AMONG THE contemporary artists from Iran still living in the country today, Fahrad Moshiri (b. 1963) is certainly part of the most established and most recognised artists within Western art circles. With an untypical curriculum, and having lived abroad before moving back to Iran in 1992, Fahrad Moshiri has absorbed numerous influences in order to focus on more local subject matters inspired by daily life in Tehran. Using wit combined with humour, he intelligently puts together his compositions that can be interpreted in various ways, but without overtly provoking or offending the government. In this interview, Fahrad Moshiri talks about his artistic journey that spans two continents and represents the foundation of his challenging and always surprising works of art. BY OLIVIA SAND
Asian Art Newspaper: When did you decide to leave Iran for California?
Fahrad Moshiri: I completed tenth through twelfth grade high school in California before going to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). When I was in Iran, I attended an American international school in Shiraz and I was simply doing arts and crafts. The school noticed that I was interested in doing creative work and suggested to my father to send me to a school in the US where they could provide more art classes.
AAN: Why were you already in the US during high school?
FM: At the time, it was the norm for families to send their children to finish their education abroad, be it in Europe, or America. We were at that age where our parents were thinking of sending us to the US anyway. It just happened to coincide with the year before the revolution – in 1979 – and right after the American hostage situation.
AAN: What made you decide on America rather than France, Germany or UK?
FM: We were already going to an international school that was English speaking. I think there was also a tendency for Iranians to have California as top of their priority list as a place to go to.
AAN: In what did you major at CalArts?
FM: While attending art school, I became fascinated with sound. I had the intention of branching out from painting into finding materials, more media, and to experiment with things that I did not know how to use. Technology, sounds … these were all things that I became obsessed with at the time. I began to study analogue electronic music, then I switched to film school for one year. As the film students did not have the attitude that the art school students had, so I went back to art school. I was back and forth between art and film. After three years, I stopped going to school altogether.
AAN: Once you stopped school, did you pursue your interest in music?
FM: It was a constant thing. My life did not change that much after I left art school. I just relocated to Los Angeles from the suburbs, where CalArts was based. I was in studios and I continued to work until I ran out of the little money I had. Then, I started painting again.
AAN: At this time, what exactly were you trying to accomplish within music?
FM: It is a tricky question, because in art you really do not know what it is you are exactly doing: you are just basically feeding your curiosity. Of course, having no connections, or background, in Los Angeles, I was at a loss as to how and where I could continue, or make a professional living out of it. I was just concentrating on working and sending my material to agents and to various people; just the normal things artists have to do.
AAN: You also completed some work in film. Is this in the same time frame as when you left CalArts?
FM: I was doing a lot of experimental short films in college together with the sound and all the post-production. That was something that I intended to do when I left CalArts. If you can visualise it, that was at the beginning of MTV, which was generating a lot of great ideas for short films. In a way, that was their signature despite the fact that now they have gone 180 degrees another way. Initially, there was a tendency to think that an undertaking as phenomenal as MTV was something we would be able to get involved with, with art being more accepted in TV channels and other venues. We had a slight hope that things would be changing, and we might be able to present ideas as short documentaries and experimental films.
AAN: While still in California, did you consider the option of going into video instead of painting?
FM: I think I never thought that what I was doing as an output could be presentable in galleries. I always thought of them being presented in experimental underground video clubs, music-oriented venues rather than galleries. Sometimes, if I were collaborating with friends, we would find a few spots that were popular in Hollywood. We would propose ideas, and they would give one night to us, and we could do whatever we wanted. We did not know how to advertise, so we simply went there, and that was it. It was casual, we were just making things up as we were going along.
AAN: Going back in time, what were your paintings like when you were in California?
FM: Obviously, I was influenced by the Hollywood aspect of my existence, and the fascination that I had for the moving image. The first series of paintings that I did that were actually shown in a gallery in Los Angeles were large canvases of movie credits. Looking at my work, I felt that I was another version of Ed Ruscha, and a lot of ‘Andy Warholism’ could be found in my pieces. Then, gradually, when I was starting to think about going to Iran, for some reason I began to get fascinated by imagery of Islamic miniatures and Qur’anic ornamentation. I had already started to think of other things when I decided to go back to Iran after spending 13 years in the US.
AAN: In the beginning, did you consider living between both countries, spending half the year in Iran and half the year in the US?
FM: I somehow felt that I had burned out my resources in Los Angeles. In addition, my art teachers had always told me that if you wanted to become an artist, you had to go to New York. We simply could not be in Los Angeles – we had to be in New York for at least half of the year. For some reason, I was not stimulated by New York. I tried it a couple of times for several days, but I was afraid of it. I felt overwhelmed and it did not help my creativity. There was so much competition, so much great energy! Consequently, I kept away from New York for personal reasons. On the other hand, I felt that being an artist in Los Angeles was hopeless. Therefore, I bought a one-way ticket to Iran.
