Sohrab Mohebbi on How Artists Are Shaped By Their Environment

May 1, 2018 11:55 am

Last month, Sohrab Mohebbi began his new position as a curator at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. Mohebbi arrives in New York from Los Angeles, where he was an associate curator at REDCAT art center for four years. There he organized solo shows for artists such as John Knight, Falke Pisano, and Tamara Henderson. “Hotel Theory,” a group show he curated about the possibility of theory as an art form, won the 2013 Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. He was previously a curatorial fellow at the Queens Museum of Art, New York, and a curatorial assistant at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Mohebbi is a contributing editor at Bidoun, for which he once reported on the heavy metal scene in his native Tehran (Mohebbi himself was part of the rock band 127). Here, he discusses how artists are shaped by and respond to a particular milieu.

Apocalypse ThenKen Burns’s new documentary about the Vietnam War is fascinating. The bald facts and news footage from the time convey something of the horror of America’s anti-Communist adventure. Each episode ends with one of the famous songs of that period, which is a pretty hokey format. That said, the series inadvertently taught me how much cultural production was spurred by the war.

Desert StormMonira Al Qadiri is a promising young Kuwaiti sculptor and filmmaker. Many of her projects are about the 1990s, especially the Gulf War. In her 2013 video Behind the Sun, for example, she juxtaposes footage of oil fields set ablaze by Saddam’s retreating army with audio from Islamic television programs. I recently saw her installation The Craft at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Qadiri transformed the space into an American diner, checkered flooring and all. On one wall, there was a video loop in which she and her sister Fatima, who is a musician, discuss the uncanny similarity between embassy buildings and UFOs.

UnderappreciatedCalifornia-based multidisciplinary artist Barbara T. Smith has always been ahead of her time, which is perhaps why she hasn’t received the institutional attention she deserves. First she explored technology, using a Xerox machine to document aspects of her life (she once asked her husband to make love on the copier). Then in performance pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, she examined domesticity and its representations. Later, she began making giant sculptural works that people could walk around. These many shifts and stages make her extremely hard to pin down.

ScensterAfter Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus’s sort-of biography of her late friend, follows Acker through the art scenes of downtown Manhattan, San Francisco, London, and San Diego. Kraus does an excellent job of describing the symbiotic relationship between artists and writers and the cultural circles they move in. In a sense, her book dramatizes Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about the field of cultural production. We see how a field is formed and how various people jockey for position within it. The book is filled with so much radical thinking and energy that it makes me feel like we are living in more conservative times now.

Art of LivingI recently read Aesthetics of Everyday Life: East and West, a fascinating collection of essays edited by academics Liu Yuedi and Curtis L. Carter. The merit of the book, as its title suggests, is that it gathers ideas from many different cultures. There are discussions of subjects ranging from the production of damask napkins in China to the correspondence between objects found on the streets of Istanbul and artworks by the Turkish avant-garde. My favorite essay is by the critic Yuriko Saito, who unpacks the Zen concepts that govern Japanese tea ceremonies.


This article appears under the title “Sightlines: Sohrab Mohebbi” in the May 2018 issue, pp. 35.