Berlin based, Iranian artist Nairy Baghramian’s sculptures challenge established notions in the socio-political-artistic climate, using elements of the title, the human body, gender and the exhibition space itself in the process. In Retainer (2013) organically shaped sheets of cast silicon, reminiscent of teeth, are held up by chrome steel struts, reminiscent of braces, and are arranged in a semi-circular fashion, somewhat like a person’s lower jaw.
While one wonders if he or she has been eaten or become an orthodontist, the piece examines the social notions surrounding ‘space’. By scaling it up, turning one of the most private spaces inside our bodies into a public exhibition, it forces a re-examination of the words ‘examination’, ‘viewing’ or ‘appreciation’.
In Slip Of The Tongue (2014), an over-sized worm-like matter is seen inside a glass case, with one of them protruding through the glass. Do these represent tongues?
In Chin Up (2015) a string of body parts with one looking like a tongue, line a wall. While both Slip Of The Tongue (2014) and Chin Up (2015) use different body parts to represent different human experiences, both of these are instances in which we aren’t quite in control of. The fact that the tongues in Slip Of The Tongue are ‘stuck’ inside a glass cabinet, and that the body parts in Chin Up are hung up on a wall, suggests the moment where we cede control of ourselves. In the case of Chin Up, to a doctor or dentist, and in the case of Slip Of The Tongue, to whatever is in our subconsciousness that we believe to be true which ‘bursts forth’ into the open.
While one is voluntary while the other is involuntary, in both of these instances, we inadvertently, find out what’s inside of us; physically in the case of Chin Up, and in our hearts in the case of Slip Of The Tongue.
In Stay Downers (2016), a group of 3 pastel coloured, organically shaped objects lie around, each apparently ‘hampered’ or ‘held down’ by another organically shaped object. Baghramian even has names for them; ‘Nerd’ for the left two, and ‘Malingerer’ which means ‘slacker’ for the one on the right. Curiously the two nerds require a greater force to hold them down, while Malingerer has just a small force tugging at its feet, since he, innately, stays down by default, being an idler.
The Scruff Of The Neck (2016) also suggests the moment where one is taken, by force, to see someone else in authority. It is usually reserved for the way unruly or misbehaving children are treated and is also the way animals deal with their young ones, by picking them up by the backs of their necks. The force used is not so much for physical punishment but more of a psychological one, where the perpetrator is usually in a group situation, and the people around would be able to see that he/she has in fact been caught and about to be reprimanded.
Perhaps that moment of being caught and hauled off to see someone else in a higher position of authority, is an anxious state, a bewildering moment where one does not know what might happen next, which is sort of like these sculptures of teeth and braces hanging way above eye level.
Where one might expect a work of art to be situated in a convenient location to be seen, in this case it is purposely situated where it cannot be easily done so, confounding one’s expectation of what an exhibit should do. It also brings to light the issue of ‘privilege’, in this case of ‘privileged space’ for viewing an exhibition.
As one walks around the space bewildered as their long held beliefs have been upended, one’s thoughts might naturally drift to who the protagonist represented here might be and what it has to do with teeth and braces. Is it someone or a group of people in Berlin or people in Iran? Hinting at something political these works stop short of any direct reference to any issue, and is in fact vague about whether it is about justice or injustice. It can be read both ways.
What’s certain is that the whole exhibition space has been described by Baghramian to be the inside of a mouth, with the doors at entrance to being the ‘lips’. In this situation, the visitors coming in might be the air which eventually goes back outside to tell the story of what it might feel like to be inside the mouth of someone that’s just been grabbed by the scruff of their necks.
The surrender to some ‘force’ that keeps us down or ‘authority’, whether for social, political, medical or even biological reasons in the form of involuntary responses of our bodies, seems to lie at the core of Baghramian’s recent work. Subtle and implicit, never overt in their implications, these works seems to provide a glimpse at an authoritarian world where one is allowed certain freedoms up to a certain boundary, after which someone or something else takes over the control of our lives.