Interview with Babak Golkar

Babak Golkar is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice, at its fundamental roots, takes aim to deconstruct, recontextualize and rearrange our perceptions of the world around us. Like Zen koans, Golkar’s work seems to arrive at new understandings by setting up impossible questions. At it’s core is a spirit of unbridled philosophical investigation; one that exhibits a Duchampian twist on the visual pun mixed with a Gestalt sense of multistability and reification. Golkar’s work understands both the destructive and regenerative aspects of perspective and shifting visions; and fundamentally contests the fixity of subject and object and space. And, like his work, Golkar’s visual language maneuvers between seemingly oppositional realms–East and West, politics and revolution, Modernity and antiquity, Minimalism and ornament—ultimately exposing not the dialectical relationship between polarities, but rather the poeticism in the world around us.

Sasha M. Lee: I wanted to begin with your series “Negotiating Space,” in which you use Nomadic Persian Carpets as a kind of architectural support, transforming its geometric twists and turns into rough blueprints for gleaming, white, three-dimensional models, rising from the woven geometric patterns. I thought the title and the conceptual framework of the work, for me, was actually a poetic way to summarize many of the themes that run through your work. Can you talk about how these forms interact, and why you chose to juxtapose these particular forms in this manner?

Babak Golkar: I’m interested in the alchemy of the art practice…arriving at gold, metaphorically of course, some sort of proposal for new understandings, the creation of new meaning. I like the idea of a particular piece transforming from two dimensions to three dimensions; something non-existent becoming a possible structure, and the subsequent interaction between the two. I like to talk about my work in terms of “becoming,” of interdependency between these two forms. In the case of the series “Negotiating Space” I don’t like to look at the nomadic Persian carpet as the origin of the whole thing per say…but rather one visual form constantly becoming the other and vise versa.

Hence the title—I like to use titles as materials in and of themselves– it is carefully chosen to hint at a state of uncertainty, a fluid or malleable state of existence. Really, I call the works “proposals,” rather than installations or sculptures.

Even though the carpet is technically the blueprint for the architectural scale-models, the structure adds a vertical dimension, which, as you move above the piece it collapses back to carpet once again. I like to talk about this idea of 2D to 3D, and its reversal; in particular the Duchampian aspect of playing with space. I’m inspired by Duchamp’s alchemical approaches to art making. In some ways I make a reference to Duchamp, in particular his piece, 3 Standard Stoppages. Do you know that piece?

SML: I think so, it’s the piece where he sort of makes a conceptual joke out on the meter?

BG: Yes. Duchamp takes three threads, each one meter long, and drops them onto a stretched canvas. The random shapes the threads created were fashioned into new sculptures that preserved the shape of how they fell. It takes your pre-existing notions…like what is a standard meter? And transforms it to a whole new understanding, one that undermines your rational perceptions. To me, that’s alchemy.

SML: So in many ways you are using both Eastern and Western ideologies equally, but by using these seemingly oppositional ideas in congruency with another, you are able to effectively speak to both, and critique both. In setting up these proposals though for imagined spaces, that seem to confound and complicate more than rationalize and resolve, there seems to be an underlying sense of humor that evolves out of them?

BG: Yes, a sense of humor is important in looking at my works. I find it sort of culturally specific…but also, a reaction towards the rationalism of the West. I personally find rationalism boring, I much prefer poeticism.

SML: I like the idea that humor draws the viewer in. One of my favorite interviews with Chris Ofili was describing this trick as the great seduction, using beauty as a sort of tool to draw the viewer in, put them at ease, allow the mind to unlock, and then allow them to come to the more politically & culturally charged meaning and metaphors sort of organically.

BG: Yes, exactly. It sounds like something I always say, which is that many things in art can be used as a “hook,” whether it’s humor, beauty, spectacle… these hook you right off the bat, allowing for multiple levels of engagement. I think laughter is the best, as viewers are literally opening their mouth, and bodies to the work. But above all, it does put the audience at ease and welcomes them.

SML: One piece I found had a very interesting effect on spatial understanding, or this epistemological context was in the piece “From God to Malevich.” As the title suggests, you riff off Malevich’s spiritual/Suprematist ideology surrounding the cube, in particular his own iconic “Black Square;” it seems almost a play on his temporal philosophies, in particular the weightless and relative “fourth dimension,” posited in opposition to the fixity of Renaissance perspective. And of course there’s a kind of humor that emerges, a kind of Duchampian joke of being able to visually travel “around the entire cube” by way of optical illusion, while physically travelling in a straight line from left to right.

