Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian in conversation with Stephanie Bailey
A legacy has developed around Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. It is rooted in the appropriation of the traditional Iranian art of reverse mirror painting and mirror mosaics – Aineh-Kari – to produce new and modern forms guided by the universal laws of geometry. Famously, Warhol kept a work by her on his desk, though the Marilyn portrait he gifted to her was confiscated during the Iranian Revolution, an event that caused Farmanfarmaian to move back to New York, where she continued to produce work. But it was Farmanfarmaian's return to Tehran in 2004 that really solidified this octogenarian's (88 going on 89) position as a bonafide legend. It commenced a period of productivity explored in a recent survey exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai (18th March to 19th April 2013). In this interview, conducted on the exhibition's opening day, Farmanfarmaian discusses her life and work.
Stephanie Bailey: I wanted to go into how you started as an artist.
Monir Farmanfarmaian: [laughs] But that was almost ninety years ago, my darling!
SB: I know! Why did you become an artist?
MF: This just came with my life and its path.
SB: You started as an art student at the university of Tehran in the 40s, but you decided after only six months that you wanted to leave Tehran to study in Paris. Why?
MF: I left after six months because I was trying very hard to go to Paris – but this was during the war [World War II], so they wouldn't let me go since the Germans were there. So I said: I will go to Morocco and wait for the war to finish. But they told me that Morocco is also North Africa and was not safe at the time. But since I had planned to go outside of Iran to study art at that age, I went to New York because there was nowhere else to go. I said after that I would go to Paris, but I never did.
SB: On your time in New York, you met some incredible artists – Warhol, Johns, Stella, LeWitt, Rauschenberg, to name a few – how do you recall this experience?
MF: It was 1944 when I left Iran and in 1945 I arrived in New York. I went to high school to learn English. Then I went to Cornell University to study art but for me it wasn't exciting enough, so I went back to New York and studied at Parson's School of Design before graduating in 1949. I was inspired by Parson's School of Design. They taught us how to discover things. They used to take us to the Museum of Natural History for example and make us draw only the Red Indian motifs, or we would go to the zoo and study the animals moving, or in class, a dancer would dance and we would have to sketch the figure in 20 seconds. At that time, I used to go to the museums, talks and lectures and so on, so it became interesting for me to expose myself to a different society of artists, though at that time it was not Frank Stella and not Andy Warhol that I met – though I did work with Warhol at one point. This was New York in the forties.
After graduation, I became involved in a society – the New York Art Students' League. All the avant-garde artists would gather every month to discuss art, people like Pollock, de Kooning or Barnett Newman. After these meetings, everyone would go to this place called the Cedar Bar in the East Village that all the important artists used to drink at and what not. So people would gather in that bar after the monthly discussions and continue talking. I remember: I was like an innocent little girl standing in one corner! I wouldn't drink or smoke at that time, but I just used to watch and talk to them.
SB: Did this impact on your ideas or approaches around being an artist? Did you experience a culture shock when you first arrived in New York City?
MF: Everything was a shock for me. I was living in New York and suddenly the Museum of Modern Art was open, the Guggenheim had a small brownstone house near Fifth Avenue. I used to go to these places and it was shocking but also very inspiring. I lived in New York for twelve years and after that I met a gentleman who was studying law at Columbia University and then he asked me to marry him. We went back to Iran in 1957 and stayed there and I carried on with painting and started going into monotype. I used to travel a lot. I would get a lot of my inspiration from travelling in Iran – from the nomadic tribes I encountered to the architecture and materials I saw being used.
SB: What about the inspiration behind your use of mirror mosaics and reverse glass painting. I read that in 1966 you went to the Shāh Chérāgh mosque in Shiraz, which was a turning point for you as an artist –
MF: – Yes! With Robert Morris and his girlfriend Marcia Hafif – they were both artists. I had met both of them in New York because Marcia's grandfather was Iranian, so she came to Iran first and stayed with me a few days, and then she came back with Bob [Robert Morris] and we went to Shiraz together.
SB: On the experience at the mosque you said you were so moved by what you saw that you wanted to recreate the feeling of being there. You also mention how you were so moved by watching the people inside the shrine and how this intermingled with the mirror mosaics inside the space, producing these 'fantastic reflections'. Could you elaborate on this?
MF: Well, it was the architecture of this place in Shiraz that did it. I have been to many cities and seen many tribes and so on, but this shrine and the mirror mosaics here inspired me a great deal. In this shrine, from the ceiling of the dome down to the ground, it was all mirror mosaics and it was fantastic. It moved me. I used to cry like a baby whenever I visited this place! So I told Marcia and Bob that if they came here they would have to sit quietly for one hour in one corner somewhere. I asked them if they were ready to do that and they said yes. Then when you sit there, you see the reflections of all these people all over the ceiling – people crying and begging for good wishes and so on. I thought – this is wonderful. I decided to move these mirror pieces from the walls of the mosque into the every day life of Iran. I wanted to bring these things into people's houses.