AAN: Most people must have viewed your decision to go back to Iran while attempting to become a successful artist as suicide. What encouraged you to stick to your plan?
FM: At the time, there was this television channel on satellite television in Los Angeles. It was a channel owned by the Iranian government. You could see well-selected programs that would entice and excite Iranians to come back to Iran. It was a very interesting television channel because it showed a lot of art movies, Abbas Kiarostami for example, a filmmaker that was making a lot of waves at that time. Also, a lot of filmmakers were actually being supported by the Ministry of Culture – providing the ideas were appropriate – you would get funding from the Ministry of Culture. I thought that perhaps I could make films in Iran. At that time, I was not thinking about art, I was only thinking about cinema. There was a tendency to think that you could actually find somebody that would be interested in listening to you, which was something that was not available to me in Los Angeles. I decided to maybe try my hand at making short experimental films in Iran. That is why I went back.
AAN: What type of films did you complete?
FM: I went back with the same mentality that I had in Los Angeles. I started to make connections immediately. It was all the opposite of Los Angeles where without a network, you would not get introduced to anyone. When I went back to Tehran, it seemed that everybody I knew, knew somebody that knew the person with whom I needed to be in touch. I was being introduced to a lot of interesting people, but at the end of the day, there was the obstacle of finding an idea that would get approved. At the time, we still needed to get negative stock from the Ministry of Culture in order to make our films. You could not buy negative stock on the black market because most of the time, it would be outdated and you would be wasting your time on dead film. Basically, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance monopolised importing raw stock for making films, and they would have different branches where you would submit your script. They would read it, they would ask you in, you would start to do rewrites over and over again until you would get it approved. It was a long and tedious process. I went through it twice, and by the time the scenario was close to being accepted, it would have been completely altered from what I originally intended. It was no longer my idea, and that was a major turn off because I was not used to being told what to do, or what I was not allowed to do. However, I was treated in a very civilised way, there were people available to whom you could submit your idea and discuss it, which was exciting for me. Nevertheless, I noticed that within the system in Iran at the time, a medium like painting was perhaps more feasible for me, because I could buy paint and canvas, and create in the privacy of my home without having to be accepted or being granted a permit.
AAN: What were the hurdles you had to overcome in order to complete some works of art?
FM: The philosophy behind art production in general in Iran was that you had to find a new vocabulary other than what was set into your mindset by the West. You had to push all the vocabulary that was Western aside, which also happened to be all the subject matters that were questioned by the system anyway, like sex, passion, and excitement. These three subject matters were not preferred, nor allowed, and it would be a dead end if you wanted to pursue that type of imagery or idea. On some level, it was very inspiring because you had to think of completely new ways and new vocabulary. However, they also had a tendency to go for films that were somehow referencing the war between Iran and Iraq in the support of the martyrs. If you wanted to make movies on war you would be able to be subsidised. That was something I was not an expert at. I had not gone to war, and it was not a subject matter that I wanted to take up. Other than that, you would have to look for exotic ideas: villages or people who had interesting and unique lifestyles to be featured in documentaries for example. The subject matter tended to be made for two different markets: either inside Iran, which would be cinema on war or if you wanted to go into art films for Western festivals, it would be sort of ethnic movies featuring ‘romantic realism’ as they called it.
AAN: After submitting scripts on two occasions, did the idea of going back to the US ever cross you mind?
FM: No. I was really enjoying living in Iran in the early 1990s after returning from California.
AAN: What kind of people were implementing the censorship, deciding on what was right and what was wrong?
FM: I think the Iran/Iraq War was a situation where the people who were involved in the war had created a solid network after it was over. These people, together with the ones who got the jobs, were insiders who had actually helped with the war and the revolution. They would become head of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and had strong opinions. I do not think any of them went to art school, but they had a very clear idea of what direction they wanted to take.
AAN: Back in Iran, when did you start believing that you could make a living from being an artist?
FM: When I went back to Iran, I was not so ambitious, because the speed in which life moves in the US is by far faster than what was happening in Iran. Life was much more mellow and relaxed. I was just relaxed as well, I was not painting in order to be a professional artist. I was just experimenting, and I was taking it easy for overcoming the hectic and stressful failure of artists’ ambitions in the US. Therefore, I was taking it one day at the time, and I was not thinking about being an artist or being an international artist. It was a time when I was being least interested in being an artist. Galleries were not too popular, and there was not a developed collector’s market. The art scene was extremely shallow.
AAN: When did the situation begin to change, and why?
FM: I think the curiosity that the West had for Iran developed into actually wanting to show Iran. At one point, around the mid-1990s, curators started to come to Iran looking for artists. It just so happened that I was painting, and I had a few exhibitions here and there, and out of nowhere I was picked up by a curator, who told me that she wanted to give me a show in London. After that, more curators started to come to Iran and before we knew it, we were having group shows in Europe.
