When people typically think of an art gallery space, I would assume that they think of paintings, prints, sculptures, and the like. The rules are unspoken but evident: no touching, no flash photography, mindfulness of the space. A very present connection between the artist and the art piece is established, and by setting the aforementioned limitations, the exhibitors and curators reveal part of the artistic intent.
So what happens when the artwork and the experience becomes democratized, where the only boundary presented is your imagination? What happens when the visitors in the gallery are invited to not only touch the artwork, but to participate in the process? These are the questions presented to visitors as they experience Paradise Now. Over the past seven weeks, the Stamp Gallery has exhibited a show in which guests have reshaped the topography of the space, embraced the subversion of everyday life, and put themselves on display. Yet this show has meant so much more.
After activating multiple sessions of Paradise Now, I’ve seen a variety of different responses from our visitors. Some boldly push the limits of what they are allowed to do, others are paralyzed by confusion and uncertainty, and still others simply play and give themselves to the experience. Each person’s response is wholly different but equally valuable, giving them a self-understanding with which they are able to leave the space. These emotional and intellectual reactions are not traceable to a single object, but rather to the ethereal moment of experience. The visitors are invited to put themselves into the process, so the relationship is not simply art-informing-viewer, but instead self-informing-art-informing-self.
Despite my praise of the alternative Paradise Now format, I am not discounting the traditional gallery experience. By no means has the Stamp Gallery given up on exhibiting artwork in the conventional sense. Both types of exhibition engage their audiences differently, and both aim to confront the participant with some sort of thoughtful engagement. Some subjects that an art piece might reflect are love, social dissonance, artfulness, etc., but part of what Paradise Now reflects is the audience, and that aspect is the crux of why we were interested in curating this show. This exhibition has been a stark reminder to our University of Maryland viewership that art does not have to be transcendentally significant.
Art can be about you, too.
Written by Christopher Bugtong
Paradise Now is truly more than a game. Beneath the fun interactivity of the exhibit lies a profound commentary on humanity. Like everyday life, the gallery offers a broad space where visitors can make decisions based on their circumstances. The game is shockingly liberating: patrons are encouraged to manipulate their horizons however they please. Through that freedom, visitors encounter an accepting environment where wearing a milk carton on your head or screaming through a megaphone is welcomed enthusiastically. In many ways, Paradise Now has created a safe space and a creative habitat.
Ironically, the liberation of game is also one of its constraints. Immersing oneself in Paradise Now is a surrender to limitation: the clock is ticking, self-consciousness is looming, cooperation of a partner is crucial, and the kindness of others is variable. Unless the circumstances are optimal, the freedom of Paradise Now can be its most daunting restriction. In many ways, the paradoxical nature of the game serves as a microcosm for life- choices and the question of free will.
The tension between fate and free will in Paradise Now is a testament to the philosophical, psychological, and creative power of the exhibit. This dimensionality inspired me to reconfigure portions of the score into a poem. The first section of the poem reflects suffocation, while the other savors in release. In the same way that Paradise Now embodies freedom and restraint, so also does my poem represent creativity in the midst of limitations. In life, we also have to stick to the Score, no matter how beautifully vague it may be.
Only At Arms Length: A Reconstruction of the Paradise Now Score
Have you ever closed your mind?
Like a bad habit: stop. scream.repeat.
Down at the ground
when the stages are stacked
Holding onto any moving object
Somethings cannot be learned or granted for your hard work.
Just an infinity of impeccable restraints–
A hunger to know something for certain
How did we get here?
