Splendid gender bending...
Nat Muller in conversation with Shahram Entekhabi
Nat Muller: In many of your other (video) performances, comic relief serves a distinct and strategic purpose. Why have you chosen particularly for humour and hyperbole as the mechanisms, which unravel certain societal dynamics?
Shahram Entekhabi: From the very beginning when coming to the West and when articulating myself as a human being and - later - as an artist, I
did not plan to be humoristic. Rather, I made attempts to adapt to the rules and rituals established by a successful white male supremacy. When analysing my attempts though, it became obvious quite soon, that they mainly ended in failure.
I was aspiring to some kind of mimicry, or wanna-be trying to live a beautiful life. Yet, unavoidably it always remained obvious that I - like a chameleon - am trying to look like its surroundings: like a leaf or a stone, but in the end remain to be this strange animal/alien/other. Within this context, humour became the most efficient survival strategy. The chameleon is a funny creature, but also my surroundings (the white western male hegemony) – which I so desperately was trying to adapt to - make me laugh. So my humour is an irritation with the two concepts: the concept of making up what seems to rule the world, and the concept of the chameleon that is trying to adapt to it. Needless to say, that my Iranian/Persian home of the past, with its specific super-masculinity made me run away immediately for almost the very same reason…
N.M.: Your encounters and performative actions often take place on the street, where you mingle (or not) with passers-by. How important is this immediate interface for you on an artistic and conceptual level, and what role does public space, and immediate interaction with a random public play in your practice?
S.E.: Well, then lets go on with the chameleon in this case. What happens when it looks into the mirror? It becomes the mirror, what else? And then - to quote pop history: "I'll be your mirror, reflect what you are - in case you don't know…(The Velvet Underground.) " Of course, I am never counting on public reaction, or rather the form of public reaction. Actually, I don't care. This is someone else's part of the game. The decision to react or not remains with the individual spectator. There can be inspiring encounters or not, it depends. But public space is for me a possibility to conquer my little piece of territory. This exemplified by works such as Cautions, No Exits, Attenzione, Ikaz and others. I use red and white caution tape to shape my own parasitic architecture in public spaces. The construct of the stringed caution tape is connected to existing architectural elements by closing the gaps. At the same time it divides the area in several small islands. People become trapped in the para-architecture, or they are excluded. People react differently in the States, than the people in Pakistan or Berlin, Istanbul or elsewhere. I disappear and leave them alone with their own interpretations. But I am taking my own piece of the cake… I am using loose borders, something that can be blown away in a minute. Like dogs do mark their territories "despite the rain, despite the falling rain…" (Lord Byron)
N.M.: So in other words, it is more about establishi a position (almost an authorial voice) that allows you to appropriate space, in a territory regulated by a seemingly closed power dynamics. That is, trying to hack a system, on a very individual basis, that is managed by concerns of consumption, controlling on the one hand and privileging on the other hand certain demographics, security, etc. That’s interesting, because I always read these issues as necessary by-products of your work, but not per se its main motivation. I thought you were more taking on the role of the artist-anthropologist: excavating the behavioural patterns occurring in particular situations by the means of direct confrontation. Now it dawns on me that you’re more of the artist-conqueror…? Which is again a very strong masculine position to take, isn’t it?
S.E.: No, I would not say so since - and this is very important to me - I am using the caution tape, something so soft and easy to destroy, remove, or even recycle! There was this teenage girl during my performance in Manchester who followed me right after and collected the tape in order to damage my "architecture". This was fine with me, she became my partner during the performance. I do not insist in this sense. Also, I like the symbolics of the caution tape, which is supposedly meant to be protective. It relates to the idea of threat…. And - that is again the funny part - it marks a division. I am inside, and everyone else is kept out. Like one friend put it: "This creates a new gap, between expectation and the small change effected upon it by this stranger. Instead of protecting the people from accidents, the caution tape pushes them out of the space they consider legitimately theirs."
N.M.: Masculinity, or rather the gestures of it, takes centre stage in your work. However, you show us masculinity in crisis: emasculated, dispossessed, in exile. Often you act out male identities, which take on an exaggerated machismo as compensation for disempowerment. What is of particular interest to you in exploring the troubles of gender?
