Art

Languages as Bridge in the Work of Siah Armajani

Born in Tehran and having made his home in Minneapolis, historical and familial references abound in this artist’s body of work that draws in equal measure from the arts and the sciences.

Installation view of Siah Armajani: Follow This Line at The Met Breuer, 2019 (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For six-decades, Siah Armajani has contributed a profound  philosophy on public art, helped pioneer the integration of new technologies into the arts, and mined boundaries between art and architecture. The written word, whether or not apparent, is important in Armajani’s artworks, dating as far back as his earliest pieces made in Iran in the 1950s. The ideas of Persian poets, of Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson undergird his expression.

Armajani was born and raised in Tehran. His father, Agha Khan Armajani, a successful merchant who imported European textiles, provided the family a comfortable, book-filled home. In the evenings, he would read Persian poetry to his children. At the prestigious Alborz School, Armajani supplemented his study of Persian literature with western philosophy. And during his youth, his world of poetry and ideas came into contact with the dynamic politics of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and his party, the National Front.

“As a young teenager,” Armajani explains, “I was working for the National Front. Along with a few friends, we would be ‘runners,’ delivering ‘night letters’ to the constituents. During all of my teen years, our world was consumed by a belief in Mossadegh. The subject of oil was central to everything. We knew how Mossadegh had been instrumental … in establishing democratic values.”

Mossadegh had been engaged in Iranian politics since the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. He articulated a vision for Iran focused on two principles: upholding constitutional democracy and maintaining independence from foreign domination. Throughout the 19th century, Qajar kings had played colonial powers against one another by granting similar concessions to each; Mossadegh wanted to retain independence by no longer issuing foreign concessions at all. This political path, or “the way” as his followers called it, was closely linked to oil rights, since the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company retained virtual control over the Iranian economy. As Prime Minister, Mossadegh passed a bill to nationalize Iranian oil in 1951.

This move would put Iran at the center of post-war global politics. The British government was a major shareholder of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Indeed, Winston Churchill had helped secure those oil rights for the government. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, Churchill wrote of the D’Arcy concession, which helped establish the Anglo-Persian Oil Company: “Fortune brought us a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.” As the Iranian “oil crisis” deepened, Churchill played a pivotal role in convincing President Eisenhower to undertake a covert operation to overthrow the government of Mossadegh. The 1953 Coup, engineered by the CIA and MI-5, would be the last regime change carried out by the British and the first by the Americans. For the British government, the primary objective of the coup was the preservation of control over Iranian oil resources. For the US government, it was an attempt to forestall Soviet expansionism and to garner American companies a share of Iranian oil reserves. These objectives melded together as the dusk of British colonialism gave way to a new era of American imperialism during the Cold War.

Siah Armajani, “Post Office” (1957), pencil, ink, and wax seal on paper (courtesy of the artist)

While working as “a gopher” for the National Front, he would take long walks through South Tehran, the area of town where the working classes left behind by the Shah’s nascent modernization schemas lived. Armajani would often stop to observe the scene at Tehran’s main Post Office building. Armajani’s recollections are in a pamphlet from 2011 issued for the show, “Siah Armajani, 1957-1964,” at Meulensteen Gallery in NY:

South Tehran was a universe all unto itself. The language of Iran is ‘Farsi’ which is closed, ambiguous, embedded with allegory and metaphor and mixed with political, religious, and social hints. The language of South Tehran is hasty and rushed sometimes leaving the syntax behind. Thousands of dispossessed, down-trodden and oppressed were strangers in their own city, as they had been made to feel diminished and insignificant. They were judged and condemned by others for the way they dressed, talked, walked and believed. On the way to South Tehran you passed by the main post office. Two or three ‘scribers’ would be seen sitting on the steps where people could hire them to write a personal letter to family, break a spell or write a special prayer for curing sickness.

Following the 1953 coup and the overthrow of the Mossadegh government, Armajani remembers a pall fell over the country. “Hope left and fear settled over Tehran … Tehran became dark. Pitch black. There was silence. No talks of any consequence. Dead hush-quiet.” 

Siah Armajani, “The Way,” (1957), ink, coloured pencil, graphite, string, wax seal, cloth on paper, 18 x 11 1/2 in (photo by Larry Marcus, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

It was amidst this silent darkness that Armajani created “The Way” and “Songs #1 and #2.” Formally, the works echo the composition of the pages of medieval Islamic manuscripts — with their upper and lower registers, borders demarcating columns of text, and accompanying pictorial imagery. But in Armajani’s works the order of the page is subverted, the composite parts placed spontaneously, the script rendered in a hurried khatt-e shekaste used for ordinary affairs rather than the elegant nastaliq used for important documents. Seal wax is dripped in gestural manner across the page, with overlapping imprints from a signature stamp. Armajani often uses the signature stamp of his family in his artwork. The texts point to a heady political moment in Iranian history but also reference the disenfranchised and the down-trodden whose way of life, customs, and beliefs were marginalized by cultural elites.

