Sahand Hesamiyan in his studio located in Khorramdasht Industrial Zone, Iran. 

Photo by Kevin Jones.

Sahand Hesamiyan

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Iranian sculptor Sahand Hesamiyan’s studio is legendary in the Tehran art world. “If you see only one studio in the capital,” one artist advised during my breakneck three-day visit, “this is it.” Visitors to the gargantuan space—gallerists, guides, journalists, curators—walk away impressed as much by its scale as by the precision of the work that unfolds inside its four walls. Burrowed in the dusty Khorramdasht Industrial Zone well beyond the outskirts of town, off the road leading to the storied Mount Damavand, Hesamiyan’s lair is a site where industry and intricacy meet. His works—large, reclining vessel-like sculptures, each channeling a veritable universe of elaborate, repetitive patterns that recall Islamic architecture—have been likened to everything from vaulted domes and futuristic pods to ornamental projectiles. They conjure references to Sufism, metaphysics, symbolism and spiritualism, and are sculptural marvels, sprung as much from engineering as from poetics.

Every studio, for better or worse, tells a story of origins—of the process and method behind a work, the persistent gestures endowing it with form, the trial and error shaping its fate. A walk through Hesamiyan’s studio reveals, above all, the syntax of his large-scale sculptures. Individual components loiter in silent piles, waiting to be incorporated into the final composition. These include curving lattices, zigzagging ribs, the wiry, cage-like oculus and sheets of metal skin. Each element has a specific function and is like a word in a looming sculptural sentence. For all their mass and scale, though, the final works—clad, painted and occasionally gilded—also retain the lightness of the grid-like structures from which they are built. Amid the sounds of slicing, welding and cladding that reverberate under the lofty, corrugated iron ceiling, one is privy to the processes behind the paradoxically appealing, space-filling sculptures that are imposing and monumental, yet seem to barely touch the ground in serene weightlessness.

Hesamiyan first came to the Khorramdasht Industrial Zone—a bustling enclave of potholed streets and brick warehouses teeming with metal workshops, carpentry spaces, paint shops and the like—in 2008, a year after obtaining his BFA in Sculpture from Tehran University. Commissioned by the Tehran Beautification Organization (TBO) to create a sculpture at the foot of Milad Tower, the capital’s landmark, Hesamiyan needed a studio space in which he could build big. He rented a workshop, where he produced Shams I (2008), the 6-meter-by-6-meter work that announced many of the artist’s key preoccupations in geometry, Islamic patterning, repetition, scale and transparency.

After renting two other workshops in the area, he set his sights on his current studio in 2011. Hesamiyan and a fellow sculptor and classmate purchased the land, and proceeded to build a space to fit their specific needs. Pebbled floors nudge up to brick walls, crowned by a gently sloped tin-gray ceiling crossed by black iron beams. Sunlight streams in from either end of the voluminous space through expanses of rectangular windows. A mezzanine housing a kitchen and living area juts out from the far back wall, accessed by a sturdy staircase of wood and steel. Stained worktables dot the space, as do at least a dozen large wooden crates, all marked “fragile.” A large area slightly past the front entrance is an arena of welding and soldering, manned by mask-wearing workers wielding fiery wands. “Here I have the peace of mind to do what I want,” Hesamiyan confides, remarking on the serenity of the space that provides both the scale to construct big pieces and the silence to conceive finer, more profound details.

Splayed across the floor during my visit are the parts of yet another work, destined to grace the newly opened Dubai Opera House. These eventually formed Khalvat (2016), a gleaming white, pinecone-shaped work bristling with prism-like scales that is settled gracefully in Downtown Dubai. It is Hesamiyan’s first permanent public sculpture outside his home country. Visitors engage with it as if encountering a placid vessel spirited from some other world. The title in Farsi means “sanctuary,” and, like much of Hesamiyan’s work, it stems from a Sufi-like quest for peace and timelessness. Through Khalvat’s vaulted oculus, the viewer can actually peer inside the organic-looking oblong, a sanctum where metastasizing patterns and ornamental details recede into infinity. Khalvat, like many Hesamiyan sculptures, is a trance made tangible. 

