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Iman Issa

Exhibitions at carlier | gebauer




Iman Issa 
Iman Issa: Heritage Studies
Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2015 
Contributors: Diane Nawi, Ryan Inouge 
ISBN-13: 9780-6924-7915-5 


Iman Issa 
Common Elements
Glasgow Sculpture Studios, 2015 


Iman Issa 
Book of Facts: A Proposition
Commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial, realized with the help of the Sharjah Art Foundation, 2017 


Iman Issa, Text and Object Collaborations

Material for a sculpture commemorating the victory of what initially appeared to be an inferior army. This is the wall text near a mirror-topped table across which a red thread stretches, and above which a black thread extends between map push pins. This is the text next to a dark table on which sit two globe lamps, only one of which is lit at a time: Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people.

The relationship between wall labels and sculptures is puzzling. The forms—spare, elegant—are not recognizably “commemorative.” While the artist, Iman Issa, is responding to specific monuments she encountered while growing up, she does not identify the monuments that influenced the ten works in her series Material (2009–2012). The idea was not to take a specific monument and abstract it or generalize it,” Issa explains in this interview with Asymptote. “The idea was to more adequately recall that monument in all of its specificity, even if that meant having to rely on seemingly generic forms and terms.”

An enigmatic relationship between text and object is a feature of Issa’s work. Take her series Lexicon (2012–2019), for example. The word “lexicon” suggests a collection of words, often the vocabulary of a particular field or discourse community. But the twenty-nine terms in Issa’s “lexicon” are taken from titles of paintings by other artists, most of which were made from 1910 through the 1980s. The titles were chosen because of the vague but charged referents they have in common, such as Massacre, Pain, Comrade, Seduction, Emancipation, and Destiny. 

Each work in Lexicon consists of an object or video paired with a wall label that describes the artwork from which the title was taken, but the original is not identified. Devotees (Study for 2014), for example, is a black wooden cylinder resting on a plinth propped against the wall. The label describes at length a 1953 oil painting depicting three figures, each holding a cutting tool, dove, or bouquet. The effect is a startling contrast between object and accompanying description. The object doesn’t illustrate the label’s description, and the label certainly doesn’t describe the object. Rather than reinforcing one another, the labels and objects “collaborate,” a term the artist uses to characterize the relationship between text and object: “They are trying to do something by working together, in order to create a dynamic or to bring forth a third or fourth element that might not itself be physically present in the exhibition space.”

 —Eva Heisler

I’d like to begin with your series Lexicon. How did you select the artworks whose titles would serve as the terms of your lexicon?

Lexicon developed from an earlier project, where I’d had difficulties coming up with descriptions for a collection of monuments I was studying. As I tried to do this, I realized that I wasn’t able to use some of the terms I expected to be able to employ and which come up quite often when one is dealing with monuments. This was because I could not understand what these terms referred to. It wasn’t just a question of a term being ambiguous (as most terms are) but of being confronted with a complete blank slate when I try to locate what it might mean. One such example was the term “revolutionary.” I avoided using it in the descriptions I was coming up with, but then in 2010 I decided to make a work, mainly concerned with trying to find a referent for that term. To do that, I wrote a fictional story and composed a soundtrack using text-to-speech software. It became an audio work relating a fictional story of a character not based on any particular historical figure but on a linguistic term.

This gave me the idea that perhaps it is exactly in a space such as that of fiction or an artwork that one can a term’s missing referent. Let’s say, for example, you would like to speak to someone about a street market, so you take your camera and you set it up at a right angle and snap a photograph at/of a street market only to realize that your photograph does not in fact evoke a street market in a manner you recognize. Maybe it evokes other things like poverty or tradition, things you might not associate with a street market. So, you decide to try something else: to flip your camera upside down or show an image of something entirely different. And in art, you can do exactly that. You can show someone a picture of a table and call it a chair and the viewer will entertain the possibility that this image might indeed be evoking a chair. So, I thought to myself; this is exactly the kind of space I need in order to locate a referent for the terms I was encountering. This is how Lexicon as a project was born. I started to look at artworks that had an illustrative relationship to their title, or where the title seemed to be describing the artwork.

