Ahmad Nadalian is known internationally as one of the foremost environmental artists. Born in 1963, in Sangsar Iran he completed his B.A. in Painting in 1988 at the Faculty of Fine Arts in the University of Tehran. During university years he traveled extensively to all parts of Iran, recording many of his experiences in drawings and photographs. Collections of his drawings were published in 1987 and 1993.
In 1990 he moved to France where he spent two years living in Paris, studying aspects of both historical and contemporary arts at various museums and institutions. In 1991 he commenced further studies at MPhil/ PhD level at the University of Central England (UCE). His research focused on “The Impact of Mysticism on Art”. He completed his studies and was awarded a Ph.D in 1995. Subsequently in 1994 the UCE published A Collection of Cartoon Drawings: Research by Ahmad Nadalian.
Since his PhD he has largely made his home in the north of Iran, beneath Damawand, the highest mountain in Iran, in the Polour district (situated in the 65th kilometer of Haraz-Amol Road). After his time in the west making this return to nature began a new chapter in his life. After some stone carving in Polour he has since involved (immersed?) himself in “Environmental Art”. In the past decade, Nadalian expressed this concept through a variety of mediums and techniques, including carved stone, installation, performance, landscape art, video installation and multimedia, as well as interactive works.
In 2003 he was invited to the 50th Biennale of Venice where he presented his environmental art project. He has since been invited to many countries to promote his environmental art.
Over the past decade Nadalian has traveled to cities and remote regions in every corner of the world, creating countless stone carvings in nature, buried treasures and works that he has tossed into rivers, spreading his message on a scale that few artists have done before. Now most of Nadalian’s works are scattered across the globe.
A number of books, catalogues and magazines of contemporary art include Nadalian’s works and many art critics hold his work in high esteem.
Edward Lucie-Smith introduces Nadalian as one of the world’s leading environmental artists in his book Art Tomorrow, where his work is presented alongside that of British Environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. In Lucie-Smith’s words: «various symbols are incised on boulders- chiefly fish, which for the artist are emblems of the human soul, thirsty to experience life».
In 2007, John K. Grande in his book Dialogue in Diversity showcases Nadalian beside artists such as Antony Gormley, Christo and Jeanne Claude, saying in the following excerpt: «Nadalian is an Iranian sculptor whose life’s work involves engendering respect for living creatures and the natural environment. To achieve this, besides living with nature himself, he established sculpture grounds in a peaceful environment in natural surroundings. Water is a living element that contributes to his sculptures and many of the symbols he engraves and sculpts are derived from ancient mythology and the rituals of pre-Islamic civilizations […]. Nadalian’s art focuses on fundamental crises in the contemporary world... If there are any audiences in the future, his work will tell them the story of life and humanity. Nadalian presents his works via new media, and utilizes the capabilities of the digital age, such as the internet».
In a recent article the American art critic Robert C. Morgan comments: «Ahmad Nadalian’s work is like a synoptical charge between the Paleolithic cave art and Ancient Persia… He is well versed in computer language and believes that the most viable and effective way of transmitting his message as an artist is through digital displays, the Internet, and his own extensively designed websites of which he has three. Yves Klein felt that art was somewhere between the ancient world and the future. A similar statement could be made about Nadalian, except that his forms appear as simulacra of a pre-linguistic culture, in fact, as true signs reiterating something about our present moment […]. One could say that Nadalian’s real studios are the rivers of the world. Nadalian’s work is a kind of a combined Earth and Process art, at least in Western terms. Yet he is also within the context of Postmodernism by returning us to an era when language did not exist other than as signs, an era when there were no urban monuments and no public art in city squares» (“Sculpture Magazine”, Vol. 27, n. 2, March 2008).
The main characteristic of Nadalian’s art can be summarized as follows. Nadalian is very sensitive about the environment in which he lives. One of the important characteristic of his works is that he is always inspired by the natural, social and political environments. Environmental crises, natural disasters, lack of respect towards old heritage, war and terrorism. These are issues that he focuses upon and explores in his works. The Environment is not the only source of his work, but he finds it the best place in which to present it.
Works by Nadalian show a synthesis of primitive and high technologies. Many of his themes find their roots in the beginning of time when humans first started to evolve global mythologies in relation to their lives on earth. On the other hand Nadalian takes issues of the digitalization of the beginning of 21st century and produces them in interactive cyber spaces. He believes that a website is not only a place to introduce his work, but a contemporary environment in which to convey his ideas and art. He creates works which are very solid or permanent on the one hand, while on the other creating temporary works which cannot resist their erosion in nature in the long-term.
