Between Text and Painted Skin
“...more than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. it sets at a distance, maintains the distance. in our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations...the moment dominates the look dominates, the body loses its materiality”
What Freud says about the unconscious sounds like science but in fact it is just a means of representation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – 1946
Before entering Shirazeh Houshiary’s brilliant white studio in West London, on the upper floor of the building designed by her architect husband, she asks me to take off my shoes. I feel as if I’m entering a sacred space – a mosque, a temple or a Japanese tearoom - which, of course, in a way, I am. For the artist’s studio is not only a workshop but a domain for dreaming. A womb, a primal space where she can return, through a form of play, to a pre-linguistic state. I have the impression that I’m crossing a threshold into an inner sanctum, moving from the everyday into the realm of the creative unconscious. “When experiencing a work of art”, wrote Juhani Pallasmaa: in his wonderful little book, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, “a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and precepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo's architecture is fundamentally the viewer's sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.” And because this is so, because the self can only ever be partially be found in a work of art, there is always a feeling of melancholy and loss that hangs over the object. An awareness that the artist has striven towards, yet has never quite reached, a state of perfection.
A copy of The Eyes of the Skin is sitting on Shirazeh Houshiary’s desk. As we talk it becomes apparent that, unusually for a visual artist she, like Pallasmaa, values the primacy of the Word over that of the Image. For as Gaston Bachelard wrote in his essay: The Dialectics of Outside and Inside: “Sight says too many things at one time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself. It does not stand out, it is not bordered by nothingness; one is never sure of finding it, or of finding it solid, when one approaches a centre of being.”
For this exhibition Houshiary has selected a single word from five different languages: Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Mandarin and Latin, as the central heart-beat around which to build her new series: The River is Within Us. Each single word is akin to a meditation, a breath. Something inchoate that we are hardly able to name. Yet, as she points out, the need to communicate and pass on insights and acquired knowledge has compelled us, from pre-history, to carve texts on stone tablets and ink hieroglyphs onto sheets of papyrus. Language is what connects us to civilisation and to the wider universe. We speak, therefore we are. It defines us as sentient, imaginative beings. As the French philosopher, Julia Kristeva, suggests: “in the history of signifying systems…of the arts, religions, and rites, there emerge…fragmentary phenomena which have been kept in the background… [that] point to the very process of significance. Magic, shamanism, esotericism, the carnival and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry [and one might add art] all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses.” The ‘text’, she suggests, is where we find “the sum of unconsciousness”. “What we call significance, then,” she goes on to say, “is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of drives towards and through language.” It is this understanding of the fracture and gradual disintegration of the text that enables Houshiary to fuse ideas and feelings within the painterly language of abstraction. That the veil is a universal metaphor for mourning, which she began to incorporate into her work after the death of her father, whom she had left in Iran when she made her life in England, is hardly surprising. Just as it is an important metaphor for the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For the veil not only conceals but is fluid and permeable. As Helen Cixous writes: the female “eye is not that of the law but of the pupil (pupille), which sees itself from all sides…. He is She. She is He”. Houshiary invites the viewer to look back through her veiled surfaces, through the shroud of artistic consciousness, into the fissures and openings of the painted body.
