One of the 20th century’s most famous cultural proclamations was the death of the author and the birth of the reader. The title of a 1967 essay by the French theorist Roland Barthes, the idea denoted a shift from the authority of the writer, artist or expert — and over to the several interpretations of an interested readership, each helping to form the meaning of the work.
The sculptures, installations, drawings and performances of the brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh and their collaborator Hesam Rahmanian enter into this rich debate. Parthenogenesis, their first institutional retrospective, being held at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, is named after the term for a self-propagating plant, making an oblique reference to their infamous working methods.
The trio have lived together in Dubai for the past 13 years — not only living collectively, but making art collectively. Their home is their studio, and is painted on, embellished and decorated as the days go by, and each exhibition must wrestle how to translate this spontaneity into an art space's cavernous white walls.
'The best and easiest time we had'
“For us, it’s important, as artists in the 21st century, to redefine things,” says Rokni, the younger, taller of the two Haerizadeh brothers. “It’s important to come down from the position of an artist who occupies alone these huge architectural spaces, and instead to be collective and celebrate that collectivity — with the audience as a participant.”
As much as the French theory, these working methods have a specific precedent. RRH (as they are commonly known) grew up in Iran together in the 1980s and '90s, a period in which the Islamic Revolution pushed much teaching and cultural activity indoors. The Haerizadehs and Rahmanian studied together in one of these closed schools in Tehran, and their mix of private and public sphere activity foreshadows their studio, performance, exhibition and domestic spaces today.
After they moved together to Dubai in 2009, they became known for the bold and subversive performances they held in their villa, and their home/studio began to be perceived as an artwork in itself. Farah Al Qasimi, in an early commercial commission for the artist, photographed the space in 2014 for ArtAsiaPacific; Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi documented the performances and uploaded them to his YouTube channel (the first video upload for the social media-savvy thinker).
These photos and videos are on view in Parthenogenesis, alongside the works from 2012 that were documented — large wall-hung collages of the faces of female poets, musicians, writers and artists, now faded by the sun. A new commission shows the studio as it looks today, in photographs taken by another well-known UAE artist, Lamya Gargash, who is listed as a participant in the exhibition alongside 17 others.
Institutions, Rokni says, regularly omit the long lists of collaborators that RRH sends them when they make banners, catalogues and press material for their shows.
At NYUAD, however, the three say curator Maya Allison, working with Wafa Jadallah, went out of her way to preserve the spirit of collaboration — even as the artworks sidle up on to the kind of institutional pedestal that RRH has always bristled against. “It was really the best and easiest time we had,” says Rahmanian.
Floor paintings and 'dancing sculptures'
The hand-painted, shellacked drawing O, You People (2019-2022) lies across the gallery's large central area. Comprising several vignettes, it mimics the wall and floor paintings of the RRH house — particularly their distinctive black-and-white triangular motifs — while also forcing viewers to step on the artwork to go past, mingling with it directly.
To make their floor-works, the three become “sculptural painting machines”, deliberately assuming a measure of objectivity to determine the outlines of different areas. They then fill these quadrants with their dense imagery.
The work at NYUAD responds to the Iraq-Iran War, and is inspired by the poem Boys and Animals, which is emblazoned on a wall of the exhibition. It focuses on the young and animals — innocents who are swept up in a conflict — who appear via images of braying donkeys or child soldiers. Elsewhere, soft-edged, viscous eddies of oil appear — the prize of the fighting — alongside anachronistic images of the daily life that occurred as RRH were making the work, such as PCR test results and images of the Al Hosn app (status: green).
Rising up from the floor piece is the recent Alluvium series (2021-22), their “dancing sculptures” that hold ceramic plates, likewise embellished. The trio created the sculptures in collaboration with the Bangladeshi welder Mohammed Rahis Mollah, who lives in Dubai. Because they do not share a language, they made poses that Mollah then translated into the sinuous, multi-branched artworks.
This series is being taken to Venice later this month for an off-site project at the biennale.
“The works in the exhibition are all part of the same story,” says Rahmanian. “Even if some of them are performance and others are sculpture. They speak about transformation, either a form that is travelling and is changing or migration itself.”
Migration, method and manifold imaginations
One of the difficulties with RRH exhibitions is that the connections between their working methods and the work itself are slippery, prone to an oscillation that can leave the status of their artwork in doubt: is it a document of a process? A prop from a performance? But viewed in aggregate, this superb retrospective shows how the migration — of forms and people — and the slipping away of single authorship is their subject as much as how it is made.
The montage Dance after the Revolution, from Tehran to LA, and back (2020), for example, looks at the Iranian dancer Mohammad Khordadian, who was exiled from Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. He settled in Los Angeles and began making instructional videos drawing on a range of forms, from traditional folk dances to Jane Fonda aerobics. Recorded on to VHS tapes, these were returned to Iran and clandestinely circulated. Khordadian became popular again and, in turn, his tapes influenced new dance moves among the young in Iran. RRH’s 24-minute video splices together excerpts from the original Khordadian performances, with the forms he drew on and the contemporary videos, now uploaded on to YouTube, that can be traced back to his dances.
Movement is also not treated in the abstract. The violence and precarity of migration — Syrian children in refugee camps with blankets of dirt covering the debris around them, or columns of asylum seekers, bundled in layers of clothes — are foregrounded throughout, particularly in the Where’s Waldo? (2018–21) series of gouaches on images from the news media.
The jocular title points to the gruelling paths refugees take to cross Europe, while the adornments revive the Brechtian spirit of interrupting a known image to make it significant again. Donkey heads cover the faces of refugees; bodies are smudged with washes of colour, as if the asylum seekers have disintegrated and vanished into the wind. Each painting is done three times — once each by Ramin, Rokni and Rahmanian — in a process they call “negotiation”.
“We want to understand the point of view of refugees,” says Rokni. “We have some experience, too, in being displaced from our homeland.”
In 2019, via the Danish Red Cross and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the trio collaborated with asylum seekers and refugees in an animation workshop, imagining a fantastical beast — based on the ancient forms of the chimera and the sphinx — that would be stronger than any that exists today.
In Parthenogenesis, they pair this animation — A World of Dew, and Within Every Dewdrop a World of Struggle (2019) — with a poem on asylum seekers by the Iranian writer Vahid Davar Ghalati and examples of the Afghan "war rugs" from the late 1970s. These rugs, by which Afghans documented the conflict around them, became popular mementoes for US soldiers, celebrating AK-47s and war paraphernalia and the victory over the Soviets. Seen here, they seem like blatant and short-sighted self-congratulation by a foreign power, which the fantastical leopard of the Red Cross initiative, caged in his video animation, appears powerless to contest.
The dense, carefully arranged exhibition becomes its own meeting place, a way for new connections to grow among the artworks. It’s true that the wide, open space of the floor painting calls out for dancers, punters and thinkers to waltz across it. But even in the more precious light of a gallery exhibition, RRH’s unnerving depictions of war, populated by half-animal, half-human beasts, are enough to fill manifold imaginations, and perhaps be picked up and altered in turn.
"What we call failure is when we all agree," says Rokni.
"That means we're all looking at it from one angle," says Rahmanian. "Instead of three different ones."