In the interactive works which he presents to the internet, audiences are not passive. The work can be touched, discovered, and through interaction the audience can be creative. Within this interaction people create their own environment. They discover that his work is human friendly. Within his interactive multimedia, they can click and change sequences, colours and composition.
How did you get involved in environmental art?
My ancestors were nomads and lived in nature. When I was a child, in summer time I lived with my grandfather in unspoiled countryside near Damawand Mountain, and close to a village named Polour. But my father worked in the city, and during winter I lived with my family in Tehran and studied at school.
When I finished my high school education and entered the faculty of fine art, in most of my free time I traveled or lived in nature. I made many drawings during my journeys which emphasized the daily life of the local people. I also painted the local landscapes.
From 1990 to 1996 I lived in Europe. In these years I was very far from my perception of pure nature. For me the “countryside” of the west looks artificial. But I learned many things about different cultures, and I realized what is going on in the contemporary world. In 1992 I married and after a year my son was born. When I finished my studies we came back to Iran, and I decided to live in a peaceful environment, far away from the big cities such as Tehran. The best place I knew was where my ancestors lived. For me, returning to the land of my ancestors was like reviving my childhood memories. I had many memories and I was in search of my lost paradise. My feeling was that I had lost my link with nature and it was time to return to it. Nature is a holy place, where we can see the manifestations of God. I had the desire to create works within the context of nature. For five years in late spring and summer we lived in tents. Polour is a mountainous region and living in a tent can be hard. Despite this my wife, son and mother accompanied me. In the early years we had very basic facilities and lived like my ancestors. But at least for me this kind of life had its own beauty and I learned many things in nature.
My initial plan was to paint on a large scale, but as we were living in tent and had little space I found this to be impossible. Sometimes the weather was cold and windy and raining with a high humidity. The shortage of materials for painting on this scale was an obstacle. Hence I decided to find a local medium from the landscape where I lived to convey my thoughts. Stone was one of the best choices: many of them were suitable for carving and could be found in river bed near our camp site. I started to use primitive pointed tools to engrave stones. Then I discovered that I could use a hard stone to polish soft stone. My techniques were very primitive and I discovered all that primitive man had done before me. Usually I chose my stones on rainy days. Soft stones on a rainy day were not shiny, so they were suitable for my work.
Gradually the shape of stones defined the subject matters of my work. I couldn’t adjust any image on any stone. I felt that I had to work with the organic shapes of the stones and create my work with them. The stones were already half finished. All I had to do was add some images, lines, textures… and then they became a new inspiration for the work I do today. I named them “ready-made sculpture”.
Very soon, I started to carve large boulders in flowing rivers and my intention was to leave my works in nature. At the beginning it could be reference to primitive works or pre-Islamic carvings on the rocks which exist in many places in Iran. But now it is more that ten years since I began this project and at this stage it has had many meanings and interpretations. Nowadays I have become known as a land artist whose works has a strong ecological message.
Although I can’t change nature, my hope is to be one with nature. I want to understand my surroundings and open a new window to see a new world. I want to establish a balance between art, ecological education and the order of the universe.
How would you define environmental art and how you do you work as an environmental artist?
There are many definitions for environmental art. In some of them we find contradictions. My definition of environmental art is art in which artists in the natural environment utilize natural elements to create their art works, which are a mostly a type of site specific installation. Sometimes artists may bring elements or objects and install them in nature. Most contemporary environmental artists are over sensitive towards the ecological themes. In many cases environmental art is mixed with body art and performance. Artists in nature or even within a city environment may utilize objects or even garbage that people leave within their surroundings to create art works.
Environmental art for me is on the one hand very personal, and on the other hand collaborative. In any area or region where I work, I collaborate with local communities, and local rituals have a reflection on my work. In many cases audiences are not passive observers of my art, and may be interactive. I don’t want to impose a single narrative.
In my view the process of making art is important. So how I live in nature and how I discover my way and how I educate myself is more important than the final result. Since this process is crucial and most of my environmental art can be shaped far from an audience, its documentation and presentation for the media is an important part of the process. I also convey my concept via new media, so they play an important role in my work.
