Yesterday I took joy in taking a shower in bare feet, in sipping on bottomless cups of tea and coffee, in hearing someone else speak Persian on the phone, in flipping through a book while cocooned in a sofa in a corner that was formed by a wall and a window that expects the sunset all day.
I missed the sunset yesterday. I was busy stacking shelves of my small library, cleaning out my desk, sorting summer clothes back into my closet, and stacking towels for the last time in my bathroom. It was not in zipping up my backpack but in shutting the fall board of my piano that I realized I’m moving again.
Seated in a car stuffed with my belongings (so much for Marie Kondo and minimalism aspirations – ha!), dad and I are driving up to New York. There’s 40 minutes left before our arrival to the city – a densely populated island-like slab that still allures me with its scent of burnt coffee. Here’s to a city atop an underground wonderland, referred to as “the subway” instead of “the metro.”
Dad points out Manhattan’s skyline and I remind myself, “do not make eye contact with anyone on subway cars.” In this densely populated city to our car’s right, people create privacy in public spaces by a contract regarding where our gaze is directed. No eye contact – got it.
Beyond privacy afforded by this contract barring eye contact, I own 103 square feet of personal space accessible only with the swipe of my ID card. I wonder about the specifics of this private space. Maybe these 103 square-feet make up my cocoon. Maybe this shoe box of personal space is a rendition of Virginia Woolf’s essay — my dorm as a room of mine own. Or maybe, as Owen Meany says, a dorm room is something in between a nest and a hotel room.
I remember that in grade school, my teachers would not allow us to write with pens until our handwriting earned the grade. They would take points off for texts written in ink — and grant feedback for texts written in graphite. Believing that I can always have better handwriting, I relied on pencils as my instrument.
Recently, I’ve been drawn to Agnes Martin, an artist known for her penciled grids.
As a Canadian artist and writer (and former professional swimmer — what a woman 🙂 ), Agnes Martin claims to be an extender of the abstract expressionist tradition, the zenith of American painting after WWII (think drips, stains and/or large slabs of color). Martin admired Rothko for Color Field theory and had a close friendship with Ellesworth Kelly. As she honed her artistic skills, she slowly moved to the margins of mainstream of the New York School of abstract expressionism. With her back to the world, Martin set out to illustrate and recon the human mind — she creates “mindscapes.”
In search of these mindscapes in the DC metro area, I’ve waded through the Hirshhorn library as well as galleries at the Glenstone and the National Gallery of Art. I stood mesmerized in front of Untitled #2, a canvas spanned with strips of light blue, pink, and beige acrylics. The pinks and blues merge, creating a shadow of the world of colors that the sunset offers up. Each strip of color exists between lines that Martin traces with a blue pencil on a canvas that is only slightly primed. Martin did not bother with the roughness of the linen. She did not use sand paper to rough out the textures and she did not add layers of Gesso to help her colors stand out from the canvas base. Her lines, cooperating with the rough linen canvas grounds, sometimes look like dots and dots sometimes look like lines.
Making their mark on some peaks and valleys of unprimed linen canvas, Martin’s blue lines remind me of the blue lines that I as a child found within my first composition notebooks. Evoking early memories of writing for me, Martin posits that children have a most cherished gift:
Young children are more untroubled than adults and have many more inspirations. All the moments of inspiration added together make what we call sensibility. The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults but is much more possible in children. In adults it would be more accurate to say that the awakening to their sensibility is the most important thing
Agnes Martin, Writings
A relationship lies between a child’s wonder and sensibility, between innocence and experience. The world of a child is unfiltered — maybe even unprimed like Martin’s canvases. The road from emotion to response is not convoluted. Because of their open mindedness in absorbing the content of the world, children leave more space for reacting to and understanding their worlds. From fine grains on a sheet of paper to the details of zippers on pencil cases, children are enamored by the details they are presented with, details that grow mundane as they age. Martin’s work marries innocence and emotional experience of childhood on the surface of a linen canvas. With these mindscapes that she creates, she returns me to our childhood adorations of details on things that don’t necessarily matter, of zooming in and out to count the pixels of the TV screen.
