Figure 1, "Maman", Sheida Soleimani, 2012, Digital Print

By: Regan Brown

Photographs courtesy of Eric R Greiner


“The Valley of Understanding:

Here we all choose a different way and different rules to disobey.”

― from The Conference of the Birds (منطق الطیر‎)

by Peter Sís (adapted from Farid ud-Din Attar) [ 1 ]

My first of several consecutively less disfigurative “windows” onto Iranian-America Diaspora was opened somewhere in the year 1984, when I was just a wee teenager, growing up in the chemically ever-greened Arcadia of an Ohio Valley suburb. My friends and I drove down to the Coliseum and witnessed the strange socio-political theater group known as the World-Wide Wrestling Federation (WWF), our trench-coats stuffed with cheap beer, toilet paper and tennis balls, some or all of which we’d end up throwing at the “Iron Sheik” : Bread and Circuses American Style.

By the end of the match, the Sheik lay prone at the center of the squared circle, an abject Vitruvian Man, beaten to a bloody pulp by Sgt. Slaughter. We fell, or slipped, into the frothing crowds mentality, tongue planted firmly in ironic cheek, chanting U.S.A. along with the rest, knowing that everybody would go home mostly unharmed. No innocents were hurt, at least the way I remember it. After all, unlike some, we were in on the secret: it was all staged. We were entertained by the Spectacle of it all. We’d had 1984 for Summer Reading and this year wasn’t that at all. It was all some mammoth theatrics for the great-unwashed masses. It was all too damn kitsch and distant to be as serious as “Perpetual War”. Anyhow, Apple computers had hailed the blatant differences between the real and imagined year with a clever commercial that initiated the trend of mass temptations they peddle to this day to suckers like me. [ 2 ] Hell, we even had a former actor for a President then, one who had ridden in on the sunset of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and who would ride out, grappling to hold onto to his saddle, while the Iran Contra Affair threatened to rumple his stay-pressed hair.

Wrestling as a sport, minus the theatricality of the events related above, was championed by the Greeks, for much like the art form of Theater, it was meant, among other things, to be cathartic,  “cleansing”,  to prevent interpersonal conflict and even war; to reconcile grappling and tensions in fact, whether they be historical, sociological or psychological. Rome of course took it to another level when slaves were sometimes killed live on stage during a play in order, it was thought, to placate violence and murder at large: kind of what I’m guessing horror films or first-person shooter video games or drone strikes do for some people.

Olympic sport, coming into the spotlight once again this summer, was born of this spirit of reconciliation or even more hopefully, the quashing altogether of the friction born of opposites abutting; a fickle spirit that, strangely enough, can just as often be easily channeled into conflagration: into War = Patriotism or at least Peace = Spectacle. Think gymnastics at the Nuremberg rallies, or Soviet Mayday celebrations. Think General Swarzkopf’s playboard during the first Gulf War. “Shock and Awe”, “Mission Accomplished” or remote drone strikes during the present Middle Eastern Wars. The Stuxnet computer virus and the Iranian nuclear program. Apparently those computer video games aren’t such a complete waste of time after all, at least looking at things from this American vantage point. When in Rome, Georgia…or as they say in Paris, (not the one in Texas), the only vantage point where you can’t see the Eiffel Tower is from…the Eiffel Tower.

“Oil kindles extraordinary emotions and hopes, since oil is above all a great temptation. It is the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power. It is a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money.”

Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

A few of these Middle Eastern Dictators seem to be falling or flailing left and right these days, toppling from towers built on fear and repression and no small amount of Western Financing via oil revenues, their beatings and hangings delivered up in grainy cell phone video, while most of their fearful populace flee from the fallout of “Good versus Evil”. The more simplified these forces, the more shoved into nutshells these competing dualisms are though, the harder they are to crack open. With a little observation, without blindly siding for one or the other, a lot of complexity and overlap can be found in the sliver of twilight peaking out through a curtain drawn against the wrestling black and white, the day and night.