Environmental art for me has a still bigger meaning. In my art, besides nature, I consider the cultural, social and political environment too. In many cases they are directly or indirectly linked together. In the world in which we live it is difficult not to think exclusively of the natural environment or animals. If humans aren’t higher than another living creature, then we are at least equal. Some environmentalists think and work for the right of every creature except the human being. They are worried about wolves, foxes, dogs and cats, but they are blind to the deaths of thousands people per day. I think in nature, humans and all living creatures face the same crises. So in my art I consider all of them.
What has been the influence of Iran on your work? Do you think your art has any Iranian characteristics?
Social, political, cultural, and more specific environmental issues of present day in Iran can be seen reflected in my art. To be honest, our national characteristics define our works. Also our ethnic background naturally appears in our work. But I think, we should not try or decide to have national character identification. It is difficult to move away from our background and local culture. Art can be like our life. In our life we do what we think it is right to do. I think my art has Iranian character, but this is one side of my work. I belong to this earth and this time too. I am interested to see local issues in relation to global ones.
What is the need or necessity of environmental art?
In the past, natural elements were regarded as sacred. Today such beliefs are rare and we are dominated by modern technology. Man once saw his destiny and future in the sky, but now, via new technology, we see the earth from the sky. We need to bring back those important elements and respect nature, and in my work I feel I am making one small contribution to improving the relationship between man and nature.
In the world today there are many threats, worries, regrets, and wishes. Lack of ethics and bad behavior toward the environment, can not only be seen in my village, but also in the global village. People are worried about wars, terrorism, bullying and injustice. The vast scale of these problems suggest vast consequences. Many intellectuals and scientists only inform us how we are damaging our lives and what the consequences will be. I feel art is not only for the intellectual and should not be isolated; this shows the danger of ecological disasters, bringing the issue on to the table of the mass media on a scale that people across the globe can recognize. Instead destroying and polluting natural resources, humans today more than ever need to respect nature. Destroying nature is destroying human values, because humans are themselves a part of nature.
Many countries already have fully developed industries and in developing countries like mine, we witness the rapid development of industry. We received industry but we didn’t fully learn how to face the consequences of the impact on the environment. Modern industries use chemical materials in a different way. So in many places in the world nature becomes polluted. Traditional products do not pollute. But today’s chemicals that pollute nature are not recyclable.
This message from artists can show the ugliness of wars, terrors and the vast ecological crises better than any other. The language of environmental art has no boundary and can be comprehended by people in any culture. Hence environmental art is the need of today and tomorrow.
When you established the Paradise Art Centre, what has been your achievement?
Since the early years when we lived and worked in nature, many local and international artists contacted us and wished to stay with us, and created their art works in nature.
Between 2000-2001 we constructed two buildings in our little garden and since then we have established an official international residential art centre. So far we have received more than twenty international artists from countries such as Germany, The Netherlands, UK, Lebanon, USA, Australia, Switzerland, Ireland, Japan, Greece, Belgium. The International artists who came in summer time stayed in our little villa, and grasped their environmental art in the landscape of Iran.
Besides international artists some hundreds of young Iranian artists also came to our garden and grasped their art projects in this paradise. We found that visiting artists were fulfilled at the centre, and this led on to further projects, establishing the art centre as the leading environmental destination in Iran. In the past seven years Paradise Art Centre has arranged and supported over 15 environmental art festivals. Here in Paradise we have prepared workshops and short courses for different groups of younger generations where they learn environmental art. Through discussion on examples of works by famous environmental artists they gain inspiration to develop their own works in nature. Paradise is a place where international and Iranian artists meet and exchange experiences.
How is the condition and popularity of environmental art in Iran now, and what is the future of this art in your country?
In Iran now, many young artists are active in this area. So far we have no sponsors; despite this we always make progress. We often work in a way that doesn’t need budgets and publishing works on the internet is not very expensive.
I am sure in the near future we will have one of the strongest movements of ecological art worldwide in Iran. I have some reasons for this. The religious teachings from pre-Islamic religions such as Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Mithraism and later Islamic religion in Iran also mention the protection of nature. In all of them polluting nature is a sin. Iran is a large country and we have diversity of culture. The cultures of most neighboring countries of Iran can be seen in Iran. This diversity of culture can enrich our works. The natural environment in Iran is also diverse. We have high mountains, forests, deserts… Such diversity is ideal for environmental artists. We have one of the youngest populations in the world. 50 percent of the population of Iran is younger than 35. Due to present political and cultural conditions the young generation has less distraction than those in the west. That is why the young generation usually shows interest to this trend. They are a good choice of people to promote this art. The new generation of art is our future.
