: Rethinking Representation
Mehrdad Afsari’s Photographs are a tangled web of intricate relations and interconnections pertaining to the nature of the image, representation, and reflection upon reality. The contemporary audience is subconsciously seeking to decipher the visible, which means it is not easy to convince them by talking about what is not objectively present in the image: something that can only be perceived in terms of the immanent element of art, i.e., with reference to the judgment of the subjective. This, I believe, is something that happens in Afsari’s works. It is about something that seems easy on paper, but in a time of an overabundance of images, it is in fact very hard, if not impossible. Now Afsari invites us to explore the images and consider something that is beyond the visual.
In spite of its charm and its impeccable technical execution, Afsari’s art is not so much visual as it is subjective. To him, the image, technique, and representation are vehicles on which the audience rely to ultimately achieve a sublime revelation. Thus, Afsari intends to place the viewer in a relationship between life and the world through a profound insight. He does not depict the Zeitgeist through conventional, easily accessible, trendy methods. Does this mean his works are devoid of procedures and views that communicate ideas about the society? The answer is a resounding no. By turning his back to the current symbolic approach in representing social concerns and moving in the opposite direction, Afsari is like a wanderer who directs our eyes and thoughts to the other side of perception with a slow and unhurried pace; similar to [Italo Calvino’s character] the Baron in the trees, he refuses the conventional angels under popular structures and trends. He does not make use of typical methods, discourses, and processes of observation, evaluation, and interpretation, calling us to reconsider our perspective on the Zeitgeist and the ways in which it is incorporated into the visual language and the contemporary notion of representation.
I believe that the act of photography in Afsari’s artistic practice is deployed as a mere means, which he has obviously mastered through years of study and experience. And yet, he doesn’t measure the value of his photographs by how technically spectacular they are. Interestingly enough, photography is a medium on which he does not thoroughly depend to arrive at absolute truth. It is a mere tool to observe and raise questions, the answers of which go beyond the ability to represent and capture reality. Thus, I consider him to be an artist who, in spite of his captivating, eye-catching images, puts greater emphasis on raising questions rather than pure representation. The impression that his photographs leave on me is similar to that of David Friedrich’s paintings: the viewer finds himself in a dilemma. Standing in front of his works, we feel that what we should be looking for is actually not there in the image itself, while the logic of the image tells us we are staring into a landscape. This is the spirit that is covertly present behind all his works.
Afsari does not merely resort to representing familiar symbolic elements and signifiers. He assumes a contrary position by challenges the very act of seeing and representation. Seeing his works always makes me wonder whether or not what I am looking at is actually there. Should I merely be satisfied with the allure of my first impression of the frozen moment inside the image? Is each instant pregnant with a spirit of inquisitiveness and meditation? He develops and defines the image not in terms of the two dimensional surface of the image, but in the threefold relation of perceiver-image-world. In his works, concepts are farther than what we see on the realm of the image. In order to perceive them, it is not only enough to consider the outer layers. He requires us to see an image as something subjective.
He goes beyond photography as a revolutionary invention in the history of technological representation of the modern age as well as the modernist idea about being true to the two dimensional surface and abstraction. He also surpasses the postmodern paradigm with his larger-than-life presentation or the controversies in its hybrid images. He creates a construct from it all as he reconsiders the notion of photograph/image that is a contemporary synthesis (note that I distinguish between the postmodern and the contemporary).
Only after considering the different eras of his life I can review his latest series. Each image of “Photographs Ahead” is assigned with a title/number: Condition #0, Condition #1, etc.
The photographs of “Photographs Ahead” series seem either absolutely dark or absolutely bright at the first glance. Before I fall into the symbolic, dualistic black-and-white interpretation, Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” comes into my mind: when anything can be considered art, then nothing can be art too. Nothing can be everything.
“Photographs Ahead” is a title that first and foremost draws us to the spirit of the land and the times. Is this political and symbolic approach the only point of departure towards the Zeitgeist? The answer to this question can be found in the methodological consideration of Afsari’s encounter with “image as content” as opposed to “the content of an image.”
In this series, Afsari seems to be reconsidering the notion of image, representation, and observations, and also reviewing and concluding his twenty years of practice. I already pointed out to the rhythm with which the mind moves inside the field of vision. This series seems to be where that field comes to a halt. Everything is either dark or bright and relatively flat. But that is not all. Let us remember the controversy between photography and painting towards the end of the nineteenth century. With the advent of photography, painting had to face the crisis of reorientation. Representations turned into a technological practice that, according to the critics of the time, marked the end of painting on the one hand, and, due to its technological nature, was not accepted as art on the other. That is why, as Clement Greenberg rightly observes, “Manet became the first modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted.” This went so far that painting turned into a two-dimensional surface like what we see in the works of Rothko. Painting turned from an objective phenomenon that sought to convey the illusion of a three-dimensional space, to a dark or opaque surface that moved the emphasis from the object and placed it on the subject. Now in “Photographs Ahead” series, Afsari intermingles these two, linking this subjective approach to the product of technological representation.
Earlier, I also mentioned the threefold relation of perceiver-image-world. In “Photographs Afront” series, it seems that Afsari rethinks the relation, throwing this structure into disarray, as the perceiver maintains his position. What is in front of him, however, is no longer “image/world,” but “non-image/non-world.” In the meantime, the photographic process is still there. All the images of this series are shot by a Polaroid camera, which means that the process of representation is done directly from the lens of the camera. We know Polaroid cameras have no reflection system and what is seen from the viewfinder is different from what is seen from the lens. This means a direct representation is made when the subject, the lens, and the film are aligned, and the photographer is only an agent that sets this mechanism in motion. Here, however, the agent, namely the photographer, has blocked the camera’s field of vision, interrupting the representation. The subject’s will has obstructed the representation, disrupting the mindless mechanism with his decision. Therefore, there remains neither the photograph as the object of reorientation nor the world as its subject-matter. There is nothing to see: it is up to the perceiver to decide, judge, and imagine in order to find the answers as to the nature of these works. These answers might go beyond the reach of the sort of minds that are confined to expectations and conventional definitions of the notions of image and representation. The only clue that Afsari gives us is the titles that are written on the lower margin of each photograph, establishing a link between the context and the periphery as well as the image and the text, giving an orientation of sorts to our interpretation.