Sheida Soleimani’s current solo exhibition at Prairie more or less exists in this twilit space between cultures, between the personal and the historical (the territory of contemporary feminism in fact), even the solemn “permanence” of the traditional “white cube” gallery and the fleeting entropy of all the life and death lapping around its seemingly unassailable borders. This is real life and “life is but a stage” yoked together at the scruff. Soleimani’s show and personal history are certainly not as one-dimensional as mine and my high school friend’s understanding of Iran via the Sheik way back when, which seems about as sophisticated and one-dimensional as most of the Primetime news media’s portrayal of Iran today. Even such 2D arch enemy archetypes, born of flesh and blood, are always more complex than they seem on the surface of their publicity pack.

Yes, the Sheik was the scowling bad guy in pointy Aladdin shoes and a handlebar mustache to rival Dali’s, an extension of that guy in silent film who is forever tying the damsel to the train tracks. Yet recently while researching Mr. Sheik, less widely known as Hossein Khosrow Ali VaziriI (Persian: حسین خسرو علی وزیری) I discovered he was a former bodyguard for the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, (محمدرضاشاه پهلوی) who brought about the Iranian Revolution with a combination of economic mismanagement and dictatorial behavior propped up by the West and enforced by the SAVAK, an Iranian equivalent to the KGB or the FBI depending on one’s country and perspective. The current Theocracy and their Basij, (بسيج‎), a kind of Moral Majority Thought Crime Unit, have mostly taken up where the previous regime and secret service left off, just with a different class of enemies.

“It is authority that provokes revolution…. This occurs when a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite: We are allowed anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion, but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if they can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent…They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time, they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up. The choice of that moment is the greatest riddle of history.”

Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

Iranian born Soleimani “has spent the last several years plumbing the stories of her family’s hard fought journey through the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970’s and their eventual emigration to the United States as the basis for her artistic work, ” according to a gallery statement posted at the entrance to the exhibition.

This might lead one to superficially suspect representations of the Ayattolah Koheimeini juxtaposed with naked women, and Soleimani has actually been there and done that in previous work: stark black and white photographed reinterpretations of her mother’s internment under the Imam. Though “My Mother’s Daughter” [] seemed not about a risk made for shock value alone, that just might have earned her a Clerics condemnation and some quick infamy, American Pop Art Style.  No, this seemed more about a step toward a little more fame for a “promising young Cincinnati artist”: that her current show  “Window” might very well open onto a stage well beyond the confines of our fair city.

Figure 2, "Tableau Template", Sheida Soleimani, 2012

The first piece into the main gallery encountered after the gallery statement quoted above, well the first to gain my notice anyway, is the actual physical corner Soleimani constructed and used as background to all the photographs she staged in the exhibition. I emphasize staged, as Soleimani makes, not takes, these photos at a remote site where she’s created an elaborate installation, as opposed to snapping, say, spontaneous slice of life photos. On the contrary, many of the “protagonists” in her tableaux are dead animals posed or strung up in a variety of positions. “For the most recent photo in the series I had to thaw a portion of the 60+ birds that I’ve collected and preserved over the years”, Soleimani says. [3] This raises so many “mundane” logistical questions (like are they in a big freezer in the garage? etc.) that are just too legion to mention and not presently germane to the argument anyway. There are more important points to be made by Soleimani’s work.

There’s not only the intelligent resolution of 1) the practical matter of not having rotting animals in an installation (imagine the smell!) but also 2) creating a discreet art object to sell, (an actual photo) as opposed to a whole new possibly lucrative  “found carcass art ” market, which I believe even a post Damien Hirst or Joel Peter Whitkin Art World isn’t just yet able to absorb in it’s raw, decomposing form. That would be just too much of a Duchampian coup. Soleimaini’s work is certainly more of the poetic abject than these “Art Stars” and moreover, a less heavy-handed confrontation with the basic concerns of what photography and even art are often about: preserving time and memory against mortality and entropy. To build such a stage cum gallery and leave it to the mercy of the elements while posing tableaux of a variety of found animal carcasses and props, all the while relating it to a painful family history, somewhat at the mercy of History writ large by the Iranian Revolution, is a quite complex onion to peel indeed.