Usually, we think of titles as identifying what’s going on in each work, but are you saying the reverse: that you were looking at artworks that illustrated their respective titles?

Whether the title is descriptive of the work or the work illustrative of the title, it is a similar relationship. I would not distinguish too much between the two cases, as my aim was not to understand whether the title or work came first but to identify a dynamic. This descriptive/illustrative relationship is different from other cases. For example, a title might be extracted from a poem or made up of numbers and relate to the work simply by nature of its contiguity or create a more elusive relationship to the artwork it is attached to.

The idea was that if I thought the artwork successfully evoked the title, then great. If not, then I attempted my own remake. The idea was to try and find a form that would adequately evoke the term. This included both the text describing the original work as well as my new version of the artwork, which could be an image, film, sculpture, or another text.

In your article “On Language,” you write that Lexicon “tries to offer material and conceptual manifestations to a variety of terms.” Can you say more about the relationship between materiality and the conceptual? I’m especially interested in the notion of a “material” lexicon.

I think the material and the conceptual aspects of a term are too entangled for one to be able to clearly separate them. The point was never to claim that a signifier existing in language was missing in the physical world. The signifier was missing in language. I do not proceed from an idea that language is an abstract system of thought floating above reality. For me it is an indistinguishable part and parcel of lived reality.

Are you saying that the title of a work of art has the same materiality as the artwork?

Yes, I would think so, but also that a physical work of art is as much a concept as a title might be material. Both have the potential to create material and immaterial resonances beyond themselves, which are difficult to account for or absolutely contain.

Unlike with a poem on the page, let’s say, the title of an artwork does not occupy the same space as the art object; it’s usually off to the side on a wall label. How are you “working” that space between object and label? 

Text plays more than one role in the work. There is the text, which is part of the work, which might pose as a title or a caption but is actually not the title or caption, as these are provided elsewhere. Usually that text you see next to what you might identify as the artwork is part and parcel of the work. I would not describe the sculptural element as the work and the text as its description. They both equally constitute the work. If you showed the objects alone without the text, that would not be my work.

The text rarely serves as a description of the other elements, nor do the images or sculptures serve as its illustration. I like to think of the text and the sculptural or image elements as collaborators. They are trying to do something by working together, in order to create a dynamic or to bring forth a third or fourth element that might not itself be physically present in the exhibition space.

The small captions, are they provided by the museum, or do you write those, too?

I write them as well. There is indeed a separate title for each work, aside from the text that is part of the work. For example, in Lexicon, the title of each display in the series is the title of the original work and the year of the remake. For example: Laboring (Study for 2012) or Colonial House (Study for 2014) or Massacre (Study for 2019).

And then there is the text you see next to the work, which is part of it, and which can take different shapes. Sometimes it is a framed panel under glass with an elaborate description of the original artwork, as in Lexicon. At other times it is a blown-up caption pasted as vinyl on the wall, as in Heritage Studies.

Returning to my earlier question: for Lexicon, did you choose the artworks based solely on their titles?

Yes. I chose artworks with titles using terms that I identified as lacking a referent. Examples include Fortune Teller, Comrade, Market, and Abstraction, among others. The titles also had to have a descriptive relationship to their artworks. For some reason, these two criteria ended up limiting the series to works made between the 1910s and 1980s.

The series Heritage Studies, like Lexicon, pairs an object with a caption. The captions describe historical artifacts, but your objects do not attempt to replicate the artifacts. What is the relationship between your objects and the artifacts that may have inspired them? Is the series informed by your own experience of heritage? How do you arrive at your forms? 

The project is not related to my own personal heritage. I used the term “heritage studies” to denote a particular relationship to the past. As a field, “heritage studies” is defined as implying a return to the past with a practical end in the present. And this practical end is usually articulated in advance. For example, an entity like UNESCO might undertake research on historical artifacts with the intention of proving that a people exist, or in order to change preservation laws, or out of other such aims. This is quite a different dynamic from claiming that one is dealing with history per se. I used the term to emphasize this idea of a functional return; that I was looking at the past in order to understand its relevance for the present, and not as an entity in its own right.