Siah Armajani, “Father Has an Apple,” (1958), water color and ink on cloth, 28.3 x 7 1/2 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)
Siah Armajani, “Father Has a Pear,” (1958), water color and ink on cloth, 22 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

Armajani responded to his education through art. In school, he would learn how to read and write by repeating variations on these two sentences: “Maman nan dad. Baba ab dad/Mother gave bread. Father gave water.” Armajani remembers that, “we had to write words, again and again, one underneath the other.” In his early work he reflects on this, referencing that kind of rote learning, pervasive in Iranian schools. The paintings above also have a deeply personal meaning. Armajani shared this story during our visit at his Minneapolis studio in the summer of 2014. As a young boy, Armajani took private art lessons. Each week, he’d go to the instructor’s home and along with a small group of fellow students, learn how to draw and paint. The classes were tedious, with copying emphasized over creativity, realism over expressionism. One day, the teacher told the students to paint an apple. The young Armajani took a piece of paper, cut out the shape of an apple, and glued it onto a canvas. As Armajani showed his artwork to the class, his teacher grew furious. When Armajani’s father came to pick him up after class, the teacher complained bitterly that this young boy had no talent whatsoever and was a major disruption for the other students. “Art is not for him,” the angry teacher told Armajani’s father, who quietly nodded and agreed that he’d never bring his son back for lessons. As they headed back home, his father bent down to tell his son, that he was indeed an artist, one with a true gift. Soon after this incident, which Armajani recounts with great affection so many years later, he started rummaging through piles of textiles in their home. The old curtains that had once hung in the kitchen became the canvases for “Father Has an Apple” and “Father Has a Pear.”

The importance of these early works in relation to Armajani’s subsequent artistic career cannot be overstated. They represent a critically important moment in Iranian art history. These beautifully evocative artworks mark a formative time in Armajani’s life, reflecting his struggles to reconcile the demise of the Mossadegh movement and the social, economic, and political consequences for Iran. He is also setting onto paper a powerful articulation of the role of the artist in society, one that he continues to develop over time. These are foundational works, signaling the genesis of his ongoing preoccupation with poetry, with philosophy, with public art, and critical democratic ideals. These are reflected in Armajani’s most prominent artworks from his promenade at Battery City Park with a railing etched with Frank O’Hara and Walt Whitman’s poetry that frames a view of Ellis Island, to his sculptural bridge inscribed with a John Ashbery poem that connects the Walker Art Center to Loring Park in Minneapolis, from his “Gazebo for Two Anarchists at Storm King Art Center to the caldron and bridge he designed for the 1996 Olympics.

In 1960, as the political atmosphere in Iran grew increasingly stifling, the decision was taken to send Armajani to study in the United States. His uncle, Yahya Armajani, was a history professor and a soccer coach at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. His uncle had helped introduce the field of Middle Eastern History to the American academy, and he was a respected scholar of Persian etymology. He counted Walter Mondale and Kofi Annan amongst his students. Enrolling at Macalester, Armajani studied mathematics and philosophy. The democratic ideals he’d held close in Iran gradually became inflected with a Minnesotan populism. As a student, he set up a modest studio where he’d paint, draw, and sculpt. Text continued to be a prominent element in Armajani’s art, though over time, he gravitated from Persian to English. He took a course in computer science at Control Data, a mainframe and supercomputer firm in Minneapolis. Armajani became among the first American artists to experiment with computer-based art, using digital technology to create new art forms and incorporating code as yet another textual form in his art.

Siah Armajani, “Print Apple 2” (1967), computerized print, (image courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection and the artist)

In 1967, working in the computer labs of the University of Minnesota, Armajani created “Print Apple 2 from computerized print. This work — in the permanent collection of the Grey Art Gallery, New York University — references his earlier “Father Has an Apple while using computer data to push both language and art to new dimensions. Computers allowed Armajani to extend his lifelong interest in mathematics. In 1970, his art was featured in the first ever Conceptual Art exhibition mounted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — a seminal show titled Information, curated by Kyanaston McShine. On July 30, 1970, MoMA issued a press release titled “Computer Print-Out Makes Nine Foot Column in Museum Show.” Describing Armajani’s revolutionary artwork, the museums noted: “A computer print-out of all the digits between zero and one, stacked in a column more than nine feet high and weighing 500 pounds, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art … The work of Siah Armajani, a Persian born artist now living in Minneapolis, ‘Number Between 0 and 1’ is accompanied by three documentary photographs. The column consists of 25,974 pages, presenting 28,571 hours of print time.”

