The Poetic Art of Hossein Valamanesh

Hossein Valamanesh, Conversations (2018), existing seats, persian carpet, dimensions variable, Sculpture Encounters, Granite Island.

The art of Hossein Valamanesh is remarkably universal in its resonance and exploration of the human condition. At the same time, his work engages with the specificities and complexities of being an Iranian migrant in an Australian context. The artist collapses the opposition between art and life through the aesthetic languages of sentimentality, mysticism and poetry. There is a sense in which the artist’s work cannot be neatly categorised and operates outside the confines of the art historical canon. Sufi mysticism infuses the artist’s work, in which paradox and an ethic of love are central. By reading the artist’s works of art through the lens of performance, a range of questions surface regarding the role of ritual, the body, materiality, and presence and absence. In terms of the artist’s sense of place in the Australian context, there is a quality of ambivalence, and a lack of resolution. Belonging remains an open question to be explored ad infinitum.​

Valamanesh does not fit neatly into the art historical canon, while neither foregoing associations entirely. A conventional reading of his work might place it within the genres of conceptual art or minimalism. However, this semantic enclosure would unnecessarily tame the artist and works of art. By evoking quiet awe, reverence, and enchantment, there is a sense in which the works of art demand to be thoroughly experienced and felt rather than merely understood and catalogued. This echoes the artists’ own confession of having only a minimal interest in the canon. This (dis)interest may reflect the artist’s awareness of the European bias in the discipline of art history. Undergirding this is a tender yet relaxed commitment to personal truth, however not one that can solidify into finality. Valamanesh’s orientation to the art world is encapsulated by a poetic sensibility through which he views the artist as lover. He maintains that the idea of love is not an answer but rather, a guiding question animating art and life. When describing his decision to pursue art as a way of life, Valamanesh confesses, “I have stepped into the path of love”.[1]

Figure 1. Hossein Valamanesh, The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993), silk, electric motor, foam, brass rod, stainless steel cable, wood, poem, 210 x 210 x 210 cm. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

Valamanesh’s approach to art entails a richness and complexity that draws on spirituality and embodies a metaphysical curiosity. The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993), (Figure 1), consists of a silk skirt suspended and spinning continuously in the gallery space, reminiscent of the “whirling dervishes” of Islamic Sufi mysticism. The work of art uses movement to conjure a sense of the real life dancing of devotees of the Mevlevi Order of Sufism. The whirling is a physical meditation thought to bring devotees closer to the divine.[2] Movement is also a metaphor for impermanence, a recurring theme throughout the artist’s work. In a formal art historical sense, it employs the idea of duration and it does so without video or the physical presence of a performer. In a metaphysical sense, the continuous spinning of the skirt, without beginning or end, suggests the notion of infinity. Valamanesh does not describe himself or his works of art as religious. Yet, there is an undeniable spirituality in The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993), the title of which is a line from a poem written by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balki, otherwise known as Rumi. This liminality or in-betweenness is the defining feature of mysticism and is present in the artist’s works of art in several important ways: through the enchantment of everyday materiality, cultural juxtapositions, and the use of real and represented objects simultaneously.​

Figure 2. Hossein Valamanesh, Longing Belonging (1997), direct colour positive photograph, carpet, velvet, 99 x 99 cm (colour photograph) 215 x 305 cm (carpet), Art Gallery of New South Wales (not on display), Sydney

The artist’s use of everyday or found materials is not driven by an art historical reaction to established norms, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and its commitment to the supremacy of the concept or idea. Valamanesh uses everyday materials with the intention of transforming what is personal, intimate or close at hand — everyday lived experience — into art. In contrast to Duchamp, Valamanesh’s works of art prioritise emotional expression, sentimentality and an intellectual humility. The artist uses textiles and clothing, as well as materials requiring little human intervention such as branches, twigs, sand, water, and fire. There is a recurring sense of ephemerality in the choice of materials, including a ritual enactment of said ephemerality. In Longing Belonging (1997), (Figure 2), a hand-made Iranian carpet is shown with a campfire burning in its center against the surrounding bush land. The placement of materials creates rich juxtapositions in the artist’s work: an Iranian hand-made carpet situated in the Australian landscape, and its final presentation as a burned carpet brings Iranian domesticity inside the artificial gallery space. These assemblages play on binary oppositions of permanence/impermanence, nature/culture, creation/destruction, public/private, native/settler and oriental/occidental. Longing Belonging (1997), in particular, expresses a sense of ritual and performance that I argue is central to Valamanesh’s works of art.

