Hamed Dehqan, Artist and Curator based in Tehran
Interview with Negar Farajiani, Artist and Narciss Sohrabi, Urban Studies Researcher
The public attitude towards urban space is one of the most important issues surfacing in discussions about the public realm. Urban spaces constitute complex contexts where familiar, tangible concepts pose challenges to our common perception. One such concept, always manifestly at play in public space, is “scale.” It is a notion informed by people, spaces, and places, and in turn it governs our social and cognitive attitude in relation to the environment.
Negar Farajiani’s “Made in China” is a long-term interactive project in the public realm with distinct associations with the notion of scale. The project addresses significant issues concerning the role of people in forming their living environment, the nature of their approach to objects, and the formation of social order in the public sphere. It has been displayed in different public spaces with varying degrees of accessibility over seven years. While the tricolored ball – a familiar object of unusual size – has always served as the primary focus, the outcome has been unique to each particular event. By presenting the work as a metaphor for the urban condition in various social and cultural contexts, Farajiani has provided an occasion to discuss the issue of social order in the public realm.
Negar Farajiani is one of the few Iranian artists whose projects are mostly concerned with public space and other notions relevant to it. Thus, as an artist and independent curator also studying the relationships between the subject and the object in the public realm, I conducted an in-depth interview with Farajiani and Narciss Sohrabi, an urban studies researcher collaborating with her on this project.
Hamed Dehqan: It’s been almost seven years since “Made in China” was first exhibited. Can you tell us about how the project came about and how the original idea was developed?
Negar Farajiani: Back in 2011, I started “Destination Known,” a project initially titled “Factory’s Garden.” It was located in a large production site in Yazd, a wool spinning mill that belonged to my father’s family since its foundation in the 1960s. We used to live in a garden next to this factory and, in a way, shared our life with the people working there; so our life was entangled with the factory and my father’s job. Following the economic collapse in Iran and the increase in Chinese imports, the government turned to buying stocks from productive companies. My family tried to resist, but eventually had to sell the factory by the late 80s. So I decided to take up a project there, partly out of nostalgia and also because it had the capacities of a deserted space. The result was a collective project by eight artists, including finished works we brought in as well as works created from scratch inside the garden during a period of three days. There were a wide range of works such as installations, sculptures, and sounds, particularly relying on the material we found left in the building. “Made in China/Ball” was also triggered there and then. I wanted to reconstruct a win-lose situation as a win-win one. Meanwhile, many old manufacturers had to quit their business, some started shops where they would sell Chinese imports, while others simply retired.
Hamed: You mentioned the significance of space in “Destination Known,” as it was actually what inspired the whole project. What would you say about the artistic category “Made in China” belongs in terms of its relation to public space?
Negar: My main concern in such projects is the shaping force of the historical context, in this case, what my family and the larger public endured under those economic conditions. As for the artistic category, “Made in China” can be considered an installation in public space, or even a temporary urban sculpture, because it is never installed in a single spot for good and is only recorded as an archive of photo and video documents.
Narciss Sohrabi: Still, this work is distinct from typical urban statues. It goes beyond traditional models of urban sculpture. Recent approaches to urban space require artworks not only to have visual appeal, but also to challenge people’s mindset by encouraging them to think and question things. Such works enable interactions between people and spaces, which allow for developing physical and intellectual dialectics.
Hamed: How would you describe the relation between this work, or should I say this event, and public space?
Narciss: Well, it depends on one’s definition of a public space. “Made in China” was first presented in the semi-private space of the factory’s garden which wasn’t really open to the public, and referred to the change in politico-economic conditions of Iranian society following the importation of Chinese goods. But the work assumed new significance when presented elsewhere, and in turn redefined those spaces. For instance, because public space in Dubai is strictly controlled, we decided to exhibit the work in an art gallery.
Negar: There is much play with the concept of context. Many works can be thought out and planned in advance, but a work such as “Made in China” constantly redefines itself through interactions with different contexts, situations and processes. Just as Narciss said, our recent presentation in Azadi Square in Tehran was unlike anything we had experienced so far in other presentations.
Hamed: How does this work address your personal concern for interaction and its limits?
Negar: Well, it’s partly through form; I mean its size instantly surprises people and urges them to go for all sorts of interactive activities. I also think that the roundness and the lightness of the ball encourage such interactions. The rest depends on the social context where it is presented. What happened in Azadi Square, for example, was totally different from how things turned out in Georgia or in the U.S. Every society has its own definition of interaction. I believe human attitude is cultural, and different attitudes bring forth different possibilities in public space.
