In this first edition, Huma Kabakcı interviews Shahpour on his work, practice, inspirations and ideas around collaboration and diversity.

Born in Iran, in 1979, Shahpour Pouyan has an MFA in Integrated Practices and New Forms at Pratt Institute, New York, and has an MFA in Painting from the Tehran University of Art. He previously studied Neoplatonic Philosophy at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy and received a diploma in Math and Physics from Elmieh School, Tehran. Between 2007 and 2009 he taught art history and the history of Persian Architecture at Science and Culture University, Tehran. He currently lives and works in New York.

Shahpour Pouyan’s work is a commentary on power, domination and possession through the force of culture. His artwork seeks to transform historical or political issues into a monument of poetic and visual form. The repetition of mistakes and errors is one of his main concerns, and he reflects this by bringing historical aesthetics and mediums to his contemporary art practice, for example, reinventing chainmail, helmets and Persian miniatures. His work does not announce a political agenda; instead, he grapples with materials provided from the political world and historic documents; the poetic qualities of power and the human condition inspire him. His recent works and projects are influenced by science, archeology, and the poetry of architectural forms that bridge past and present.

He has participated in Lahore Biennial in Pakistan; National Art Museum of China in Beijing, British Museum in London, and Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi Island. His work is part of many prominent private and public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum, The Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

For this quick interview around his work and his greater perspective on life, Huma Kabakcı has prepared a few questions:

It is a pleasure to catch up with you once again on this occasion as our first participating artist to Open Space’s “10 Minute Interviews”. Can you talk about how your practice evolved based on where you come from and where you live?

I think the first thing to emphasise is the contrast of moving from one of the most isolated countries in the world (Iran) to New York City (USA) and the cultural shock I faced. At the same time, the level of ignorance, lack of knowledge and education around which country you come from is very shocking- especially in the artistic community- it was very shocking for me to see that there is no context or any information about Iran, not just Iran but the greater region, the Islamic world (or what we call the Middle East). It was quite surprising to see how the course of Art History is completely different and how everything is American or West-centred. For me, the evolution that happened in my art is not related to my practice but related to having a conversation with my vaster audience- I think that is what changed over time. I tried to be loyal to my practice but at the same time to open up to a wider audience and conversation in a way, so it can be understood by others. For example; when you talk about art that is local, you tend to use local vocabulary and when you open it to the world, you have to change your vocabulary to a more diverse group of audience- that is what happened to my art but also to the core of my practice. The ideas behind it stayed the same. Back when I was in Iran, most of my art was related to Iranian universe of art, culture and history. But since I left, I developed my practice to the vaster perspective, historical context and issues that are common around the globe. For instance, what I noticed when I moved to New York was that the approach to power in Iran was actually quite universal and that you have to expand that viewpoint to other states and civilisations. 

My Place is the Placeless
Installation view, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai, 2018

How would you describe your work and your artistic interests?

I need to go back to my answer to the first question because when you move from a place and from that security to a new place that brings you insecurity it ushers a new dimension of awareness that you never had before- the awareness that comes from the new identity you have adopted and it is quite different from who you are. It is completely different from the geography and history you studied at school, it is different from the identity you have. You suddenly are someone else. You have to re-evaluate and re-conceptualise who you are and question what your identity is- I think that is very important. I think this realisation shaped my practice. When I realised I am completely different in the eyes of others, I think that shifted my artistic practice and interests.    

To answer your question on how I describe my work, I am describing human failure as a political animal. But I have no idea how my practice will change in the following years. It depends on the material that is interesting for me. Sometimes ideas come to my head without me having any plans for them, it’s like poetry, a poet doesn’t plan to write a poem about love or fear, it just happens and you record it with your medium, whatever medium that is suitable for that idea. And I then do more research into historical material and bring it to my studio, so the medium is always secondary to my research. And many times I fail in the process of developing an idea or project.

Chess federation
Galerie Obadia, Paris,  2017

What has been your biggest challenge?

That’s a good question, it is also a very existential question. It could be the matter of how the course of life is so unexpected and changing, maybe the biggest challenge of my life is the fact of having no home, and leaving as a nomad. I would never imagine that I would be insecure at this stage in my life that I would have no place, and it bothers me. But in my art practice, the biggest challenge is to show my anger I have towards politicians, religious figures and other people polluting my art practice. I am not sure if this makes sense or not, but I try to make my practice timeless and not to focus specifically on today’s issues. The problems of today are only for today, but the fundamental problems of us humans are timeless.

I can totally understand, I think it is also a global problem. I also constantly think about where I belong to, and the more I have been living in London I have been also disassociating my links to being Turkish- also in the context of shifting politics and its Islamic identity.

Yes totally, you have it too, we are all like a tribe. I meant that Iran is no longer a home for me, we all have a love and hate relationship with our motherlands.

What does diversity mean to you?

This question can get me into a lot of trouble! I think diversity depends on morality , in any society we need ethics because the only way to keep humans from pain is having a system of principles. Diversity is the same structure as morality, it enables you not to project pain on to others, it comes down to respecting each other.

Homeland Security Exhibition
Installation view, Fort Winfield Scott Military Chapel, San Francisco, 2016

If you could collaborate with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

This is a really good question, I had never thought about this before! 

Two years ago I was in Italy in Spoleto and came across an ancient aqueduct called “Ponte delle torri” and I was amazed by the structure. I had no information as to who made it, but I would have loved to have collaborated with the architect if I could. 

A living artist I would like to collaborate with is German sculptor Katharina Fritsch. Her work mixes reality with imagination to create surreal imagery that contrasts reality and fantasy through her large-scale monochromatic sculptures of animals, people, and objects. She made the gigantic Rooster sculpture at the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. I would love to work with her as I find her very interesting.

What do you love to do in your free time? 

Recently I have been enjoying cycling and observing people on the streets. On a regular, daily free time I enjoy watching vintage comedies like “Fawlty Towers” – they are ironic and unapologetic. At the same time I enjoy watching UFC ( Ultimate Fighting Championship) martial arts. I think there is something about the overwhelming insecure feeling that artists, stand up comedians and fighters share. I can relate myself to these two professions. The poetic quality of loneliness on stage and crafting your skills is common between us.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a large drawing- I have been working on it for a couple of months. I am planning on erasing it after it is finished.

Oh wow! Will you record your action in erasing the drawing?

I didn’t actually think about it. Maybe I should do that, right?

Well it depends on the context. Sometimes it is more meaningful or poetic if you don’t record the action. It also depends on how this action has an impact on what will come after. What is the drawing of?

I am drawing an Elamite relief on a rock which is located in the mountains in Iran, which I found quite fascinating. I have always been interested in the idea of making a huge mandala and destroying it. I am quite amazed by the fact that this Elamite relief has survived so many years after the end of the Elamite Empire (2700 – 539 BC) and drawn to the idea of drawing this relief and erasing it after.