Installation view of SHIRANA SHAHBAZI’s “First Things First” at KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2017. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Courtesy KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art.

First Things First

Shirana Shahbazi

KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art
Iran Germany

Shirana Shahbazi’s exhibition “First Things First,” mounted in Berlin’s KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, offered a refreshing and complex perspective on contemporary photographic practice. On show were a selection of images created by the Zurich-based, Iranian-born artist in the last ten years, curated by Swiss art critic Andreas Fiedler. Purposefully counteracting the title’s premise—namely, a hierarchical order of images common in retrospective exhibitions—there are no “first things” in the works on display. Without a predetermined route through the white cube space, Shahbazi’s photographs defy fixed viewing experiences and chronological narratives—visitors are deliberately left to explore the exhibition any way they please.

Banking left after entering the space brings the visitor to two large-scale photographs printed as lithographs, which introduce a major theme in Shahbazi’s visual vocabulary. Both contain familiar travel imagery: One picture shows a night scene of Tokyo traffic, capturing a car’s gleaming red tail lights in the dark. Next to it, we see two girls on a beach, with a dramatically clouded sky serving as a backdrop. Both photographs are snapshots, momentary impressions seen by Shahbazi through her camera’s lens. Their ephemeral, archival visual features are generated by the artist’s choice of medium: The two-toned lithographs possess grainy, aged qualities that set the captured scenes in the distant past.

A visual diary unfolds throughout the exhibition. Most of the lithographs, such as Dino (2014)—which absurdly portrays a giant dinosaur figure from an amusement park—document the artist’s family trip from Zurich to Tehran, a difficult journey for Shahbazi from one home to another. While her displayed photographic journal seems incidental—the photographer captures buildings, plants, strangers on a train—the images form a poetic mosaic of the artist’s surroundings, and give us an intimate glimpse of the world through Shahbazi’s eyes. There is even a sense of alienation in these recorded memories, underscored by the pictures’ remote, almost fantastical qualities.

SHIRANA SHAHBAZIDino, 2014, two-colored lithograph, 50 × 64.5 cm. Photo by Clara Tang for ArtAsiaPacific.

SHIRANA SHAHBAZI, Gasstation, 2014, two-colored lithograph, 94 × 122 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Around the corner from Dino, two photographs came into view— Raster-01-2013 (2013), a black-and-white gelatin silver print on aluminum of a dotted surface on one side, and Kreise-02-2014 (2014), an asymmetrical layering of geometric shapes and colors on the other. These two pictures highlight the photographer’s interest in structuring image surfaces to the point of abstraction, enhancing their physical representation through colored light. On closer inspection, the dotted work reveals itself to be a magnified view of wrapping paper, while the graphic color shapes are objects suffused in a spectrum of colored light rays.

Similarly, another of Shahbazi’s works also employs a trompe-l’oeil effect. Hidden from view in the exhibition space’s back room, the site-specific installation Untitled (KINDL) (2017) consists of six abstract C-prints bathed in an violet-colored glow. The light originates from overhead lamps, which seem to project their hues in abstract shapes on the prints. However, Shahbazi works with the phenomenon of color addition: the right intensity of light in three primary colors produces white light, and a fluorescent mirage is formed on the surface of her works.

Installation view of SHIRANA SHAHBAZI’s “First Things First” at KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2017. Photo by Jens Ziehe. Courtesy KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art.

Shahbazi’s experimentation with viewing shape comes to a head in the juxtaposition of Sofa (2014) and Kugel-02-2013 (2013), a lithograph and a C-print located in the center of the exhibition. While Sofa depicts a used armchair—an object captured on the spur of the moment by the photographer—Kugel shows a semi-abstract composition where two black globes appear before a divided red and white background, each orb placed before one color. The side-by-side placement of the works incites quiet contemplation of forms and their emotional association. Is the viewer meant to establish a connection beyond these images’ aesthetic incongruities? This unconventional yet satisfying pairing inspires a reflection on both prints’ representation in two-dimensional space, and, even ruminations on our process of viewing the images.   

In its anti-hierarchical approach to Shahbazi’s photographic works of the last decade, “First Things First” taps into the artist’s pictorial aim to project and question typical viewing habits. From recording the paraphernalia of the everyday to capturing objects by means of light and shape, Shahbazi’s images chime with each other, without the necessity of order. Rather, there is only a moment of perception—an interaction in the here and now.

Shirana Shahbazi’s “First Things First” is on show at KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin, until August 6, 2017.

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