BG: There is the idea of ghost image at play with the piece “From God to Malevich,” in which case the literal and conceptual space of the piece are determined by the notion of sight and vision. As you move in a linear direction from left to right of the diptych images, which are side by side, the lenticular black polygon changes shape, creating the illusion that a black cube is moving right in front of you, hence, the viewer moving around an imaginary cube. Beyond its “visuality,” this piece has to do with Malevich’s proposal of “art for art’s sake”…. considering the idea of ridding an object of art from any external meaning. I find this quite funny to be honest, especially for such a spiritual artist as Malevich! It sort of contradicts him. So in that light, I wanted to put the most significant external meaning to this piece, God. And of course by using the image of a black cube, I am referencing the Ka’aba, the most minimalist piece of architecture in Islam, credited to Abraham for building it as a house of God. If you buy it, you can have his house in your house!

SML: So you’ve created a kind of ironic interpretation of the black cube, religion, etc through the visual trope of the parallax. I absolutely love that the philosophical implications of parallax here. The textbook definition of parallax is the apparent displacement of an object, or a way to describe how objects can appear differently when viewed from different points of vision or lines of site. But I love the concept of parallax to sort of poetically describe your practice, the whole notion of shifting visions, playing within an ocular culture, and understanding that calculating is a fluid process, often containing many shifts. You are literally avoiding a fixity of perspective with this shifting painting.

BG: This makes sense in the idea of the overlapping and the overlaying, of understanding originating and moving between multiple realms.

I’m interested in layering iconographies. I’m hoping that what this piece does is push the viewer to realize that it’s nothing, that they’re basically tricked, or at least have experienced a shift in understanding.

SML: Hegel has said that “subject and object are inherently mediated so that an epistemological shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ontological shift in the object itself.” In some ways you’ve elegantly “shifted” both the conceptual framework and perspective (again, literal and metaphorical of the cube. On this subject Lacan has also said, “the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its ‘blind spot,’ that which is ‘in the object more than object itself’, the point from which the object itself returns the gaze. Sure the picture is in my eye, but I am also in the picture.”

BG: Right now the black cube is a void: metaphorically, physically, literally, by way of the illusion that’s transposed. The idea of Ka’aba; it’s a cube and physically it’s empty, it’s nothing. And yet for these reasons it works immensely as a symbol. In that sense, this piece hopes to re-enact that, and parallel the concept that art for art’s sake in and of itself can also be nothing.

I think for me the relationship between subject and object is the driving force behind the works, it’s all about what these works are doing to the audience. I often get asked what my art means. But I’m actually interested less in my own positing of meaning into the works, but rather the moment of alchemy that occurs when somebody views the works.

Going back to the idea of parallax, by collapsing all these metaphors together, I am trying to construct a parallel between different systems of belief. Art can be a system of belief as we’ve seen; the object functions as a relic, and you fetishize it the same way you fetishize a religious relic. There is that parallel. All obsessions can be illusionary.

SML: It’s such an elegant solution to a seemingly impossible question; how do you condense multiple viewpoints into one, while at the same time exposing the shifting nature of the gaze in and of itself…how do you travel 360 degrees while only walking a straight line. What you have done crosses from the absurd to the rational, scientific and spiritual….I guess I’m curious how you came up with not just the solution to this…but also the question?

BG: Well, my first approach to the work was actually in a completely different format, though rooted in the same conceptual framework. At first, I was going to make a black cube from charcoal, by grinding charcoal down to a powder and re-casting into a mold of the cube. Then, I was going to use that as a material for drawing a cube from multiple perspectives. Then I would create a room that you entered, with all these frozen moments, and in the center of the room I would display the charcoal that was used to create the drawings.

This seemed somewhat complicated, and then I discovered the lenticular frames; it’s actually used predominantly in advertising. But it had all the elements that interest me within my work, the idea of shift, of 2D/3D, the gaze, the idea of alchemy and illusion. And so I thought fantastic, I can take 9 unique points of view and condense them into two simple paintings.

SML: In some ways, a good term may be visual puns. Or, the kind of philosophical practice of the Zen koan, in that they focus on the nature of truth, and a truth unobstructed by the oppositions or differentiations of language or view- so to come to an understanding by letting go of conceptual approaches, logic, rationality, so that new insight arises naturally.

BG:Yes- I think the idea of this visual pun is quite relevant, one that pokes at the deeper nature of things. But I always get accused of being ambitious! And I say accused, because people see these queries as something I can’t acheive or shouldn’t touch.

SML: There’s definitely something meditative, spiritually probing- it’s almost a humanist practice, in a sense, and concerned with kind of the historical, fundamental question that thinkers have tackled across the board—and that’s kind of, what’s the meaning of life or an individual in society…

BG: Yes, there’s the idea of what’s the role of us? Its a privileged situation to be conceptualizing culture, to be involved with culture on this level. I think Julian calls it a “zone of freedom.” We have this element of freedom and creative expression, but in exchange for what? What do we do with this free zone?