AAN: Similarly to what was happening in the film industry, did you face difficulties with some of the imagery featured in your work?
FM: I knew that certain subject matters were problematic. I had already decided that I would go along with the idea that we had to think outside of that and not insist on using those subject matters. I was not really rebelling against the system. I was going with it so maybe I could find a way to speak without actually being too provocative.
AAN: As can be seen in recent paintings, you seem to decorate the flat surface of painting by creating a three-dimensional surface using found objects: diamonds, stones, paillettes (grains of gold dust). Being aware of the limitations of painting, how did the transition towards adding found objects occur?
FM: Basically, what I was doing at the time was to look for found material be it a three-dimensional object, an image in a newspaper, an advertisement, an image in a film, or a building. I was archiving and documenting found material, and that became the sort of mirror if I would be interpreting my work, a direct mirror of what was happening in the country. In other words, there was not a lot of meaning in it, it was me as an observer, not me creating per se. For example, I started to present gold furniture, which was something I found curious and contradictory in that society: a tendency to be very opulent indoors while you have a very modest and humble presentation outdoors. This duality in the culture fascinated me: for example, I would find housewives, who did embroidery and I would asked them to do embroidery for me. I was actually incorporating a ‘found taste’ in my art. That was the kind of transition I made within painting where I borrowed from a lot of different things
AAN: With the embroiderers, do they follow their instincts or do you provide them with precise instructions?
FM: It depends which stage you are talking about. It was a long adventure from the beginning to the end. For example, when I initially started, I was quite demanding in the way I would approach an idea. It would be normal for me to choose an image, interfere in the way it should be created, give directions and select the exact materials. Gradually, I noticed that there was something that I did not possess: a feeling of unprofessionalism and naivety that was much more interesting and powerful than my ideas, which were maybe too rigid and too thought out. I tended to rely on the interpretation of the person, for example, an embroiderer that I would find: if I wanted to imitate a child drawing, I could do it, but I do not think it would be a 100 percent as good as if the child did it themselves. My mind was too corrupted and now, I do rely on people’s message when making decisions, and when doing something. I like the effect of surprise.
AAN: You have completed several works in collaboration with Shirin Aliabadi. Is that something you would consider doing on a regular basis, or with other artists?
FM: The only reason why I collaborated was because we were living together, and sharing ideas together. By spending our lives together, the ideas would develop over constant feedback that we were giving each other. I felt comfortable with that person, however,
I do not like to be thrown in a position where I have to collaborate with someone that I am not close to. The collaboration was the outcome of endless conversations and feedback that we were getting, and it was just fair and logical to develop that idea as a collaboration. In that way, there are certain ideas that tend to become developed because of both of us. Therefore, it is a collaboration and it will definitely happen again.
AAN: As a well-established artist, do you feel that you enjoy more freedom in Iran in your artistic undertakings than less-established artists?
FM: I think all of us, starving artists as well as well established artists are pretty much in the same position in Iran. Obviously, if you are a propaganda artist, that is a completely different line. It is similar to any other system, which has its faithful artists who were doing posters for the revolution. If you are not one of them, then you are in another category. Painting for example is not treated the same way as cinema and literature. It is rather elitist, and incapable of reaching the masses whereas cinema and literature are made for the masses. Consequently, there is less attention paid to it. It is less feared, maybe rightfully so, maybe literature does have more effect because of the medium. Basically, we have been somehow ignored. There is a ministry that supports painting as a medium, and there is one that supports cinema. The ministry supporting painting has flourished without anybody expecting it to. Cinema was down despite the fact that there was so much energy being put in promoting it, and using it as a tool to give the proper image that the revolution, and the government wanted Iran to have. It was pampered, highly pampered. Painting was a medium that flourished despite the fact that it was ignored by the government.
AAN: Do you believe that in the near future, you and other artists featured abroad in recent shows on contemporary art from Iran will officially represent the country in major international exhibitions?
FM: Every time there is a new director in the museum of contemporary art in Iran, depending on the agenda of the director, things can change immediately. Under the leadership of a previous director, artists were actually in shows, one of them even presenting his work at the Venice Biennale. Then, the director changed, and they brought out the official artists again. It all depends on who is running the show, and we do not know who is going to be running it next. They change regularly. It is a very unpredictable situation. I do not know exactly what the reactions will be next season or in a couple of years. One tends to notice that people who were never interested in art are now buying art, with banks and private banks setting aside funds for collecting. These are huge changes in the system. There is a tendency to feel that art is something worth paying attention to because of the potential profits. If that is the way to get people excited about art, then be it. They gradually become passionate about it, they make purchases, they start to study the work, and they get involved whether they intended to or not, with the result that right now there are a lot of people getting interested in painting, or photography.