When Martin conceives of a vision for her canvases, she then rescales the image of her work in her mind to fit 6-foot square canvases. Instead of consulting a calculator, she arduously pencils in her calculations on paper. I still wonder if anything gets lost in the arduous mathematical transmutations of translating the image in her mind to the large 6 foot linen canvases that she creates. Finding poetry in numbers, she calculates, scribbles, and plans. In creating a canvas that invites viewers to return to their unfiltered state of mind – of the gift of childhood, After days and weeks of complex arithmetic, Martin trades in scrap papers of her calculations for pencil and canvas and makes multiple attempts to reach perfect scale.
The human hand, with its limited manual capacity, obeys the idealist mind. Geometry, the study of the intersection of lines, is a human made endeavor. No human hand, however, can draw close enough to perfect geometry on paper. I like to think that the distinction between ideal geometries that the mind sets out and the insufficient skill of the hand are what we have pencils to always go back to, to improve and to grow. Human materials also add texture to the canvas. Among the brushstrokes and lines I spotted a hair from her paintbrush, encapsulated among the flow of her work. The hand and the brush hairs fall short from the desires of the high house of the mind — a mind of complex geometric wonders ready to be pursued after with the adventurous, though often imprecise, hand.
The distinction between the idealism of the mind and the imperfection of work from human hand fueled Martin’s self-editing process, as she burnt the canvases she did not like. Knowing that the canvas on view carries the legacy of 12 other canvases, I felt the strain of holding up a ruler to 6-foot square canvases, most of which were fed to bonfires.
Quavering, suffering, burning, repeating, and eventually accepting, Martin maintained a positive outlook on life, claiming to only create positive art. Her painstakingly penciled lines constitute a kind of writerly mark, ones that capture sensations from joy to happiness and the suffering in between. Her lines encourage us to accept “suffering is necessary for freedom from suffering,” a notion that is echoed in religions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Full Text of “Agnes Martin : Writings”, archive.org/stream/AgnesMartinWritings/Agnes%20Martin%20-%20Writings%20-%20Agnes%20Martin_djvu.txt.
Wednesday July 24th was the last day that Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exhibit Who is Afraid of Red, Yellow, Green was on view at the Hirshhorn museum and sculpture garden. As a gallery guide, I’ve spent my days walking students, friends, family, and strangers in and out of the room. Pieced together from conversations I’ve shared as well as research that I’ve done both inside and outside of this gallery, this is a response to reflection on Rirkrit’s show.
When I lead visitors into the Rirkrit front room, they are immediately surrounded by monumental blocks of red, yellow, and green colored walls. On the other side of the entrance to the gallery, there are detailed lists of ingredients for the three red, yellow, and green Thai curries that are served to visitors inside the galleries. Color circulates and satiates visitors’ appetites.
Beyond the literal representation of the traditional colors of Thai foods, the red, yellow, and green represent the oppositional political factions of Thailand. In restless coups, each faction protests for different governmental structures and civil rights. As outsiders to Thailand, we as visitors have more access to information regarding national politics than do civilians inside the country.
Censorship has only grown more stringent in Thailand. In passing the Computer Crime Act, the Thai regime allowed state agencies to block civilian access to information that spoke against the monarchy. Rirkrit Tiravanija grew up in a Thai diaspora in Argentina, free from the censorship his home country yet engulfed by the images of Thailand’s history.
Picture upon picture and article upon article, like many of us, Rirkrit could not put a stop to the barrage of information he collected about Thailand. Years later, many of his findings spanned the four walls of one of the galleries at the Hirshhorn.
Last Saturday, a visitor was surprised by one aspect of the drawings on the wall. He asked, “why would a modern artists decide to strip off color from his work?” We lead technicolor lives. The walls of the gallery, however, are limited to shades of black charcoal.
Arguably, in stripping away color, Rirkrit encourages visitors to strip away their bias. But on another level, even without color, bias is inseparable from human action: when commissioned artists choose their art pieces and their orientations on the walls, the histories that the walls of Hirshhorn carry are no longer an unbiased account of social and civil rights events. The facts of history remain the same. But the way these facts, these images, are portrayed on the wall are different every time they are mounted on walls other than those at the Hirshhorn. Additionally, the surface area of the walls simply do not allow for each event to stay in the light forever. Each drawing stays visible and in full detail for a few weeks, until another artist draws another political account atop, abstracting the older sketches in the memories that the wall holds.
In a society constantly connected and updated with news through the press and social media, there exists a challenge with the onslaught of information. The front pages and headings attract further attention than the text in fine grain, the subtitles. Giant news corporations obscure grassroots journalism and we the spectators are left with the quickly blackening white walls of our attention.
