There are a handful of artists in the MENA region who have acquired regional and international gravitas in its art scene’s relatively young lifespan—a mere few minutes into an introduction to its art landscape will have the name ‘Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’ peppered in. The Iranian creator—a pioneering force over her six-decade career which has seen her rub shoulders with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning—has made a name for herself by producing works that speak to both history and the contemporary.
Fusing Persian mosaic and mirror tradition, Islamic cosmology, Sufism, and mathematics with Western abstract sensibility, Farmanfarmaian’s glistening artworks are immediately recognisable. But her most recent exhibition at The Third Line, The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You, sees her take a gentle new direction by ways of engaging kinetic art.
On display in the gallery’s main hall are Farmanfarmaian’s precise but organically rhythmed geometric mirror mosaics—the patterns change direction and size as quickly as the eye can take them in—but they are now framed by reverse-painted plexiglass in mottled watercolour hues. Polygonal pendants dangle from the lower halves, as decoratively jewel-like as they are sensorially jarring because the miniature, mirrored works sway gently in a manner that is unsettling and uncharacteristic for such sharp, hostile materiality.
Fresh iterations of her lauded 1970s Mirror Ball works have been brought in, which likewise depict the non-malleable material in surprising softness, alongside a Bahman Kiarostami-directed documentary entitled Monir, which explores her life and practice. It is a concise but varied hanging that largely occupies the expansive walls of the white cube gallery—save for a handful of the freestanding balls placed against a mirror to mimic Islamic geometry’s infinite patterning, and a rectangular plexiglass pillar that reads curtain-like. The works are familiar, but incorporate a playful take on perceptions of physics, materiality, and time, indicating that as much as Farmanfarmaian has been a history-maker, she is still in the arena of contemporary creator.
The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You comes on the tails of the recent comprehensive survey of Farmanfarmaian’s work over the last 50 years at the Museum of Modern Art Ireland— which will travel to the Sharjah Art Foundation come 2019. The continued interest speaks to how the artist has not lost the edge that she was long known for—despite the avant-garde roots not being immediately apparent given the strong formalist qualities and traditional aesthetic that roots her practice. “It is vital to do surveys and look into archives, as some of Monir’s works have never been shown before,” explains The Third Line team. “While she is mostly known for her mirror works, it is important to juxtapose those with works on paper, collages, carpets and more, to show how multidisciplinary her practice is.”
This multifaceted approach is what has given Farmanfarmaian’s work staying power as art trends and movements rose and declined. “She is constantly reinventing her practice and finding new elements to bring into each body of work, as is seen with this exhibition,” the gallery asserts. Showcasing exclusively 2018 works, Farmanfarmaian’s latest interpretation includes the addition of kinetic elements—those dangling pendants—but it goes beyond literal manifestations. More subtly, she has incorporated shattered fragments into the work for the first time, where the kinetic energy is less a result but more a precursor; a forceful gesture of smashing that resonates throughout the end work. This extremely discreet detail in the midst of dense patterning serves to reference the historical origins of mirror mosaic in Iranian architecture, but also the 18th-century practice of importing it from Europe, when it often arrived broken and was salvaged by craftsmen.
Though Farmanfarmaian’s works are rife with Islamic geometry and its inherent sacred symbolism—she incorporates shapes ranging from triangles to hendecagons—the relevance and inspirations of her works exist beyond the formalist qualities. The plexiglass works reveal her family history: “Monir first started working on monotypes when she was living in New York at the time of the Iranian Revolution,” notes the gallery. “She had been visiting her daughter when the revolution broke out, so she was stuck in New York and began producing works without a studio. It was there where she produced her first flowers monotypes which are referenced with the use of the technique applied to plexi to recreate the texture of her flowers here.” The Mirror Balls further reveal that the brunt of her abstract works are born of personal recollections—these have origins in watching children play football in the streets of Tehran. The dangling pendants that act as framing devices reference memories of her childhood nanny wearing a Qu’ran pin on her sleeves, and her titles often—albeit less so for this exhibition—reference her kin.
Every work in the exhibition exudes the unmistakable mark of Monir – but the title reminds of her ethos and the importance of not taking consistency, style, and success for granted. The Breeze at Dawn has Secrets to Tell You derives from a poem by 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, which calls for one to remember that the future lies in their hands: thresholds demand to be crossed, opportunities to be seized. And so it is, as Rumi muses and the artist follows suite: “The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell you / Don’t go back to sleep! […] The door is round and open / Don’t go back to sleep!”
The Breeze at Dawn Has Secrets to Tell You runs at The Third Line until 3 November.