Rokni Haerizadeh (b. 1978, Tehran), Ramin Haerizadeh (b. 1975, Tehran), and Hesam Rahmanian (b. 1980, Knoxville) have lived and worked together since 2009. Their artwork emerges from the energy generated by constantly evolving relations: between themselves, towards their work, and in their environment. New collaborators, materials, and events spiral in and out of this space. Their paintings, videos, objects, and books offer tantalizing glimpses into the conditions of their making.
I’ve been speaking to the artists for some time now, trying to understand the workings of this collaborative body. Our most recent conversations, which happened between Dubai, New York, and Vienna in late 2017 and early 2018, opened numerous lines of thought. Below is an attempt to trace some of the contours of their collective practice as they prepare for “From Sea to Dawn,” their most recent site-specific project for Vienna’s Galerie Krinzinger.
“Exile takes you overnight where it would normally take a lifetime to go,” the Russian author Joseph Brodsky once said. “To be an exiled writer is like being a dog or a man hurtled into outer space in a capsule (more like the dog, of course, than the man, because they will never bother to retrieve you).” And it gets worse: “Before long the passenger discovers that the capsule gravitates not earthward, but outward in space.”
Brodsky sounds awfully world-weary. Trapped in his prison-house of language, his author-in-exile is a helpless and tragic figure. It’s perhaps an incongruous image to bring into a consideration of Rokni, Ramin and Hesam’s work, which has seized on the possibilities of life in Dubai, where they moved from Tehran eight years ago, with a robust sense of humor and possibility.
And yet I like the image of a capsule hurtling into space. Maybe it’s because of the visual resonance with their recent work: the jerry-rigged costumes made up of life vests, tinfoil, and cheap contraptions; the artist transformed into a fragile animal of some sort, dragging around its a shell of found objects as it navigates an indeterminate pink space.
Or maybe it’s because of their interest in hollow forms: the Colombian “submersibles” invented by drug-runners which inspired their work for the Liverpool Biennale (“a body in a veneer, a creature hiding itself”), or the ancient story of Jonah and the whale: “eaten by the fish as he was running away, like a migrant,” they explained. “He ended up taking shelter in the belly of the beast until it was safe to come out. Like a traveler in a pod.”
I know that exile is important to them, especially where loss of meaning happens independent of dislocation. “Something not comprehended goes into exile,” they told me. “Artists go into exile, when their work is lost or unknown. Movements go into exile, and gestures.” Many of their shows include a “dialectical” section with a quasi-curatorial approach: bringing Iranian modernism, for example, to the Kunsthalle Zürich, or Fluxus and happenings to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Their creative constellations offer a temporary place of meaning for exiles of various stripes.
“We start with what we see in the media,” they’ve said of their recent work. They are intrigued by the migrant as a force of nature, “bodies coming out of the water to cross Europe. Like a great migration of birds,” they described it to me, or more morbidly as “blood gushing from an artery.” From Sea to Dawn (2016–17), for example, is an animated video that that stages an intervention into photojournalistic images of migrants, using pigment and line to capture these movements and flows.
The images are familiar to us from the news, but also from classic European painting. The overloaded dinghy recast as the Raft of the Medusa, madonnas holding their children’s bodies in grief, romantic sunrises over beaches strewn with life vests—these are the Western tropes that From Sea to Dawn aims to transform. Their “moving painting” uses the medium to interrupt the Western framing of the migrant: to still, distort, and estrange it.
They describe, for example, a scene where the source image once showed bodies marching against a bright blue sky. “We reproduced the blue of the sky, so it moves into the bodies, the background mixing with foreground, reversing it. It pulsates like that. A migrant enters a new space: do you dissolve in it? Or are you in a place where that isn’t possible? Or is it both, an in-between?” From Sea to Dawn conveys the anxious nature of this indeterminacy.
Migration is also important to “the creatures,” whose identity requires some elaboration. The nature of Rokni, Ramin, and Hesam’s collaboration is an unusual one, and revolves around what they have come to call the creatures: long-term personas that the artists assume and gradually build up through interactions with their environment, especially found objects and imagery.
“It all began with our move to Dubai, with The Maids,” they told me. Jean Genet’s 1947 play, The Maids is the story of a pair of domestic servants, sisters with a sadomasochistic bent. They are obsessed with their “Madame,” raiding her wardrobe, assuming her identity, and acting out her murder. “The Maids is a very good text about power, transformations, and becoming—the idea of mimicking power.” It is also, they imply, the story of migrants and outsiders who aspire to trade the role of the maid for that of the madame.
The Maids inspired Rokni, Ramin, and Hesam’s earliest collaborative performances, documented in the 2012–15 video work, The Maids. It shows them assuming different roles from the play—in costume naturally—all day, every day, for a week. From there, role play and mimicry became central to their working process.
As “From Sea to Dawn” took shape, I watched the evolution of their most recent personas (“rickety and fragile, with broken necks and aching feet”). Hesam I recognized as a stripey creature with hands bound above his head (“a living paintbrush”), Ramin from his floral housedress and soup ladle, and Rokni from his life-vest-as-diaper, a flashlight nestled within its vaginal folds. Blind and awkward, armed with brushes, crutches, and spoons, they produced several large wall and floor paintings.
“We’re getting to a voice, a whisper, a bark.” Hesam, who had early on referred to his persona as “Haj, the first Muslim Bee,” eventually became “Lullabee for The adventures of Hutch (Haj) the Honeybee,” a reference to childhood cartoons and Japanese comics. Rokni’s creature was dubbed “Man and Woman Before a Heap of Excrement,” from the elongated Joan Miró figures in the painting of the same name. And Ramin, migrant housewife-slash-undersea creature, was christened “FOB (Fresh Out of the Boat).”