S.E.: Splendid gender bending... This is related to the above mentioned. On the one hand, there is the fiction of the super-male of my childhood, a role I had to play in my early teenage years after my father's death: I was the only "man" in the house, with my mother and my three sisters. On the other hand, there’s the role of the migrant from the Middle East in Europe, adapting in vain to the rules of a man´ s world. It seems in any case that I am some kind of deserter with the male masquerade as my fetish. Imagine the preparation for pieces, like Islamic Star, or Mladen, or Mehmet;, or Miguel: it means growing a beard or shaving a moustache for weeks and weeks. The video can be a piece of 30 seconds, but the process of growing into the "role" is so sexy. To be a "real man" for while, what a relief…
N.M.: The past few years we have seen a growing interest in the work of artists from the Middle East, Arab world, Islamic world, and their respective diasporas.
More often than not these shows focus on regional geographics, rather than on conceptual thematics. In order words, very diverse places, artistic practices and cultures often become lumped together. There lurks a danger of orientalist reductionism here. What is your view on these exhibitions and their effects, and how do you – and on what terms – participate in them?
S.E.: Well the art system as such - as we practice it - always includes some kind of ideological function of the arts. This happens in regard to Western artists, where the stereotype of the romantic artistic genius is still propagated; it did not change much since the last century. And the artists from the oppressed world, begging for freedom and individuality - with the Western art system "giving them a voice".
N.M.: Do you mean here the art world accommodates these artists by giving them a voice, because that’s sexy/trendy/etc at a particular moment in time?
S.E.: No, what it means is, that the Western art system distributes pseudo-humanistic pittance, as some kind of real do-gooders. Useful tools for some politics to play. And dumped when times are changing. I am not too much involved in some kind of folkloristic or dissident background. And I am hardly engaging myself in particular "Iranian" communities within my local surroundings. I see myself more in the context of what is going on in Lahore or Rostock or Cleveland or wherever my foot touches the ground. It seems as if people would always label my work by my black hair, my passport and my bad English. I try to be an intermediary instance and a vagabond within my origins coming from Iran to the West, where I chose to find myself beyond geo-political and ideological weights. I try not to see that kind of difference, and fight against labelling.
I still don’t believe they know about me. I don’t mind. I don’t even know myself.
N.M.: Following the above question: some of your work deals specifically with a critique on the “performativity” of religion, and Islamic iconography, yet it is usually mixed with elements we would brand as typically western and secular, and part of globalised culture, such as fast food, playboy or fashion magazines. It seems you’re embarking on a double critique of cultural stereotypes.
S.E.: Yes, since this is my reality. In Iran some members of my family were practicing Muslims, while others were atheists. Religion as such, somehow symbolised taking on responsibility in social life, whilst at the same time it was an individual interpretation of morality, of being good… like following the 10 commandments. But now it changed, as if religiosity means to be responsible for a terror act or - on the other side - for bombing a country down for the "good". Well, in the end all this happens in the name of God, of Allah. September 11, the contemporary crusades where the Christian crosses meet the sword of Mohammed, or like the Iraq war as some kind of drill is penetrating the ground in order to search some more oil or something. My main interest is to show the sense of insecurity when we are facing somebody who performs religiosity - or what we assume he/she does. It plays with our prejudices and suspicion of the other.
N.M.: Finally, perhaps you can elaborate a bit on the situatedness and context-specificity of your work, as it deals a lot with the position of the migrant and the marginal figure, specifically within a European context. How is your work received outside of Europe, especially in the Middle East?
S.E.: Whatever is the Middle East? Is
it Beirut, Teheran, Jerusalem, or Baghdad? Part of my work relates to the viewer through a commentary on how the West interprets and views its others. In some of my works like ‘Mehmet’ I with petrol at a bus station and then strikes a match. I am acting/performing myself, displacing a potential aggression and producing a constant feeling of harassment. By playing with stereotypes and clichés of migrant criminals, migrant terrorists and the others, it evaluates the aspect of auto-aggression and self-mortification. This work sometimes might not be understood in "the
East". For example, you told me that when you showed my work Islamic Star in Beirut, many people didn’t get what the fuss was all about because they did not read the level of “confrontation” in it, as a Western audience would.
On the other hand, there is also work that is context-specific, and was made in "the East", like in Lahore, in Tunisia, in Antalya or Istanbul. This work is usually somewhat more personal and less a stereotype analysis. But - depending on my physical presence and experience there - I offer some kind of proposal for a very specific situation. Sometimes it appears that this type of work is hardly readable in a Western art system, since it appears to be so alien. But this is fine, too.
Is an independent curator, writer and academic living in Amsterdam.
Nat Muller, PhD, is an independent curator, writer and academic living in Amsterdam. She completed her AHRC-funded PhD Lost Futurities: Science Fiction in Contemporary Art from the Middle East at Birmingham City University in 2022.