Remembering the Oblivion: Mapping the Sublime in the Work of Mehdi Ghadyanloo

Rod Bianco Gallery
May 17, 2017 10:51AM
Mehdi Ghadyanloo
An invitation to return, 2015
Rod Bianco Gallery

Suspended threatening objects that are kept at bay and held back; a group of seemingly oblivious swimmers near a giant whirlpool in the sea; a lone Lego block like tower in the middle of a somber seascape; broken airplanes that lead to nowhere and a group of overwhelmingly massive dark seascapes against bright horizons. These protagonists, which appear in beautiful large-scale oil paintings and charcoal drawings, are accompanied by a series of smaller detailed etchings, showcasing crowds of people trapped in uncertain situations and conveying the difficulties posed by displacement and migration in today's Middle East.

In its entirety, the body of work on display at the Rod Bianco Gallery in Oslo captures Ghadyanloo’s personal views on Iran and the Middle East. However the show also hints at other sources of influence, including the uncanny dreamscapes in paintings by Dali and Magritte and the bizarre circumstances depicted in Kafka’s novels. For a more familiar audience, Ghadyanloo’s peculiar scenes may also evoke Etienne-Louis Boullée’s unbuilt Cénotaphe à Newton (1784). Boullée’s iconic drawings of the unbuilt project are among the earliest visual manifestations of the concept of the sublime—a peculiar, mixed feeling of pain and pleasure provoked by shock and wonder in the face of overwhelming enormity. Prevalent in textual and visual records of the late eighteenth-century, and even more so at the height of the ensuing Romantic period, the popularity of the concept is often attributed to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

Installation view of Mehdi Ghadyanloo's Remembering the oblivion at Rod Bianco Gallery, 2017

Burke wrote that to experience the sublime, it is necessary for the terror-causing threat to be suspended. This suspense incites a kind of feeling that is not a positive pleasure, but somewhat of a relief. On the other hand, Kant reflected on the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. “Whereas the beautiful is limited,” wrote Kant, “the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” At the time of Burke and Kant the sublime in the visual arts was often associated with a suspended turbulent instance in nature—such as a frozen moment in the life of an erecting volcano, a mounting storm, a bursting avalanche, and other such life-threatening occurrences. Later, the power of the machine and the latent threat of technology would also be perceived as sublime, especially on the cusp of Europe’s industrialization. In modern and contemporary painting, the sublime became characterized by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard as “presenting the unpresentable.” Specifically, in the work of post-WWII abstract painters, Lyotard saw the sublime character as one that emerged from the frustration of attempting to present the invisible within the visible. One such abstract painter is Anselm Kiefer, whose art is inspired by the Germans’ traumatic experience of WWII: a feeling always caught between the binaries of remembrance and the oblivion, life and abandonment, and form and the formless.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo
Pleasure of falling, 2017
Rod Bianco Gallery

Ghadyanloo’s recent body of work fits within all of these Western conceptual frameworks. But to reiterate, at its core, Ghadyanloo’s work is purely Iranian. The eerie scenes are inspired, first and foremost, by the artist’s experience of living in Tehran: his childhood memories of the air raid during the Iran-Iraq war, the unsettling geopolitical place of Iran in today’s world, and the architectural landscape of a metropolis that is reportedly the second-most populous city in Western Asia and the third-largest metropolitan area in the Middle East. Above all and by the artist’s own account, one certain view into the polluted city, observed through his studio window, has stirred the vision for the current body of work. Ghadyanloo’s studio is one amongst the hundreds of identical units inside a tall residential high-rise in the recently-developed eastern suburbs of the metropolitan capital. Every day, through his studio’s large glass window, he sees other tall residential high-rises. All erected by the government in the past two decades, these buildings intended to guarantee the population of the growing twenty-five million capital. Although they are attributed to several leaders, most of these structures were built through the erstwhile President Ahmadinejad’s promise of creating an egalitarian and fair society. Instead of facilitating homeownership for the economically oppressed, these cheaply-built, characterless buildings are now impugned for the Iranian government’s most pressing economic problems. Many homeowners struggle to pay off their mortgages, and thereby continue to keep the government in debt. The decision to refinance existing loans has led to an upsurge in the price of these homes. Instead of accelerating homeownership, the typical residential high-rises that Ghadyanloo sees through his window have become the roots of the housing problem in today’s Iran.

Mehdi Ghadyanloo
Oblivion V, 2017
Rod Bianco Gallery
Mehdi Ghadyanloo
Oblivion VI, 2017
Rod Bianco Gallery

However, the story of Tehran cityscape—as expressed by Ghadyanloo—is not limited to the city’s polluted air or the problems related to the recent housing developments and the inadvertent placement of his studio in one of them. In its two hundred and twenty years as the capital of Iran, Tehran has gone through countless tumultuous phases, including an accelerated growth in population after the Shah’s 1962 White Revolution, which led to homelessness and the emergence of shantytowns, arguably the most pressing dilemma of the Shah’s regime. Afterwards, the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 brought millions of people onto the streets, some destroying the city’s monuments associated with the ruling elites. Once in power, the revolutionaries halted many ongoing architectural projects, most of which were joint efforts between Iranian and Western architects. Throughout the 1980s, the time of Ghadyanloo’s formative childhood years, the city saw a period of intense bombing. For almost a decade, the residents of Tehran periodically sought shelter underground or fled the city in the early hours of the evening to camp in the rural suburbs of Tehran, only to return the following morning for yet another “normal” working day. Soon after the end of the war, Iranians witnessed another tragic moment when Iran Air flight 655, on rout to Dubai, was shot down by a United States Navy guided missile cruiser, killing all the 290 on board passengers and crew. These fearful moments might have been forgotten by the international community, but they remain strong in Ghadyanloo’s psyche.

Installation view of Mehdi Ghadyanloo's Remembering the oblivion at Rod Bianco Gallery, 2017

Ghadyanloo’s love affair with cityscapes and architecture is also evident in hundreds of murals across Tehran. Engaging the immediate architectural surroundings through his trompe l’oeil style, he makes the spaces of his paintings meld into the spatial idiom of the nearby buildings and adjacent public places. By tricking the viewer’s eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object, he makes the passersby believe that a certain spot in the city is dramatically transformed, at least for a few seconds. Although at times somber and perhaps even suggestive of a failed utopia, Ghadyanloo’s murals convey the hope that change can be effected. They speak with delight of what remains glorious in gloomy times. His murals have, indeed, become places in which citizens of Tehran can reside and daydream, albeit allegorically. These paintings of architecture on the surface of buildings are reminiscent of Ghadyanloo’s paintings and etchings of floating architecture on some vast bodies of water. They all express a sublime experience, where terror mingles with pleasure. Distancing a potential menace, recall Burke, procures a pleasure of relief. Additionally, and again in step with Burke’s interpretation of the sublime, the peculiar experience of the sublime for Ghadyanloo is not a matter of joy or delight, but a matter of intensification.

––Pamela Karimi

Rod Bianco Gallery