Oh Victory! You Forgot Your Underwear: Rokni Haerizadeh

16 November 2009 - 7 January 2010

The paintings of Rokni Haerizadeh read like novels. Reflections on society are moulded around scenes that have a literary depth and complexity. Like a writer, Rokni enters the minds of his characters - his style shifting between paintings to reflect the atmosphere of the situation he is portraying. As this collection of works shows, the artist is an instinctual storyteller who fashions living characters within his works.

 

Several new paintings included here continue Rokni's work in diptych. Huge, multi-panel paintings in this style narrate the unease of Iranian society as it modernises and gropes for an identity. Semblances of the 18th and 19th century societal paintings are subverted. The grotesque slips into these scenes, and we're witness to a dark, violent reality that has contorted to his vision.

 

In 'Seezdah Begar', we see families picnicking beside a highway in Tehran. Relating to the 13th day of Eid, when it is Iranian tradition to eat outside (for fear of bad luck otherwise), the right-hand panel presents a vision of social segregation. Men rest on the grass - smoking, playing cards - while women serve food and accommodate the men in a flurry of industry.

 

With Rokni's typical injection of fantasy into a mundane reality society is laid bare by exaggeration. A family who regard themselves as particularly pious, pray furiously infront of a group of dignitaries. The amount of food being cooked and consumed verges on the ridiculous. And all the while, the towering faces of martyrs watch over this carnival of rampant consumption.

 

On the left side of the diptych, however, we see an ominous willow tree, created with drips of paint. The collaps- ing colours and sickly appearance of the willow suggests that it is struggling to survive in this polluted atmosphere. We also see a tree, too thin to support a person, bound in a crude rope swing, and branches hacked down to provide shade. These images illustrate a recurring theme in Rokni's work: The sacrifice of nature for the sake of futile amusement.

Rokni identifies an urge for corruption that runs through Iranian society. He portrays a society so hungry for freedom that they are prepared to corrupt themselves and the space around them in search of it. The over- whelming, orgiastic nature of the scenes presented in this show suggests that frustration is seething at the heart of these people. The thoughtless ruination of the landscape around them is borne of this social frustration. 'Shomal', a diptych exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery recently, presents an equally disturbing vision of excess. Men and women, fiercely segregated, are consuming constantly at a beach in northern Tehran - throwing refuse into the sea, or smoking a shisha pipe in the water. There's a tension to the scene. People are cagey, they watch and evaluate, altering their behaviour for the benefits of others. Again, women appear to be a prop for the dissolute behaviour of the men around them. We see a loss of respect for themselves, for each other and for nature.

 

This ebbing of self-respect, Rokni observes, spills over into Iranians outside of Iran. In 'Tehran Cabaret, Dubai', we see Iranians in a state of semi-abandonment. They drink Shiraz wine, a vestige of some stifled nationalist im- pulse, in a darkened nightclub in Dubai. In the foreground, a mother breastfeeds her baby while her husband holds up a cloth to hide her from view. Proportions change constantly throughout the painting, giving the scene an intoxicated edge. Yet despite the proposed freedom of this cabaret, men still dance with men and women dance with women. However much these restless people try to escape, Rokni seems to say, Iran stays with them.

 

The riots in Iran following the presidential election also have significant bearing on the works in this collection. Four paintings, executed during and in the aftermath of the protests, explore the delirious emptiness that the art- ist felt to be simmering beneath the surface of the event.

 

'Neda' recreates the coverage on CNN given to the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a woman present at the riots who was shot dead by an anonymous gunman. Frames from the video of the rescue attempt made on her are reproduced but, with the emblazon of CNN in the corner and the sickly yellow wash behind the images, they take on the appearance of a showreel. It's as if Rokni is suggesting that the images only served to create a momentary story or a shocking emblem of what was happening - other- side-of-the-world chaos slipped between advertisements for exotic tourist destinations.

 

It was difficult to grasp exactly what was happening during the protests, particularly for those outside of Iran. Rokni was in Dubai at the time and began taking photographs of televised accounts from the riots. Using gesso, acrylic and ink, he reshaped the images into nightmarish, carniva- lesque scenes. These became Fictionville, included in this show - a series of works that refigures the anonymous men and women of the protests into animals. Women in chador become crows, police officers take on the heads of demons or cats, confused protestors become clowns. The images suggest the elated madness of the protests and the intoxicating potential for change they represented. The animals themselves relate to characters in the Shahr- e-Ghesseh, a series of socio-political children's plays broadcast before and after the revolution with a deeply revolutionary sentiment. For all the violence underlying these images, these bizarre characters seem to undercut the moment with a negating sense of absurdity and nonsense.

 

Images that record specific, recent events can be found in other pieces in this collection. 'Police Raiding The Devil Worshipper's Apartment' recreates a party in the house of an art collector in Tehran. Sculptures by Bita Fayyazi, Parviz Tanavoli and the manipulated photographs of Ram- in Haerizadeh line the walls. But at the entrance, we see two agents of the police, cameras in hand, ready to burst in and capture images of those present in the apartment.

Relating to an event that occurred while Rokni was in Dubai, the artist has since settled here. In one of the works, he turns his eye onto the contrasts and contradic- tions of the Western lifestyle put through an Arabic context that he has found here. 'JBR Fridays' depicts a glistening consumerist temple - expatriates strewn across a blazing beach, tourists petting a transparent camel that wanders incongruously among the half-naked bodies. We get the sense across the works in this show that Rokni has min- gled observations, collected over time, into his work. In doing so, we see the ideas that he presents on the canvas in a refined and matured state. Rather than reproducing a specific scene, he creates a living world by the weaving of myriad impressions.

 

This show casts a derisive and discerning eye on the lay- ers of self-definition that exist in Persian society.

 

It is this that gives the works grounding. These aren't simply sardonic attacks or sweeping judgements. There's a battle going on within each of these works that has emerged with prolonged examination of the people around him. For all of the horror that he finds in the schizophrenic society of Iranians, and the paradoxes, perversities and hypocrisies he encounters in the broader world of human behavior, Rokni never stoops to patronize his subjects. The world remains a complex and limitless field for reflec- tion. But it's a world that, for him, only comes alive if it's approached with wryness; a world of contradictions that we can either despair of or laugh at once we peer behind the mask and face its absurdity.