Each week that I walk into the room, either on a tour or by myself, I sense the weight of history, slowing me down to a point that I struggle to delineate one event from the other — events, faces, issues, country matters bleed into one another. The onslaught of historical record leaves me more informed but overwhelmingly constrained. Over the weeks I’ve felt a strong (though unrealistic) desire to stop the march of time and temporarily stop the march of artists so that I can observe and understand each event, and each issue. Realizing that the artists draw relentlessly, I sense an urge to fixate and pry apart one layer from another. I realize, however, that it is impossible to understand a single event, as the ramifications of one uprising are so much more that they can fill an entire wall. With time passing and artists mounting events on walls, I am overwhelmed.
Though the Rirkrit gallery grows dark and abstracted, it offers up ways to dwell on the complexity of piecing together history. We are social creatures: we crave human connection.
Realizing human inclinations for connection and conviviality, Rirkrit provides curry for us to connect over. Lines for food (and photos) characterize the public interest for Rirkrit’s art, just as lines that leak out of the museum characterize Kusama’s art. The two artists, as forebearers of modern art, provide opportunities to not only resolve tensions but become a part of the artistic message.
In more artistic terms, Rirkit’s exhibit is an exemplar for relational aesthetics, a fine art mode that art critic Nicolas Bourriard coined in 1998. In this mode, instead of plain splatters or readymade (think Duchamp’s urinal), artists like Rirkrit use social relations between as their medium (their paint) to create art.
Critics like Bruce Hainely have extended notions behind relational aesthetics, particularly to the interweaving of aesthetics and gastronomy. For Rirkrit, the art of the curry does not reside slowly in its taste and its appearance, but also in the social relations that the act of eating curry forges: in standing in line anticipating, interacting with food servers, sitting on clumped together stools beside overwhelming walls of historical events, visitors are encouraged to communicate and delve into points of tensions in their renditions of history.
A few days ago, the four walls in Rirkrit’s exhibition were painted over with white paint, the layers of history submerged in the walls of the hirshhorn. When this artwork arrives at its next destination, the artists will be different, the visitors will be different. The walls will look different. History will look different. The curry will remain the same red, yellow, and green. The flavors the same. The political parties out there in the world with the same fervor. The existence and prevalence of conversations — well that’s for us to decide.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics. Les Presses Du Réel, 2002.
Photography weaves together the life fabric of the modern individual. With almost every smartphone equipped with a camera, a mere tap of the thumb creates photographs. I wonder how many days I’ve gone without using my cell phone’s camera.
Beyond its omnipresence, photography trods the line between art and archival. This practice collects and archives the present for a time of need, a time that demands evidence. This practice is an antidote to the threat of Alzhiemers or those who deny parts of history. Take, for example, the annual family photograph, capturing the faces of loved ones and lost ones, carefully hung on the corridors of homes around the world, and brought to Grandma when she can’t remember who you are.
Besides a form of evidence (“I was here”), photography serves another, more emotional purpose: to come to terms with nostalgia. In her essays On Photography, Susan Sontag says, “It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia.”(15) An emotion that dwells in the past, nostalgia almost always manages to return into the mind’s present.
After reading Sontag’s on Photography, I wonder whether previous generations were less nostalgic than I. According to Sontag, photography actively promotes and stimulates nostalgia. Did past generations lead less nostalgic lives?
I turn to my grandparents and my conversations with them to answer this question: my grandmother’s reminiscences about her schoolgirl days in French school and my grandfather’s weekly game of checkers with his college friends. My grandparents are as equally nostalgic as I am, but they greet nostalgia without need for photos. Instead, my grandparents actively address nostalgia: one sings songs that transport her back in time and the other ritualistically plays his favorite game. I instead look at photos. I observe and then imagine myself back into the photograph, into a point of time I can never return to.
Sontag is not the biggest advocate for nostalgia and for this reason calls photography an “elegiac art, a twilight art.” Rumi and the sufis would respond to this characterization by jampacking transient moments with thoughts, emotions, and poetism. Sufis live so powerfully in the same transient moments we do: they teach us that moments are worthwhile experiencing and reflecting upon, and not mourning, later. Photographs are a past in the present. As Sontag mentions, “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.” My friend and I name our urge to capture moments as memory-hoarding. I still don’t think that compound noun is why I photograph. So I started looking for better words. I came across the word Morii, as the urge to capture things, in dictionary of obscure sorrows.
