Parastou Forouhar’s displacements
“Which space will be granted to art in the new world order, and what significance will be lent art from foreign regions? Western society’s interest in art and culture from the Oriental-Islamic world has increased rapidly. Perhaps this is a well-meant attempt to find out more about these societies. But how open are Western societies and how many Oriental-Islamic features must this art contain in order to be recognized as such?” 
The Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, who lives in Germany, reflects critically on the mechanisms at work in exhibitions and constructs of the Other: when works by an Iranian artist are shown, then certain expectations are instantly raised. The chador and the veil, beard and turban are signs of visual representation of the “Arabic” – the mass media shows us these images day in, day out. Parastou Forouhar only seemingly meets these expectations, playing with them instead. She does not show the Western gaze the “Oriental”, but turns the Western gaze on the Oriental into her central theme – namely, the patterns which are brought to bear when constructing the Orient. The artist observes, so to say, how we observe.
Her work primarily focuses on the political context of Iran and, at the same time, demands a reflection on the alternating interplay between what is intrinsically one’s own and the foreign Other, between tradition and modernity, as well as categories such as male and female.
Forouhar employs veils, Oriental ornaments and Persian characters and translates these elements into the “white cube” of the museums or covers the museum walls with torture scenes. The tales of the “Thousand and One Nights” are dragged into the glaring lights of the museum on wallpaper: what we see however are not harmless, beautiful ornaments, but depictions of torture. Through their stylisation, the comic-like, computer-generated figures on the wallpaper become an independent ornamental vocabulary, letters of violence. They are constantly repeated and in this way correspond to the design principles of wallpaper patterns. The series of brutal cruelty reproduces itself again and again.
By animating these figures in another work in the same series, Forouhar lends what is represented an uncanny immediacy. A specific tension arises when a stoning can be viewed in a flip-book. Usually situated in a distant archaic time, the torturous punishment of stoning now attains a frightening actuality. Decisive is the tactile closeness of the medium, which the recipient literally “holds in their hand”: by activating the sequence with their thumb, the viewer becomes involved in the criminal act. Only because the viewer, so to say, has a hand in the game are the stones thrown. This counteracts the dichotomies between audience and actor and victim and perpetrator. The viewer is required to reflect on their position. The line dividing the viewer from the apparently distant incident begins to shift and becomes blurred.
The deceptive surface of the ornament, which seemingly harmonizes all distinctions, is a central theme in Forouhar’s art. On the fabric patterns in old rose making up the series Eslimi, which means ornament, we find very carnal symbols: the fine patterns reveal themselves to be stylised genitals, alternating with sharp objects such as knives and pliers. With these fabrics, which the viewer can flick through and select like from a pattern book in a furniture store, it is certainly not possible to snugly furnish a home. Associations of an erotically charged Orient are counteracted. Sexuality and violence mingle together. What emerges again and again in Forouhar’s works is a tension between apparently harmless surfaces and the actually represented figures. At a first glance, Forouhar uses the image of a fairytale-like, ornamentally beautiful Orient; but when we take a closer look, it is precisely these clichéd images she is undermining.
The Persian script is also turned into an ornament. Covering the white walls of the museums, the characters serve Forouhar as “paper” for her own text. The room becomes a “writing room”. Whereas the white walls of the gallery room are raised to a universal norm and an unmarked instance, the Oriental ornament stands for difference or the deviating. The writing is also strange, if not alien, because it is illegible for Western visitors – as an “incomprehensible” text it becomes a pure ornament. In defying attempts by Western visitors to assign it meaning, the script remains locked into its irreducible pictorial graphicness and indissoluble representation. The meaning cannot be grasped; at best, the inscribed ping-pong balls, which cover the base of the installation, can be grasped in the tactual sense. The legibility is made even more difficult by the movement of the ping-pong balls, which due to their spherical form also offer no stable vertical or horizontal reading axes; they form new patterns over and over again, are always in motion, and become incoherently disjointed. Even if one has a command of Persian, the characters prove to be nothing more than word fragments and syllables, which are not subject to a linear order. The script ornamentation covers the whole room – the ceiling, the floor, and the walls. Viewers entering the rooms are surrounded by patterns, forcing them to give up their sovereign, distanced standpoint.
Writing and space are connected in a different way in the work Safari. Characters and ornaments cover a giant sack. The title promises adventure, wilderness and exotic worlds. The hunt though leads to the museum. Usually signs refer to something, but here they cannot be made precise; they remain vague. For the Western viewer, the writing does not refer to something, but to the Other per se, to the inscrutably foreign, for which the Orient also stands. This unfathomable, this covered aspect is visualized directly through the ornamentally rich chador fabrics sewn into the sack. The sack is thus literally a foreign body.