The project emerged out of the question of whether this turn to the past must be made; and, if it must, how one should go about it. A few years prior to starting this project, I had a feeling that many of the ancient artifacts I was encountering in museums had an uncanny presence and powerful resonance that I didn’t remember sensing before. As a child, I would often go to the Egyptian Museum, where I was used to seeing and appreciating the various artifacts, but they never struck me as interesting or relevant to anything happening in the present. In general, I was resistant to turns to the past, as these had always struck me as reactionary at best; around 2011, however, I realized I did need to further investigate and tackle my new-found interest in the past, in particular in these ancient artifacts. I decided to start remaking the artifacts that struck me as relevant, but not merely by copying them but by remaking them based on their presumed relevance to the present. I did this, and almost everything I made looked nothing like the original from which I started.

I should also add that using the term “study” is meant to emphasize the unfinished aspect of the forms I was coming up with. These are not conclusive forms, but proposals that can and will change with time or as a result of additional interventions. In a way, I yearn for them to become part of a wider conversation. It is true that I came up with them sitting alone in my studio trying to imagine what they might look like, but that process doesn’t feel random. It feels rigorous, and part of me believes that if someone else were to undertake the same mission, they would end up with the exact same forms; if not, I would like to leave it open for them to correct me, to say, “No, this needs to be smaller,” or “This needs to be a different color or made out of metal instead of wood,” etc.

What counts as “relevance”?

The displays of the project are all trying, through their form, to answer this question. The reason I use the term “relevance” is to stress that I have no interest in any existential or unchanging purity these objects have had or might have, nor am I interested in trying to locate a non-ideological space revealing what these objects are/were like before being transferred into a museum. What I am interested in is a set of relationships, dynamics, and dispositions that are unfolding in the present and possibly the future, of which these displays in museums seem to be playing a part. 

The final work I’d like to ask you about is the intriguing series Material. These works reference (but do not represent or identify) specific public monuments. As with Lexicon and Heritage Studies, the captions do not bear an obvious relationship to the objects on dsiplay. The works—including photographs, sculptural objects, and video—are low-key and modest, and the sculptural forms often abstract.  The works’ titles, though, have such a distinct voice: ironic, critical, and at times snarky (such as Material for a sculpture proposed as an alternative to a monument that has become an embarrassment to its people, or Material for a sculpture representing a bygone era of luxury and decadence). In an art historical context, “material” is something that’s used to create an artwork. With this series, however, the “material” is actually conceptual, right? Could you speak to the significance of the series’ title?

I used the term “material” to both denote the material aspect of a work as well as the fact that it is composed of interdependent elements that can be used to make something larger. The forms presented in the project do not claim to be monuments, but rather elements constituting a draft for monuments that might be further refined or differently applied.

As for the captions, in Heritage Studies they adhered strictly to this idea of “relevance.” This means that the factual information that was included or excluded and how it was relayed was decided based on whether that information was deemed relevant to the present. For example, some of the displays included a detailed list of the material, whereas others had merely a generic description, such as “wood,” or “marble.” Some of the captions referred to where an object might have originated, whereas others left out this information. As for Material, the textual component was meant to recall the original monument, and it ended up being written mostly in general terms, for example: Material for a sculpture recalling the destruction of a prominent public monument in the name of national resistance, or Material for a sculpture representing a monument erected in the spirit of defiance of a larger power. It became clear to me during this process that, sometimes, the name of the commemorated historical figure or the date of the intended event might be the least adequate way to recall the specificity of a monument, and that a general description can be better equipped for this purpose.