Pick a player
Follow your lead
Face the inward windows
silently now, start to
Fill your body
Foam on top of foam
Only at arms length.
we spend our whole lives
seeking to be individual
define ourselves by
the same skin
grow hair the same way
and teeth that don’t grow back enamel
our eyes know only their position below
our nose between
our ears on either side
perhaps a few color changes
our genetic make-up
has only one brand
we were manufactured in the same factory
outside labels are all the same
so how could we expect that intrinsically
we could be any different
sure there is the effect of wear tear & age
nature versus nurture
the ends held prisoner by the means
but when you excavate the core
put under microscope the reason for doing
the archetypes remain
I wrote this poem a few months ago while thinking about Carl Jung and his idea of the collective unconscious. Simplified, his theory says that our unconscious minds are connected through ancestral memory and experience and that all humans have this in common. This part of our mind is, of course, different from our individual consciousness. What causes me to bring back this idea of the collective unconscious is what I have observed while watching and taking part in Paradise Now‘s games. There is no set rules to this game, yet after a while, patrons seem to know what they are doing and they exhibit this through their lack of knowledge. As the game progresses, patrons develop the same idea: that I must go along with everything in the game or, if I disagree, I change it. We all hold on to this same thought but in dealing with/ executing it, this is when our individual consciousnesses come into play: some people will follow along with where others lead them, others will create their own rules by changing the ones on the whiteboard still others will change their own rules silently. Through my own informal study of behavior, I have found that Paradise Now is not only a game of unequal circumstances and varying objectives, it is also a game of collectivity and observation.
color can’t without light
freedom isn’t in a vacuum.
see the space between us
and know it can grow smaller.
know that wreckage
can be a duet,
are born from cacophony,
and that loneliness
know that your CZs are my fat blueberries
and we are mutually rich.
know that banality will not save us,
only the words you’ve never said:
they are the ones I need to hear.
small phrases, passed gently,
in that little space between us.
loving without romance.
a clementine in six parts.
it is never too beautiful
it is never too fair.
Thank you for beginning your journey to becoming an unlocked player in the game of Paradise Now.
Paradise Now is a game of unequal circumstances and varying objectives that invites unlocked players to alter and redefine the game’s Score by participating in various rounds of the game. The Score is a series of directive actions that happen over each 60 minute round of the game. Unlocked players may alter the Score by navigating the space with their bodily movements, altering the various gaming mechanism at play, and by adding directive phrases to its structure. Although many players may be active in the game simultaneously, every player may choose to fill the role of player 1 or player 2 and respond accordingly to their set of directive actions in the Score throughout each round played. Each round of the game played throughout its occupation of Stamp Gallery in September & October of 2016 will be documented, archived and analyzed by our team, who will compose an accumulative Score. The accumulative Score will represent a collective of player movements found throughout the entirety of the game’s stay at the Stamp. Your participation is highly valued by our team and we hope you enjoy this round of the game.
The Paradise Now team
Nilou Kazemzadeh recently received her B.A. in Studio Art Spring 2016. Her work is currently featured in the Stamp Gallery until July 29th and her show, Frequency, is on display in the Laboratory Research Gallery in the Parren Mitchell Art/Sociology Building until June 30th. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nilou regarding her work.
To start with a little background, where are you from, and what first got you into art?
I was born and raised in Maryland. I can’t remember the specific place or time where I picked up a pencil or crayon and made a conscious decision to make “art,” but I can say I’ve always been surrounded by it and I remember enjoying it so it’s something that stuck with me.
What drove you to pursue a degree in studio art?
When I entered university I was undeclared, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue art. I ended up taking two art classes, intro to printmaking and intro to painting, at George Mason University my second semester of freshman year. I really enjoyed both classes so when I transferred to The University of Maryland I declared myself as a studio art major.
Could you talk more about the relationship between your work in Drawing Board and your work in Frequency?
One show is exhibiting the midpoint of my process while the other is showing the end product. In Drawing Board, my plates,which I use to print my pieces, are being shown. In Frequency, the prints that come from the plate are on display. In Frequency, my intention was to show the viewer what could be done with just a single plate, printed over and over again.
How was the process of approaching Frequency different than the process of approaching your work in Drawing Board?
Before I completed Frequency, I focused on producing one or two satisfactory prints. Each time I printed I made sure my print would come out clean and even. In contrast, Frequency is about repetition. Before I focused on building up texture on the plate before printing, this time around my plate was simplified while the texture came in through the application of ink. For Frequency, each time I inked the plate I created variation through how much ink I would leave on the plates surface.
