Siah Armajani: A Political Life Reconstructed at the Walker Art Center

The Minneapolis artist, at 79, gets his first major U.S. retrospective—taking us from Iranian political strife to U.S. politics today

Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3/Courtesy of Walker Art Center

Thursday morning, in a Walker Art Center gallery, Siah Armajani sits in a chair he designed in the late ’80s as a perch for anyone wanting to take up a book—a seat of public education and, perhaps, conversation.

Now, it’s part of a retrospective spanning six decades of the Minneapolis artist’s work. The slatted, wooden chair goes along with a shed-like hut lined with books. A “reading room,” it checks off Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, and American vernacular architecture as aesthetic inspirations—including the barns Armajani saw when he first moved to Minnesota from Iran in 1960. Back then, his father had sent him to the Twin Cities to escape Iran’s authoritarian monarchy. Armajani would go on to achieve international acclaim for art deeply informed by politics, especially relating to exile.

Today, the 79-year-old is best known for his structures: bridges, gazebos, reading rooms, and other public gathering spaces built across the U.S. and Europe. He designed the Olympic cauldron for the 1996 games in Atlanta—what resembled a tower of fire escapes connected to an industrial bridge. But Minnesotans probably know Armajani best (whether they realize he’s to thank or not) for the huge, blue-and-yellow footbridge linking Loring Park and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden above Interstate 94.

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge/Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Along with politics, the new Walker exhibit, open through the end of the year, shows Armajani finding as much inspiration in the notion of place. Even the title, Follow This Linerefers to a game he played with friends as they walked home from school in Tehran, raking pencils along the city walls to delineate their paths.

His first major retrospective in the U.S., Follow This Line similarly traces Armajani’s life through his paintings, writings, conceptual art, and structures, with more than 100 works tracking his early years of activism in Iran through to his fascination with abstract expressionism, math and science, and communal spaces. And, as Armajani tells it, Minnesotans might follow that line best.

“Culture is detectable geographically,” he says, sitting before a group of reporters. (Here, he cited philosopher John Dewey, whispering to his wife, Barbara, as his voice had given out.) To audible excitement, he adds: “My ideas always filter through Minnesota.”

Following the Line

There’s a lot of history to unpack in Follow This Line—both personal and political. And it starts with the local artist in his late teens.

In late-’50s Tehran, after a coup d’état unseated Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister, Armajani started making calligraphic, watercolor collages, inspired by the dense political posters he saw around the city. Responding to government censorship, Armajani’s work contained coded, pro-democratic messages, hidden within classical Persian poetry.

Born into an educated family, Armajani had a handle on Western philosophy by the time he fled to Minnesota, where he studied philosophy at Macalester College in St. Paul. There, he also learned about abstract expressionism. Exposure to artists like Pollock, Kline, and de Koonig—whose bold, iconoclastic takes on painting were freshly influential in 1960—helped emancipate Armajani’s art from the strictures of traditional form.

You can see this shift near the beginning of the exhibit: There’s a shirt Armajani constructed in 1958 out of cloth covered in his writing. Words literally adhere to the form of a garment. In the same gallery, a canvas from 1962 barely contains an amorphous cloud of calligraphy. Similar to Pollock, who stood over his canvases and dripped paint on them in subconscious flicks, Armajani nailed scraps to a wall and rotated them mid-writing, so lines of letters would curl and unfurl in petals. In other words: formlessly.

Prayer, formed of fragments of poems by Persian poets Rumi and Hafez/Courtesy of Walker Art Center

Already, two ideas show up: home (the calligraphy, the old stories, the poetry) and physical space. In “Letters Home,” Armajani stitched together messages he had sent back to Iran from Minnesota. Together, they create an epistolary sail, huge enough to take up a whole wall. This gives “physical presence to the distance separating the artist from his childhood home,” according to the Walker.

It’s not such a leap, then, when Follow This Line moves on to math. This became a new source of inspiration. It was perfect for measuring physical spaces at even their grandest and most abstract.

Around the late ’60s, Armajani translated this into conceptual art. (Meaning this part of the retrospective may be most difficult to grasp.) In one example, a stack of papers towers more than nine feet tall. On these pages, he printed out the decimal between zero and one—a tiny number that, as an imposing physical presence, weighs about 500 pounds.

A miniscule number becomes an immovable load. In a similar way, an event became an object when Armajani unplugged a TV that he had bought in 1969 solely to broadcast the moon landing, also on display. And a mathematical law became a place when he designed a wooden bridge based on the Fibonacci number sequence. (A model shows each section of the bridge getting longer and longer, following the numerical pattern 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, and so on.)

By this logic, any intangible concept can be made manifest—the idea of a lost home, for instance—depending on how creatively you quantify it.

This is the same way Armajani’s large-scale spaces function: as ideas made livable. Other than the footbridge over I-94, Armajani’s public structures include a bandstand in South Dakota, a Floating Poetry Room outside Amsterdam, a plaza in Manhattan, and a covered walkway in Golden Valley. Each conveys a sense of community, offering a place to talk, a place to make art, a place to take shelter, or a place to reflect. In his manifesto, Armajani articulates their purpose: Public art “should not intimidate or assault or control the public. It should be neighborly. It should enhance a given place.”

And as hinted in the title of that manifesto—“Public art in the context of American democracy”—these spaces don’t just make themselves useful to those who want to sit down or mill about. They also make real Armajani’s hopes for a peacemaking democracy.

The protesting, pro-democratic Armajani, who had to flee his childhood home in 1960, appears at every stage of the exhibit, and in the past two decades especially his work has commented on politics overtly.

The retrospective’s showstopper, arguably, is Fallujah, a formidable structure of wood, glass, steel, and copper he made in the mid-2000s that reimagines Picasso’s Guernica—that famous, chaotic, mural-size painting depicting the 1937 bombing of Guernica, Spain. Armajani’s three-dimensional version responds to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Like Picasso, who included a meek flower in the hellish scene, Armajani slips in a symbol of hope: a child’s mattress tucked beneath sharp-toothed stairs, as if to carve out a sanctuary.

Fallujah/Courtesy of Walker Art Center

In 2016, Armajani continued that political outspokenness with Seven Rooms of Hospitality. In the series, he presents seven bleakly designated spaces: for refugees, for migrant workers, for detainees, for deportees, for asylum seekers, for the displaced, and for the exiled. (Two are large-scale; five, so far, are 3D-printed models.) These translate the immigrant-U.S. government relationship into contained, intricate set pieces. Room for Deportees is defined by a fence and a bench, where a toy house sits, angled awkwardly, in wait. Room for Asylum Seekers is a cargo truck. Room for Exile is a cage.

Armajani, although deprived of his literal voice on the day of the press tour, appeared to light up among these almost-dramaturgical pieces. If his reading rooms put forward practice spaces for democracy, the ironically titled Seven Rooms of Hospitality put forward opportunities for empathy and reflection—and it’s exciting to see an artist’s late-career work stand out as his most trenchant.

Room for Deportees/Courtesy of Walker Art Center

Follow This Line, as a whole, puts forward another vision, too—one of an artist whose instinct to speak out has compelled him since the beginning, in whatever form. From the gallery where Armajani sat, thinking about John Dewey, you can see the I-94 bridge out the window. Recently renovated, it also looks different in the context of the retrospective: as a physical meditation on where we are, what we can do, and how we can meet while the world turns around us.

Siah Armajani: Follow This Line
Through December 30, 2018
Walker Art Center

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