Siah Armajani, “A Number Between Zero and One,” (1969), steel, dot-matrix print on paper, 104 x 15 x 11 in. (photo by Larry Marcus, collection of M+, Hong Kong, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

Recognizing the connections between these conceptual artworks from the 1970s and Armajani’s earlier Persian paintings, curators from M+, a museum set to open in Hong Kong in 2020, have acquired “Number Between Zero and One (1970) and “Dictionary for Numbers (1957) for that museum’s permanent collection. Indeed, Armajani’s lifelong experimentation with the boundaries between language and art dates to those early explorations from his youth in Iran. During a lecture at Cooper Union in 1983, Armajani spoke of text in his art: “That is the outright influence of Persian, there is no question about it.” For Armajani, language more broadly and Persian poetry in particular points to a kind of truth, a fundamental way of being in this world. “Language,” he tells Hyperallergic, “is a room, a free room in which Persian culture can exist. And the essential language of being is poetry.”

This notion that “language is a room” is a critical connection between two strains in Armajani’s art that are sometimes treated as distinct bodies of work — his drawings and paintings, on the one hand, and his architectural sculptures and public art installations, on the other. Since 1968, Armajani has designed and built reading rooms, poetry gardens, newsstands, a lecture hall, a hospital waiting room, a bandstand, walkways, and bridges. He has created dozens of significant public art installations across the United States and Europe, often integrating text. “I use poetry because this is the only chance that I have to invite people to stay with my work,” he explained in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2012.” And I grew up memorizing poetry all my life in Iran. So I have a special love and affection for poetry.”

This sense that language creates room for elongating a viewer’s time with his work  took on added dimension in 1968 when he became immersed in the work of American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. “My influences came directly from Emerson’s writings on art and culture. Emerson underlined the excitement, the unpredictable madness of America in terms of daily life.” He shares that this is: “Unpredictable because the past is forgotten intentionally.” Around the same time, searching for “a new form for content,” Armajani turned to architecture because of its social function and egalitarian possibility.

There was a creative tension between the democratic ideals of 1950s Iran and those of Emersonian America, between a place steeped in the past and one that deliberately forgets, between language and art, between sculpture and architecture. Armajani developed a Manifesto on Public Art. He tells Hyperallergic that its last point is the most important: “Leave philosophy for poetry.” Explaining this point, Armajani says: “Poetry rejects all reason. That is the nature of Persian poetry. The language public art should use is the poetic language.” Concurrent to developing these ideas, Armajani began to engage architecture, rearranging its elements into a new vernacular visual language.

Siah Armajani, “Four Bridges with Four Conditions,” (1974–75), wood, paint, (a) House above the Bridge, 10 x 18 x 4 3/4 in, (b) House before the Bridge, 6 1/4 x 17 7/8 x 5 3/8 in, (c) House after the Bridge, 7 1/4 x 23 5/8 x 5 1/2 in., (d) House below the Bridge, 6 3/4 x 16 1/4 x 4 5/8 in. (courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

The bridge is perhaps the most central element in Armajani’s architectural sculptures and public art. He has made dozens of bridges in the U.S. and another six across Europe. Speaking with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery in 2013, Armajani explains the importance of bridges in his art. “Heidegger says anything that is before a bridge, anything that is after a bridge, anything that is above a bridge, anything that is a below a bridge, it brings them all into one place.” Armajani’s sculpture, “Four Houses for Four Conditions (1974-75) is a powerful articulation of this notion. This work was beautifully presented in a major exhibition dedicated to bridges as motif in Armajani’s art at the Kemper Museum in 2016 and 2017.

“The bridge,” wrote famed critic Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker, “is a fine symbol of what [Armajani] wants to achieve as an artist and as a citizen. It links two separate points in space, but is a sort of neighborhood, too — a locality with a particular character and ambience. As a work of art, moreover, a bridge invites the active participation of the onlooker; it is, in fact, incomplete until the onlooker becomes a participant.”

Siah Armajani, “Bridge Over Tree,” (1970/2019), wood, steel, and evergreen tree (photo by Timothy Schenck, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY)

On February 20, 2019, Armajani’s seminal work, “Bridge Over Tree,” was unveiled at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. “Today, it is hard to grasp how radical this work by Siah Armajani … was when first conceived nearly 50 years ago,” states the Public Art Fund.

