March 4, 2016
Chohreh Feyzdjou and the Cannibalization of History and Biography
by Flavia Grilli
If Chohreh Feyzdjou’s works seem obscure at a first glance, their titles do not offer much clarification: the darkened and aged appearance of her Series betray their name’s allusion to the world of consumer capitalism, where we are constantly overwhelmed by the glare of tirelessly renewed commodities. This impression is all the more acute in Série E, 1989–93, where pieces of canvas and paper are rolled around horizontal bars on a scaffold so large that it just barely fits into the space where it is displayed at the Grey Art Gallery. The impossibility of unrolling each one of them to see what their surfaces would reveal binds us to that enigma just as much as it incites us to solve it. Finally, an additional element offers perhaps a first clue to deciphering the works meaning: on the edges of each of those rolled up pieces there is a small paper tag, resembling one we would find attached to pieces of clothing in stores, but again, instead of spotlessly new, they are almost illegibly blackened.
The one thing that can be discerned under the dark surface is a purple-ish shape over a white background, corresponding to the same image displayed on a luminous sign on the wall, saying: “PRODUCT OF CHOHREH FEYZDJOU”. However, if the presence of such a “logo”, reproduced on a large sign and on each product’s label (they can also be found in the pieces that form other of her Series in the same gallery), echos the setting of a modern Western clothing store, such as countless to be found around the gallery where this work is exhibited in Downtown Manhattan, then on the other hand the text “Product of Chohreh Feyzdjou” seems somewhat too awkward to be compared to the witty names of these commercial enterprises.
In fact, the material found hanging from the large rack are the artist’s own drawings and paintings from an earlier stage in her career, which were removed from their frames to be used as raw material for this larger project. The reutilization of everyday life objects in works of art is a fundamental strategy in mainstream contemporary art—as foreshadowed by Duchamp’s readymades, which itself became a whole aesthetic current in later decades of the twentieth century—and is often taken to indicate some form of critique of capitalist consumerism. But when these appropriated objects are the artist’s own previous work, such a maneuver acquires a new biographical dimension which requires careful consideration.
Chohreh Feyzdjou was born in Iran in 1955, from a Jewish family whose efforts to blend in with the local Islamic culture —Feyzdjou was not their original surname but a common one adopted to make assimilation easier—did not prevent her colleagues in school from labeling her as an outsider, as she recalls. When she was twenty years old, Chohreh moved to Paris to study fine art, and it is not hard to imagine how such questions of identity and origin again became central in her life. This perhaps explains the use of the expression “Product of…”, which is generally used to indicate the geographical origin of merchandise, most often from distant, unfamiliar sources. Its use to indicate the artist’s name may be taken to reflect on the stereotypes and prejudice that immigrants often face, and the sense of awkwardness which it creates, a reflection on the difficulty of reconciling one’s individual personality with the broader historical and geopolitical context in such situations.
This nomadic situation, which today is virtually the norm for practicing “global” contemporary artists, is evoked in the boxes, wrapped up canvases and piled up frames that constitute some of her other Series, that seem packed up as if they were ready for travel. Her work grapples with the question of what it means to be a Jewish-born Iranian artist living and working in France, what to assimilate and what to preserve from her original background. In the words of a leading globalization anthropologist: “the central feature of global culture today is the politics of the mutual effort of sameness and difference to cannibalize one another.”
The word “cannibalize” is precisely the one used in the exhibition catalogue essay to describe Feyzdjou’s use of her own previous work. In fact the term has a very specific connotation in the context of art history, especially as it pertains to artists practicing outside the traditional centers of Europe and the United States: in the Brazilian modernist manifesto, it was used to advocate for an attitude towards cultural diversity that proposed an assimilation of the other’s qualities without, however, suffocating local forms of expression that could be reconciled with the imported models to produce a fruitful synthesis.