What has been the impact of your life in the west on your present works?
When I lived in Europe, besides studying at university, I frequently visited museums and art centres and all these had a great impact on my understanding of art. Now I know the basic characteristics of contemporary art. What I learned in the west wasn’t limited to art, but more awareness about the world where I am living, its reality and crises. Comparing my culture and western culture led me to find out the characteristics of my own culture. Because local uniqueness can be comprehended when we see something different. Life in an advanced country helps us to see the future of our society. In some ways we follow the same process, and we can imagine in future we will be faced with a similar condition. Living in the west changed my perception and created awareness about many issues.
Of course I should add, in the past ten years I often travel to different countries and many international artists come to Iran and live with us. In the past year I have made seven trips to seven countries and seven international artists came to Iran and worked with us. These exchanges always refreshed my knowledge. But the most important gateway for me to learn about western culture is the internet. I am physically in Iran, while virtually I have a continuing dialogue with people like me who live in the different parts of world. Regardless of where we live in our time, it is possible to work with people who live in different geographical locations. This is one of the characteristics of our time, in that the meaning of time and space is different from the past.
How do you choose the time and location of your works?
Generally I work all the time, even on holidays. If there is an interruption of my work I am not satisfied. As an environmental artist most of my time is spent in the day time when the weather is fine. Spring and summer are more relevant. In many cases my carvings are worked in the middle of a river. So the water is not very cold at these times of year.
As far as the location goes, when I am at home I have a feeling for a location and go out in search of it. Of course the stone has to be suitable. But for locations in other countries, I have often traveled to different countries after an invitation. So the organizations and/or individuals select general locations for me. When I am in the area that people have suggested, selection of exact location and type of works depend on the landscape. The quality or sometimes the colour of stones must be suitable. But sometimes the quality of stone may change, as well as the technique of my work. Sometimes shortages of needed materials result in an invention of new works. One of the reasons that I started to work with cylinder seals, and print on sand was, that in some areas I couldn’t find stones or rocks. Therefore, the environment, location, and time always define my work in many ways.
How do you use color in your works?
When I work in nature I am amongst colours. I mostly take photos of my carved stones when the stones are wet and they show the reflection of surrounding colours. I carve many of my fish beside a hollow full of water and I take photos of them when I see the reflection of sky. Sometime I choose the colourful part of a rock and I adjust my design with the shape and colours. But generally my carvings are simple and I think sometimes works with fewer elements are stronger than more complicated works. In recent years I have used red earth to paint on the face of people and some times I use coloured earth for large installations to paint on the earth.
You have participated in many festivals. Which of them were more interesting?
In 2005 Washington University in Seattle invited me to present my works in a conference and workshop. My environmental works were reviewed there. This gathering was very interesting, because the participants were a mixture of scientists and artists. Scientists talk about ecological crises and the way that they find a solution, and artists too showed their art and how they show the ecological crises in their art, and suggested a solution in education. In Seattle I produced a collection of works. When I was there I had a feeling. It was one of the furthest places I could go from my home. When I called my family I noticed that the time in Tehran is 12 hours ahead. So when I was in Seattle I was one day younger. We are living in an amazing world. Prehistoric man knew nothing of this.
The other interesting event was the Green Art festival in Italy which is held in a valley near Stiappa village not very far from Pescia in Florence. In this festival we lived in tents by a river for two weeks. There were many German artists who participated in this festival. The facilities of life were at a minimum. We took baths in the river. Drinking water came from a spring. I had already experienced this way of life. But what was interesting was that I could see people from other parts of the world that chose this primitive way of life. For me this festival was the most productive in terms of both the quality and the quantity of my works.
What types of Symbols exist in your works, and how are they shaped?
Most of the designs I present in nature are: fish, snakes, hands or foot prints, goddesses of water and fertility… In the early stages I mostly depicted the creatures that may exist or existed in our surroundings, and for me they had a simple meaning. But through time my understanding and intention, and the interpretations of my audience enrich and expand their meaning. Sometimes I depict mythological symbols too. They have old meanings but new applications.