There appears to be a cultural charge to your work. Could you expand more on that aspect?
Outside of my house, there really wasn’t anything that I could relate myself to. There has always been a disconnect between me and my Iranian heritage. In order to bridge that gap, I use Persian imagery such as Farsi in my work. Every time I create a work that is related to my culture, I study and learn new things about Iran’s history and it makes me feel closer to that side of me that I’ve neglected until now.
Are there any particular artists, art movements, or other concepts that inspire your current work, or your art overall?
In my most recent work, I use a lot of poetry written by Persian poets such as Omar Khayyam, Forough Farrokhzad, Rumi and Sa’di. I pick poetry that I can relate to. One poem I used from Farrokhzad, titled “Gift”, she asks her friends to bring her a light and a window to her house. She expresses her longing to see a glimpse of the outside world. Or Khayyam’s poem, “Sleeping Ignorance”, and Sa’di’s poem “Bani Adam”, which expresses the human condition.
I’ve also been inspired by the Safavid period of Iranian history. Things such as architecture, illuminations, and calligraphy were rapidly being developed in this era. Artists that inspire me, and really push me to continue creating cultural art are Monir Farmanfarmaian, Hossein Zenderoudi, and Parviz Tanavoli. They are a few of the Iranian artists who have contemporized Persian art by their usage of calligraphy and architecture.
How do you see your work in the Stamp Gallery fitting in with the concept of the show, Drawing Board, as a whole?
I think the basis of the Drawing Board is about exploration, there are a lot of pieces that show the midpoints, or stepping stones leading to other works. Whenever I create new prints, I learn new ways of approaching printing. The first prints I did in collagraph, I focused more on getting a clean even print, each and every time. This time with Frequency I wanted to experiment with leaving and manipulating the surface ink. This is what produced the cloudy/smokey look.
When someone walks into Frequency, what do you hope that person will grasp about your work?
One of the biggest obstacles I face is having the viewer not be able to understand what the calligraphy says when the calligraphy is an important factor to the overall piece. In past work I tried to use English but I felt as though I was making the work too obvious. But through that piece I learned that I shouldn’t fully rely on the calligraphy, but on the way I present the work. I hope that the size and quality of the prints help express its meaning.
Is there anything that you are currently working on that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
The work I’ve done so far, I’ve relied heavily on studying and viewing work through my laptop. I haven’t really experienced anything first hand. My work is inspired by my Persian culture, but I haven’t been to Iran for over 5 years. There is a big difference between viewing a painting through Google and actually going to the museum and experiencing the painting up close. So I’m happy to say for the rest of the summer I will be in Iran seeing everything up close. I won’t be making any work but that will come afterwards.
Any future plans for your work and yourself? Upcoming exhibitions? Graduate school?
Right now I am in route to get my Masters in Education at the University of Maryland. In terms of my work I see getting my MFA in the horizon.
Lastly, any advice for budding artists? Anything you would tell a younger Nilou just entering the arts world?
I think I need to wait 5-7 years before I can really answer this question. But if I can give any advice I would telling my younger self and young artists to just do it. You really don’t know what you can achieve if you don’t try. I think my biggest fault is that I spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing.
The Stamp Gallery is located on the first floor of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union. The current show, Drawing Board, is up until July 29th and the gallery is open Monday through Friday 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM.
The Laboratory Research Gallery is located in 3rd floor west wing of the Parren Mitchell Art/Sociology Building. The current show, Frequency, is up until June 30th and the gallery is open Monday through Thursday 12:00 PM – 4:00 PM. Learn more about the Laboratory Research Gallery by visiting their blog.
Written by Christopher Bugtong
This is the last installment of the Midpoint 2016 artist interview series.
I read on your website that you attended school at the University of Tennessee for your undergrad career, what influenced your decision to join the University of Maryland MFA program?
So after I did my undergrad at the University of Tennessee, I did a semester post-baccalaureate program just out at the University of Colorado at Boulder. After that I went to New York City worked for a year and I was applying to grad school and I came here primarily for the funding. They put you in the classroom a lot and that kind of subsidizes the tuition… kind of a tuition remission and so it was mainly because of funding but also Professor Foonsham, I kind of followed his work. Kind of wanted to work with him as well.