In the summer of 2014, I made my first visit to Armajani’s studio in Minneapolis. In the middle of his studio was a large drafting table. Armajani stood on a footstool as he carefully worked on a massive eighteen-foot drawing he called, “Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb).” Having just spent the day touring Minneapolis with he and his wife, Barbara, I recognized the buildings in the drawing — landmarks from the city that had been his home for over five decades. With a fine felt tip, Armajani was filling the entire white space of the drawing with Persian poetry. Flowing up and down, sideways, and upside down, language poured onto the page.

Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb) is a crooked memory of my childhood and adolescence in Tehran, and later on after I came to Minneapolis. Empty spaces were filled with poetry that I had to memorize as a student…

 

My brain is filled with a lot of poetry, force-fed. That is how we communicated. Sometimes walking in the streets of Tehran we heard poetry being recited on the other side of the wall. In fact, poetry was the glue of all in our lives. Out in the city, poetry was arguments, political discourse, love and death, happiness, laughter, quiet weeping, misery, suffering, friction, bad-mouthing, praising and admiring. That was the whole life in the city.

 

I wrote them all down. I covered the whole 18 feet.

As he shows me work in his studio, I ask, “Is this the first time Persian poetry is returning to your art since those early works from the 1950s and ‘60s?” He quietly nods.

Armajani has gone on to make two other drawings in his written cities series — “Written Iran (2015-16) and “Written Berlin: Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin (2014-15). “Written Minneapolis (The Last Tomb) is promised to the Menil Collection; “Written Iran was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These breathtakingly beautiful drawings, which took hundreds of hours of detailed work to complete, are in a sense a culmination — of Armajani’s interest in poetry, in philosophy, in architecture. They are about a sense of place, created by language and cities.

Siah Armajani, “Written Berlin: Tomb for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Walter Benjamin,” (2014–2015), graphite and ink on mylar, 40 x 223 in. (photo by Larry Marcus, courtesy Siah Armajani and Rossi & Rossi)

In “Written Berlin,” Armajani recreates an early 20th century cityscape of Berlin. The 19-foot drawing is covered in Persian text, this time the artist’s own translation of the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s memoirs and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography. Benjamin and Bonhoeffer both perished during the Nazi reign in Germany; Armajani re-imagines their tombs, setting them within the Brandenburg Gate.

In an essay, Armajani writes on Bonhoeffer and his death:

He was arrested on April 19, 1943, and executed on April 9, 1945, alone in silence until May 30, 1945, when the world learned of his death. Bonhoeffer, the Existential Christian theologian, rose up to kill evil itself. He joined any plot to rid German of evil. He visited clergy and revealed his fears in lectures and sermons. He met with fellow travelers in the clergy and among parishioners. He struggled day and night out to fire up the leading existential theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich to stand up for a clear statement.

They did not.
And the Clergy of the Church did not.
They all capitulated with ashes in their mouths.

After seeing the work on exhibit in New York in 2016, art critic Jonathan Goodman wrote in The Brooklyn Rail, “It is increasingly hard not to see Armajani amongst some of the strongest American political artists of our time.”

Armajani completed his series of large-scale drawings with “100 and One Dead Poets (2016). In an accompanying gallery ­­­­­­­essay from Alexander Gray Associates, he recalls Walt Whitman’s assertion, “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” If Armajani’s head had been filled with Persian poetry in his youth, he came to see his adopted country of America through a poetic lens. Lines of poetry cover the drawing, in undulating waves flowing in different directions, backwards and forwards across the page. In this respect, Armajani references a series of calligraphic paintings he created in the early 1960s, during his first years as an immigrant in the United States. The paintings bring to mind Michel Foucault’s notion of the calligram, a text-image that reconstitutes the collaboration between the written and the visual. But in the more recent artwork, the subversion of language into something to be seen as form rather than merely read becomes even more emphatic. The text seems to vary in language — sometimes in Persian, sometimes English, sometimes French. No matter, because it has all been rendered illegible. Armajani has drawn a line with correction fluid across each word, creating a veneer that obscures script. To this point, the artist recalls a line W. H. Auden wrote in memory of W. B. Yeats: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” And as the eye passes over the drawing, it pauses at a small pictorial interlude — a drawing of a pear amidst all the writing. We are reminded, father has a pear.

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line is on view at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 2. The exhibition is curated by Clare Davis with Victoria Sung.

Siah Armajani: Bridge Over Tree is on view at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Empire Fulton Ferry Line) through September 29. The exhibition is organized by Public Art Fund and curated Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund’s Director and Chief Curator.

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