The first designs I left in nature were fish. I depicted them on the edge of river and waves of water made part of the design wet. The reason why I chose the river is because usually I collect my stones in riverbeds. The reason I produce a fish design is because it is the most abundant indigenous creature in the river. Now I have many reasons for the depiction of fish. Fish have existed almost everywhere in the world. All people in the world can understand fish. Fish are a symbol for all nations, and appear in the zodiac symbology as Pisces. So fish can be found within ancient myths and astronomy. When I was a child the rivers of Polour were full of fish. Through time I found the wellspring was polluted by modern man and his methods, and due to these pollutions the river in turn no longer had any fish. Depicting the fish always suggests the question of why there are no fish. I created hundreds of fish on the stones of the river and dedicated them to the goddesses of fertility. I wanted to build my own paradise. My most beautiful moments were when I sat watching the turbulence of the river, and the frolicking of my imaginary fish. My fish are similar to humans. Fish can not live in a polluted area. If they die, humans will die too!
The darkest moments were when I witnessed the death of my fish. I saw that, during man’s construction, my fish were buried time and again by his actions. Now for me the birth of my imaginary fish, their effort to survive, the ugliness of the evil times that destroy my fish are a metaphor for the life of human beings in the present and the world we are living in. I am not tired. I like to believe that these fish are alive, and are swimming against the tides. I am as determined as ever to build my paradise again. I will carve fish for the whole of my life. I want to show pain and suffering, which are part of human nature. But we are responsible too. What is going on in the world is the result of our behavior.
In any case I want to save fish. In many occasions in the past decade I have also dropped the stones which have imaginary fish carved onto them into the rivers, canals, reservoirs, and seas. I documented the process of the fish as they fell under the water. When I was participating in the 50th biennale of Venice I dropped many fish into the canals of Venice. This is a ritual for me and has a symbolic meaning. My fish will drop to the bottom and remain there forever. They are alive and will live a secret life to be reincarnated one day again. Hiding does not mean degeneration and death. I have continued with this tradition and many rivers across the world host my fish. I want to dedicate my fish to humanity.
I have also depicted water goddesses, which in many cultures are related to fish as both are a symbol of fertility. In many ancient beliefs the earth and creation are imagined as a female figure.
Snakes can frequently be seen in my works. I use this symbol as a reference: the exclusion of Adam and Eve in heaven. The snake symbolises evil on the one hand, but life’s eternity on the other.
Traces of hands and feet are also frequent patterns which I depict everywhere around the world. They describe the moments in which man directly touches nature. Hands or feet are our secondary eyes. In a dark space we can use our hands or feet and see our surroundings.
In most of my works the order of the universe offers a meaning to the work. The movement of water in rivers, the rise of the water-level in the spring, making the stones grow with algae turning them green, the falling of the water-level and drying up of the rivers beds in autumn, waves changing the personality of my fish and other creatures. Many of these designs and symbols can be seen in my cylinder seals and sand prints. Also the ebb and flow of water in sea that slowly washes away my sand prints or the wind of desert that remove them very fast are part of the process and cycle of my works. The aim is to be sensitive to nature and its order and to have harmony between mans action and nature’s order.
Why do you bury your works in earth?
Between 1998 and 1999, and afterwards, many of my carvings were destroyed and my fish buried by the machines of companies which constructed roads or built factories near the river. I wasn’t expecting it to happen like this, but I was sensitive and transformed this piece of bad luck into a new form of art. I documented what happened and presented it in the 50th biennale of Venice.
In the past six years, I also buried many of my carvings in the ground. This project named “Hidden Treasure: An art exhibition for the next millenniums”. The story of “Hidden Treasures” began when the people of Polour started to excavate the place where I carved several images and texts on the local rocks. They hoped to find treasures there. According to a tradition in the north of Iran, the images of fish or a snake on the rocks can be a sign of treasure. I never ignored that my work was perhaps an indication of treasure when I heard this story. I used this “accident” to produce a new collection of works. I have started to bury many of my carved stones in the earth. The above story has now changed my understanding of our earth. For me the earth and the museums are one and the same. Earth has always been the cradle of civilizations and cultures. The objects and pieces that can be found in and from the earth show the beliefs, life, and perhaps most importantly, the beautiful mind of past people. The fact is that if we excavate the earth now the ugliest layers belong to contemporary man.
Posing this question is important: why do we only use the natural and cultural resources of the habitats in which we live? Can we add any more to the values which are already hidden in nature?
I leave my carvings under the earth as seeds and deep-rooted hopes that the future will provide for the growth of a new culture. We should all cultivate these ideas and work to make our earth richer.
There are the influences of primitive arts, and art works of ancient Persia on your works: what is the difference between your work and works from ancient time?
