A Correspondence with Sofi Basseghi

This interview originally appeared on the Meanjin blog on March 14 2013

Sofi Basseghi is an Iranian/Australian multimedia artist. After growing up in Tehran, she moved with her family to Australia in 1998, and now resides in Melbourne. She has completed a Masters of Fine Arts at RMIT, and pursued graduate study in directing at the VCA.

Her short film Sealed Lips began as an installation for her RMIT Honours class, exhibited at the 69 Smith Street Gallery, in 2005. It has since been screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, as part of the 2012 Iranian Film Festival Australia, and will shortly be travelling to Italy, to the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni.

Sealed Lips is a spin on the traditional One Thousand and One Nights tale. The wily storyteller Shahrezad, now old and bent, awakes in a desolate factory. Wheeling herself around in a chair, she travels from room to room, where she observes—and narrates to us— a number of delicately observed scenes, each representing struggles faced by women today. Basseghi presents each scene to us as a diptych or triptych—two or three discrete panels clustered together, articulating the story in miniature.

I recently corresponded with Basseghi about the inspirations behind her work, the differences in exhibiting in Melbourne and Tehran, and the international reception of Iranian film.

James Douglas: In your artist’s biography you write that your work evinces a desire to “cross inflicted boundaries and question cultural and traditional mores”. Sealed Lips certainly seems to engage with these themes in the context of Persian heritage and culture, but do you see this heritage as being important in the rest of your art?

Sofi Basseghi: Persian culture is embedded in me and will always be part of me. Consequently it always seems to appear in my art, and although at times I try to consciously keep this heritage away from my artistic practice, it somehow creeps its way back into my work.

However, now that I consider myself Australian as well, my work is somehow also taking on a different identity, born of my Iranian/German/English heritage and my adopted Australian culture.

JD: I’m wondering how the content of each episode in Sealed Lips was developed. Some of them I take to be drawn primarily from imagination and allegory, but other seem inspired by something more particular. I was especially struck by the scene where Shahrazad observes the woman obsessively peeling eggplants, and relates to us the prohibition on objects of that shape in Iranian prisons. This struck me as amazing enough to be true.

SB: Each scene was developed through my own imagination, dreams, and experiences, but drawn from stories told by friends, and from international news articles I had read. So they’re a combination of fact and fiction. The layout, however, is influenced by the structure of Persian miniature paintings where the whole story is being told in a single frame with a flat perspective.

With regards to the ‘eggplant scene’—this was true seven years ago, but I’m not sure about today. I could actually give other jaw dropping culinary examples, but watch this space.

JD: You have participated in several exhibitions in Tehran—at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2004, and the 2012 Crucifixion show at the Shirin Gallery. At the risk of sounding culturally ignorant, I’m wondering how that experience compares to exhibiting in Melbourne. If I were to speak about the ‘art scene’ in Melbourne most readers would have a pretty good image of what I’m talking about. Is the Tehran ‘art scene’ substantially different in any way?

SB: Having the opportunity to exhibit in The Tehran Museum of Contemporary art was a fantastic experience, especially as I was only 20 years old at the time and I was being offered the opportunity to work on the collaborative group project. Our work was exhibited alongside internationally recognized artists and filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Shirin Neshat. I think an opportunity like that would have been quite rare in Australia, as I was a third year student at the time.

In regards to the curated 2012 Crucifixion exhibition, although there was a strong group of artists selected to be part of the show, in comparison to curated exhibitions in Australia I found that there was a lack of professional support. I think that in the arts courses at Australian universities students are trained well in professionalism in comparison to Iranian universities, where there seems to be a vacuum in this area. I specifically mean a lack of attention to detail in the exhibition setup and in the exhibition catalogue—for example errors in artists’ details.