What got me interested in monuments to begin with was reaching the limits of the ubiquitous practice of relying on personal memories when it comes to the recollection of historical events. Memory might indeed be one of the few avenues that allows one to recall an event, but to use it as the basis of creating artworks means to content oneself with a one-way conversation, of creating forms no one can argue with. If I tell you that a vase reminds me of my grandmother, how can you respond, except by nodding? I do not mean to generalize this problem to other artists or artworks, but for me using memory as a method felt limiting for my purposes since I was interested in creating forms that could be a basis for a larger conversation. Monuments seemed to offer exactly the space I was searching for: as forms, they—like memories—emerge from a subjective vision, where one or more people take it upon themselves to create something meant for collective use; unlike with memories, though, these forms can and need to be argued with and not merely accepted as personal facts or rejected as fiction. 

The monuments I chose to work on were those I had grown up around and where I knew quite a bit about the history of the subject matter they commemorated. Similar to the method I followed in Lexicon, if I felt that the forms of the monuments adequately evoked their subject matter, I did nothing further, but if I deemed them ill-fitted for that purpose, then I would attempt my own alternative forms. These alternative forms were then presented in exhibition spaces, accompanied by a description of the original monuments, in mostly general terms.

The idea was not to take a specific monument and abstract it or generalize it; the idea was instead to more adequately recall that monument in all of its specificity—even if that meant having to rely on seemingly generic forms and terms. The proposition is, although the forms might appear to be abstracted, the whole process is actually moving in the opposite direction, starting from what is abstract and working its way towards the specific.

That’s interesting because your sculptural forms tend to be—maybe “abstract” isn’t the right word—but they tend to be austere and spare, and I wouldn’t call them “descriptive,” though they are certainly precise. Are you saying that you don’t want to identify the monuments because their connotations would get in the way of being able to really perceive your work, or the monuments themselves?

The monuments themselves. The proposition is that although using general terms might be a more adequate way of recalling each specific monument in its very specificity.

Monuments do the work of commemoration. Do you see Material as participating in a different kind of commemorative activity, one that critically or creatively engages the process of commemoration rather than serving a specific act of commemoration? 

That’s a good question. I think a question for me is surely what it means to commemorate something.

Material was never a project about monuments in general. It is about a specific set of monuments.

Monuments tend to create memories that demand to be collectively reconciled, which can result in sweeping, highly simplistic grand narratives, which are rarely generative to critique or engage with, as their operations are well understood at this point. It is, however, possible that at moments when these grand narratives start to break down and become contested, monuments can assume another function. They can draw out new relationships between history and contemporary lived reality, relationships that are less conclusive and which might never be reconciled in another grand narrative.

Prior to undertaking this project, I used to approach monuments and memorials with a high degree of cynicism. I used to dismiss their symbolic language and abstractions as devices that flatten both history and contemporary lived experience. However, something changed around 2009, and this symbolic language I had deemed simplistic struck me anew as possibly one of the most apt tools for dealing with historical events in the present. I do suspect this change was related to a specific historical moment, though.

In all three of these works—Lexicon, Heritage Studies, and Material—there is a pairing of object and wall label, with the wall label asserting a presence, voice, or attitude that counters the material object. I understand the wall label to be an integral part of your work rather than an addendum. You seem to be reenergizing, or reconfiguring, the conventions and dynamics of display practices. Do you see your pairing of object and text as a creative or critical intervention in exhibition practices?

I definitely rely on museum practices when it comes to making these displays. I’m not so interested in critiquing the conventions of display in museums, as much as in working with them reflexively. I like to think of what I’m doing as tweaking these conventions, applying and using them while at the same time rethinking their form; not taking them for granted, but changing and dropping or adding elements to them based on what I deem to be necessary for the Setups I’m hoping to bring about. 

The art critic Orit Gat refers to Lexicon as “an almost literary experiment: slowly chipping away at description, at an idea, arriving at a crossroads, and leaving the viewer there.” How do you feel about your work being seen in the context of literary experimentation?

I think the domain I’m working in is the domain of language. One can define language as that which includes a written or spoken script, but I think it is wider than this. Although I understand that there are clear structural differences between images and sculpture or sculpture and sound, or images and text, I use them all in a similar capacity to convey meaning. I would argue that in my work, they are all operating within the domain of language, regardless of their structural differences.