I like to be in nature as a primitive man, and produce works similar to his. But it is impossible. Apparently they look similar. The first difference is that primitive people lived naturally within nature and it seems that they had no other choice, whereas I have chosen this as a part of my life. My choice is not necessarily an advantage. I haven’t destroyed the bridge to the present. I am not alone in choosing this path. Many modern and contemporary artists have done the same. This is nostalgic. Among the works of land artists we can see archetypal patterns such as spiral and circle designs which have been borrowed from the early time of man. Many contemporary artists are inspired by primitive rituals. But the difference is that the rituals in the past relate to the belief of a community but today respond to the need of individuals. Hence we use past art patterns, traditions and rituals in a new context, and we have developed different aims.
It is true that in many ways the subject matters and techniques of my work have been inspired from ancient Persia. The goddess of fertility in my work comes from an ancient belief. In ancient Persia, they had temples that worshipped water. They believed the goddess purified all water on earth, and the milk from the mother’s breast. Now I think we need to bring back these spiritualities. Actually many rituals still exist in Iran today. We can see those who accompany a traveler pour some water behind her or him wishing that the person who travels will flow like pure water. Our New Year, unlike the many other parts of the world, starts on 21st of March, the first day of spring. This shows that we are sensitive to the balance of the universe in our calendar. Still today we display a red fish in a bowl on our New Years table as a symbol of life.
Technically I use stone which was a common feature in ancient Persia. Stone is a relevant medium by mythological subjects. But this material is not my final aim. The modes of presentation, processes, consequences, and final interpretations of my works are different from the works of ancient time.
It is important to understand that I, myself, convey my concept, in present time, in different contexts, justification, background and achievement. I try to create my work with a unique aim and use different media to promote it. In the early years when I lived in nature and I started carving, I carved small stones and left them in nature. I announced this on my web site and wished to bring people in touch with nature. I think those who came and carefully searched saw the beauty and the disrespect of nature. So I went on and made carvings similar to the past works, but the aim changed.
My cylinder seals also show inspiration of old techniques in Persia. Such cylinders in ancient times existed in small sizes and had different applications. I made large cylinders which were adorned with my own designs, and I rolled them on the sand of the beach or the desert. The results usually show a myriad harvest of living creatures adorning the beach or sand of the desert. Eventually of course the tide of seas or winds in deserts will wash over them or erase them.
Some of my works are temporary. I use red earth and paint portraits of people. Unlike the stone, when I finish these paintings I take photos, and as the red earth is organic, not a processed chemical dye, the people can then simply wash it off. In many cases I like to show the oldest meaning by the newest medium. Maybe the dedication to something in nature is primitive, but the documentation and presentation of the works in cyber space is quite new.
I believe spiritual rituals that respect nature are one of the essential needs of man. Nevertheless such needs don’t mean that we should ignore our present needs of man on earth. I don’t want to just lose these values. That is why I use new technology and my works depend on new media. The past tradition and the achievements of humanity from the beginning of the third millennium have their own values. These two are like a grand mother and child. For me an old tradition and new media are two wings with which I can fly.
Past traditions can extend the time of my works, because the subject matter are timeless and material such as stone can remain for centuries. But new media are a mirror and can extend the concept of my work in virtual space. If I use these media my work can be seen in different locations and consequently in different times. I cannot ignore the pleasures of the speed of contemporary media such as the internet. The speed of conveying ideas like this has never been experienced before. Therefore we don’t lose any value, but gain a new value. These new media are a bridge which brings attention to my traditional values. I want to make a balance and link between the eternity of the past and the timelessness of virtual/cyber space.
I present my work via photos, video, multimedia CD format, and interactive art. Unlike the art of the past my artworks are small and they may be very far from the audience, and sometimes they exist only temporarily. Without photography of the process and presentation in new media the audience could never experience them.
When I drop a fish in the river there is nothing obvious to see, but the photos which show the process convey the concept. Only digital photography can save this moment. My photos show the moment the stone hits the water and the shape of water is amazing. They might even be regarded as “Water Sculpture”. Even the people who are there and witness the process of the performance cannot see it happen until they see the digital photos.
For much of my work I use new technologies. I have chosen the location of some large scale works to be seen on Google Earth. I also present some works in a chat room. So many works are solely shaped and presented in virtual space.
I always love to make a bridge. A bridge between ancient symbols and new media, between folk and intellectual art; sometimes I work amongst the public and ordinary people, while at present my works are among intellectuals. On the other hand I take the art of the intellectual and present it among ordinary people in a way that they can digest it.
