Artist interview

“Every society has its taboos”: Interview with Farhad Moshiri

The Middle Eastern contemporary artist discusses the state of the art market, his commercial success, and what it’s like to work in Iran

The work of Farhad Moshiri is being bought by Middle Eastern collectors in Tehran, Dubai and London, with growing interest from the US. Following a string of auction records and sell-out shows in Dubai, the artist’s Eshgh, a black canvas spelling out the Farsi word for love in Swarovski crystals and glitter (right), became the first contemporary work by a Middle Eastern artist to make over $1m when Bonhams sold it in Dubai in March. Born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1963, Moshiri studied at the California Institute of the Arts, returning to Iran in the early 1990s. He is best known for his series of large paintings of antique ceramic jars, overlaid with calligraphic phrases taken from Iranian pop songs and consumer slogans. He has worked in the media of installation, photography, and embroidery, and in 2006 and 2007 produced a series of canvases depicting cakes, flowers, brides and soldiers, sculpted out of frosted fondant using cake-decorating tools.

The Art Newspaper: Critics and curators have been following your work for the past decade but since Christie’s launched its auctions in Dubai in 2006, your market value has rocketed. What do you make of this?

Farhad Moshiri: Some people who enter the art market overnight are in it for the money and everyone’s talking about not missing out. I thought: “OK, people in Iran don’t have the buying power of Dubai or New York”, but actually this isn’t the case—the market isn’t made up of separate clusters anymore. Suddenly collectors are everywhere, buying the same work, paying similar prices. Now there’s a wider collector base—we show in more art fairs, not necessarily just in the Middle East. Collectors in Dubai might be willing to pay double the prices but we need the international base too.

TAN: Is the market for Middle Eastern work sustainable?

FM: I have no idea. I can’t generalise, I can only talk personally. For me, [the Bonhams auction] reiterated the fact that there are no limits—in both the market and the art-making process. Right now, I want to make things that are more fantastic and I want to feel free [to do so]. I couldn’t look this far ahead two years ago.

TAN: When did you begin your sumptuously decorative “fantastic” work?

FM: With the gold installation [Golden Love Super Deluxe, 2002, of gold-sprayed furniture and objects, shown at the 2003 Sharjah Biennial]. The average expectation in the art world is that [success within] the market affects your practice, you have a natural tendency to become less ambitious. But actually the market helped release me.

TAN: In what way?

FM: There’s always been an element in my work that’s self-ridiculing—I play with the idea of marketing and commodification, and this feeds my practice. After all, the idea of making work that is about the packaging of art has been there since pop art.

TAN: Your practice is defined as much by experimental work, such as the collage series “Freedom is Boring, Censorship is Fun” realised with your partner Shirin Aliabadi, as by the more “collectable” paintings. Given the commercial pressures, do you still have the freedom to produce this kind of work?

FM: Collectors are more adventurous than you’d imagine, or than they used to be, so it’s not such a conflict. We did do a lot of projects because we wanted to, not because they would sell—working with found objects, then altering what we found. This is a good period for me—anything goes. My palette before was more painterly, then I started using found materials in installations, and now that’s mixed in with paintings. I’m inspired by the mall, the bazaar, the decorative and ornamental, and wedding culture in Iran. I’m now finding new ways of using the embedded cynicism in the material.

TAN: Has the recent success of your work in Dubai and at auction influenced your practice?

FM: Yes, the viewer does give some direction to the work, whether consciously or sub-consciously—otherwise you’re at war with yourself. As fantastical as my [recent] paintings may look, in the end they have to have a sarcastic note as the punchline.

TAN: Do your new collectors get the punchline?

FM: I find myself focusing more on the art making process rather than whether people understand the work or not. If the response is emotional and immediate, then that’s OK—this can be more powerful.

TAN:You travel widely yet only seem to make work when in Tehran.

FM: I feel happier living in Tehran compared to anywhere else. Artist friends who’ve never lived abroad don’t understand why I stay in Iran but I just feel like I fit and I don’t constantly question why I’m living there. That’s very comforting.

TAN: But you don’t show there anymore?

FM: No, I just look and create.

TAN: Is that out of choice?

FM: There’s no appropriate space right now. Most galleries show classical modernist paintings and art is generally subject to the hype. Paintings, especially, sell like hot cakes. This is all based on an entirely speculative market. There’s no real appreciation for conceptual installations, performance or video art—these media survive mainly through sponsored curated exhibitions abroad, a phenomenon that started around 2000.

So even if I, for example, show an installation in Tehran, it will at best end up in a kunsthalle “Iran Fest” in Germany.

TAN: Do you have to deal with censorship in Iran?

FM: My work now is not that obviously critical. I’m using the idea of “happiness”—which gives more space for corniness or sarcasm, but sorrow is just sorrow and there’s not a lot you can do with it. If an artist attacks an issue clearly in Iran, there can be a problem. As an artist you do a bit of self-editing—every society has its taboos. An image will have one meaning in Tehran and an entirely opposite meaning in Denmark, for example. But sometimes I’ll just decide not to show a work in Tehran since I’m pretty sure how it would be interpreted and I’m not willing to change it—such as We are all Americans. But then suddenly a curator from Yerevan brought it back to Tehran University [where it was shown in 2007 as part of an uncensored group show] and, surprisingly, all went well.

TAN: But in general, is it getting harder for some artists and film-makers to receive support, exhibit, and so on?

FM: It depends more on the choice of medium than your subject. There are film-makers that can’t express ideas, but painting is somehow more acceptable and benign as far as the officials are concerned. As a painter, you don’t need a permit [to make work] nor an export permit. There used to be an office where you had to show your work for the exit stamp, but it was abolished.

TAN: Given your success, do you feel pressure to produce more? Do you have assistants now?

FM: The galleries I work with—The Third Line (Dubai), Kashya Hildebrand (Zurich/New York), Emmanuel Perrotin (Paris/Miami), Galerie Rodolphe Janssen (Brussels), Extraspazio (Rome), Daneyal Mahmood (New York)—support the ideas and reinvention in my work. At first clients would make faces and leave when they didn’t get what they expected but now I guess that element of surprise has become a signature in my work. It’s hard to find assistants—there’s not this tradition in Iran.

TAN: What about the rumour that you’re going to join the Gagosian Gallery?

FM: Of course I’d consider it! But there’s a lot of difference between getting there and “arriving”, and getting there is a lot more fun. What do you do after you’ve joined Gagosian?

TAN: Do you find that those who supported you early on, such as collectors in Tehran, are now priced out of the market for your work?

FM: The market plays a role whether we like it or not, and why not this region too? Two years ago, at the beginning of it, Iranians suddenly became passionately supportive. The first Dubai auctions were regionalised—Iranians collecting Iranian, Lebanese, Lebanese art, and so on—but with each auction and event, there’s more internationalism in collecting. It’s moving very fast, more than any of us can control.

TAN: Which artists do you admire?

FM: I follow those that are represented alongside me [at the Third Line]—we’re growing together. Artists are breaking away from the mythological, being inspired by something in your pocket rather than history. [Iranian painter] Rokni Haerizadeh is a close friend and his work is moving towards being a vivid, playful diary of his life in and outside Iran. I’ve always been close to the Neo-Geo movement—Bickerton, Koons, David Salle’s generation. John Baldessari was my mentor at CalArts and has been a powerful influence on my work. In turn, they influenced the YBA movement, and Wim Delvoye, and Takashi Murakami, who also influenced me.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '"Every society has its taboos"'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 191 May 2008