Mahsa Mohammadi: The main question of art in twentieth century has been “What is art?” In contemporary art, however, the question has evolved into “Where is art?” The “white cube” gallery space has been a subject of debate, discussion, and criticism among artists since the turbulent years of 1960s and 1970s. Art critic Brian O’Doherty’s seminal article “Inside the White Cube,” published in 1976 in three parts in Artforum, is a good reference for the genealogy of the term. However, white cube spaces date back to years before this, when the painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) first presented his works in such a space in 1883. Nevertheless, it was only after O’Doherty’s article that the term became widely used in discourses on visual arts. White walls and carefully designed lights, hidden in the ceiling, are supposed to create a neutral space detached from the external real world, allowing the audience to focus on the work of art. The offices and restrooms are completely hidden from visitors’ sight, so that without feeling the burden of any eyes on them, they can meditate with their inner thoughts and create a dialogue with the work of art. However, O’Doherty believes that such a gallery space is far from being neutral and objective. According to him, the white walls of the gallery tyrannically influence the artwork. He argues that one can sense an ecclesiastical atmosphere in the gallery, as if the formalities of a justice tribunal are in place and the mystery of a scientific laboratory is in the air. All of this, combined with the luxurious architectural design, go hand in hand to create a unique hall of aesthetics. In this hall, time comes to a halt and anything placed in such a space will turn into art.
What are your thoughts on this, Nasim? How do you believe the white cube, which has evolved into a customary venue for art exhibitions, impacts the artwork? How should a work of art be interpreted in such a setting? When you visit such spaces, what kind of experience do you have?
Nasim Goli: First of all, I would like to underline that when I talk about the white cube, I am referring to white cube spaces in the Iranian art scene, since the economic, political, and cultural characteristics of this white cube is necessarily different from other geographies, with which I have little acquaintance.
The white cube is built on valuable real estate, a property with a certain price (consider the rent, the price of land in that area, and so on), and it is in a certain neighborhood. It has certain types of access to the international art scene, which are outcomes of or dependent on the current political, economic, and social situation, and this access is provided in certain ways and relations with art buyers happen behind the curtains of the hidden offices. All of these aspects lead to the challenge of establishing a pure connection to the artwork in such spaces. Conversely, I always perceive the artworks displayed in these spaces in relation to their surroundings. When I’m in the gallery, my thoughts gravitate toward the process the artist has gone through for their work to be deemed worthy of exhibition, the privileges they may have enjoyed, how marketable their work has seemed to the dealers, and how this privileged space strives to convince me that what it presents to me is art and whatever does not find its way here is not art! Moreover, the gallery implicitly dictates that for your work to get accepted in this space, the work should conform to the gallery’s desired attributes and values. So, under conditions where high property prices, control, and surveillance stifle alternative spaces, it is evident that capital owners shape art according to their own preferences and tastes. I constantly think about those works of art that have been excluded from these spaces, those works denied the possibility of being presented … and I think about how the dominant taste of such spaces can influence artistic creations. Personally, I prefer to see artworks in artists’ studios, unofficial and informal spaces, or even virtual spaces. I enjoy it more. I have always been able to establish a closer, more intimate dialogue with artworks and artists and even other audiences in these spaces. In gallery spaces, I often feel a sense of discomfort. It is as if rather than being the viewer of artworks, watching them, I am the one who is being viewed — watched and controlled by walls, spaces, and the other people around me!
I know that you don’t have the kind of engagement I have with galleries, so I’m curious to know your experiences in these spaces, Mahsa. How do you relate to art in such spaces? I would also like to hear about your experiences with open studios, and how you compare them to showing your works in the gallery.
