Trapping the Sky
    Tannaz Farsi at the Sculpture Center

    The only sound is a low hum, coming from air pumps hidden in the ceiling. It’s semi-
    dark as if evening is falling, and continuing to fall, caught in a loop of transition. At
    the far end of the gallery along the back wall a four-part projection offers a lateral
    stripe of views. Gradually darkening over a twenty minute period, these show roofs
    and adjacent dwellings, a patch of sky fretted with bare tree branches, and a close-
    up of a couple of round street lights that resemble flying saucers. These videos were
    shot from Iranian American artist Tannaz Farsi’s windows, at home in Eugene,

    Eight double mattress-size semi-opaque vinyl bags are scattered through the
    gallery. Air hoses running up and under the acoustic tiles overhead are draped
    loosely in clusters, like lianas in a minimalist rain forest. A constant stream of air
    keeps the bags as plump as pythons. One bag just opposite the gallery entrance
    leans upright against the wall, its lower half illuminated from behind by a fluorescent
    lamp along the baseboard. It shimmers with a lunar glow. Several others are
    propped up here and there, and the rest are scattered around the floor. It’s like a
    slumber party in an alien laboratory.

    Farsi titles the show “the formal absences of precious things,” a line from cyberpunk
    author William Gibson’s novel All Tomorrow’s Parties. That book is about the
    merging of history with the mutability of cyberspace, and the line itself is an
    incidental reference to empty pedestals in a jewelry store window. Farsi’s bags are
    similarly emblems of an emptiness which, Farsi says, she finds between “the act of
    looking and the notion of finding meaning in the look.”

    Farsi’s concern, posed by contemporary feminist theory especially in the writings of
    French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, has to do with the idea of scopophilia (literally
    ‘love of looking’) and the way identity is bent under the force of “the gaze.” Between
    the moment of visual or sensual connection and the naming of an object, there is a
    gap in which the thing, or person or place, and one’s own sense of self are in flux, as
    if perception were a sort of travelling, and recognition a return. Such is the hidden
    source of anxiety in this other worldly chamber – the possibility of the loss of home’s
    essential contours.

    That may be, but at first glance the smoothly burgeoning vinyl forms have an
    undeniable formal appeal and presence, riding on such usually calming tropes as
    twilight, pregnancy, and the steadiness of low level noise. They’re also reminiscent
    of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko’s glowing rectangular patches, which seem to
    hover between anxiety and serenity. Rothko’s friend and analyst Albert Grokoest
    called those “Mark’s tombstones,” and here also these similar shapes seem to calmly
    memorialize and contain the absence of something very precious, perhaps the
    energies of emotional connection, as they disappear at the far edge of depression
    or at that event horizon we call death.

    Like many current sculptural/installation artists Farsi’s work is site-specific, adjusting
    its dimensions and even complexity to the limits of a particular gallery. Originally
    Farsi intended to fill the room with many more bags, covering the floor and
    generating a sense of empty crowding,  as if the sky, visible through Farsi’s
    projected windows, were being pumped in and packaged for use with a different
    identity. From a formal point of view, the artist is filling space with space, interrupted
    by a skin of plastic and differentiated by variations in air pressure. Farsi simplifies
    the complicated interstices of molecular containment so that we see what we
    ultimately, physically are – nothingness stacked against emptiness, strapped to a
    vacuum. The sky is an idea, a point of view from the surface of the earth, a memory
    or a hope, more than a physical entity. But the same can be said of anything. Among
    the operations Farsi performs here is a separation of what the linguist Ferdinand de
    Saussure called a “:sign” into its constituent parts. Saussure wrote that in language
    there are no positive terms, but only differences. At formal absences of precious
    things we are shown a type of object sitting at the border of meaning; these bags,
    singly or en masse, have neither name nor function, operating as terms in a
    mysterious system that is at once evocative of things as wildly differing as circulation
    and pillows, moons, oxygen tents, and pumpkin patches – while being none of these
    things, nor anything else definite.

    Such thoughts hang like a low-lying mist in the dark, faintly humming room. Aside
    from the bags and lights and tubes, the only other object here is a white semi-
    transparent table. Its surface is completely covered with a grid-like pattern of small
    nodules hooked up to air hoses. Placed on top of this “control panel”, as Farsi
    designates it, are two arm and hand coverings, a little like those used to handle
    radioactive materials in a laboratory setting. This is the only indication of human or
    humanoid presence in the exhibit. Farsi intends to emphasize the psychological
    isolation of the situation she depicts, and its precariousness. Is there, or was there
    once, a person who operated this emptying machine, or are such indications also
    merely an absence? Like British artist Damien Hirst’s too famous diamond-encrusted
    skull, Farsi ‘s installation suggests that all precious things, all the names we
    treasure, decorate an eternity we cannot understand or, perhaps, endure.

    [Cleveland Free Times4/9/08]
Tannaz Farsi, Installation at The Sculpture Center,