Some of the materials sown into the sack are usually used for Shiite mourning ceremonies. They are brightly coloured mass-produced fabrics, the same as Forouhar used for the installation Mourning Ceremony of 2003. If one can read Persian, then the dirge for the Shiite martyr Imam Hussein is recognizable. There we can read for example: “This king without army accompanied by tears and sorrow, the wounds on his body are more numerous than the stars in the sky … this fish, sunk in a sea of blood, is your Hussein.” The meaning though remains normally concealed in the Western context of the museum. What remains are the exhilaration of the colours and the oscillations of the script. That they do not bow to the familiar order is further emphasized by the shapeless, cumbersome sack.
A further vehicle of the alien in Forouhar’s art is the inner-upholstered transport container, with which she continues the series of patterned-based works, Eslimi. The pink-coloured pattern is made up of knives. This gives rise to an extreme contrast between the softness of the material and the pointed ornament. The pattern underlines a violent shape and generates a tension-ridden relation to the soft, fleshy pink material.
Such standardized containers are usually used to provide short-term, economically efficient accommodation, for instance for asylum-seekers. In contrast to immoveable property, they are something mobile used for transport purposes. In this way the containers match the forced nomadic life of their users. The container becomes the place of those who are not permitted to gain a foothold, who cannot find a homeland.
Padding out the container makes it seem like a padded cell, traditionally used for restraining the mad. The mad, as Foucault has described, represent for society the Other per se. Boundaries are drawn which exclude the strange: for a common language is regarded as impossible. This radical break is symptomatic for how the Other, the strange or alien are approached and dealt with. According to Foucault, the broken-off dialogue with the mad corresponds to the line of distinction drawn by Western society in relation to the Orient. The internment of those deemed to be mad leads to their being displaced in a location exterior to what is determined as intrinsic to the definer. The mechanism of exclusion evident in the asylum container works in a similar way.
With facilities such as the padded cell the mad are turned into objects and placed under control. In Forouhar’s work, because the viewer can enter the padded cell and in doing so be observed by others, they themselves become objects, and for a moment appear to be subjected to the same dispositive. The container functions as a kind of stage, one that incorporates the audience. Forouhar presents and performs the processes of alienation; she shows that no outside position is possible, indeed that the viewers are inextricably entangled in the middle of this mechanism. The space that arises in this process becomes a threshold that exposes the drawing of boundaries as a construction and as contingent. The location strategies are unravelled and bring their displacements into view. In this way the viewers are literally disarranged in their ordered reasoning, or become “deranged”, and are compelled to reflect on their observing standpoint.
Forouhar’s art is not restricted to simply holding up a mirror to the Western gaze. Her works are also concerned with the political system in Iran, examining it critically by presenting those difficulties which prevent the oppositional discourse from entering and competing in the public sphere. In the installation Documentation Forouhar therefore places a photocopier and documents to be copied in the museum. In this interactive work Forouhar presents her futile attempts to find out the details of the planned murder of her parents, who were opposition politicians in Iran, in 1998. The artist exhibits her extensive, ongoing correspondence with government offices, human rights organizations and political representatives. The information is to be circulated by photocopying these documents. With such works Forouhar creates a public forum that she uses to draw attention to structural problems.
Closely interwoven with this work is the series of drawings Taking-off Shoes. Forouhar depicts everyday scenes from government offices in Iran – faceless women filling out forms and studying documents, watched by faceless, uniformed men. The people appear to be interchangeable. Continual waiting is depicted. Forouhar presents the endless bureaucratic procedures in Kafkaesque manner: as in Kafka’s famous text Before the Law, penetrating into the inner domain of this law is impossible. The drawings visualize a rigid bureaucratic system, making an absurdity of it. The background of her efforts to find out about the aforementioned murder of her parents heightens the explosive nature of this work. In the last instance, the figures also stand for the artist and her lawyer, the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
Forouhar literally outlines a system in which power and knowledge relations fit into the controlling processes down to the last detail. The philosopher Michel Foucault characterizes a society that has at its disposal such mechanisms of control and surveillance as a police society. Here Foucault did not have a distant Arab world in his sights with his power analytics, but modern, subtle structures of power. As recent studies have shown, these forms of power mechanisms are being combined with hierarchal structures in Iran as well. This means that the Orient cannot be situated on a temporal axis in some dim barbaric past, but reveals itself precisely in this point as modern.
By taking up such aspects of the Iranian power apparatus Forouhar confronts the Western gaze with different, unusual perspectives and compels the viewer to differentiate. The viewer’s own image of the strange is estranged, turning it into an alien image itself.
INTERSECTIONS, Jewish Museum of Australia, 2005
 Parastou Forouhar: “Andersdenkende”, In: Alexandra Karentzos (ed.): Der Orient, die Fremde. Positionen zeitgenössischer Kunst. (in preparation)
 Cf. Annette Tietenberg: “Vom Verschleiern und Enthüllen oder Warum Parastou Forouhars Arbeiten ein kontextuelles Gewand tragen.” In: Alexandra Karentzos, Britta Schmitz (ed.): Tausendundein Tag. Exhibition catalogue, Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, Cologne 2003, 54-61.
 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (trans. Richard Howard), New York 1973.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (trans. Alan Sheridan), London 1985.