Mohsen Gallery (Tehran) are devoted exhibitors of the Fair, having presented works by an array of interdisciplinary artists across four editions of our America and China Fairs. The gallery are drawn to PHOTOFAIRS due to its spotlight on contemporary photography, establishing a unique environment where both audience and exhibitors speak the riveting language of photography. For the 6th edition of our Shanghai Fair in September this year, Mohsen Gallery hung the works of Iranian artist Mehrdad Afsari on their booth walls. Afsari has almost 20 years experience in the field, and believes that the context behind images is determined by the viewer's interpretation.
We are delighted to present you with a conversation between PHOTOFAIRS, Mohsen Gallery and Afsari...
PHOTOFAIRS: What benefits are there for a gallery to exhibit their work at a photography-focused art fair?
MOHSEN GALLERY: Benefiting from the expert audience who know about the medium of photography from a professional point of view is the most important aspect of participating in the Fair. Having a mutual language in perceiving photography is very significant.
Please can you provide our audiences with an insight into your selection of artists for PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai 2019. How important are these artists for representing what photography means today?
MOHSEN GALLERY: For PHOTOFAIRS | Shanghai 2019, we presented three artists with three different approaches to photography. Mehrdad Afsari’s Polaroids are essentially a tribute to the preciousness of the moment and also a reminder of its transience. Arya Tabandehpoor usually considers the human body and nature as primary and secondary contexts for life. His approach to photography and its presentation is unconventional. Sasan Abri looks at photographic and printing processes as an austere ritual to keep a memory safe from the danger of the routine.
Afsari, your ‘Photographs Afront’ (2019) series challenges viewers to analyze and interpret the work through blocking out the field of vision. How did you develop this concept? And why did you decide to use a Polaroid camera for this series?
AFSARI: 'Photographs Afront' includes a series of images, showing the complex relations of the quiddity of image, representation, and contemplating the world. To me, photography is a medium that cannot culminate in the absolute truth, but it is merely a means of seeing and raising questions, whose answers are beyond the ability of representation and recording the reality. Through ‘proof by contradiction,’ I pose a challenge and raise doubt about seeing and representation.
The 'Photographs Afront' series was created on a Polaroid camera. The representation is direct with a single-step procedure; however, the photographer has now blocked the field of view and obstructed representation by interrupting the mechanism of the machine. Therefore, there is nothing remained of the photograph as the object of representation, nor of the world as its subject-matter. Nothing is left to be seen and the decision, judgment, and imagination is down to the perceiver. The title at the bottom of every photograph is the only clue that directs our interpretations.
I define my work not based on the two-dimensional photo, but in a triangular relationship of “preceptor-image-world.” I ask my audience not to see the image as concrete, but a mental phenomenon, seemingly rethinking both the concept of image, representation, and seeing, as well as looking back in time to conclude my achievements in the last twenty years. Everything is either light or dark, and almost flat. Consequently, the preceptor remains unchanged but what lies ahead is not “image-world” but “non-image-non-world”.
How did your experience of working with Polaroids vary from this series to the ‘Polaroids’ series shot in 2005? And how did you decide on the scale on which to print and exhibit both series on?
AFSARI: I believe that the main idea of a project determines the technique. Basically, I do not limit myself to a particular technique. It is, rather, the content and the concept of my work that dictates my approach to the photographic technique. My 2005 ‘Polaroid’ series was formed when I used to travel light and alone. I did not intend to communicate an intricate idea. What I wanted to do was to draw the audience closer to the works and consequently what lay inside the photographs: a forgotten nature, which was poetic, pure, and lonesome at its core. When an artwork is small, the viewer has to come closer to it, and when it is large, it can be seen from a distance. This is a conceptual decision for me that varies in the two series. In 'Photographs Afront', the images are intentionally printed on a larger scale, to keep the audience at a distance, as if they are looking at something which they have no control over.
Why was it important that you documented and showcased all 36 frames of a shot to your audience in 'The Gradual Disappearance of Things' (2012), and not just one standalone image?
AFSARI: The initial idea of this series was developed after reading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin raises significant ideas in this article. I believe that art does not provide answers, but like philosophy, its job is to raise questions. The article deepened my thoughts about the medium of photography. Notably, the idea that two images are identical, when in fact they are not. I set my 135 mm analog camera on the motor drive mode on a tripod and took 36 shots at very short intervals. There is a ten-second interval between the first and the last photograph. These ten seconds were very important. What we see in these frames are a series of images of one scene, repeated 36 times. They seem to be the same, but in fact they are not. What has changed in them is time. That is why it was so important to show all the 36 frames.
"An artist does not translate the world, he interprets it."
Inspiration for many of your works are sourced from personal memories and narratives, such as 'After Grandmother' (2006), and 'Insomnia' (2009). What has the platform of photography provided for you that another medium may not have?
AFSARI: I think photography as a medium is a possibility for living alternate lives. I think every artwork is the result of the memories and the lived experience of the artist. Photography has given me the possibility to understand myself, my surroundings, the world, my memories, and all that has shaped me, all over again. It is as though a cognitive aspect of my life continues through my photographs. 'After Grandmother' posed the possibility for a grandmother who could not live in the real life anymore. 'Insomnia' was a visual way to document the dreams that could not be recognised in this world. In that period of my life, I could not make a clear distinction between reality and dreams, due to the things that happened in my life. An artist is influenced by the things that happen to them and their surroundings, and they want to make an impact on the world through art.
As a teacher of 16 years at the Tehran University of Art, what are the most important lessons you teach your students when practicing photography?
AFSARI: My basic approach to teaching is that a work of art is born out of the subjective spirit of an artist. I don’t like to impose my own way of doing things on my students. What matters to me is that each student should find and develop their own individual way of doing things. My students have been busier writing rather than shooting, because writing shows them an aspect of themselves that helps them shape the way they photograph. You can learn photography by thinking about the world, not necessarily by going to classes. Our subjective spirit is unique: each one of us sees the world in a unique way. An artist does not translate the world: he interprets it. I believe that a photograph is authenticated by the artist’s mind, not by the reality in front of the camera.
What are the most significant changes that you have both noticed in photography over the past few decades?
AFSARI: At the beginning [of my 20 year career], photography was very simple to me. Now, however, it is profound, complicated, and philosophical. Photography does not talk about objective reality; it is, rather, subjective. Photography is a way of pondering the world.
MOHSEN GALLERY: Over the past 10 years [since the opening of Mohsen Gallery], we assume that the importance of ‘concept’ rather than just ‘aesthetics’ of the photograph has heightened, and also the opportunity to create an alternative presentation of the image is becoming much more popular in the field.