Please explain about the works that use new media and how you present them in cyber space.
New technology and media show a new horizon. The invention and development of new technology has always produced new forms of art. We are living in a new age, one which has its unique culture and arts, and this age of communication is shaping a new form of art, a kind of digital art which is virtual and interactive. New media and electronic tools have created a global culture, as artists need to exchange ideas and thoughts with each other.
The contemporary tools which are available in our surroundings present many choices to each individual. Hence even in art when we use new tools, we can not impose a single narrative on our audience. That is why many of my artworks are virtual and interactive. Even the presentation of some of my recent video installations which show my environmental art is a type of interaction. Audiences could interact and be creative.
Today computer and its related technology have changed our lives. Our memory, even in a traditional country like Iran, is partly digital. In a world in which information has no borders, we are able to publish our works digitally and make them accessible to everyone regardless of their physical location. In the near future, maybe people will have no time to visit an art work physically. So we always need an alternative. In addition I would say the new world brings new issues, and some of the contemporary subjects may not be able to be expressed by traditional tools. Despite all of this I never destroy a bridge to the past. There is always a possibility to step back.
In my view the Internet is a window to the world through which we can see and be seen. In many of my works I show virtual reality, virtual knowledge or feeling. In many cases we communicate with people in the internet, but we don’t know whether they are male of female, young or old.
Could you tell us about your reflection on wars and terror in your work and about your approaches toward peace?
For nearly three decades now war has been raging in this region. In 1981, under the orders and leadership of Saddam Hussein, Iraq attacked my country. This war resulted in hundreds of thousands of martyrs and casualties. During that war Saddam Hussein’s army used chemical weapons against both Iran and his own people in cities such as Halabja. There are still people who suffer because they were targeted by chemical weapons. During this war millions of innocent people also lost their homes. This war continued for eight years. At that time I was a student. I made many drawings which showed casualties of war and the people who defended my country.
Then in 1991 Saddam Hussein’s army attacked Kuwait, and the following war involved coalition forces from 34 nations. Finally in 2003 USA and its allies attacked Iraq. As a result of these wars we have witnessed the deaths and suffering of millions of human beings and the loss of countless living creatures.
We shouldn’t forget the terror of 9/11. It was a key point which in turn was followed by many other terrorist activities across the globe. I call this “The Third World War”, at any rate its fear now exists everywhere. In any case as an artist I totally reject terror of innocent people in any place, which I believe is evil. As a reaction to these terrors such as 9/11 and the terror attack on people in Atocha train station in Spain, the on-going conflict in the Middle East and many other places, I have produced many art works in diverse media such as installations, performances and interactive multimedia. After presenting an installation and performance in Spain a journalist asked me: «what is your opinion about terror?» I replied: «this is the wrong question. As a human I don’t even like to see a bird disturbed from its nest by the sound of a bomb».
9/11 was a reason to dominate Afghanistan. The conflict in that region and in Iraq was not finished and war was still raging on. Some politicians now speak about the cost of war. But the cost of these wars is not only money. I think in these wars usually innocent people pay the price. In some of my installations and multimedia I have also reacted to these wars, in which I believe people suffer the most.
Domination of a country can bring more terror. This is what we see in Iraq. Can we establish democracy through war, thanks to those countries who removed Saddam Hussein? Was he the only dictator? If yes, then why for many years did the west support him and supply weapons to fight the Iranian and Kurdish people? By the way, there are many countries in the Middle East which have never experienced democracy. But the western media say nothing about the lack of democracy in these countries. It seems that these wars are more related to oil, selling weapons and creating jobs for their companies.
Now America and some of the European nations are suggesting another war, this time against Iran. As a reaction to these suggestions and to show the impact of past war on the life of ordinary people we made a huge installation which was a reference to the death of innocent people. In the 15th environmetal art festival in the Persian Gulf, a group of artists designed an airplane on the southern coast of Hormoz Island in Persian Gulf as a collaborative project. The outline drawing was emphasised by the red earth of Hormoz. With the incoming tide the design was slowly washed away. Many artists who were located on different locations around the art work saw and recorded the process of the vanishing airplane. The impression of red earth aginst dark blue revealed the tragedy of war in the Persian Gulf. Finally only this number was left “IR 655”.