While Valamanesh’s works of art are not immediately read as performance art in the sense of live performers, generation of a live ‘event’ or viewer participation, they are performative through the use of ritual. Marsh suggests ritual and performance art are different, maintaining that ritual enacts closure or resolution whereas performance art tends to remain open-ended.[3] Valamanesh’s works often allude to, document or exhibit an index or trace of the ritual performance. In Longing Belonging (1997), the viewer is presented with a documentary-style photograph of the event or ritual burning. The photograph acts as a translation of a ritual act that was a once off gesture. This translation of a live event into a timeless image contrasts with the ephemerality of the burning ritual. Both the photograph and burned carpet act as signifiers of memory (of a past live event), which Marsh argues constitutes a growing form of contemporary performance expression.[4] The use of fire is a form of considered destruction and transformation of the art object. It carries further associations of renewal, violence, cleansing, regeneration, and fecundity in relation to the Australian landscape. There is a sense of the artist’s desire to find a meaningful relation between two (or multiple) homelands, landscapes, identities, and the complexities this search entails. The imagery is evocative of the environmental rituals of urban Australians who may in fact use camping as a balm to the “crisis of late modernity”.[5]

Performance art is often associated with the body and Valamanesh’s works of art involve the body (including his own) in unconventional and complex ways. Centering the physical body within art disrupts Platonic and Cartesian dualisms and has been strongly influenced by feminist, queer and people of colour artists and philosophers.[6] Art historian, Peggy Phelan, argues that live performance involves “presence” and the possibility that “something transformative might occur in the scene of enactment that cannot be fully rehearsed”.[7] However, Amelia Jones contends that performance works can retain impact through documentation and that photography is itself a performative medium.[8] Coupled with an analysis of a Western preoccupation with presence over absence, or visibility over invisibility, the notion of performance can be stretched to incorporate Valamanesh’s works of art, including Longing Belonging (1997), in particular.[9] The body in Longing Belonging (1997) is present through its absence. Somebody lit the campfire and its documentation was also made possible through a body. The carpet is burned but not unusable, its presence evokes the body through the possibility of touch and daily use, even if this is not permissible within the gallery. Similarly, The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993) involves the absent body as an imaginative force inside the moving skirt. In other works of art, Valamanesh is present and absent through the use of shadow and silhouette. Marsh suggests this extension or ‘flattening’ of presence can protect as well as position the viewer as voyeur.[10]

Hossein Valamanesh, Passing Time (2011), sculpture, single-channel digital video, sound, colour, loop, 4:02 mins, 2 parts: AV 4:02 minutes; box 61 x 52 x 52cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

The works of art created by Valamanesh are strongly linked to his experience as a migrant. They present an emotional commentary on the experience of being Other in an Australian context, the weight of cultural memory, and the search for a sense of place. Longing Belonging (1997), whilst easily experienced as a catharsis, is also an infinite regression of landscapes held in tension: the landscape depicted on the Iranian carpet (its floral fields, enclosed courtyard and reference to the mythic garden of paradise), the landscape of the Australian bush or desert in the background photograph, and the landscape of the contemporary gallery. Each landscape carries mythologies that generate consonance and dissonance, intelligibility and unintelligibility. There is a sense in which things remain out of place at the same time as poised for integration, transformation and resolution, whilst never wholly achieving either. Also noteworthy is the placement of the carpet outdoors, namely, in public space. This is both an aesthetic inversion (an indoors object placed outdoors) and a political gesture that disrupts the pressure upon cultural minorities to limit cultural practices to the private sphere. The use of fire is also evocative of ancient and contemporary relationships to the Australian landscape where fire remains an important source of regeneration and Aboriginality, and yet is also framed as an immanent threat to sedentary lives and environments.​

Hossein Valamanesh, Practice (2006), pigment of saffron ground with salt in water and paper, 375.0 h x 375.0 w cm, National Gallery of Australia.