Its etymology comes from ‘memento mori,’ a small reminder of your mortality + ‘torii,’ the Japanese gates that draw the boundary between mundane and sacred. I photograph to transfer myself to the venerated world of nostalgia — the comfortable, orderly world of the past. This nostalgic getaway is a world that does not change and has connected dots.
Tucked away in my own photo album on my phone, there lies an album called “On Peacefulness.” This album contains photographs of the most ordinary events of my life: a short video of an egg frying on March 23rd, a moment that I was comfortable in solitude. The album has a snapshot of an empty English classroom on a Friday morning and an inverted photograph of Butler library’s columns, inscriptions, and the night sky.
Torri, that gate separating a mundane space from sacred one, applies directly to the reasons and ways in which I treat this photo album of mine. In compiling its contents, I’ve realized that sometimes I want to quickly capture and safely transport the joy or calmness of a moment with me to another time, for a harder time.
What if I don’t think about the future and stay here for a little longer? What if I soak in the joy by prolonging the time I spend in a place I want to (so badly) photograph?
Compared to other ways of documenting the present, the small snippet of time it takes to accomplish a photograph seems innocuous. But as Sontag warns, since the photographer is in two places at once—both reminiscing and in the present, the photographer can never fully be in the present.
I’ve been looking for other ways to document. Last week I decided to draw. I came across this practice from the Hirshhorn museum’s Draw program, in which everyone gathers for an hour in front of an art piece and draws in response to a prompt. Sketching has prolonged my “stay-in-joy time”. I choose to broaden my toolbox of ways to address nostalgia: some days I will draw, others I will take snapshots, and others I will listen, or safe keep writing on the back of a receipt.
For some reason, March has a vendetta against me. Something about the Iranian year coming to an end is unsettling or maybe it is a historical relic for settling debts on the Ides of March — who knows. And I’m not alone. Some of my friends don’t disagree: March is hectic.
But March is also the month that spring inches closer, days get longer, it’s women’s history month, and pisces people are fantastic.
My resilience against the evil side of March lies in optimism. Positivity and a proactive attitude are muscles that I want to keep training. And though I’m sure I’ll have some slip ups, I want to mark when I complain and be aware of where my words lead my thoughts. I’ve embarked on a no complaining challenge this month to become more aware of the process of words to thoughts to eventually play a prominent role in directing my thoughts.
I understand how impractical it can be to not complain. I abide in friends, faculty, and family. Doing so helped me think through my thoughts and space out my next steps. My friend calls this process discussion and I think that this collaborative and confiding process is beneficial for feeling supported, self reflecting, and decision making (hard!).
Thinking through and talking through what makes me complain is helpful. Sometimes it is even fun: when my friend and I walk to class we complain about the cold in a tone that always makes me laugh.
But saying “ugh I’m so tired” as I plop my backpack down to work – not that helpful. This is the complaining I am trying to keep track of and notice when the mind allows thoughts to tumble into a cycle of negativity. Everytime I notice myself in this position, I note it on my wrist, right under my watch.
Try this with me, I think it is a fun and proactive way to march our way through March.
Almost everyday this past month, I’d pull on my manteau, slide into the most comfortable shoes and stroll to the closest newspaper kiosk. Sifting through different publications, almost everyday I’d pick up the latest copy of همشهری newspaper. I’d then bring home the news to connect my grandpa to the city buzzing outside his window.
By the time I’d round out my walk home, I’d finish scanning the big print news: — news from plane and bus crashes to news covering last night’s soccer game. Before breakfast, I’d have a rough sense of the tragedies and triumphs that knit that people of Tehran together. I find the newspaper name, همشهری, to be very fitting. After all, همشهری means more than just fellow citizen. It brings in connotations and tastes of companionship beyond living in the same city.
(lil’ thoughts about my collage) Lately, I’ve been collecting the ه characters from the mastheads: once I got a sense of the city through its writing, I’d tear out the ه and put it in the back pocket of my notebooks. These ه characters (both literal characters of the alphabet and the characters of human beings in Tehran) lean into each other just as the women in Ness Lee’s illustration, found in the feminist publication called Room Magazine, lean into each other. Lean in for support, for empowerment, or just to get through the news of the day.
