Nothing Gold Can Stay
Much can be learned about cultures through the understanding of what it is they value. Take, for instance, the precious metal gold. Recently its worth has so exponentially increased that many investors now claim it is a commodity that will never depreciate. But how did its value attain such a level of solvency? And how has its investment potential transcended borders to become so globally traded? Was the value for the reflective metal always been so? If one juxtaposes gold’s context within different cultures and historical periods, much can be learned about those cultures and of our own as well.
In the apocalyptic coda to the New Testament titled “Book of Revelation,” for example, its author John the Apostle had a vision of heaven and described it as having streets paved with gold. Whether one interprets this description of the afterlife as mere fantasy or a theological precept, the metaphor has nonetheless remained part of Western culture. And because this particular metal and not another is figuratively used to describe aspects of the heavenly supernatural, it reveals much about what Christianity cherishes, and by extension, the West too; particularly because of the former’s origins in the latter. Compare, however, John the Apostle‘s association of gold with divinity with the Andean contemporaries of the Aztecs: the Inca.
In a drawing by the sixteenth-century native Andean scholar Francisco de Ayala Guaman Poma that constitutes part of his Nueva Cronica del buen gobierno [New Chronicle of Good Government] (1603), there is depicted a fictional encounter between an Inca and a Spanish conquistador. Central to the interaction is the dialogue manifesting in a voice bubble in which the former asks: “Do you eat gold?” and the conquistador responds, “Yes I eat Gold.” The subtext of this query is that the Inca mistook the Spaniard’s rabidity for the shimmering alloy as being equivalent to the human body needing nourishment, hence the reference to its literal consumption. Further emphasizing how gold was valued differently in the worlds separated by the Atlantic, was the Spanish pathological obsession to locate the fabled golden city of El Dorado in South America and an Aztec descriptive for the reflective metal: “shit of the gods.” So, in essence, gold and anything else of such high value is ultimately culturally relative, and this differential is a component to the exhibition titled Nothing Gold Can Stay by the Berlin-based artist Shahram Entekhabi.
The exhibition’s title is directly culled from one of Robert Frost’s most celebrated poems. Consisting of only 8 lines with that last being “nothing gold can stay,” Frost’s opus is not only stripped down to the most essential but is a highly imagistic work that uses gold as a trope to lament the fall from Eden via a tree’s fecund beauty and eventual decay. But beauty is used to underscore its temporality and fleeting characteristic and thus the poem’s subtext is that we should concerns ourselves with loftier pursuits during our brief time on earth. In this sense the poem is also like memento mori as a reminder of death, and the importance for humans to aspire to higher ideals. Entekhabi weaves his works through and around Frost’s poem but not only as metaphor but also as transposed artistic strategy. Few are the artists who have this ability to deeply digest such an expansive literary work, regardless of its brevity, and to convincingly use it as a point of thematic departure without trivializing it. This endeavor can be understood on an easier but no less poetic level including, for instance, the word blue with all its melancholic association and its evocation in music; or, the emotive parallel of the color green with envy or red with anger. To be sure, Entekhabi deploys allusions to gold in his work, but the sparseness of Frost’s poem where every word is germane is analogous to the way the artist masterfully executes each mark on his paintings or works on paper with imperativeness even when it’s concomitantly infused with an ostensible abandon. Many works evince this including the vernacularly titled Kerosene (2011).
Kerosene is a work on paper and an amalgam of ink, colored pencil, ballpoint pen and metallic dust and consists of Entekhabi’s well recognized iconography derived from his Persian ancestry: the sinuous and sensuous figures of men and women in garb associated with his cultural heritage are articulated with delicate handiwork. Curvaceous bodies intertwine as well as disperse across the picture plane in compositional sophistication as representational and abstract elements spill and spiral here and there in an organic and ecstatic fluidity. What appears to be a drum of petroleum, which is intrinsic to the (political) economies of Arabic states and the West as well, spills on its side; but it, and its contents are made of reflective metal and its spillage morphs into the shape of a kerosene repository. The polyvalence of the work is inescapable: Entekhabi offers a reframing of Aladdin’s lamp and the fabled One Thousand and One Nights. But his citation of iconic Arabian literature becomes a flashpoint in addressing the conditions of social relations within contemporary culture: men in conservative attire rub up against a woman in sunglasses with headscarf underscoring an historical dichotomy between male and female, and their respective analogues: culture/nature, tradition/modernity, and orthodoxy/heterodoxy. To accentuate these cultural and historical antagonisms even further, women shape-shift into an array of creatures amounting to an anthro-zoomorphic bestiary. This work, while indubitably part of the exhibition is related to other works that are similarly titled including Kerosene 1, Kerosene 2, and Kerosene 3 I (all 2011).