Narciss: Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, for instance, is a highly influential work of art. It’s the city’s second largest tourist attraction. All day long you can see lots of people touching it, taking photos and playing with it. It makes lasting memories. This work is not considered a monument and aims for something different. So does “Made in China;” it’s all about a giant tricolored beach ball and how people receive it and react to its presence.
Hamed: The relative size of the ball to the audience and the space is a striking feature of “Made in China.” How did you arrive at the dimensions and what do you think is their significance to the overall project?
Negar: The original location where the project started was the main entrance to the production hall of the factory. So I worked out the scales based on the dimensions of the building and the entrance to actually engage with the real space. A tricolored ball is such a commonplace object, so I tried to disrupt its familiar image to accentuate the disparity between the work and the actual space, which produced an uncanny form. People seemed driven to interact with this curiously giant, yet amusingly childlike object.
Hamed: Even to those who prefer to remain distant observers of the work rather than closely interact with it, this visual disproportion leads to an unsettling confusion that can alter their understanding of the space and the situation they find themselves in. Would you agree?
Negar: Well, the ball can evoke delightful, vivid memories for many people, as it renders a familiar image of childhood games and dreams. But the peculiar context, and by that I mean both the unusual size of the ball and the nature of an artistic encounter in a public space, can also be somewhat disturbing. As sweet and charming as the image of a beach ball rolling in the middle of a city may seem, the difficulty in actually moving and playing with it can make people rather anxious. So a familiar item with which they are used to toy turns into a giant object they can no longer dominate. This reversal of positions reminds the person of the shifting power dynamics in a game as well as their inability to establish or maintain a meaningful connection with city. So rather than a mere focus on the personal experience of people playing with the ball, the work serves as a metaphoric representation of the urban situation, an outlet to discuss the social order of a city.
Hamed: What’s most interesting about this project is that it’s not just about the ‘object.’ In fact, it heavily relies on the context and the ensuing situations that reflect its different aspects.
Negar: In the course of this project, space takes on diverse forms. The shape and size of the ball remains the same, but the ball exhibited in the center of Chicago, or presented to children in a Georgian city where life is still tinged with communism, is no longer the one we placed in the factory entrance. I find it fascinating that people’s reactions and interactions are tied up with the space and even the architecture of the city.
Hamed: Do you think the event is more evidently shaped by the geographical context? Or is it the way people’s interactions with the work are informed by their socio-cultural biases?
Negar: Well, I think they are equally important. Each location is unique. Like, in Georgia, I had no intention of presenting the work at the foot of Kartlis Deda, but Tehran’s Azadi Square blurs all economic, social, and political boundaries. In Rustavi, people’s reactions mattered to me just as much as the particular nature of the city did. In Seattle, the ball was presented in an art fair, installed and guarded by metal fence panels. Bill Gates was there and asked what it was and why it was there. So people from various socio-cultural backgrounds approach such works differently.
Hamed: Can we distinguish between this work as art and other forms of games played in public spaces?
Negar: I wouldn’t really give it a decisive definition as a work of art. Again, this is a work whose significance is largely determined by the context. Our experience of it is always laden with questions whose answers vary according to contextual particularities. I believe the way I’ve been presenting it and the way it has been received over the past years has turned it into a means of challenging the possibilities of public space. Or did you mention it as a criticism?
Hamed: Quite the contrary, I think the kind of art which is based on action, event, and complex interaction engages the entire physiological capacities of a person. Such works raise questions in your head and it is no longer possible to adopt a single perspective. You have to ask yourself whether it is an interactive artistic participation or a mere playful bustle. I consider this ambiguity an advantage of your work, because it does away with those “artistic” boundaries and categories the audience tend to readily think of.
Negar: I believe this work is all about how definitions are informed by society. In a public space, everything assumes a particular social significance. I enjoy playing with these definitions by making people share a similar situation at the same time. This is where the real game starts.
Hamed: So you find a strong affinity between art and social activity, right?
Negar: Very much so, particularly in projects such as “Made in China.” The playful and somewhat frivolous quality we associate with the ball can suggest art’s or the artist’s defiant attitude to practically predefined spaces. It enables the artist to withdraw from the scene as society takes over the task of defining and redefining space.
Hamed: This is a project where the artist is accompanied by a researcher through the process. What are the researcher’s concerns? What is she supposed to achieve?
Narciss: I work on definitions of art, humans, and public space as well as the interactions and interconnections among them. I also focus on attempts to define the human body in different situations. I think there is an increasing need to further explore and discuss the relationship between our bodies and space, especially public space. Also, every country has its own particular policies regarding public space; their pub