Farkhondeh Shahroudi in conversation with Angelika Stepken (2017)
When one looks at your sculptures, one is initially captivated by the figure – a human, a bird or a slingshot. But it seems to me as if the level of speech – and the absence of speech – is equally important in your work: very obviously in the case of the bird made from carpet cut-offs, which has no beak, but also subliminally in many other works, and of course in your books. Your work speaks of a great pain.
I find that the absence of speech in my work is itself a language. I address it and turn it into a visual language. I am always concerned with communication, with finding a way to bring dead alphabetic characters back to life so that there is a connection to the other.
One spontaneously associates refugees’ lack of a voice and helplessness with your works that feature a large number of black gloves on the ground (“Backside Riding into the Wave”, “Calm Black Pearls”, “Wave Breaks Full Moon”, 2016). But in your work, speechlessness appears not only as that of the others, but as your own.
It is a personal subject, so I use a variety of media. If I cannot create communication with one medium, I try another. I often get the feeling that I am speechless, that I cannot speak, that I am stuttering.
One could say that being speechless is always the beginning of art; it seeks expression beyond existing formulations. But, as you say with the example of stuttering, speech can fail in the face of emotion – because the horror is too great to talk about. Then there is speech-lessness in a social context, where certain people cannot find a voice or a sense of hearing. Do all these levels play a role in your work?
Yes, it is also very powerful if one is speechless in public and I then transmit my verbal communication in another direction, in another language.
Your media are primarily sculpture and text – sometimes you combine the two in alphabetic character works.
I am always trying to reinvent my own language.
As an artist you began as a painter. Your text works are still saturated with pictorial associations and scenes.
I see what I do as three-dimensional paintings or three-dimensional poems. They sprang out of my paintings into the space.
Your exhibition at Lottozero in Prato was called “Spacial Poetry – Text and Textile”.
I see my work as a tridimensional poem, in which you can walk around and which you can experience.
The exciting thing about your work is that much more is transmitted than one could say about the objects themselves. They awaken images, emotions and memories.
Yes, a lot comes from my memory archive, which I do not initially know anything about. Only when I start do I give myself total freedom in this imaginative space, so that the images transport me and I can address them.
During the artist interview in Prato you said that you are not really anywhere when you work and that this is the only way that your personal archive can be activated.
I like that, because I am then totally free and independent. Nothing belongs to me and everything belongs to me. I am completely alien and take what I want and leave what I do not want.
How important is your own experience of migration in the 1990s for the way in which you work, and is it present in your memory archive?
There is a constant migration within my work: the images migrate, collaborate. My personal migration was very difficult, but the experience is something that has enriched me and is very present in my art. It has increased the size of my archive.
You have lived in Germany for more than 20 years. Are your Iranian roots still an important resource for your artistic work?
Yes, but when I deal with these resources they blend.
You work with textiles and carpets, and have begun to use leather and artificial hair in these pieces. How is writing linked to these techniques of weaving, braiding and knotting?
Text and textiles are the same for me; they are interwoven. In my work, text follows two different concepts. There are two types of book: the fabric books, in which I draw and write with my right hand, and the paper books, in which I write in German with my left hand.
Are the fabric books written in Farsi?
Yes and the writing in these works is usually illegible, like memories, which form layers and therefore cannot always be read. Writing with my left hand is in this respect automatic writing – legible, but not necessarily comprehensible to anyone else. I came from speechlessness to creating my own language in German.
The texts are pictorial and at the same time fragmented, dissected. The moment of cutting and rejoining (as with sewing) pervades much of your work and media. There is this video with the short strokes that look like needles (“I”, 2008 – 2012)…
The stroke can be the Aleph or the letter I, as in the self; it is a strand, like hair, like every strand in the new works. Every stitch is made from these strokes and strands; they are symbols, like alphabetic characters. But for me, my work is also connected to the theatre. Sometimes it is a silent theatre.
Why the theatre? Does it interest you as a space that is separated from the audience?
In traditional Iranian theatre the actors and audience mix, they are not separated from each other. I see my memories as a theatre. I remember that as a child you perceive everything alien around you as theatre. When you wake up in the night, your surroundings seem to be a shadow puppet theatre.
When you start work on a piece, do you know if it will become a flower, a body?
There are no limits on my space for inspiration: sometimes it is two children playing together that inspires me. First there is an image, then it springs out of my head into the real world, and then I have to see how whatever has been created in the image can be worked. It is constant communication with myself. Sometimes I start, destroy it and start again.
And how did you begin to use new materials like artificial hair and leather?
Both materials are dead. It is like the alphabetic characters: first they are dead and then they come back to life in art. I have thought about why books are so important for me for a long time and I only realized quite late on that there is a memory: as a child I discovered that as a young man, my father had owned a bookshop in his town. Supporters of the Shah burnt his bookshop down during the coup in the 1950s. When I make these books and alphabetic characters it is something against death, something that continues to live.
Did your father ever run a bookshop again?
No, but he remained a booklover.
In Florence you took up a new motif: the flag, made from fabric or hair braids.
Yes, these flags are really anti-flags for me: contradictory, paradoxical.
Flags are a public demonstration of belonging – what interests you about that? You walked through Prato with a paradoxical hair flag.
No, my flags do not signify belonging.
When they are placed in an exhibition space, they really demonstrate an absence, a lack of something.
It is impossible to hold the smaller flags that I have woven. I have not yet had the time to analyze myself with regard to these flags. When I was 17 or 18, I demonstrated against the Shah; perhaps it has something to do with this revolutionary Farkhondeh.
Would you like to say something about your time here at the Villa Romana, in Florence?
I get the impression that the Villa Romana is precisely twice the size of the space I am normally in – the space in which I allow myself total freedom. The Villa has doubled that. It is as if I were blossoning here. It was like an explosion. I have had a lot of space here, a lot of opportunities to develop my ideas further.
Because the Villa is such a protected space, a space dedicated to art? What is responsible for this doubling? In practical terms, you are in a studio, just as you are when you are in your studio in Berlin.
Yes, it is probably something mental that allows me to develop with such freedom. That fact that I have enough space and lots of loving, very hospitable people around me. This hospitality is very important for me in order to feel welcome. The studio in Berlin is a closed space – nobody can find out what I do there.
So you had more resonance here?
Yes, I felt this resonance very strongly here and that is very important for an artist.
Does the fact that the Villa Romana is in Florence and not, for example, in the Lüneburger Heide in Northern Germany play a role?
Yes, there is a really beautiful garden here. I always look out the window at the cypresses.
You have often said that the cypresses and the light remind you of Iran.
The cypresses here are like a Persian miniature. My grandfather had a garden like this. As a child, I was always fascinated when we left Tehran to visit him in his little town. The garden is an imaginary space. Carpets are gardens that you can take with you everywhere.