MM: I share your critical approach to the art market and galleries, which in fact I believe is a worldwide phenomenon, not limited to Iran. The issue of the economy of art is complex and I prefer not to engage with it now, in order to focus more on the aesthetics of the gallery space. I like gallery spaces. As a painter (especially a painter who has recently turned to abstraction, at least for the time being), I long for that ideal space where my mental world can dwell, but not a space entirely detached from the exterior world. Here lies a challenging contradiction: On the one hand, in my painterly practice at least, I try to free myself from the limits of representation and refuse the totality of this world. I would like to feel something like absolute freedom in the studio space and in my paintings. On the other hand, when showing my works, I can’t imagine them in a bubble, separated from the world. At the end of the day, my work is based on my perception of the world, daily news, theoretical texts, and everyday conversations and images: they are all flowing inside of me and remain with me as sediments. Accordingly, any reading of the artwork cannot happen in a void. Therefore, the white cube’s neutrality or objectivity is a lie. Those artists who distort this space’s artificial neatness and polished character are very fascinating to me. Regardless of the white cube space itself and the arrangement of artworks in it, I think we should also reflect on the relation between the inner and outer spheres of galleries. For instance, what kind of space do we find outside the gallery, in its garden, and what is the architectural design of this space like? Or, if we want to reflect on political and social issues, we can ask ourselves: How does the gallery relate to its neighborhood? Is the gallery open to the public or not? Nowadays, certain galleries hold exhibitions outside the white cube space. In Tehran, such galleries include Electric Room and O Gallery, which has collaborated with artists to hold open-studio events. I myself have organized an independent open studio and it was a very good experience for me. I felt that closeness and intimacy you mentioned before with my audience. I believe that alternative spaces for exhibiting art are necessary if the world of art does not want to be completely detached from the real world. We all search our rabbit holes, we like to imagine a place outside this world; however, the truth is that the economy of the art world is part and parcel of its surrounding world. Consequently, by constructing borders with the exterior world, the gallery presents us with a lie rather than an elevated truth, and there is no place outside this world where one can breathe. I see art as the imagination of a possibility, or the possibility of an imagination. Possibility does not deny or refute the reality. So, the exhibition space is not completely separated from the world surrounding it (neither architecturally nor sociopolitically). And, as I said, it has no access to truth.
Let us go back to the question “Where is art?” If we agree with O’Doherty that in the white cube art is timeless and detached from its society and geography, then in the virtual world this idealist detachment from the exterior world has faded and the work of art is understood in terms of its temporal context. How do you assess Instagram as a platform for exhibiting and presenting artworks?
NG: Thanks to Instagram, coming from a milieu completely detached from the world of art, I got to be connected to this world. I produced passive art, by which I mean my artworks didn’t have any audience, and art lives from its contact with the other. I believe that an artwork’s lifespan is directly related to its presence in the minds of its audience. As long as an artwork has space in the minds and memories of its audience, it is alive. The virtual space of Instagram was the first place my artworks were introduced to my audience and turned into active works of art. Instagram broke up galleries’ monopoly on presenting artworks, and it also provided better access to art from outside Iran and provided artists and art events far from the central art scene of Tehran the opportunity to be seen. Instagram has even pushed physical exhibition spaces and galleries to use this virtual space to attract larger audiences and have a more vivid presence. Of course, since the latter profit from better economic situations and have more capital on the virtual scene, they enjoy more success and occupy more space. Most of my connections to the art world were established and are still being established through Instagram. Instagram is a bridge to connecting with people in real space. Our own friendship is an example of that, Mahsa: I got to know you through your works on Instagram.
MM: You’re right—we indeed got to know each other through Instagram. I agree with you on this point, and I think the Covid-19 pandemic also had a big role in such spaces being taken more seriously. One could say that, currently, art is not exhibited for a “limited” time in art galleries; rather, it can find an everlasting presence in virtual space. In the post-internet world and with platforms such as Instagram at hand, digital art such as photography and video art not only can be archived in virtual space but also can be directly shown and understood in that context.
Nasim, let us get back to the very space we are sitting in now: you have brought part of the white cube into your home. According to many critics, the white cube space is supposed to separate the artwork from reality. Yet, in your house, it has turned into a breach at the heart of reality—it’s like a crack has opened up at the heart of your personal space, at the heart of temporal daily life. You have also realized some projects in this white crack. I remember how passionate my first encounter with this situation was. All conventional and traditional relations had been overthrown. I was at your place, barefoot, without all the luxe and glitter of the gallery. Instead, the only light that lit the place was the white light you had installed in the white cube area, and it was shining on bread dough that was decomposing. Could you elaborate on this project a bit?