However, I need to be fair here. It is important to note that both artists and curators alike need to battle censorship in all its many different and complicated forms in Iran. This means that, in most cases, by the time the exhibition is opening, they are frazzled out from constantly having to be challenged with this. The type of problems they face over there in setting up a simple exhibition are unheard of in Australia, and I know for a fact that struggling with censorship is very draining, both physically and emotionally. I need to also point out that I haven’t lived in Iran for so long that it is not my place anymore to be overly critical, as people are going through very hard times.

I do find, however, that the Iranian art community and general public, especially prior to the recent economic crisis, are very supportive of buying works of young and emerging artists. Here it seems to be much more difficult to make a living solely out of ones artwork, without having jobs on the side.

JD: I’m personally interested, as film buff, in how the Iranian film industry has seemed to be flourishing over the past few years, at least in respect of those works which have been distributed to Australia, or to Western festivals. Do you think the recent spate of film exports has much significance to Iranians living outside Iran, like yourself?

SB: do have some interest in Iranian cinema but I am definitely not an expert. I am interested in World movies, not just Iranian films. I agree that the international audience has taken a great interest in Iranian cinema. This could be due to the fact that, in the time since the revolution of 1979, there have been such drastic political, cultural and, now, grave economical changes. For years Iran was, to an extent, largely isolated from the international arena. Subsequently, when directors such as Kiarostami unveiled their films, the international scene was instantly curious. The recent spate of films definitely does have an effect on Iranians abroad. An obvious example was last year when A Separation won so many international awards as well as an Oscar. This was of immense national pride to Iranians living abroad, much like the sense of pride that the Taiwanese feel over The Life of Pi.

JD: It seems to me that Iranian art, at least in my experience of Iranian cinema, appears to obliquely confront the social and political issues facing Iran today, without necessarily being forthrightly critical. I see Sealed Lips as belonging to this tradition, but I was wondering whether this is something you consciously engaged in during its development? Or perhaps you’d prefer to situate your piece in some other tradition?

SB: I think in the case of Sealed Lips it does belong to that particular tradition. I originally made it as a video installation that was exhibited at 69 Smith Street Gallery in 2005 as part of my Honours project. There were nine television monitors placed in 1950s travel trunks, with each monitor telling a story about the situation of women in Iran and the Middle East at the time. After I completed my course at the VCA, I re-edited the installation into a short film.

As I travel to the Middle East at least once a year, I find that even in 2012 women still face those very problems that I wanted to talk about in 2005, and I wanted to project these stories to a wider audience. I narrated over the video telling the story in a similar way to Shahrzad from a Thousand and One Nights Tales, all the stories being true to the current social situation.

I am pleased to have made this change as Sealed Lips is currently being exhibited internationally, and so my goal of reaching a much larger audience has been met to some extent. I feel that in order for a problem to be solved, confronting as it may be, it needs to be talked about no matter where you are.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Anna Krien and Quarterly Essay 45

This post originally appeared in its entirety on the Meanjin blog on April 5 2012

In her new essay Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals, Anna Krien takes a look at the contemporary state of affairs between man and beast. Starting from the surely by now uncontroversial position that we are guilty of treating animals unjustly, she asks us how much injustice we are prepared to live with. Her method is to take her readers on a whirlwind tour of the various intersections between humans and animals in contemporary Australian life: she bears witness to slaughtering practices and the aftermath of hunts, gives us interviews and conversations with sundry animal testers and researchers, and presents us with a handful of case studies.

Krien comes off as a genteel, trustworthy tourguide; ever curious, rarely judgemental, offering her readers generous insight into her private reactions to the various things she witnesses and is told. But although she asks us how much injustice we can live with, she refuses to provide an answer. In fact she seems to studiously avoid making an essay-wide contention.

A mid-essay rhetorical ploy where Krien attempts to muster great chunks of her data into a speech by an imagined high school debate student on the back foot of a closing argument, ends up petering out to nowhere (which Krien good-naturedly and amusingly cops to). I sometimes found this frustrating, having entered the essay in an adversarial frame of mind, and on my first read through I was constantly on the prowl for some kind of contention to hang my hat on or ruthlessly demolish.

