They are so out of place as to be absurd: a pair of black binoculars hanging from a hook at Counihan Gallery’s recent exhibition ‘Permit Zone’, a show essentially about the painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation work of Melbourne artist Fatemeh Vafaeinejad. Appended with a hand-written message to the observer—’so you can see the top’—their purpose it seems is to supplement the viewing of Vafaeinejad’s small-scale drawings which have been hung well beyond the observer’s natural sightline. As it turns out, the presence of the binoculars is indeed superfluous. For when I dutifully put my eye to the lenses I am able to see… nothing; only a white ‘stain’ framed by the parameters of the device itself.
In an adjacent gallery, silently over-run by a litany of Vafaeinejad’s porcelain birds, (the artists’ signature motif) is a further address to the observer. Hand-scrawled directly onto the wall, the exhibition’s rationale is outlined as follows: ‘Permit Zone installation has multiple purpose. One is to explore displacement, evacuation, and the emotional, intellectual turbulence of current situation of refugees around the world [sic]. The other is my own “permit zone”!’ What then do we make of the additional mediation of the exhibition via an optical device? How does the ‘blind-spot’ introduced by the binoculars, re-mark the gallery space?
Vafaeinejad’s practice spans three major geographical locations—Iran, Pakistan and Australia—and is heavily influenced by traditional Persian art and literature. The work featured in the exhibition was produced in the ten year period following Vafaeinejad’s departure from Iran and her eventual arrival in Melbourne. Despite its protestations to the contrary, it is neither Vafaeinejad’s personal narrative nor her mobility between cultures alone that makes this exhibition compelling. Rather it is the manner in which the work uncannily enters into dialogue with the current theoretical fixation with ‘the blind-spot’ in our midst; that central core of impossible ‘antagonism’ that writers from Ernesto Laclau to Slavoj Žižek have attempted to grasp as the constitutive feature of global politics today. We might say, to paraphrase Žižek, the exhibition was ‘right for the wrong reasons’.
This is particularly the case when one considers Vafaeinejad’s most recent body of work The Blank Canvas is not Blank (2007), one of the more conceptually engaging works on display. Comprised of a sequence of primed, unpainted canvasses, the works cohere around the gesture of incision. Vafaeinejad scores the surface of the canvas to reveal the wooden stretcher underneath. She then takes to the wood, carving it intricately and searing it with Persian writing. Using a collection of found objects, the artist adorns the crevices to produce a miniature landscape of abundant activity. Porcelain birds, ladders and nests of twigs and cat hair are common sculptural motifs. When Italian modernist Lucio Fontana inflicted the first incisions to the canvas it was to insinuate the void. In Vafaeinejad’s recasting, it is to fill it in: where history has taught us to find ‘nothing’, here there is ‘something’, as Žižek would say.
And it is also here that the reference to ‘zones’ in the title of the exhibition proves rather apposite. The term itself currently enjoys a strange ubiquity in art and politics (recall for example, the 2006 Sydney Biennale’s enigmatic title ‘Zones of Contact’ or the media obsession with ‘war zones’, ‘emergency zones’, ‘protection zones’…). In regards to ‘Permit Zone’ we might consider Žižek’s treatment of the mother of all ‘zones’: the Korean Demilitarised Zone, symbolic space par excellence. In the volatile tract of land between North and South Korea, a counterfeit suburb of houses has been constructed by the government, complete with caretakers to switch the lights on and off. A viewing deck has been introduced for Western tourists to bear witness to the spectacle of… spectacle. According to Žižek, what we have here is ‘difference’ in its purest state. The frame of the viewing deck is in effect a superfluous mediation of the scene: reality which just ‘was’, now ‘appears to appear’.1
And is this not the uncanny effect introduced into the gallery space by a seemingly benign pair of binoculars? For what is ultimately at stake in ‘Permit Zone’ is not cultural difference in itself, but the capacity of contemporary art to meaningfully engage with ‘difference’ beyond the post-modern capitulation to globalisation. At the level of content ‘Permit Zone’ was interesting enough; but it is at the level of form that it was at its most compelling.
1. Slavoj Žižek, ‘A Plea For A Return to Difference (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua)’, Critical Inquiry, 32, (Winter 2006, p.234.