SML: I wanted to ask you about your work conceptualizing Western colonialist practice of representation of the East; specifically with regard to historical intermediacy in context of Said’s seminal text “Orientalism.” In particular, I’m thinking about his text on coevality, in which Eastern cultural production was placed in a non-synchronous “past,” and thus carrying a pejorative implication that Eastern artists work was submissive to a form of “critical” or conceptual prescription and thus unoriginal or decidedly non-Modern.

BG: The idea of coevality is very significant. I must say that some of my works have been looked at in that light. I have had conversations with some very well informed people in terms of contemporary art, and they have talked about my work as the kind of art that deals with “decorative” and the “ornate”, or some put it more politely and use the word “design”! This is a significant take on my work. I think it goes back to the idea of “make it exotic, or get rid of it” type of attitude. I mean, it doesn’t change anything for me or the way my work is done, but it shows that old systems are not so old after all. Imperialism and colonialism are very relevant to our time; they have just changed their form.

SML:In some ways it amazes me though, that this sort of dialectical relationship that posits the West as the center of rational thought and contemporary, relevant cultural production, and East as being firmly rooted in a mystical, decorative, irrational past, is still being furthered, even after Said sort of called attention to this problematic Euro-centric dichotomy here. As you show in the works, actually both encompass each other and are quite literally on top of each other as far as temporality, conceptually. I mean the Nomadic Persian Carpet is a symbol of cultural production, ingenuity and artistic practice that has survived long before the Renaissance and into today- it’s an icon really.

BG: I’m particularly influenced by them [the Nomadic Persian Carpet makers]…they are hugely modern, displaying an early reductivism and abstraction. These concepts have been there for centuries, and Modernists, not only have they looked at these cultures, but they have also heavily borrowed from them. Bauhaus artists and architects alike had looked at them. There are records of Gropius and Breuer, doing projects in Iran for example, Le Corbusier designing the Olympique Stadium in Baghdad. They must have looked at the context very carefully and studied the Eastern cultures. More importantly, I think, the works of the textile artists at the Bauhaus, like Anni Albers, Alma Buscher and Gunta Stölzl, not only were quiet directly linked to the patterns of the nomadic rugs, but also very significant in the development of the Bauhaus and the forms that came out of it. But as usual, you never hear about the women of the Bauhaus! What a surprise! I wonder if Said’s coevality concept is relevant to this situation too, women making textile!

Bauhaus aside, there’s a real story of ingenuity with the patterns in the nomadic carpets. It’s a fact that they developed the geometric patterns this way because they couldn’t compete with the more established carpet makers, the floral Kashan, Tabriz or Esfahan carpets, and they didn’t have the luxury of time and space to develop those things in months. The nomads had to move really quickly, and so they came up with their own expression, with the geometric shapes; floral patterns reduced to geometric shapes, to their “essence.” That’s exactly what Modernists did! They had to part away with the pre-existing accepted traditions, so economically they had to part away, and logically this was the step that they took.

SML:This is the ultimate irony; that many Modernist expressions that were being touted as novel, innovative, avant-garde and fundamentally Modern, where actually concepts that had been in movement and in use in other cultures before. So not only did they steal the forms, somehow they managed to deny ever borrowing from these outside sources, and then on top of it all, construct a philosophy that essentially framed their cultural production as being archaic, irrational, of the past and essentially not relevant. It’s interesting how they sort of got away with it. How is an African mask, with all its symbolism and geometric abstraction, use of pattern, shape and reductivism an anonymous relic that belongs in a natural history museum, while that same mask, painted and reappropriated by Picasso, becomes an icon of Modernist expression, the author and artist is firmly acknowledged, and it’s placed in the trope of the museum to reinforce the hierarchy.

BG: They don’t get treated the same way, and this really needs to be looked at institutionally and looked at critically. This was my line of thinking with the series “Impositions,” where I literally bleach and paint over a Persian Carpet with pure white paint, then frame it and hang it on the wall. I figure, if they don’t deserve to be looked at institutionally okay fine, I’ll paint them over. Fuck it! If they’re not worth looking at it, then let’s give them something that they think is worth looking at: a Monochrome. In the end though, the pattern still peeks through the paint.

SML:The process you underwent in this piece though, poetically, seems like it became an integral part of the final work’s meaning; I personally can’t help but imagine it as a kind of furious battle between polarized visual languages- minimalism and the decorative arts, etc. What’s nice is the final outcome encompasses both a kind of reductive and constructive aesthetic; a work of wavering Minimalism that could almost become a Rauschenberg, a Rothko, or even the infamous Ad Reinhardt black painting, forged from the ashes of the carpet. Of course the irony is that your piece is almost a comical expose on the limitations of removing all external reference from a work. “Impositions” seems to make the point of the sheer impossibility to obliterate context. It’s almost like Duchamp’s mustache on the Mona Lisa piece, a work that slyly questions the canon that came before.