In addition, your website mentions that your gallery works gain influence through your personal faith as well as your engagement with society, that being said, what was the influence behind God is Greater?
So it stemmed from when I heard about the demolition caused by ISIS to St. Elijah’s monastery and it really got me thinking because that was the oldest monastery in Iraq, I believe it’s like 1400 years old, just a little bit over 1400 years old and ISIS came in with heavy equipment to bulldoze it. I would have thought that they would have just bombed it and just gotten it over with in a second but they came in with heavy equipment. It probably took like over a week to two weeks and just destroying that history of not only the Christian faith but we’ve also heard of other destruction they’ve done. So I wanted to make a piece about that to try to figure out how do I convey what happened, what they did, just in visual form, in art form. So I decided to get Bibles that were translated into Arabic and then I laser cut just the aerial image of the aftermath onto the Bibles and trying to convey that destruction. So within the Christian faith the sincerest object is the Bible so laser cutting the destruction of that monastery onto the bibles I’m kind of recreating the monastery onto the bibles, I’m also talking about the destruction of it as well. it’s just kind of this dialogue that’s happening. But it was mainly because I heard about that story and was concerned about what was happening and I wanted to convey that concern in some way.
Do you ever feel limited by your desire to utilize “abandoned and discarded material” in your artwork? If so, why or how might this limit your work? If not, why or how does this set you apart from other artists?
No, I think it does limit me and so, therefore, speaking directly to God is Greater, I actually bought those bibles, so those actually were not reclaimed. Those were brand new. So I’m getting to the point in my work where if it is necessary to use new material, I will. With that said, going back to part of your question, I don’t know if I want to be classified as a recycled material artist or a reclaimed material artist and so, therefore, I like the ability to kind of go in between each one. Sometimes if the content of the piece allows me to use reclaimed material that I’ve found – if it speaks to it. If the reclaimed material speaks to the concept, I’ll use it. If not, I’ll go buy the material that speaks to it. So it does limit it but I don’t allow it to, if that makes sense. Because if it does, then I just go find the material that is right for the piece. But that actually just happened only about two years ago. Before I would almost never use new materials, strictly only reclaimed material. So this is kind of a new thing for me of using new material. Just about a year and a half two years ago.
What was it that drew you to work with these kinds of materials?
My first sculpture class at the University of Tennessee was kind of a special topics class. It was called Eco Art and so, therefore, you had to use reclaimed materials, you had to speak to those issues under the umbrella of environmental art and that was the first sculpture class that kind of started me on this path. Also, side note, both of my granddaddies on both sides of my family were penny pinchers so I’m kind of like that as well. Now I don’t like that as being the reason why I use reclaimed materials because you shouldn’t let that hinder you but I think that did contribute to it but mainly I think it’s because I took that eco class as my first sculpture class. Now growing in these past eighteen years, I really enjoyed the act of finding. A question I get asked a lot is, “how do you know which materials to pick up and what not to pick up?” so if I go by a dumpster and there are twenty 2x4s and I go by another one and there are a hundred chair legs, how do I know which one to pick up? And I like that process, of what stimulates me at that time because obviously I don’t pick up everything that I see that’s free. So I like that process that the material engages me in some way and therefore I respond and take it to my studio and try to implement that in my work.
The incorporation of faith can often be seen as a controversial topic, has God is Greater created any controversy? Is this the intended purpose?
I don’t know if controversy is the intended purpose. I do talk about faith in my work but actually, some of it has been controversial because I also talk about where my faith makes me stand up for issues and some of those issues are very unpopular in a contemporary sense. But dealing directly with this piece, I think everyone is onboard with the idea that if you disagree with someone or a faith or belief, you should not necessarily act harmfully on those beliefs. You can speak to them and that’s totally fine and that is where I think we all agree but if you go past speaking and act, just like ISIS did with the temple, that is when we all stand on the same plane and say, “No, that’s wrong.” So with this particular piece, I haven’t had any issues with it like other pieces I’ve done. One of my previous pieces was actually dealing with Planned Parenthood and abortion and that was extremely controversial but what I try to do is stand lightly on those issues and not stamp my feet, if that makes sense, and maybe start to have a dialogue and not an argument.