I recently read a book about coffee culture — Fika specifically. A contributing factor to people’s enhanced quality of life is taking an hour or two out of one’s day and gather to converse and reconnect with one’s loved ones over coffee, or tea, or what-have-you. For the past few months, I have fostered a newfound appreciation for taking breaks at coffee shops. The process of going to a coffee shop, choosing a treat, waiting on it, and enjoying my beverage throughout a conversation has also challenged my relationship with coffee. Rather than a hasty pick-me-up, coffee is slowly becoming a companion to my conversations, or the little prize I give myself after a challenging task.
Appreciating coffee culture during winter break in Tehran led me to a unique cafe: the other day, as I settled into my sofa at the Hestooran cafe, I was taken aback when the waitress brought on the menus to our table with a set of magnifying glasses.
“بگردید و ببینید دلتون چی میخواد/Look and see what your دل wants.”
In farsi, the word دل means both the heart and the gut. The two vital organs — heart and gut — lead the decision-making process in the Persian language: what do I want to taste and what do I want to experience between the sips or bites I choose to order?
What one eats affects one’s mood and decision-making — this is what research about gut-brain axis covers nowadays. Waving the magnifying glass on the margins of the menu, I spotted small, detailed notes about the benefits of certain seeds, herbs, and legumes, and their relationships with different humors: Sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Like Greeks and Oriental traditional medicine that focus on such humors, Iranian traditional medicine is built upon the temperaments. Food is meant to nourish both the soul as well as the body — and the notes on the menu’s margins wove this tradition into our modern-day experience at the cafe.
Magnifying glasses, coupled with the earthy color and texture of menu call for a voyage into not only personal experiences with tastes and traditional medicine, but also nostalgic stories. Creating an experience of antiquity, the menu elicits conversations between generations: past generations who experienced the atmosphere of the cafe — stocked with old furnishing and traditional Iranian ambiance — on a daily basis and the younger generation that seeks novelty in such traditional settings. For our table, the menu was a starting point for my mother to share the lighter memories from her late teenage years. Over warm coffee, served in earthy-textured pottery mugs, generations reconnect.
Though a gesture, the magnifying glass accompanying the menus at Hestooran make visitors tune into what treats their gut and their mood. Taking out more time in choosing our foods might just be the tool we need to cherish the short breaks we take between work. It allows us to reconnect with our loved ones, and synchronize with our thoughts and gut.
Whether or not you visit the Hestooran cafe, allow the magnifying glasses to influence your journey in listening to your gut.
6 months ago, I walked across the DAR constitution hall stage in a burning fever. I graduated — but no pictures really remain from after the ceremony, as I rushed into our car, drove home and dived for my bed. Sick at grad?
It turns out sickness after long periods of work is something common in our society. After long stretches of hard work and stress, natural killer cells are on the low and our bodies are more susceptible to illness.
I think I’m going to remember the untimely fever more vividly than the chords that hung around my neck, or the people sitting next to me during the ceremony. It is a lesson of one transition from one chapter to the next. As Martha Nussbaum puts it in her essays about compassion, we become merciful when we behave as the “concerned reader of a novel.”
I became more concerned about myself when I was at my most vulnerable state — sick.
The walk across the stage for my diploma was one drenched in sweat accompanied by a high hammering fever; after that I was forced to sleep and rest.
That summer, my journey into concern for myself began
In June 2018, I started meditating. Staying still was and still is one of the hardest activities for me to bear, especially when my phone, my emails, my writing nudge at me to jump at them first thing in the morning.
Some days, the few minutes I spend on the mat are more enjoyable than the night I spent thinking and not sleeping. And some days I only stumble through a few flows just to get something to eat. My practices are not perfect. Sometimes I check my social media and emails while sitting atop the mat. And some days I even manage a handstand — some days I’m a buddha, some days I am not.
I think the stretching and breathing helps to elicit concern for myself. I think that letting my head hang below my knees first thing in the morning has helped gauge how much concern I a lot to myself and how much concern I leave for my surroundings.
Accidents happen — I’ve realized so much good and growth comes out of them.
This year, I’m thankful for the accidents, the bumps, the unforeseen, the schedule ruiners, the things that cut against the grain.
I’m still trying to find the good part about having a mouse intrude my room. But, besides this past accident, I think the accidents that occurred this year have made me grow and reflect in ways I did not think I’d be able to.
I accidentally came across a beautiful Persian classical piano score. When I play it reminds me of my favorite bookstore — Shahre Ketab in Niavaran, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils, of days when I’d sit in front of my grandfather and the TV tackling crossword puzzles and English quests.