The work related to an event that took place on Sunday, July 3rd, 1988. Iran Air Flight 655 (IR655) was a commercial flight operated from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai. The aircraft IR655 was shot down by a U.S. Navy guided missile from the cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board, including 38 non-Iranians and 66 children, 8 of them less than 2 years old. The Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident. According to the U.S. government, the Iranian aircraft was mistakenly identified as an attacking military fighter.
British sculptor Benjamin Hewett, who participated in this festival, helped us to design this work. We named the festival “Dream of Peace”. We hoped that dialogue instead of war can solve this misunderstanding.
You have presented a multimedia work about nuclear energy. What does it mean for you?
This work shows a space like galaxy in which nuclei grow, and finally we see many trees. Due to frequent news in the west many politicians, journalists and scientists search Nuclear Energy related to Iran on the internet. Many internet users, when they search this topic, find this page too. Many of them send me e-mails. It is a personal understanding and interpretation of nuclear energy. As an environmentalist I am sensitive about the development of a nuclear bomb. But according to a report of the Agency of Nuclear Energy there is no issue in Iran. America and Europe suspect that Iran may one day make a nuclear bomb. But we are sure that many countries have already made these bombs, and we know they have used it, and they have many of them now. Of course the atomic bomb is very bad but why do we legitimize it for some countries and not others? As an environmental artist I now worry about existing nuclear bombs. First of all we should try to destroy these bombs safely.
What do you think about globalization in relation to border of cultures and races?
In the past decade, because of the development of new media, there are virtually no borders. But after 9/11 due to growth of terrorism, political and geographical borders are now stronger and closed. In the past decade many former countries fragmented. Getting visas is now a longer process, and travel or immigration is more difficult, at least for Muslim people who wish to go to the west.
I am not an expert on the economy and I don’t know what the results of globalization on the world economy might be. Is it good or bad? But I support cultural globalism. My conditions for this type of globalism are that we don’t consider western cultures as a world model, and that we respect local cultures too. In my view there is no contradiction between global and local cultures. We can have both of them. I know that my fish were born in the stream of my village and now they want to swim in the ocean of the global village.
I think even in the worst cases, at least artists from different cultures have some tolerance, and there is dialogue and exchange. Maybe in the eyes of politicians, Iran and the USA are not friends. But for artists from these two countries no such barrier exists. There are contemporary American artists who are inspired by Iranian or Islamic art. The best example is Joyce Kozloff who traveled to Iran few years ago. She presented her discussion on feminism in American contemporary art at the Museum of contemporary Art in Tehran.
Only a few months ago the same museum showed the works of American video artist Bill Viola and feminist artist Suzanne Lacy. American art critic Robert C. Morgan has traveled to Iran twice in the past 12 months and has been on the jury of the International Symposium and biennale of sculpture in Tehran. In the past decade many young artists have studied American post minimal art in detail and we can now see its impact on our contemporary art.
In April 2007 a group of Iranian artists were invited to USA by the Meridian International Art Center and their works were shown in Washington DC. Now the same exhibition is in New York. I was one of the artists who presented works, and during my journey I left many land art works in Washington DC, New York, Kansas, Missouri, and New Mexico. The staff of this organization and all the people who I met during my journey made their best efforts to assist me in realizing my works throughout the USA.
Beside these examples, in the area of environmental art I have a close and friendly collaboration with organizations in the USA who act as a green movement. I believe artists are the best ambassadors to remove misunderstanding.
Borders have political meanings and they may show races, belief… but today in art, borders still exist, but not as strongly as in the past. As far as I can understand the priority of respect in my culture is not race. Rumi (the Sufic poet) was born in Afghanistan, not present Iran, and buried in Turkey. But all Iranians respected him because they understood his spiritual message. From a cultural point of view I don’t recognize borders. I love to be like my fish crossing the borders. I know that fish live with more ease than humans do. They move from one corner of the world to another. They do not recognize borders.
In the past decade many organizations and individuals have helped me to take my fish to different parts of the world. It is a strange world in which my closest friends, who support my environmental art, and who share the same approaches to art, are mostly American. In March 2008, American art critic, Robert C. Morgon wrote an article in the "Sculpture Magazine" and kindly focused on my work.
My American friends Abigail Doan and Barbara Roux sent their designs and concepts for our Environmental Art festival in the Persian Gulf named “Dream of Peace”. We think of the whole planet in which we live. We live in two different countries, but one earth and one God created all of us.
Interview given on April 3rd, 2008