What is the meaning behind the title of your work?
So I liked it being a little ambiguous where you’re not sure. The word God is kind of ambiguous in this because you’re not sure who God is. If you’re talking about multiple belief systems or faiths as we are whether it’s Christianity or Islam. So the word God in there, God is Greater, which God? Whose God? My God? Your God? So I like the ambiguity of it but also it’s pretty direct if you do think about it in that way as well. So that’s actually where that last question comes in. I want to speak to things, to stand firm in my beliefs but not to an extent to where it ostracizes the viewer if they believe something different. So it allows the viewer to come into the title, come into the piece with still allowing me to state my beliefs…Now I can tell you exactly what the title means but I feel like that can be controversial. Personally, why I did it is I believe…so if we’re talking about the God of Christianity, I believe He is greater than this demolition. Christianity, the belief system, obviously is affected by it but in the long term, that is not shaking the faith. So if you dig into the title, you might come to that but if not, you might just be like, “who’s he talking about?” But if you look at the piece and the description, then you might come to that, though ISIS came in for a purpose: to destroy a portion of the faith, it’s actually not destroyed. The faith system is a lot bigger than one monastery or one person. Which in history, you can obviously see that with the Crusades, with what Christians did, they didn’t shake other belief systems. So you can actually see that with martyrs etcetera it actually… it makes the faith stronger. Usually, when the faith has pressure on it, it makes it stronger which is actually unusual…kind of an interesting aspect of when one belief system comes up to another. It harms it in the short term but almost benefits it in the long term which is kind of interesting.
Undergraduate students make up a bulk of the Stamp Gallery’s audience, what kind of emotions do you hope to evoke from the students regarding your work?
I think probably two emotions. Hopefully, awareness that not only that these things are happening as we can give sort of a long list of what ISIS has done but that this one action has happened. The knowledge of this. As I was making it I was speaking predominantly just to family and they had not heard of it. I think it was actually back in 2014 that this happened and I’d just heard about it in 2016. So it’s even unusual for me, as the artist, to be making a piece that I think is contemporary like of today and it’s actually of two years ago. So it’s almost like I’m kind of late to the party. So I think awareness that this is happening and hopefully that we can do something more. And I think maybe just to engage in the piece. I hope that visually it was engaging enough that they can be like, “oh hey, this is kind of visually interesting, let’s look into it more, let’s figure out what it’s saying” So I hope to intrigue the viewer with the aesthetics of it but also hopefully to be more aware of what is happening because a couple of my next pieces are going to deal with how Christians are being targeted in other countries. Mainly right now in China so I want to bring awareness to what’s happening to people of my faith in certain areas of the world.
Are you working on any newer pieces right now? What plans do you have for your artwork in the near or distant future?
Yea, I’m working on a piece right now. So in China, in a province, the government has taken down 1200 crosses from churches and in some places have actually demolished the whole church. In one situation which I might be more direct in this piece and talk about this situation and not the umbrella view or the aerial view, just on like May the tenth I believe, the government contracted out some individuals to go demolish a church and the pastor and his wife was going to stand against it so they stood in front of the bulldozers and they actually buried the wife alive and tried to bury the pastor but somehow he escaped. So that was just like three weeks ago that this is happening that, at least I don’t think would happen in contemporary society but she was buried alive just for her faith and so my next piece will probably deal specifically with that situation and might continue to deal with situations like that or more direct faith-based work.
And is this going to be shown?
Not yet, it’s just kind of in the idea phase right now so we’ll see. Now the God is Greater piece will actually be in a show with a couple other pieces, it’s my solo show in a gallery in Greenville, South Carolina on the campus of Furman University in September.
For more information on Zac Benson, visit https://zacbenson.com/