Shirin Rastin is an Iranian-born artist based in Orange County, California. She is exhibiting her latest series, Forced Entry – fusing idyllic puzzles of the "west" with images of the ongoing refugee crisis – at the Dollar Art House in St. Louis, Missouri. The exhibition opens from 5-10pm on Friday, March 24 at 3935 Pennsylvania #2 in South City. The Dollar Art House interviewed her about the series prior to the exhibition opening.
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Dollar Art House: In this series you combine commercial puzzles with puzzles you’ve made using images from the news media. In particular these include puzzles that show an idyllic “western” or “American” life (the former) and puzzles that depict the ongoing refugee crisis (the latter). Can you tell us something about how you arrived at this concept? The use of puzzles implies there is something to solve; some problem to reckon. We are given two apparently separate puzzles – but you fuse them together. This raises questions about how separate the images really are.
Shirin Rastin: I was invited to my friends' house back in September. They are young, educated Iranian couple. They also live in one of the nicest areas in South Orange county, California. Upon my arrival to their house, I’ve noticed a few puzzles on the walls both in their dining and living room, nicely framed with an expensive big gold frame, and most importantly each one had an individual gallery lighting above them. All the puzzles were beautiful western scenery; a cottage by the lake for example.
They told me growing up in Iran they always had a similar image in their mind (as those puzzles) about western countries, something they saw in Hollywood movies or in different commercials. When they moved from Iran to the US they had a dream to become part of that beautiful fantasy, but that never happened. They also get overwhelmed and stressed out by all the bad news they hear every day – especially at work and on television – news about politics, war, and unfairness in the world. That’s when they decided to create a safe happy bubble for themselves inside their home, by putting those puzzles on the wall. Once they are inside their home no one and nothing will be able to destroy the relaxing moments they have.
When, I left their house I was baffled by the whole story.
The idea of tricking your mind by looking at beautiful puzzles to feel safe, and to avoid reality by looking at fantasy. That I found disturbing, interesting, sad and mind-blowing. So, I went home and I started to research. To my surprise, I found hundreds of people with the same interest, mostly in Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe. They usually buy puzzles with a white family’s activity theme – picnicking, fishing, playing with dogs, etcetera… and they decorate their house with these puzzles. I guess what stuck in my mind the most was how my friends were trying to avoid the reality but looking at those puzzles; the reality of what actual people are going through every day to migrate to western countries
So now going back to your question about fusing the puzzles together; I could have custom made them in photoshopped or mixed them together, but to me, these two puzzles are like oil and water, they are not mixable at all. The whole purpose of these series is to show how the reality is so far from the fantasy.
Dollar Art House: How did you go about the pairing of images? Obviously there are both formal and conceptual concerns. The signs mirroring but also negating each-other, etcetera.
Shirin Rastin: I knew from the beginning of this project that I wanted to go with the pairing. As I mentioned before pairing these images was about comparing two different lifestyles, culture, and living circumstances. It's the juxtaposition of them together that it makes it work, the individual puzzle by itself is just a puzzle and nothing else, it is the pairing that it starts a conversation. The first step was finding the right puzzle with a right title, the title of the puzzle was an essential element to me. The title gives a viewer a direction. It's like I’m guiding them through the path that I want them to go. The second step was to find the right image of Syrian refugees. When I say, “right” I mean it in terms of its connection to the other puzzle and its title; both visually and “meaning” wise. Then there was the placing of the two puzzles together. There were a series of question that I kept asking myself while deciding where to place the smaller puzzle; most importantly what it is adding and eliminating as part of this joined imagery.
Dollar Art House: You were born in Iran; although you’ve been in the States now for many years. In some of your earlier work you created a sort of memorial for those, particularly on the Iranian left, who were repressed and killed after the revolution. Can you discuss what animated some of those projects? I remember you discussing them as monuments or memorials in exile.
Shirin Rastin: I was interested in the absence of a memorial for those who lost their lives during the post-revolution mass executions carried out by Iranian authorities against political prisoners who opposed the government. Through researching of this topic, I became aware of those that were left behind, living in exile and unable to grieve the trauma they experienced. I wanted to build a memorial outside of Iran for these victims living in exile. I did not intend to glorify the death of the anti-government revolutionaries, nor to assign a permanent place for the memorial. Rather, the memorial is intended to bring to light a chapter of Iranian history that has been erased and forgotten; as well as allowing those who wish to grieve an opportunity to do so. It existed for remembrance. Just as those Iranians who were forced into exile -- who lack a permanent natural home – this memorial exists in the same state of deprivation and oblivion.
Dollar Art House: What comes next – following the Forced Entry series? The current series raises a lot of questions and possibilities and possible paths to explore. It is both expansive and simple – as most good conceptual gestures are.
Shirin Rastin: It’s really hard to answer that question. I’m constantly writing my ideas down. Writing and rewriting is part of my daily process of art making, but by the end of a day I might not even use any of those ideas at all. I think for now I just want to pause for a while and expand on the puzzle series by transferring the idea to different formats. The whole notion of comparing the east and west to each other has been a mesmerizing subject to me for a long time and I like to look in to different layers of it. I feel like this is just a start of this series.
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Shirin Rastin is an Iranian-born visual, performance, and video artist based in Orange County, California. She describes her works as a mirror that reflects on Middle East history and its effects on people’s life and behavior, especially in the last 30 years.
The Dollar Art House is a DIY project of artists Craig E. Ross and Adam Turl. Dollar Art House aims to provide a platform for a popular avant-garde; experimental art that is connected to popular concerns and audiences.