The Dada Disgust: A Medical Profile*

Published in Daily Star, Lebanon,  29 Aug. 2009, under the title ‘Physical Injury Within the Body Politic

Download a PDF version of the newspaper page here.

‘…[C]ruel with myself… .’

—Antonin Artaud

‘The exhibition is disgusting’, visitors would say. ‘And it is probably the most powerful thing he has ever done,’ they would add. [Of course, he hadn’t done it. It had been done to him, or, in certain cases, he had himself exposed to it.] To make it short: there was no doubt that Amir Ali Ghasemi’s exhibition at Azad Art Gallery was powerfully disgusting.

As a visitor, I personally take no pleasure in being disgusted. Generally, what I expect from artistic encounter is not so much about ‘being moved’, rather about seeing a clever ‘move’ on behalf of the artist. There would have been little sense, and probably even less art, in ‘AmirAli’s Medical Profile’ if it was less clever than moving.

The exhibition, in most part, simply documents the medical history of the artist in an objective manner. This is done with a scientific accuracy endowing the work with a solemn bitterness. No matter how much self-pity is intermingled, the works raging from videos to photographs, to narrative texts and interactive installations all testify to an ‘objective’ and ‘undeniable’ agony experienced through the processes they portray. They range from ‘facial irritations caused by being exposed to sever air pollution and floating dust’ to a picture of a broken left tumb to a Salbutamol spray to ‘nine metal objects in platinum including one main part with nine holes and eight screws installed on the right leg’s bone during 1993-4’ to ‘wounds and irritations on the left art caused by reactions to smoking and consuming hot potato chips, 16 July 2009’ and the like. The presentation of the works is sincere but careful and well thought of. The interactive shelves filled with objects considered irritating or disgusting to the artist, do not qualify for a kind ‘presentation’, they ‘perform’.

As a kind of self-portraiture and at least on the surface, the work is far from being narcissist. The artist happily engages in a brutal destruction of a social image we normally expect to be ‘healthy’, ‘lively’ and ‘coherent’. But fortunately, this is not what the work is all about: it does not try to seek compassion as documentary or journalistic photography might do: there is nothing to be done about what is portrayed. There is nobody to blame but life. All that is gathered in this one person could have happened separately to anyone of us. And it actually has. It is not a call for help: in certain cases, the artist has voluntarily exposed himself to a risk, turning photographs into documents of performances, which, instead of probing the limits of physical tolerance, portray the excessive vulnerability of ‘this’ single body.

While nothing is fictional here, the narrative texts documenting the events are extremely performative.  The artist considers them not only a part of the exhibition, but rather an end to it, ‘I wanted to write them, so I made up this exhibition.’ While attempting in their way of writing to portray the harshness of a situation, they carefully limit themselves to the medical history they narrate. They contend themselves in saying, ‘it happened and it was so bad’ but all the same, they convey there is something very inhumane about this simple and apparently neutral way of saying it. It is as if the artist/author is addressing a coroner at a court session where every bit of human attention is exchanged with bits of evidence.

All this would have not been so meaningful if presented in a different location and to a different audience: it would have not been the same exhibition outside Tehran and Azad Art Gallery, an art gallery famous for its courageous management which dares to host most politically charged contemporary art exhibitions of today’s Iranian art scene. It is in this troubled city with a boiling political atmosphere that the true meaning of the exhibition unfolds: it is not a work of someone like Paul McCarthy, a master of disgust, humiliating the healthy-wealthy modern subject of a consumerist capitalist society, quite the contrary, it is an exposition of sheer vulnerability of a human body that only finds the freedom of criticizing infliction of pain upon bodies when it is presented in a greater generality. Thus, it is not an exhibition only about ‘now’ and ‘here’: it is about thirty years of history that the artist and his generation have experienced which has left them alone with a sort of ‘dada disgust’. It is about a ‘wrong life that cannot be lived correctly’, as Adorno would have had it, which we tried to live.

So there it is, a powerfully disgusting exhibition nurturing on an urge probably located at the intersection of Artaud and Rimbaud: trying to be cruel to one’s self in portraying himself while at the same time implicitly stating that ‘I is the Other’.

* ‘Amir Ali’s Medical Profile’ was held at Azad Art Gallery, Tehran, from 24th till 29th July 2009. Further info and images of the work can be found at www.azadartgalery.com and the artist’s personal website: http://www.amiralighasemi.com/