At the time of my visit, however, Khalvat has not yet been realized. Its early forms appear as piles of sheet-metal cutouts and steel frames, each one nested inside the other like a matryoshka doll. Sitting nearby are clusters of dismantled sections of Forough (2016), a pair of large-scale sculptures that was exhibited in Nara last year, as part of the Japanese city’s status as the 2016 Culture City of East Asia. Like Khalvat, Forough riffs off the traditional Rasmi dome in Iranian architecture, and features not only an opening through which the intricate entrails of the work can be seen, but also gilded exterior sections, reflecting its name, which means “brightness” in Farsi. Created specifically for outdoor display, Khalvat and Forough are among the large-scale, public artworks that Hesamiyan is known for. Yet a smaller, solitary work lying atop a worktable—the roughly one-meter-long pointed sculpture Nail (2012)—reminds me that the artist is also skilled in gallery presentations, and often adapts his outdoor scale to surprising effect indoors. 

One such exhibition was “Memory Lives On,” the artist’s second solo show in 2011, at Tehran’s Aun Gallery. The eponymous work is a ladder-shaped dome (with all the implications of spiritual ascension) tipped on its side, covered in UV paint and lit by black lights, revealing changes of color throughout the day and night. “I like to show big pieces in galleries,” admits Hesamiyan, grinning. “Memory Lives On is almost the same volume as the gallery itself.” The work is entirely transparent; no cladding hinders the view, yet it is just as contemplative as the myriad patterned repetitions of the trance-like Khalvat. Similarly, a 2015 exhibition entitled “Tavizeh,” in Tehran’s Dastan’s Basement, foregrounded a sculpture that left little room for viewers to move around it.

Unsurprisingly, monumentality is always on Hesamiyan’s mind. He is currently enmeshed in a competition for the redesign of the dome in Tehran’s Enghelab Square, a stone’s throw from his alma mater. The event has caused him to wrestle with the problematic nature of public sculpture in Tehran today. “You can never satisfy everyone,” he concludes, bemoaning the twisted dynamics of a public commission that expects a commemoration of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. If selected, this work will be the biggest public piece of his career, standing at 12 meters by 8 meters. The blueprints suggest it will be made of metal, mesh and glass, and it will bear all the hallmarks of his maturing practice—transparency, repetition, Islamic patterning and a Sufi-like intensity. 

Models rest on a work table.
Models rest on a work table.

Parts of various works scattered on the floor of Sahand Hesamiyan’s studio. On the left is the outer shell for his work Gonbade Kabood (2012), the interior of which will be covered by stainless steel. 

View of the industrial buildings in Khorramdasht. 

Work in progress for the outdoor stainless steel sculpture Gonbade Kabood (2012). 

Nonetheless, in a city where some 300 to 400 public sculptures are commissioned per year and the Urban Sculpture Biennial has surprisingly hit cruising speed with its fourth yearly edition, the artist sees a shift in municipal projects toward a “quality over quantity” philosophy. “They care now,” he remarks. “But we don’t have so many good artists here to create public sculpture.” It seems that the era of renowned Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli and his cohort, whose stylistic works dominated and roused the public sphere, have departed. In their place are earnest technicians—artists who do little more than execute. 

However, public art is, still, a lifeline for Hesamiyan, who is increasingly recognized for his signature style. “It’s satisfying to engage both the space and the public with a work,” he admits, adding that the dialogue between a viewer and a sculpture crescendos in the public space. The artist speaks of intimacy and cohabitation in concert with scale and public placement, referencing the philosophies of sculptors such as India-born Anish Kapoor (“Go as big as you can”) and British artist Antony Gormley, known for his interventions in nature (“He brings something new each time”).

During my visit, Hesamiyan is focused. The meeting coincides with his imminent departure for Istanbul and the festivities surrounding the coveted Jameel Prize, for which he is shortlisted. Although the Prize itself ultimately went to another artist, the degree of visibility the traveling show will afford the young Iranian is significant. In the confines of this vast yet intimate studio, it seems clear to me that Hesamiyan’s process is a silent yet thorough one. Driving back to Tehran, I wonder if the studio itself is not, in some way, like the Khalvat interior—at once a silent sanctuary and an epicenter of metastasizing activity. 

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