Figure 3, "Mr. Jones and his dog Bill" detail, Sheida Soleimani, 2012, Digital Print

There must also be a complex range of emotions to unwrap as well (and just plain concerns about “pestilence”) not only for the viewer but moreover for the artist collecting these dead things and “preserving”/ hording them in a freezer. Not only this, but also having to cull through them at some later date when they call out for symbolic use in a pose for posterity before, I suppose, a decent burial. There’s a strong clash of the rescue and exploitation impulse, which makes for compelling and complex art. Rauschenberg’s taxidermied menagerie is one thing, but this? I mean I pass tons of road kill in my car every day and hardly give notice to the innocent carcasses constantly being churned up and spit out  by the raw machinery of life, fueled by a complex pipeline of politics, technology and war profiteering that ends up resolved and refined right at my convenient little local gas pump. But maybe that is part of the point here. Behind these animal “foils” and stand-ins are a confrontation with a harsh memory of the “collateral damage” the world’s violence often inscribes on the gnarled and riggored bodies resulting from the conflict of Man vs. Man or Man vs. Nature or Nature vs. Culture.

“My parents escaped during the revolution. The Ayatollah was out for my dad’s head. He went into hiding and escaped through the mountains on horseback. Then they came after my mom. She didn’t even know where my dad was. They didn’t believe her and put her in prison twice. They tortured her. After the second time they put her in prison, she escaped with my sister, who was little at the time. My mother told me their stories–they were my bedtime stories. What I appreciate about it is that it was really honest. I didn’t have a boogeyman; all the things I was scared of were real. I was confronted with them at a very young age. It’s this weird cultural duality.” ―from a Sheida Soleimani Interview  [4].

“All stories are discontinuous and are based on a tacit agreement about what is not said, about what connects the discontinuities . . .. The discontinuities of the story and the tacit agreement underlying them fuse teller, listener and protagonists into an amalgam. An amalgam which I would call the story’s reflecting subject. . . . If this sounds unnecessarily complicated, it is worth remembering for a moment the childhood experience of being told a story. . . . You were listening. You were in the story. You were in the words of the story-teller. You were no longer your single self; you were thanks to the story, everyone it concerned.”

― from John Berger, in John Berger and Jean Mohr, Another Way of Telling

What connects the discontinuuties between reconstructed stories in this exhibition for me is not only the presence of the physical background in the photos and the gallery itself, but also the sense of sequence of season after season passing, layered behind the memories Soleimani has discussed in detail elsewhere [5] but only tacitly presented here.

Most importantly, all is demarcated as archetypal enough that the images will, for the most part, intersect with a viewer’s world, each shot ensconced at the edge of a nondescript forest that could be the forgotten corner of nearly any Fairy Tale Kingdom. This placement, in juxtaposition to the somewhat grisly and abject subject matter of the work, reminds us that such stories as Cinderella (the “Ash-Woman from Hel” {fic} ) were once upon a time the province of adults attempting to protect the stories and ritual of an older Pagan culture, one fraught with humanities’ foibles, desires and their detritus of life and death struggle, a history that was as untidy and unkempt as its opposing Master Narrative was streamlined and hierarchical.  For hundreds of years these ancient narratives and their proponents have been laid siege to by a mostly sexless and Patriarchal Monotheism perpetrated further back than even the Dark Ages can remember. [6]

Imbued with the intersection of this more primordial conception of life and its stages, along with the inherited memory and personal history of her family, Soleimani seems to initiate the exhibition with Maman (Figure 1) in which a variety of orange peels are wound into flower blossoms upon nails pounded into the tableau staging. The title, which suggests both Mother and Mammon, was apparently inspired by Soleimani’s own mother leaving her such orange peel blossoms in her lunch box. With their serial repetition on the walls of the tableau staging, and coupled with the title, they resonate more than this quant memory and take on something of the stature of ancient statue of the Artemis of Epheseus [7], offering up her many breasts for the physical and spiritual sustenance of her followers. Formally, and as concerns the thematics of the show, this is the best work in the exhibition; its meditative repetition leading us toward memory and even reverie. Standing there, I was reminded of an Iranian friend from college who had returned from a family wedding, which she swore the Iron Sheik had attended, raving about a “Jeweled Persian Wedding Rice” which included orange peel in its recipe. She attempted to recreate the flavor over a conversation about how her family had had to pretend they were Italian when they arrived in the U.S.A, out of fear of retribution over the Iranian Hostage Crisis. She was the one person I knew who could and would be willing to repeatedly read for me the calligraphy woven into the Persian tapestries at the Main Art Museum, their winding arabesques vaguely reminiscent of the spindled and unraveling orange rinds of Maman. +