And it is through touch, she believes, that we arrive at our understanding of the world, rather than through sight which, since the Renaissance, has been privileged as the primary sense. Her work is Romantic in that it connects us through its permeable membrane to the universal. We drown in her surfaces much as we do in Wordsworth’s landscapes described in the Prelude or Caspar David Friedrich’s majestic mountain top vistas. “Nothing exists except through the body”, she says, “Nothing exists without you being present.” Touch is immediate and tactile. While information acquired through the eye is detached, experienced at a remove. Skin is the membrane that separates us from the world. The boundary between the self and other, the division between the centrality of the ego and all that is not the self. Inside and out. In her writing on the French philosopher, Lucie Irigaray, Anne-Emmanuelle Berger notes that Irigaray talks in her text Speculum “of the body’s layers and folds – skin, placenta, lips – that are neither closed nor opened, neither hidden nor revealed, neither external nor internal”. The implication is that touch is boundless, unrestricted. Sight, it might, then, be argued, is ‘masculine’ in that focuses. It belongs to analysis and perception, to thought and reason, to empirical evidence and the Enlightenment. The perspectival vanishing point was, after all, one of the great discoveries of the Renaissance. While Newton understood the concept of gravity because he saw the apple fall to the ground. To experience the world through touch could, in contrast, be seen as ‘feminine’. Our earliest sensual memories are of the womb, the breast, the caressing hand. Such experiences are not ‘focused’ but all embracing, enveloping. Felt rather than apprehended. In today’s art world dominated by the conceptual, Houshiary is keen to re-establish emotional connection with the art object, to awaken human feeling and gut response. Great art is a matrix of ideas and emotions, which we recognise largely through the body. .As Barthes suggests, it is like a wound, a sudden piercing of flesh, which he calls the ‘punctum’. A moment of psychic recognition that hits us in the solar plexus.
Using especially handmade paper created by the Singapore Tyler Institute, Houshiary has made layered ‘tablets’ from 2 or 3 sheets to form a ‘skin’ or ‘membrane’ onto which she has poured pure pigment mixed only with water. Like sediment deposited from an endlessly flowing river, the gritty pigment leaves alluvial layers on the paper’s surface, traces of the process of pouring that veil individual words, which disappear into immateriality. Each single ideogram is embedded like a lost memory or an archaeological artefact in these painterly palimpsests. The application of pure colour mirrors both emotional states and nationalities: blue for Arabic, which conjures desert skies or water trickling in an oasis and feelings of infinity. Red for Mandarin. For in China red is the colour of death.
We think of our lives as stories, threads that are interwoven into the fabric of memory, history, art and texts. The word “text” relates to the words “texture” and “textile”, which can be traced back to “texo” – “to weave”, referring to the way words and sentences are “woven” together. So we speak of “weaving” a tale or “spinning a yarn.” The Greek word for paper originally referred to writing sheets made from the pith and stem of the papyrus, a plant native to Egypt. “Write” first meant to scratch with a pointed instrument. “Letter”, as in the signs of the alphabet, is close to the Latin word “linere”, “to smear”. If you “obliterate” something, you wipe out what has been written. Houshiary’s work takes on the quality of a screen on which something potent, even sacred, is written. But like the name of God, the word is unknowable, veiled and almost indecipherable. The layers of paper and pigment echo the strata of the unconscious and the complex processes of dreaming. Text is a fabric, a weave of different experiences brought to the viewer/reader by the artist/writer. Traditionally women’s work, weaving and textiles embody the emotional within the corporeal. Embedded in the surface of the weave/text/paint is a wide ranging network of associations that are felt rather than intellectually understood, analysed or comprehended. Emotions are suggested rather than revealed. Words, like sacred artefacts, pulsate through the layers of pigment in Houshiary’s paintings. As with abstract motifs within the Islamic tradition they deny the pictorial yet resonate with feeling. These veils create metaphysical oppositions between the visible and invisible, between what is hidden and what is revealed. We stand in front of her works and become lost in their luminous layers, like a child becomes enfolded in the mother’s body or the lover in their partner’s touch, absorbed by the unspoken web of emotion, the polyphony of senses.
Each of these works employs similar dimensions to ancient stone tablets found in the British Museum. Placed in Perspex boxes and subtly lit from behind, the surfaces glow like skin, so the passing of time, the accretions of history and entropy are all implied in these poetic paper works. Their radiance also suggests not only the divine light of European religious art, but the ambient light of the computer screen, the ubiquitous means of communication in the modern world. “In the beginning was the word…” writ by man’s hand. Like the stone carver’s tablet Houshiary’s works are scaled to human dimensions, to the artist’s reach. But now we no longer kneel in front of a boulder carving with a chisel, or sit with a quill pen dipping it into a pot of ink to hand-write letters on paper. Writing is detached from touch and art is less and less about the engagement of our primary senses. We are bombarded by the virtual, our bodies no longer the navel that connects us to a tactile awareness of the world. The computer flattens the sensory experience of inside and outside, pushing us to become observers and viewers rather than participants.
