My first interview is with Mahmoud Bakhshi who was the winner of MOP CAP 2009. Bakhshi’s work is deeply rooted in being politically engaged. He is often explicit about his concerns relating to the social issues that surround him. I met him in his Keresht studio to learn more about his practice, how he spends his time now and what has changed since he won the MOP CAP award. I have posted the interview transcript and the video here.
How did you become an artist?
I don’t really know. Maybe my family influenced me. It wasn’t as if I had other options. I was not really into studying as a kid but, during that time, I thought of an artist as a real character. The way people spoke of artists was as if they were gods. Same thing about writers. So I wasn’t actually interested in the artwork itself but I was more interested in they way people talked about an artist.
What I really wanted to become, however, was to be a merchant. Maybe because a merchant is someone who travels a lot. I don’t really mean a businessman but my idea of a merchant was someone like Marco Polo. I also wanted to go against everyone who wanted to be a teacher or a doctor. I used to defend wanting to become a merchant against those who thought I was after money and argued that a merchant is someone who travels and sees the world. In a way I think it is kind of similar to being an artist.
What do you mean by political art? You have said in previous interviews that if you don’t make political art you rather do gardening?
Politics and gardening. I think it is very interesting to think of politics and gardening as binaries. A lot of politicians even the ones in Iran do gardening when they are no longer politicians. I think politics and gardening are the only things that can change the world. I think that when the times are really depressing, these two can change the world in a radical way.
Politics is very important for me. I don’t think I have the confidence to give my opinion about the moon for example. I don’t really know what art can be about if it is not about politics. I don’t really know what other artists are working on. So if you paint an old house or an old alley for example, it’s just not interesting for me. I think in the end, one should aim to change something not only as an artist, but as a human being. This depends on how ambitious you are in deciding what to change or how much of it you want to change. Or you might decide to do gardening instead. As a gardener you can actually see something grow.
Do you feel that your work is perceived differently outside of Iran?
Yes it is true that the Iranian audience views my work differently. I use a lot of references that could only make sense if you are Iranian. So I think the work could be perceived entirely different for the non-Iranian audience. They might not even understand half of it.
If I were to give a random percentage I think 85 percent of the times art is perceived differently for people from other places and cultures. Art is always about someone at some place at a given time. Even yogurt is different in different places. Nothing is the same. Only some plastics like McDonalds are always the same no matter where you are.
So art is always about someone’s experience in a particular place. You need to know their base to fully understand what they are saying. Often when an artist’s work expands and becomes bigger, the artist can invent its own language. It’s like when a writer makes up a new word. A word that cannot be found anywhere else and is unique to its author. A word by James Joyce for example is only unique to Joyce.
Winning the MOP CAP award in 2009 had a huge impact on your career. You had the chance to show your work at Saatchi gallery and your work was reviewed by international artists and curators. Did this experience or other opportunities in the past affect your practice?
Every time I show my work outside of Iran, my language changes a little. In opportunities that allow me to show my previous work, I try to align myself with who I like to be. It is not about the way people perceive my work outside Iran but it’s more about the opportunity that I get to reflect on the work. I don’t change to be seen better by others at least not consciously.
There is a strong reference to iconography in your work. Why is it important for you to work with post revolutionary Iranian symbols?
I have a diploma in Graphic design. This was not really my choice but I didn’t have other options in high school. I would rather study sculpture but that option wasn’t available. I think my background in graphic design has helped me develop my own artistic language, which I could later use in my sculptures. The attention to iconography comes from there. But to explain why I have worked with Islamic icons, I should say that, at some point in my career, I felt that I am not direct enough with my work. I then decided to take a more direct and honest approach in saying what I had to say. Maybe I was tired of an art that always needed to present itself in an abstract and complicated way. I think part of it is the game I wanted to play with symbols and icons. To play with signs that are vey simple and flat without any depth pretty much like graphic design which is also really flat and then creating complicated layers and meanings. This was the game I played in recent years or maybe I am still playing.
Did any artists influence your work?
I don’t really like this question. Friends often make fun of me because I don’t really own other artists’ books or I don’t really go to exhibitions. I don’t really follow or I don’t really have a particular artist to look at. My understanding of the art world is similar to a taxi driver. When I was a student I really liked abstract paintings by Kazimir Malevich. I also like Constantin Brancusi. Although my practice is very different from them, I think my urge for abstraction in my work comes from there.
Where does repetition fall in your artistic language?
Repetition has different connotations in my work. It can describe boredom. Sometimes, repetition becomes about obsession and fussiness. In the past, I have used repetition to make space, for example a space made of repetitive flags or granite blocks as I did in a show in Isfahan.
There are more and more galleries opening every day in Tehran and now other cities like Isfahan is becoming a center for art. How do you view these changes?
I think galleries are growing by number but I am not sure if they are growing in quality. For me galleries are becoming like coffee shops. This isn’t dangerous but it is not really a good thing. You can somehow predict what kind of artwork comes out of these spaces. Maybe this is a trend. Hopefully it will pass.
How did you benefit from working with Vali Mahlouji?
Why is important to work with a curator?
I think it is great for an artist to work with a curator. A Curator can give you their opinion. They can compare your work with what has been done before. This is because they often have a lot of knowledge about art history. This was one of the valuable aspects of working with Vali Mahlouji.
Tell me about your studio space? Why did you move to Keresht and what are the plans you have for this space?
I moved to this space five years ago. Keresht is a small village close to Damavand. I needed a bigger space and compared to Tehran it was a lot cheaper to move here.
I always thought it is great to have a huge studio space that doesn’t belong to anyone. Kind of like a public studio that artist could use. Something like a university studio space. I have been planning to turn this space into a public studio. My goal is to come up with a program to share this space with other artists when I am not around or when I have less work to do here. I have been experimenting with this idea in the past couple of years to see what works best. We had some good things happening here but most of the times we failed so we are experimenting and changing constantly to see how we can run the space.