SB: Why was this so important for you?
MF: Because I enjoyed the experience of the mirror mosaics myself. I loved it and wanted to share this love and beauty with other people.
SB: Did you want these works to move people spiritually, as a way to recall or re-express the experience you had at Shiraz?
MF: I don't really believe in these things. I just loved what I saw and tried to copy it and make it something more modern, maybe more flexible and transportable. I try to do something new all the time.
SB: You once described this shrine at Shiraz as an experience of living theatre…
MF: That's it. Being inside that shrine was like that: living theatre, living music. A mother was screaming; a wife was crying at the shrine to save their husband; another person was laughing; people were talking together; another person was reciting the Qur'an. It was really a living theatre.
SB: All of these moments coming together and refracting in one room…
MF: Yes, and all the reflections of that. This is how I approach my own work. Take Fire and Water (2010) for example – [gesturing towards the work installed in The Third Line space] – it is like everything is moving: the surface is reflecting things and sometimes you don't know where these reflections are coming from. It could be from the street, maybe – even outside this room. At first it seems obvious but maybe it's not that obvious.
SB: This play with light and reflection is what makes the works move themselves. These reverse mirror paintings and mirror mosaics absorb all the elements of the space into the frame…
MF: Yes. You communicate with the art if you stand in front of it and it takes your mood. Look – do you see it? How the work moves?
SB: And looking at your latest exhibition at The Third Line, which charts your career from 2004 to the present day, I wanted to ask how you feel about your development as an artist since you moved back to Tehran in 2004. This was really a point from which you started showing more actively.
MF: Well, I was working with mirror mosaics and geometry before and after the revolution started, so I was doing this geometric work the whole time. After I came back to Tehran in 2004, I was invited to do a show in the Museum of Contemporary Art. I started again with my mirror works from that point on and things went from there.
SB: Of the works on show at The Third Line, I particularly like Moghanas (2012), which looks like a beehive that has been turned inside out and applied to this room's corner to somehow soften the edges of the space. It is much like your other works in terms of how they interact with the architecture they are presented in.
MF: Yes. Moghanas is one of my latest works, which I think has a lot of possibilities in terms of developing it. I call these 'beehives', because they are like beehives hanging on the ceiling. It is actually modeled on what you call muqarnas – [used as a decorative element in Islamic and Persian architecture]. They would use this around the dome of mosques to produce curves on square surfaces. It's very architectural in construction.
SB: In your work, you have used these traditional Iranian techniques handed down from father to son for generations. I wonder if you thought about how this might also be a feminist act in that you have appropriated a male-dominated craft. Did you have this in mind at all when thinking about the use of reverse mirror painting and mirror mosaics?
MF: Well, my father was a politician so I decided not to follow politics. Little by little, I decided to move more towards art – so my work has nothing to do with this. The craftsmen I am working with, yes they do come from this tradition of father to son and so on, but then things have also changed, too. I have also worked with an engineer, an architect; another was an acupuncturist, for example.
SB: At the 2013 Sharjah Biennial 11, there was this one work that struck me: Shazdeh's Garden (2009-10), depicting a garden with trees rendered in a way that evokes expressionist landscapes. There is a fluidity in how the mirror and mosaic pieces have been arranged to form this scene of an idyllic garden, as viewed from a window frame. The title also references a historic garden of the same name in Iran's Kerman province – 'Prince's Garden'. What does this piece mean to you?
MF: Oh, yes. This was a Persian garden and also my friend's garden. The garden belonged to Shazdeh, who was the cousin of my husband – they were both princes. I went many times to that garden and enjoyed being there. Actually, I made those works for fun. I enjoy works like these more. I love gardens. Traditionally, they have been in Iranian culture for 3000 years. You have the hanging gardens of Babylon, for example, and Assyrian gardens. So this work at Sharjah, Shazdeh's Garden, I like it very much.
SB: This makes me think about the work you produced in New York after the revolution; you said you were painting flowers a lot at that time. Was this something that comforted you?
MF: Yes. Gardens have always been comforting places for me. I love nature and also gardening. Every time when I am in the studio and I am feeling tired, I tell my workers – I am going to the garden now.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is an Iranian artist based in Tehran. Farmanfarmaian's work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, NY; Grey Art Gallery, NY; Galerie Denise Rene, Paris and NY; Leighton House Museum, London; Haus der Kunst, Munich; The Third Line, Dubai; Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern; Lower Belvedere, Vienna; and Ota Fine Art, Tokyo. She participated in the 29th Bienal de São Paulo (2010); the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2009); and the Venice Biennale (1958, 1966 and 2009).