Houshiary’s borderless membranes imply an osmotic relationship between the self and the world. They revitalise human experience within space, to stand in contrast to Heidegger’s suggestion that the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture and that the hegemony of sight has weakened compassion and empathy because it separates. Not only does she blur boundaries between the visual and the literary, between participation and commentary, but also between sign and utterance, in a hierarchical system of the senses where the eye/I has generally become the centre of the perceptual self. But to experience the world through the skin is to understand the binaries of interiority and exteriority, life and death.
Lining the streets and avenues of Singapore are phalanx of Raintrees, their beautiful arboreal cover giving shade from the heat and shelter from monsoons. Yet these are not trees that are indigenous to Asia but imports from Mexico and Peru. Albizia saman is a species of flowering tree of the pea family, Fabaceae. Its range extends from Mexico south to Peru and Brazil, though it has been widely introduced to South and Southeast Asia, as well as to the Pacific Islands and Hawaii. A wide-canopied tree with a large symmetrical crown, it can reach a height of 25 m and a diameter of 40 m. The leaves fold in rainy weather and in the evening, hence the name "rain tree" or "five o'clock tree" (Pukul Lima) in Malay. The various varieties bear reddish pink and creamy golden coloured flowers. In a series of 6 new etchings on thick handmade paper entitled Migrants, Houshiary challenges our perceptions of the word. The abstract surfaces of these indigo etchings suggest views from both underneath the canopy of branches, looking up towards the sky, as well as an aerial view down through the foliage. How we view the tree, as with the way we choose to view the migrant, is all a matter of perception. Culture is not fixed. It evolves through time, through the dispersal of humanity and custom and the movement of organic material. It is a fluid, constant cycle of renewal and entropy. Singapore is a rainbow nation. A nation built on migration. Civilization is dependent on a cross fertilization of ideas. When Pol Pot cut down the Raintrees of Cambodia, because he considered them to be an alien foreign species, it was not just an act of ecological destruction but an assault on the ebb and flow of civilization, the interrelationship of cultural ideas.
The overall abstract patterning of these Raintree etchings has no centre, no boundaries. This image of a visual and physical world without borders touches on this decade’s pre-eminent issue of population movement and migration. Houshiary seems to suggest that migration and change are part of a universal process, that nothing is indigenous but rather the result of a hybrid of chance, history, geography and nature. As the late Bruce Chatwin wrote in Songlines, his poetic evocation of Aboriginal journeys: “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less 'aggressive' than sedentary ones. There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a 'leveller' on which the 'fit' survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.” The migration erases the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance.”
In the essay Forms of Inattention, from his book On Balance, the psychoanalyst and literary critic, Adam Philips, notes that: “Barthes reminded us that the erotic is always appearance as disappearance. If it is knowing almost nothing that is so alluring, the quest for knowledge would seem to be about dispelling desire, relieving oneself of the burden of it. There is a certain kind of nothing, a certain kind of (elusive) object, that seems to single us out, that invites our curiosity whether we want it or not.”
Shirazeh Houshiary excels in creating objects that possess this ‘certain kind of nothing’, elusive objects that do not offer the viewer a narrative but a sense of moving towards something that might, in time, be revealed through the senses. Like an inhale or exhale of breath her works pulsate with intuitive meaning. Elusive in their stillness and silence, significance seeps from their surfaces like the distant echo of sacred music. We may not immediately understand what we are hearing, but are drawn towards the sound, to the seductive tonalities, the enveloping harmonies and counterpoints full of mystery and potential promise.