NG: I like the atmosphere of the white cube and, in general, the possibilities the space gives me help to determine and form the work. I have also collaborated with galleries; however, they have changed in ways that mean I no longer have any reason to present my work there. I was tired of the control, surveillance, waiting, being chosen, eliminations and omissions, and implementing of personal taste. I yearned to have a space where I could feel free. A space in which I could play but where I could also be serious—as serious as a child in a playground. In terms of choice of material, this serious playfulness was exactly the direction I took: the bread dough gave me precisely this sense of freedom. In fact, I had my toy but I needed a playground. The walls and rooms of my rental apartment did not provide me with such a space, and working with the dough also necessitated a new space. I had to work in the space where I wanted to eventually show the work, because it was impossible to displace things; each time I worked with the dough, the material manifested a different characteristic, and so my work literally came to a halt! On the other hand, since I started my career as a professional artist, I decided not to interweave my financial needs with art, so that I could experiment more and have access to other experiences beyond what was dictated and expected. But there was no space available to me to feel this freedom. After a certain point, though, in order to be able to continue my artistic work and liberate myself from problems that impeded my work, I decided to integrate those problems into my work: using bread dough and readymades as material for my art come out of a lack of financial resources to buy material and a lack of time. With the issue of space, too, I transformed my problem into work. I transferred the white cube context. I remember the first time you saw my space, you told me it was as if I had opened up a window inside my house. I really liked this metaphor because it was exactly how I myself conceived it. It took me out of a dead end … I do not believe in the separation of art from reality in any sense. I am convinced that everything is deeply interwoven, and indeed I believe that borders should fade so that we can understand the relation between various phenomena and their mutual influences.
But now that we are talking about workspaces, I would like to know what the ideal workspace is for you. How does the fact that your living space and workspace are the same space influence your work? Does it limit you, or does it give you more possibilities?
MM: To be honest, it is very difficult for me to answer this question. Imagining the ideal space necessitates imagining the ideal condition. When I was very young, I had my own atelier and I lived with my family. I went to the atelier almost every day, and I worked frequently and orderly like an employee. It was like this for two or three years. But then I became independent and my home and workplace became the same. Moreover, I was — and still am — collaborating on a project not related to painting. I think it’s every painter’s dream to wake up every day and have only one priority and task, and that would be painting. To have a big atelier, well equipped and near one’s home, will have been the dream of every painter at some point. However, I’m not sure if the best artworks are the outcome of ideal conditions. Now, such a dream is so far from me that it is no longer on my agenda. Now I give priority to life over painting. I think art is that thing that emerges from the heart of an artistic life. The artistic life of every artist is unique to that person, and there is no single manual for everybody. The filmmaker Agnès Varda and theorist Susan Sontag both chose their kitchens as the place to write in. I once saw this series of photos by an artist friend who had documented the stages of her tailoring work, with her sewing machine in her car; she called her car her “private studio.” Professional artist, professional workspace, professional exhibition space … Most of the time this emphasis on professionalism seems to me to be fake. In the past few years, thanks to feminist discourses, environmental conversations, and anti-racist discussions, we have witnessed new topics and concerns entering the art world, and now it is easier to critique that mysterious aura around the artist and her artworks — the halo that separates the artist from exterior space and the real world. A room of one’s own … it can be the corner of a table. It is indeed more about a space of being alone with oneself. In a nutshell, I think it is the limits that create the possibilities for us — that enact and enliven the imagination, and sometimes even give us the motivation to work.
NG: Nevertheless, I wish there were fewer constraints. I promise to keep my imagination alive and be motivated in that case as well!
MM: I agree, you are right (laughs).
Nasim Goli, Mahsa Mohammadi, “A Place in Between; Conversation,” in mohit.art NOTES #8 (December 2023); published on www.mohit.art, November 24, 2023.