By the time we reach the image immediately juxtaposed, Mr. Jones and his dog Bob (Figure 4) this citrus mammon already lays rotting and decomposed at the base of the staging, a fox and a dog in the throws of rigor mortis placed mid-tableau, slabs of meat suspended by hook and noose above them. The clash of the “cutesy” title and its suggestion of something almost cartoonish unfolding here belie its visceral and moribund subject matter. The season appears to be fall. The smell of old sod set on the actual tableau staging pervades the room. This juxtaposition of the abundance and exuberance of life being harvested by the scything brutality of death and violence is at the heart of the show.

Figure 4, "Mr. Jones and his dog Bill", Sheida Soleimani, 2012, Digital Print

“Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.”

―from Julia Kristeva The Powers of Horror

Yet there is one more important primal element finely demonstrated in the final image of the sequence of this main room at Prairie. This piece seems more related to the rituals and reconciliations of Art (and photography specifically, a formally chemical wedding) when confronted with these seemingly irreconcilable differences. This is the photo Suri, (roughly translated as “Rose” in Persian) which seems a purification ritual of some sort, though parenthetically explained by Solemani in an interview as a reconstructed memory wherein she hatched butterflies inside her mother’s wedding gown then tacked them to the wall after they died. [8 ] Taken in the context of the general content of the other photos and the tableau staging set in an opposite corner of gallery, Suri best weds, even amalgamates the previous conflicting themes into something unified, a theme that rings true with the images portrayed and the way they relate how the  world churns up the field of life and death on a constantly turning tine. Fire singes a tulle dress, and stands ready to purge  the stage for the next iteration of being Soleimani poses us.

Figure 5, "Suri", Sheida Soleimani, 2012, Digital Print

There are other pieces of note in the anteroom to the main gallery at Prairie, especially, First Christmas with its awkward culture clash played out in primary colored balloons tied willy-nilly to an improvised Christmas tree fern, dead birds strung up from the branches of the overarching trees, frozen in an awkward flap.

Figure 6, "First Christmas", Sheida Soleimani, 2012, Digital Print

It is especially of note that, beside the continuation of the sequence of seasons, the “Window” (one to freedom or to memory?) is not sawn open in the images till we reach the photos here, in this anteroom. It seems an almost cruel joke though that the birds included here are dead. Maybe they’re just easier to work with that way, but it’s more likely a commentary on interment and the promise of freedom. The claustrophobia and isolation of internment is somewhat incised with this opening action, especially after the confines played up in the main room, only resolved by the conflagration in Suri. We are also lucky Soleimani chose to preserve the wall and not take a sledgehammer to the whole thing.

Overall though the front room holds together better thematically, except for the purely functional drawback of what seem to be rather flimsily mounted photos especially when they are in juxtaposition to the substantial width of the drywall whose window appears to be at nearly 1 to 1 ratio in size to the photos in the show. This wants to suggest that the images were cut directly from the construction and their more direct formal relation would have given further unity to the presentation. The fact that they were conceptually installed or “drawn” on the staging in imagery, and the stage itself is included, is still a very prescient nod to the deconstruction of the gallery and its paradoxical enshrinement of our and our many cultures battles against entropy. Not to mention its function as an archetypal representation of the imprisonment and eventual escape of Soleimani’s family.

“Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time”

―John Berger And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

Constructing identity is a complex notion for countries and cultures. Museums are chock full of the objects of such attempts. It’s even more daunting for the individuals who struggle to emerge from these cultures or their remnants, once emigration is forced upon them. Being an artist assailed by the high expectations for a first generation awash in the American Dream can’t be easy either.

Soleimani has certainly been buttressed by such experiences and expectations, mostly related to her “second-hand” from her family. There is still plenty of room for growth beyond what still seems an intrigue with a menu of methodologies brought about by art school mentoring, which still do make her work hit viscerally but end up more distanced emotionally than one might expect for a subject matter apparently so close to her heart. It will be interesting to watch what other or similar veins this “young artist” will mine in her own continued accumulation of experiences for future explorations at the very stitching of those forces which not only bind us, our families and cultures, but can also tear us apart.





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