Rabbit in Wonderland: an Iranian artist's view

Farideh Lashai talks about the creative processes behind her exhibition Rabbit in Wonderland in Dubai.

Farideh Lashai’s Down the Rabbit Hole and Keep Your Interior Empty of Food use animation projected on illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to make topical points.
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Farideh Lashai's new work revisits Lewis Carroll's phantasmagoric Wonderland through the lens of recent Iranian history, magnifying the Iranian experience through the distorting prism of Alice's adventures.

Her elegiac sequence relives the tragedy and romance of the past 60 years in mournful tones, while foregrounding the more absurd moments, superimposing a magical realist genre of video animation on the grey monochromes of her paintings to summon an ethereal aura, but one loaded with bizarre, uncanny elements.

These are dreamscapes, with spectral, shimmering woodlands of silver birch set hovering under hazy projections, so that they shudder with sinister overtures. They evoke an enchanted, melancholy realm that is at times contemporary Iran, and at others a bygone land, captured in the fleeting, transitory quality of memory or fantasy.

It's a place captured through the looking glass, where the deposed prime minister and nationalist hero Mohammad Mossadegh's silhouette casts a long shadow, the shah himself is soon to die, and all the rest of modern Iranian history is about to happen.

Her narrative is loaded with a kind of tragic pathos, with the melodrama resonating hyperbolically in phrases such as "drowned in our own blood", which get projected on to the surfaces of her paintings. Carroll's vaguely disturbing children's classic came to inspire a whole subculture of psychedelia, but Lashai attempts to use its mystical, surreal qualities to give weird perspectives on the romance and tragic sentiment that, she says, have become a defining aspect of the Iranian identity.

"I was working with Iranian fables, and exploring their philosophical background. Themes of the bizarre and surreal recur," she says. "Like a rabbit hole, you need to burrow and dig into Iran to understand the country. Everything's upside down, so these are a kind of game of logic. I try to play with meaning and abstraction.

Down the Rabbit Hole effects a tricksy, tongue-in-cheek visual trope, superimposing one of the original illustrations of the grinning Cheshire cat on a map of Iran. Projected on to this, the video populates the painting with intricately detailed animations of computer-generated leaping rabbits. And what lovely creatures they are, lovingly stencilled in their hundreds by Lashai's team of technical assistants.

"You have to be devoured by the country to get inside it," the artist explains, as the invading rabbits breach the territory's borders.

It's a topsy turvy world she portrays, and these devices offer an oblique insight into the workings of the country, from a safely distanced stance. This is an artist, after all, who still lives in Tehran.

Lashai is deeply versed in European culture, and deploys her learning in motifs that fuse the classical and modernist traditions of Europe with imagery drawn from the Iranian tradition. "I've really learned from the application of different media, and different traditions, all through my life," she says, "ever since studying theatre in school, where I translated Bertold Brecht into Farsi."

The sequence is set to a musical score, with Chopin's Nocturne No 2 segueing into the traditional Iranian music of the zoorkhaneh, or gym, as a drumroll plays out.

Keep Your Interiors Empty of Food dramatises a darker, more ancient tale of ravens picking at a feast, with details of Iranian porcelain ceramics that refer to the miniatures of the 19th-century Iranian painter Sanii ol-Molk in work that also seems to tip a wink to the Mad Hattter's tea party of Carroll's tale.

The figure of Mossadegh makes his emotionally charged appearance in the final work, cloaked in black and clutching a stick, his back to the viewer but instantly recognisable to Iranians as the revered leader who nationalised Iran's oil, but was deposed and imprisoned in a CIA-backed coup, and died under house arrest.

"Just his silhouette alone is instantly recognisable to Iranians," said Lashai. "Just to test, I asked a taxi driver, who is that? And he said, 'Of course, it's Mossadegh.'"

The video is screened at double the width of the portrait, subverting the framing of its borders so the portrait length of the painting widens, with much of the video projected off-frame on to the wall behind. It's an experimental, game-playing device, with the projection casting its net wider than the painting's edge.

Perhaps there's an overloading of ideology and politics at times, foisted on an English children's story of 150 years ago, with no direct bearing. It can, maybe, seem far-fetched, or forced, but these are evocations of a kind of landscape of the mind, and play on bizarre tricks of memory and the imagination in a spirit of magic realist enhancement.

The pervasive mood is one of nostalgia. The works pine for a world gone by, glimpsed in the recesses of a national psyche. That sense of yearning is all the more poignant since, in many ways, it was never experienced or lived, says Lashai, but remains the subject of a powerful folklore lodged in the collective consciousness of Iranians today.

The exhibition continues until December 11. For details see www.ivde.net.