The latter three are differentiated from the first by color as well as figurative elements that create altogether different narratives and levels of meaning. Formally they are all rendered in a kind of light blue monochrome with the exception being the metallic dust that signifies gold as well as kerosene and vice versa. One work includes a beheading which one cannot avoid the associative violence harking back to a pre-modern if not medieval past. This, in turn, is further dramatized by an image of a woman in subordinate role to a menacing male: she spouts ‘gold” from her breast as if she was lactating and her mouth emits the precious metal is if it was viscera forced from her entrails. In using these two images to bookend the rest of the mise-en-scène, that is, decapitation and misogyny, Entekhabi creates a powerful work that is nonetheless beautiful to behold. And yet in another variation of the kerosene series, the composition is dominated by what appears to be images of foxes circling their kill. Taken together, the works articulate the cultural history of kerosene through a complex and multilayered narrative of politics of the body and the body politic. As if this was not enough to distinguish these compositions, Entekhabi intertextually weaves, however subtle and disparate, the history of kerosene into his work: it is generally stored in blue containers, utilized by many people throughout the world both today and historically, and was first distilled from petroleum in the mid 800s by the Persian scholar Razi. In short, its preciousness was akin to gold; thus it is a signifier par excellence for Entekhabi’s reframing of it within the context of East/West political and cultural difference. Other works riff on Frost’s poetic rubric with altogether different forms of subtly and intensity.
For also included in the exhibition is a corpus of large-scale paintings that are strictly monochromatic and evince another side of Entekhabi’s artistic intelligence. As works of an overall singular color with variations in tonalities, the paintings are very much reminiscent of the grisaille technique of medieval illumination. Grisaille was a genre that was used for its economy of means, but it also underscored the artistic prowess of those who engaged in it. Because the artist’s palette was reduced to one color with white and black mixed in for modeling, it was a challenge for any painter to create work with any degree of mimesis. But what Entekhabi manages to pull off are exquisite paintings that are elegant yet forceful, and that seem to be completely mapped out yet paradoxically feel spontaneous and even improvisational. Titled by the color used including Blue Painting, Red Painting, Cobalt Painting, and Gold Painting (all 2011), the figurative elements and subject matter in each work appear to be related to their individual palette. Red Painting, for example, seems to be populated more with women than the other three. The subliminal eroticism of the female bodies is accentuated by the rendering of a strawberry and a pomegranate, two fruits that have sexual connotations. In contrast to this is Cobalt Painting in which women and men of particular social class identified by those wearing a crown, turban and formal, professional attire, twist and turn into a vortex of representation and abstraction. Cobalt, of course, can be traced as far back to ancient Egyptian sculpture and Persian jewelry; and its bewitching attraction is extrinsically linked to the word’s ancient derivation: “goblin.”
In work after work in the exhibition, Entekhabi uses well Frost’s poem as foil in weaving his narratives as well as aesthetic into his art. This is evinced in the way that the artist employs both negative space and mark making as an essential dialectic. The ostensible minimalism of Frost’s 8 lines where each word and cadence, and where presence and absence is quintessential, is attenuated in Entekhabi’s spacious compositions. Indeed, symbiosis is germane to Entekhabi’s artistry that symbolically spills out and beyond the contours of a painting, a work on a paper, a photograph, or a video. In doing so, the artist reminds us of the interconnectedness of things where, in the words of Robert Frost, “nothing gold can stay.”
Published in Catalogue of the Exhibition:"Nothing Gold can Stay", Shahram Entekhabi, 2011, solo show, Other Gallery, Beijing, China