BG: I was quite conscious of what I was doing. This piece is in line with those types of works, of Duchamp’s defacing of Mona Lisa and Rauschenberg erasing the drawing by de Kooning. It’s all vulgar gestures. But, for me it goes beyond the gesture, it’s more about the culture that here is being used as a material. In a way, “Impositions” operate exactly in reversal of those works. It just uses the same language.

SML:It’s quite a transgressive act, really- but I like to think the carpet had the last laugh as no matter how hard you tried, you really couldn’t remove all traces of its existence.

BG: Yes, the carpet had the last laugh, though it’s sort of a too little too late kind of thing. Funny thing; once it is defaced and enters the realm of contemporary art, the value of the carpet is multiplied in fact by being ruined.

SML: There’s something really backwards about that.

BG: Yes it’s sort of sickening, but this is something that I am working on, as far as expanding the understanding of both the work and the issues at hand.

You have to hear this story about a city called Baghdad in Northern California. A friend of mine was researching satellite cities, I believe, and got a permission to go and visit this site. Baghdad, CA is a massive piece of land restricted to a section of the US army, but I believe a private security firm runs it. The idea came from a private contractor- who was a Hollywood producer and now the director of the site. The army used to train soldiers through simulations similar to video games; remote offense. But when they began to face the insurgents, they found that when they took a step back, really in situ one-on-one negotiation, and simulacra such as these to train personnel worked best. Basically, the California site is a reconstruction of parts of Baghdad and is built as a training camp for one-on-one situations to train the army personnel. The funny thing is, they have Iraqi people there, imported from Iraq straight to this camp. They speak Arabic and interact as if they are back home. It’s fucked up. That’s besides my point, the point I was going to make is that when my friend went to clear everything at the office of the director of the camp, there was this Iraqi military outfit hanging on his wall. When the director walked in he proudly said that the outfit was Saddam’s personal uniform. He said his buddy brought it back as a gift when they first invaded Bagdad and raided Saddam’s palace. Isn’t that fucked up? So, not much has changed…

SML:Wow, that’s insane…but in some ways this ties into the layers of meaning; I mean this site-specific simulacra, of imposing one structure, one culture on the land of another ties into your idea of reverse recontextualization, right? Or this bizarre kind of cultural schizophrenia. I mean the premise that you can cut and paste a culture is kind of absurdist.

BG: Exactly, I consider my work “performative” and what I often perform through the works is what I like to call: “performing systems.” Sort of reconstructing what already exists, but by recontextualizing it in the realm of art, there is a chance for rethinking it. This one instance with the story is not unique. Is there much difference between Baghdad, CA and the city of Dubai? In the sense of imposition? Cultural and political impositions happen constantly, but the question is, are there any opportunities for negotiation?

SML:That’s interesting, it’s such a nice metaphor for the kind of physical disruptions you create, the notion of the trophy, cultural impositions, in particular with the aforementioned use of the carpets. There’s something undeniably bizarre ….

BG: And uncanny, I believe. With these works there is a sense of familiarity because of the objects I use, yet there are put together in a way, which creates estrangement. I think that shift is important…

SML:Within your works, it seems that there is a kind of tentative equal reverence…and irreverence towards the idioms, the ocular culture of the West, Modernism…all these expressions you approach with a kind of schizophrenic adulation and adversity?

BG: I do want to say yes… when was the last time anything like that was publically disclosed or even practiced? We’ve become so cynical and so rejective of anything that is considered an inspiration like Modernism. You have to kind of keep a distance….even if you are infatuated by the ideas. I’ve never admitted that, but I think there is truth to that. Becoming an institution is next to impossible though Beuys and Duchamp, figures like them did it. There are potentials and possibilities. For Beuys, also the idea of reconciliation is huge, the idea of healing as opposed to dealing…approaching real issues…through art. I guess there could be a slight sense of purity to it. But, that can come across as a naïve thing to say.

SML:Your work still, at a deeper level create physical disruptions to both the Modernism and perceptions of the East. By straddling the middle and using these tropes you sort of use one to call the other into question, and vice versa. It’s a beautiful kind of jiu jitsu really, to pair the two to complicate understandings of both.

BG: I think one of the very few talents that I have is the ability to compare and contrast things, putting things against one another to examine their relationship. Not only do I enjoy the process, but also I firmly believe that there is a potential in it for creating art, and subsequently new meaning.