Siah Armajani, An Ingenious World : Parasol Unit for Contemporary Art / Distorted Magazine

As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure. – John Dewey

Siah Armajani:   NOAA Bridge, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Seattle , 1982. Painted wood, wood, 23.5 x 30.5 x 87 cm. Courtesy of Rudolf Zwirner

Siah Armajani: NOAA Bridge, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, Seattle, 1982. Painted wood, wood, 23.5 x 30.5 x 87 cm. Courtesy of Rudolf Zwirner

Siah Armajani—who immigrated to America from a politically volatile Iran in 1960—is a celebrated, conceptual sculptor best known for his public works that highlight democracy’s role in bridging our shared, lived experience. For Armajani, all art is public art—or for the people—and his works refuse complacency in addressing the physical and philosophical divides that weaken modern society. Describing himself as an artist whose medium is equal parts, wood, metal, philosophy and poetry, Armajani’s architecturally-scaled sculptures resist reduction within the field of modern art or architecture, and tackle social and cultural concerns as wide-reaching as the materials he employs. Driven particularly by his own Persian heritage, his ever-expanding knowledge of philosophy and his life-long appreciation of poetry and literature, Armajani is fearless in his want to foreground the gaps between our mediated existence in the physical world and our cultural, social and emotional needs.

Parasol unit —where Armajani currently exhibits a survey of works including models, sculptures, early drawings and a site-specific reading room—has achieved no small feat in presenting the gallery-sized works of an artist whose signature ingredient is civic context. What emerges from this dichotomy is the philanthropic impulse driving Armajani, and the exhibition excels in communicating the cerebral dexterity of this thought-provoking cultural leader who has pioneered a visual way of thinking that extends far beyond the walls of the institution. Armajani cites his literary hero John Dewey in discussing the critical context of his works: “Culture is detectable geographically and the idea of region should be understood as a term of value.” Armajani also believes that an artist’s work has an autonomous force of location and that public art is the logical extension of human movement and is thus predisposed to politics.

This personal philosophy and emphasis on site and passage as dynamic political concepts are most evident in Armajani’s bridges. In 1988, he was commissioned by Walker Art Center, his local museum in Minnesota, to design the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge that literally bridges the anonymity of downtown life with Loring Park, an inclusive site of social, cultural and political gathering. In the project, Armajani not only fuses multiple aspects of American design within a single structure, but he too fuses historical references with their influence on modern concerns, evident here in the color scheme which echoes the infamous home of founding father Thomas Jefferson. And amidst all the structural glory and ingenuity of the bridge lies the literary subtext that is present in all of his works, a poem.

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.
- John Ashbery

Parasol unit curator Ziba Ardalan does not force a chronology upon Armajani’s life and output as a maker, and rather gives visitors insight into how diverse his influences as a thinker are and how these influences effect his artistic process. The top floor of the exhibition showcases nearly 80 of the artist’s own models, constructed from base materials such as wood, metal, copper and straw, which pay homage to the poets and writers who have inspired him greatly. What is interesting here is that—unlike his large-scale, public works, constructed by the bureaucratic union of engineers, architects and city departments—the models bear his own fingerprint and are reduced in form so that the purity of concept is able to shine through. 

Armajani’s model for Exile Dreaming of Adorno (2010) draws parallels between his own experience with the political and emotional condition of living in exile and that of German philosopher Theodor Adorno who famously said, “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Fallujah (2004)—which in its final form was a large-scale, two-story structure perched on its edge encasing relics from a life turned upside down by war—is presented here as a palm-sized model in plastic, wood, metal and paint. Amazingly, despite its scale, the model holds no less conceptual weight in confronting the atrocious pitfalls of democracy that happened in the city of Fallujah during the Iraq war.

All of Armajani’s works—from models to bridges to philosophical reading rooms to the 1996 Olympic Torch—resist ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake and instead gather their visual and representational identity from the socializations that necessitate their use. The exhibition’s title, An Ingenious World, articulates Armajani’s emphasis on social utility and his desire to bring people together to witness and discuss our ever-changing world. 

Published in Distorted, November 2013 Issue

Exhibition on view at Parasol unit, foundation for contemporary art, 18 September – 15 December 2013