But it turns out that Us and Them is at its best when its at its most ethically vague, when it shows us the whole tangle of moral and practical considerations at the intersection of humans and animals in all its complexity, which it does to great effect in a couple of set pieces. One of these has Krien visiting a small Indonesian slaughter-house, where she first finds a startling kind of aesthetic experience in the killing of a cow, and is then thrust into the unlikely role of blood-thirsty spectator when a stunning goes wrong and the slaughter-house workers, overly conscientious in the presence of an Australian journalist, end up prolonging the cow’s stress in their attempts to slaughter it ‘humanely’. Another of these comes in Krien’s discussion of the role of the ‘apex predator’, and the sad, strange parable of America’s Yellowstone National Park, where the deliberate removal of wolves from the park led to the disastrous collapse of the delicate balance between the park’s remaining flora and fauna. Here Krien gently teases out the frustrating, unexpected, almost blackly funny complications arising from the intrusion of the ethical considerations of humans into the animal world.

In its passage through these disparate though related topics, from slaughtering to hunting, from pet keeping to animal testing, Us and Them accumulates an impressive degree of scope. Any one of the chapters in this essay might have made a complete piece on its own. I know I, like many of you I’m sure, have read long essays just on the ethics of eating animals, or just on the ethics of keeping pets. By putting these things side by side, and by quietly drawing out the connections and mirrorings between them, Us and Them turns out to become, for me at least, something like a State of the Union on human-animal relations; delimited in its scope, but compelling in its allusive power.

During her talk at the Wheeler Centre last night, I tried to prompt Krien from the audience for some thoughts about this, but in retrospect I might have posed it in an outrageously vague way; anyway, Krien seemed nonplussed, and suggested I re-frame the question. Re-posed as a query about the ambition of the piece, whether she had started with just one area, like the controversy over Indonesian slaughtering practices, before telescoping out to include all those other elements, Krien suggested that the scope of the essay had been consistent from its inception.

I found this to be a complex little exchange, and oddly embarrassing for me, but it occasioned a pretty stimulating discussion with myself on the walk home. I think I wanted Krien to own up to and justify the power of the essay, the way in which, despite the modesty of each chapter, it seems to tantalisingly offer us a comprehensive image of how humans and animals coexist today. But I see now that this kind of assessment, the ‘meaning’ that an interested reader can ascribe to a piece, is not necessarily something of which an author can be expected to be cognizant. Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author may be a cliched trope of first year lit classes, but it continues to hold true in myriad useful ways. When an essayist is focussed on getting her data and points and chapters on the page, she can’t be expected to concern herself with the various promiscuous ways her ideas are procreating with each other behind her back and in the mind of the reader. An author plants the trees, but the reader sees the forest.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I found Us and Them, like all good journalism, be rich and meaningful in ways that belie the literal reach of the facts the author is presenting on the page.

Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals by Anna Krien is in Quarterly Essay 45, and is available in various bookstores, or on the website in several digital formats.

Krien also has a very fine website, which has several other works of journalism on offer. Of these I recommend:

Out of Bounds: Sex and the AFL A look at the Kim Duthie controversy of last year, and the various disturbing ways sexism and misogyny has infected AFL culture.

White Collar Dreaming Which examines drug use among white collar professionals.

Booze Territory: The Crisis of Alcoholism A look at the complexities of alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. This includes the previously-unknown-by-me factoid that campaigns for increased civil and citizenship rights for Aboriginal people in the 50s and 60s also and inevitably included increased rights to buy and consume alcohol, and is thus a crucial part of the terrible damage wrought by alcohol abuse on Aboriginal communities. I found this Catch-22 collusion between equal rights and the right to get black-out drunk on goon so startling and complex and sad and ironic that I feel sure it could fuel six months worth of philosophy seminars. If I had to declare a common thread between the Krien pieces I’ve read so far it’s that she’s fearsomely good at teasing out the practical complications that follow ethical or moral interventions.