The US Constitution makes provisions for processes of citizenship. But between the text and experience, what is lost, overlooked, or erased? Tannaz Farsi’s screen prints The Measure I and II (all works 2020) each feature a wall of stacked words, a lexicon conjuring the experience of “measuring up” to exclusionary migration policies. Marginalia in light gray shift the semantics of bold black letters, giving viewers pause. Among these and other references to language in A More Perfect Union, Farsi’s exhibition at HOLDING Contemporary, “we the people” is conspicuously absent. Instead of coldly asserting static facts or figures, Farsi’s textual and material poetics across the gallery negotiate nativist scripts by exposing their incongruities and discontinuities, rescuing the critical will of the people from oblivion.
Casually perched on a low concrete slab across from the gallery’s entrance are four open bottles of rose water—their caps nowhere to be seen. The bottles, collectively titled Visceral Language, are wrapped in commercial markers of the curative, holy, and familiar Persian smell. Despite their seemingly open welcome, one notices that the rose water comes from Lebanon rather than Iran, gesturing to the trade sanctions between the US and Iran. The subtle yet “visceral” difference denotes the numerous impasses between the artist’s home countries.
Farsi’s other works in A More Perfect Union lament the historical and contemporary barbs that underlie such tensions. American Greetings [state III] leans coolly against the white wall, with the eponymous text imprinted vertically onto a massive aluminum sheet. In their cramped verticality, the words are displaced from an otherwise expansionist horizontality, serving to cancel, in part, the space-taking bravado of the bubble-letter “welcome.” In the gap between the metal and the wall, dried gladiolas rest on the floor—a symbol of infatuation, protection, and remembrance—an ephemeral sculptural element Farsi has invoked in previous works. Here, the flowers offer an ironic elegy to this exceptionalist welcome. Across from American Greetings, Second Skin occupies a corner, also inclined against a wall, this time without the façade of nonchalance. The assemblage of found objects in Second Skin includes a security light glaring downward, spotlighting a bedraggled US flag-patterned collared shirt—the kind coopted by the far right in a seizure of monolithic and uncritical patriotism. Here, it hangs, blasted, sanded, dragged, cut, and under interrogation, with tufts of cotton huddled around the base of the light’s pole. Cotton. The “second skin”—or the comfort of de facto nationalism—is quite literally flayed from its racist origins. This raw sight returns us to a query posed by the artist in the exhibition statement: “The American flag is an object, an image, and an idea signifying a shared history that tethers the bodies of citizens to the edges of this land. Who does this belong to?”
An adjacent work, Obligation of Allegiance, a stainless steel sculpture, offers an answer. The work reads “CITIZEN” in Farsi’s idiosyncratic geometric font derived from Arabic script nuqat, or dots, which obscure in their decoration as much as they disclose alternative configurations of state-sanctioned semantics. The typeface both constitutes the term of legal status and simultaneously disassembles that composition through its shifting form. Turning towards the back room, a grid of names written in the artist’s cursive script cascade down a wall in Systems of Displacement (January–November fatalities of African American/Black folks by police). The dark texture of the names matches that of Obligation in the front of the space—revealing the tragic result of uncritical allegiance. Painstakingly etched in stainless steel and grit, each name signifies a Black life lost, unprotected by their supposedly hallowed citizenship George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake… the list goes on. The devastating record motivates the artist’s question: “at what cost is allegiance?”
Farsi continues to pose open-ended questions concerning the nature of citizenship and nationality in a Line; a Figure; a symbol. The geometric script returns, here literally welding together negative spaces cut out between names from a 2017 work that commemorated Iranian political prisoners, as Farsi revealed in a conversation with scholar Lucy Cotter hosted by HOLDING Contemporary. The resulting silver composition abstracts the minute and sculpted pauses that collectively jut out from its base. It denies easy legibility, retaining the material haunting of absented prisoners and the ambiguous “CITIZEN” from Obligation.
Turning to the back wall, Farsi leaves viewers with a final evocative suspension: the wall has been cut open, exposing the structural beams. Upon a low piece of wood rest the four caps to the rose water bottles in the entryway. Their small convex shapes fit their containers but remain distanced from them, articulating a longing that permeates the pauses, tensions, and negotiations throughout the exhibition. They deviate from the notion of a “perfect” union referenced by the exhibition title, and instead embody openness and criticality that leans towards the desire for “more.”