Cracks the Unseen Surface
Words KRISTIAN VISTRUP MADSEN
Photography TONJE THILESEN
Nairy Baghramian’s sculptures fascinate as well as disturb – even titillate. With their round edges and soft colors in matte wax or shiny aluminum, we could call them elegant. But then, large and unwieldy as these amorphous blobs of styrofoam or epoxy resin are – somewhere between a cartoon Henry Moore and the remnants of a prehistoric animal – they take on their surroundings like a challenge. Their maker, Baghramian – born in Iran in 1971, a Berliner since childhood – is the same. We met in her apartment, where small French cakes were arranged on the Memphis-style letter plates Marcello Morandini designed for Rosenthal in the 1980s. “Did you collect the whole alphabet?” I asked, but of course, as Baghramian responded, no alphabet is ever complete. Her eye is always directed at what resists completion, what is absent or in excess. She is a lover of objects of art and design as a way of being in conversation. “When it comes to myself, it seems I cannot talk,” she told me, weary of the interview scenario. “When I talk about others, I can go on for hours, but not about myself. But then, of course, talking about others is talking about yourself.” “So let’s talk about others,” I consented, “but first, we have to address your sculptures – they’re so strange to me, like from another world.”
Nairy Baghramian: I think they are part of everyday life… But I can’t say. What do you think about them?
Kristian Vistrup Madsen: We are here to talk about organic forms, but I understand your view of the world as one that is bent on picking apart the idea of the organic or the natural. There’s a lot of style in your work and notions of beauty that are configured only to be deconstructed again. You maintain a critical distance from what it would mean to be authentic or organic.
NB: I like that way of looking at it. It’s not organically understood as a thing that mimics nature or natural forms. It’s more artificial than that. But if organic means malleable, like an aversion to being fixed, then I would agree.
KVM: That’s also what I mean by style. I am thinking of Carlo Mollino and Janette Laverrière whose photographs and design objects from the 20th century you’ve exhibited alongside your sculptures, and, here in your apartment, your interest in Memphis design. I share your passion for postmodernism’s audacity and drama; to make something so eccentric for no reason, so far from the dictum of form following function. I think about your work in a similar way as ornaments in action.
NB: I think ornaments have a function and politics, which is to do with uselessness and beauty: two concepts that are complex and worthwhile. Carlo Mollino, Jean-Michel Frank, Janette Laverrière, Jean Cocteau, Florine Stettheimer, Francis Picabia, Jack Smith, Mike Kelly, John Waters – there are so many names – they all share a certain opulence. I’ve discovered that it’s something the sculptures sometimes produce by themselves because they have this malleability. Maybe what the organic means, in this case, has to do with losing control while at the same time being aware of a certain loss of decency. This is also why I think that we shouldn’t speak about objects over their heads. They have their own raison d’être. Somewhat flippantly, I would say that if my sculptures could speak, they would ask me not to. And that’s why I’m often looking around for other voices and elements to include. I don’t want to occupy the objects that I make.
KVM: You have often organized exhibitions that include other artists, writers, and performers. Outside of Mollino and Laverrière, for instance, at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, where you brought together works by Phil Steinmetz, Paulina Olowska, Michaela Eichwald, Frieda Grafe, Adam Linder– to name a few – while choosing not to include objects of your own. At the Serpentine Gallery in London, you shared your solo exhibition with the artist Phyllida Barlow. In a way, you use the works of other artists as lightning rods. Because they offer themselves more readily as the talking points of an exhibition, your sculptures are saved from language.
NB: What I’ve learned and always try to keep in mind is not to use other artists, but rather to be in dialogue or conversation. I met Janette Laverrière when Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic curated the fifth Berlin Biennial in 2008, and they asked four artists to invite an unknown or under-represented artist. But there’s a problem in that approach, I think: Why is somebody unknown, and to whom? Luckily we were able to locate Janette in Paris, and she was very sympathetic to my suggestion of collaborating on the project in a non-hierarchical way. For me, it was a successful exhibition insofar as it was difficult to discern where one person’s work ended and another’s began. And somewhere along that fine line, a common ground emerged.
<Read the full essay from Issue Six>
Cracks the Unseen Surface
Discussion on Georgia O’Keeffe’s approach to abstraction, and how the museum engages audiences and tells her full story.
The artist discusses his early career in New York
From Imagination to Creation