of the Fairfield Art Center.A light project illuminated the Where is Fairfield? theme on the city cultural center. The local post office issued a stamp cancellation to commemorate the event. Local businesses got behind the event and sponsored projects: among them were the Budweiser brewery, which produced event T-shirt; several supermarkets that imprinted their grocery bags with the theme; and restaurants that flagged their meals with a notice of the event.The local radio station and the newspaper responded to the challenge by broadcasting and printing Where is Fairfield? in their media.
Some less visible projects reached deep into the community, including visits by youngsters to elderly nursing home residents and an oral history project. And the handing out of organes and roses wrapped in paper imprinted with the theme recalled the days when Fairfield as an agricultural community derived its identity more from rural labor that urban commercialism.
With evident creativity and planning the organizers of Where is Fairfield? skillfully tapped into the memory and imagination of the community to produce responses that were both immediate and ongoing. Singnificantly, the installations and projects continue to generate public dialogue about Fairfield´s identity. A video project about community identity that engaged gang and non-gang members enlarged the dialogue between the groups. In the case of the oral history project, younger community members probably better appreciate their elders as valuable cultural reources, capable of providing a sense of the past that a community needs to stay vital.
Without a large budget or the pretensions of similar projects in larger cities, Where is Fairfield? admirably underscored the potential of public art to transcend artistic preconceptions and to generate broad and original expressions of urban identity from a community that, in its number and habits, resembles so many others in the United States. At a time when art-public, institutional, or commercial-generates questions about relevance, Fairfield, by asking an essential question, not only helped clarify its own identity, but also reaffirmed the ability of public art to stimulate civic enrichment.
Philip Pregill teaches at the College of Environmental Design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.