Raha Raissnia’s Secrets of the Recent Past

In the Iranian artist’s work, memory is smudged, an accretion of sorrows or nameless longings, a pile of waterlogged books in a flooded library

As we are hurled towards the future ever faster, pawing desperately at the glowing glass of our devices as we go, it feels like nothing could be more anachronistic than the analogue. For those artists like Iranian artist Raha Raissnia, whose ‘Galvanization’ is on view at Miguel Abreu in New York, it must seem like they are a part of some esoteric order, a steward of the secrets of the very recent past.

In densely layered 16mm films and heavily worked, quasi-photographic canvases and works on paper that make up her show, Raissnia’s devotion to the vagaries of celluloid – its rough grain, its susceptibility to scratches and spills, its finicky relation to light – is palpable and infectious. In interviews, she makes clear that her passion sprang in part from the influence of her late father, an amateur photographer who would take her on childhood adventures in the streets of her native Tehran to photograph protests against the Shah in the lead up to the Iranian Revolution. She occasionally uses his old negatives as raw material for her art. Perhaps equally influential was the impression left by her work in the early 2000s at Anthology Film Archives in New York, where she hungrily set herself upon the banquet of the organization’s offerings. But it is evident that the thrall in which Raissnia is held by photography and film transcends the merely personal and extends to a universal concern with the nature of memory.

Raha Raissnia, 'Galvanization', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the ravishing pair of films, Galvanoscope 1 (2018) and Galvanoscope 2 (Film A and Film B) (both 2018) – the strongest in the show. Tentative, flickering and dream-like, the films are projected onto floating cubes of white scrim, which key up their already spectral qualities and lend them the luminous density of projector beams filtering though clouds of cigarette smoke in theatres of a bygone era. (For Galvanoscope 2 she projected two looped copies of the same three-minute film on both sides of the scrim cube, which doubled the disorienting effect, especially as they inevitably fell out of synch.) Painstakingly constructed using a collection of slides of an abandoned 14th century Indian mosque that a friend rescued from the refuse of Brooklyn College, which Raissa re-photographed with a 16mm camera in her studio, the films have the flavour of some of the early avant-garde cinema that helped form her vision. Stan Brakhage comes immediately to mind. But unlike Brakhage, master of the celestial and the intimate, Raissnia’s films are suffused with nostalgia, as if these architectural forms obliquely connect her to some kind of ancestral memory, or perhaps to the imagined life she was unable to live when she was exiled from her homeland.

Raha Raissnia, 'Galvanization', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

The paintings and works on paper in the exhibition were slightly less sure-footed. Some, like the pair of brooding, melancholic portraits – one of a bowed, ghostly head (Untitled, 2018), and the other of a corpse-like hand (Novice, 2017) – have a satisfyingly grubby haptic quality. Other, smaller-scale works on canvas that are clearly based on roughed up photographs look weak in comparison to a suite of similarly rendered works on paper, their transfer to canvas making them seem somewhat gimmicky and tawdry. Oddly, this is not the case with the largest canvas in the show, Shade (2018), a haunting image of a what appears to be an empty courtyard, that summons up the sun-blasted chiaroscuro of Joseph Nicéphone Niépce’s famous first photograph.

In all of these works, memory seems a smudged thing, an accretion of sorrows or nameless longings, a pile of waterlogged books in a flooded library. But this feeling is anachronistic, too, in a world where we no longer stash our love letters in shoeboxes or pluck our photo albums off the shelf to take a stroll through the petrified forest of our past. This is the poignance of the analogue: it reminds us that memory itself has come to lose some of its texture.

Raha Raissnia, 'Galvanization' was on view at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, from 13 January until 14 February 2019.

Main image: Raha Raissnia, 'Galvanization', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

Chris Wiley is an artist, writer and contributing editor of frieze.

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019

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