Valamanesh draws on Persian textual traditions through the use of poetry and poetic titles for his works of art. The artist draws primarily on the Sufi poetry of Rumi. Poetry, for Valamanesh, is a form of movement and reflects life itself.[11] The influence of poetry can be seen not only through the use of literal text on a gallery wall, but also as present in the materiality of each work of art as a whole. The Lover Circles His Own Heart (1993), is a line taken from a poem by Rumi and evokes a physical gesture that is both cyclical and unending. The artist uses English text and Islamic calligraphy, the latter often arranged in a way to emphasise the materiality or imagery of the word.[12] This enacts a subtle subversion of the written word, due to its connotations of rationality, transparency, eternity and civilisation. Instead, text becomes more than a message, it is also a “form of drawing”, an ornament, decoration and as such, impermanent.[13] The use of Islamic calligraphy is also a way to “imbue Western modernism with a cultural specificity”.[14] In the Australian context, the use of the Farsi language in the artist’s work creates an “indecipherability” for many (non-Islamic) viewers, further enhancing the visual (even sensual) experience of text rather than “reading” its meaning.[15] Therefore, the artist’s work contains the paradox (a principle at the heart of Sufism) of attempting to represent the unrepresentable through language, without diminishing either experience. ​​

​The art of Hossein Valamanesh is a quiet invitation into the incompleteness of mystery, love, and movement. The sense of impermanence of all things is reflected in his appreciation of the opportunity to continue to work, rather than amass prestige or fame. His art draws on the aesthetics of sentimentality, mysticism and poetry to evoke an embodied experience in the viewer. Performance is apparent in his works of art through ritual, the absent body and documentation or translation. My own artistic practice resonates with the artist’s work. I experience a sense of relief from the (masculinist) conventions of ideology, irony, disembodied intellectualism, and interrogation that has characterised much contemporary art in the late modern period. Valamanesh offers a simple and enduring legacy of the artist as lover, and the metaphysical curiosity this inspires.​

Thanks to Hossein for his consent to publish this essay.

Bobbi is a writer. In their spare time they like to make bad embroidery. You can follow their work on Medium.

[1] John Arnold, “Persian Cultural Crossroads”, The La Trobe Journal 91, no. 1 (2013): 136.

[2] “Hossein Valamanesh: The Lover circles his own heart 1993,” accessed November 20, 2018, https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/2005.4A-C/

[3] Anne Marsh, “Ritual in Performance Art: An Australian Context,” Anne Marsh (blog), November 6, 2018, http://annemarsh.com.au/ritual_performance_art.php

[4] Marsh, “Ritual in Performance Art: An Australian Context.”

[5] Marsh, “Ritual in Performance Art: An Australian Context.”

[6] Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: toward a corporeal feminism (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994), 10.

[7] Peggy Phelan, “The Returns of Touch: Feminist Performances 1960–80,” in WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, eds. Cornelia Butler (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2007), 355.

[8] Marsh, “Ritual in Performance Art: An Australian Context.”

[9] Kirsten Hudson, “Asking for Trouble: Risk, ethics and perversion in contemporary performance art practice,” Performance Research 11, no. 1 (2006): 10.

[10] Marsh, “Ritual in Performance Art: An Australian Context.”

[11] Sarah, “The Lover Circles His Own Heart: Hossein Valamanesh,” Sarah (blog), November 20, 2012, http://quilted-out-of-space.blogspot.com/2012/06/lover-circles-his-own-heart-hossein.html

[12] Andrew Pervis, “Hossein Valamanesh: In his mother’s hands,” Art Monthly Australia, no. 302 (2017): 43.

Sarah Thomas, “Word as image: Islamic calligraphy in Australian contemporary art,” Artlink 27, no. 1 (2007): 62.

[13] Thomas, “Word as image”: 62.

[14] Thomas, “Word as image”: 63.

[15] Thomas, “Word as image”: 63.

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