The props, I realized, come to define the creature’s mode of being. The material comes from local Dubai vendors, including the Dragon Mart, a surreal outlet for all kinds of Chinese imports; the craft center, whose cheap household good are aimed at the local market; and the Afghani antique bazaar, which churns out credible copies lifted from auction house catalogues. “Completely disconnected things come together in the creatures’ outfits. We look for what is strong in an object, what is important to its shape and use.” A water bottle can be a shoe, a life vest a face. And so “the creature comes to know itself, gathering things as it needs them,” in a process that is itself a form of collage.
It’s a little hard to explain the heterogeneity of the material that enters into their words and work, the shifting constellation of ideas, objects, places, and people that was often hard for me to follow. They are adamant about working against the idea of the artist as a singular genius. Collaboration is a way to decenter the decision-making process: “We paint together now. It’s three views on one thing. We complete each other, we become each other.” Role-play, masquerade, drag, collaboration, quotation, or simply being open to the space in-between—all are techniques of decentering.
For the portfolio of “unpaintings” that became Where Is Waldo? (2016–17), each image was reworked three times, progressively “contaminated” by their different creative contributions. They stake their territory as “the negative space of painting,” working to avoid the ideas of self-expression, control, and mastery that have long been associated with the medium. “Three bodies in one space. Each of us is a half. One is always in another, filled with another.”
Unfaithful Poems takes collaboration further afield. A series of paintings and drawings on plaster surround stanzas of poetry. The text is loosely based on Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavan Sales’s 1956 pilgrimage ballad, “Chavoshi.” The artists sought out an international group of writers and translators to produce a text that was several generations removed from the original, hoping to tame the underlying pathos and machismo while retaining its poetic force.
Then there are the objects commissioned to local tailors and carpenters (through hand gestures and body language), or the works assembled by Edward St, the former Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger who is their man-of-all-trade, studio assistant, and the inspiration for their 2014–15 video, Aakkaandi. And not to forget their tarp paintings, left for out in parching heat of the Dubai sun, as collaborations with nature.
If Brodsky’s parable of exile has any purchase here, it’s in being turned joyfully on its head. To be the dog, rather than the man, is the preferred state of being; to hurtle outwards towards the unknown is far more exciting than mourning what has been lost. For Brodsky, the capsule that ejected the exiled writer into space was language. But in Rokni, Ramin, and Hesam’s work, language is too vast a concept to be culturally limiting. It encompasses painting and unpainting, photography and collage, translation and writing, self and other. It embraces exile by refusing allegiance to the exclusionary principles of mother tongues or fatherlands.
“The creature is a continuous, ongoing performance,” they told me at one point. “Whatever happens in the world, what we interact with, comes into this dastgah.” I was intrigued. A dastgah is technical term in traditional Iranian music, a melodic matrix of sorts; the wordalso means “device” or “machine.” I found it a productive alliteration: a refrain and a machine, something I might call an assemblage.
Maverick philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have written with great passion—and almost equal obscurity—about a concept they call l’agencement, or the assemblage. “In assemblages you find states of things, bodies, various combinations of bodies, hodgepodges; but you also find utterances, modes of expression, and whole regimes of signs,” Deleuze later explained.
A hurricane can be seen as an assemblage, as can a leaderless political movement, or, yes, a musical refrain. An assemblage’s components are not of a kind, nor do they share a goal. Yet they cohere, and gain power from this cohering over time. Any of the parts can change, but the assemblage holds the energies together. And it’s this kind of energy and consistency that, in my mind, is the defining quality of Rokni, Ramin, and Hesam’s collaborative practice, which even now eludes description.
The assemblage holds the creaturely personas, props and costumes, mediums and techniques, exhibitions and residencies, as well as the very fabric of their everyday life. Each new component enters into a relation of forces that holds strong, even as authorship and control are eluded and diluted. If the contours of their practice are hard to grasp, the intensity of its assembled energies is clear. Like a force field or a monasticritual, it holds steady in its invisible presence. Their assemblage makes a place for new forces, meanings, and forms of being, in all their instability and precarity.
The Birthday Party, Institute of Contempory Art (ICA), Boston
Those Who Love Spiders, and Let Them Sleep in Their Hair, Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Copenhagen
All the Rivers Run Into The Sea. Over. / Copy. Yet, The Sea Is Not Full. Over, 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
The Fal, Rodeo Gallery, Istanbul
Slice A Slanted Arc Into Dry Paper Sky, Kunsthalle, Zurich
The Exquisite Corpse Shall Drink the New Wine, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai
I Put It There You Name It, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai
Rock, Paper, Scissors : Positions in Play, National Pavillion of United Arab Emirates, 57th Venice Biennale
The Creative Act : Performance, Process, Presence, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Social Calligraphies, Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
Domestic Affairs : Reshaped, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai
9th LIverpool Biennial : Festival of Contemporary Art, Liverpool
Nice Drawings, Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai
Fundaciò Han Nefkens/MACBA Award, Barcelona
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection
Rauschenberg Residency, Captiva, Florida
Her Majesty?, 2016, Edition Patrick Frey, ISBN 9783836535182
2015 Ramin Haerizadeh Rokni Haerizadeh Hesam Rahmanian, 2015, Mousse Publishing, ISBN 9788867491353