Barred From Israel, This Iranian Artist Found a Unique Way of 'Visiting' Jerusalem

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Shachar Peled
New York
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Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari. "I wanted to do something about banning the body from the physical space."
Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari. "I wanted to do something about banning the body from the physical space."Credit: Sarah Wang
shachar peled
Shachar Peled
New York

NEW YORK – Neither decades-long political enmity between her homeland and Israel, physical distance or the complexities of digital technology have kept Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari from “appearing” in Jerusalem.

“You can’t go to Israel with an Iranian passport,” explains Allahyari, 33, from her home in New York, “and I wanted to do something about banning the body from the physical space.”

That is how a unique collaboration between Allahyari and Israeli artist and scholar Dr. Lior Zalmanson, in the form of the “Rendering Borders” exhibition, came to life. At the heart of the exhibition, on through July 5, is a 3-D-printed, life-size model of Allahyari’s body, which is being scanned in the course of the show in the United States and is crossing geographical and digital borders to reach the Art Cube Artists’ Studios gallery, located between West and East Jerusalem.

The nontrivial location and the very launching of this exhibition mark a full circle for its Iranian and Israeli collaborators. Its genesis was in 2015 when, during a contemporary art festival in Jerusalem, Israeli artist Nadav Assor introduced strangers from across the world by means of screen monitors facing each other in a public garden in the city.

Among others individuals who for political and other reasons cannot come to Jerusalem, Assor matched up Zalmanson and Allahyari. Since then, they have been discussing concepts of margins and technology – both on poetic-conceptual and geopolitical levels – in person and virtually.   

A 3D-printed hand modeled on that of Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari, created for the Jerusalem exhibition "Rendering Borders."Credit: Yoanna Blikman

“My eureka [moment] for the collaboration came when I thought about the famous Stuxnet virus that was planted at the nuclear site in Natanz [in 2010] – and destroyed or at least slowed down the Iranian nuclear program – allegedly by the Israeli Mossad and the Americans,” recalls Zalmanson, a researcher at the University of Haifa who investigates human behaviors in virtual environments.

He came up with the idea of what he saw as an opposite, symbolic retributional act, in which Allahyari would be the one who is “planted” in the system, “not necessarily as a means of destruction, but rather for healing, understanding and communication,” says Zalmanson, 34, in a phone interview.

Over the course of the exhibition, which opened in mid-April, 24 life-size body parts of Allahyari are being printed live in the gallery, where other works by the Iranian – who “straddles the line between art and activism, and makes subversive use of 3-D printers,” according to the exhibition website – are on show as well.

But “Rendering Borders” is also an interactive experience in which visitors are invited to take a test, answering 40 questions that are based on pre-army psychological screening processes.

A screenshot of the exhibition's interactive test, in which visitors answer 40 questions that are based on pre-army psychological screening processes.Credit: Screengrab from 'Rendering Borders'

Those who pass are recruited as “agents” and are invited into a room, where they are tasked with a special mission: They receive a part of Allahyari’s 3-D-printed body, along with a mystical term or other concept, and are asked to document it in a place that is for them embedded with personal or national memories.

One participant, for example, was assigned the word “Freedom” and decided to take the printed-out hair from Allahyari’s head to the lowest place on earth: the Dead Sea.

“As a former Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] woman, I found a common thread between the idea of the head, the covering of the hair, and the place I came from,” wrote the agent, code-named Queen Y, in her mission diary. “The Dead Sea is where I find the most freedom. Something about the altitude, the heat, the salt and the mosquitoes makes me feel this is as low as it gets, and from here the only way is up.”

The journey the various body parts are taking is being documented online in real time, so that Allahyari can follow it from afar. The entire experience will culminate on June 23 when the “agents” return the parts in advance of a body-reassembly ceremony.

“It’s weird because I haven’t seen it all yet,” says Allahyari, who is both excited and nervous about witnessing the event. “I think in that moment when it all comes together it will be special,” she adds.

The 3D-printed hair of Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari, placed on the shores of the Dead Sea by an "agent" recruited to the cause.Credit: Yocheved Ochayon

‘Banned’ bodies

Allahyari was born and raised in Tehran, and moved to the United States in 2007. Growing up, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constantly surrounded her. It was, she notes, an inseparable part of the life of anyone in the region. “It is very clear that people are being killed, banned, basically murdered,” she says.

“Rendering Borders” is extremely connected to the conflict, Allahyari adds. “I think it’s important to talk about the systematic displacement of Palestinians, the human rights abuses and violations,” she says. “It’s basically a war on their body. That displacement is very real – they are there, they are experiencing this and they are dying for it.”

Her concept of the body not being welcome comes from what she refers to as a “privileged” standpoint, by which she, as an artist, is able to not be present but can “do an art project about it, rather than being stuck in the middle.”

The banned, or unwanted, body is a recurring thread in her art. Earlier this year, Allahyari was featured as one of The New York Times’ must-see artists for works that highlight “digital colonialism.” Her previous work includes 3-D revival models of historic artifacts demolished by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Also on show at the Artists Studios is her most recent project, “She Who Sees the Unknown,” which features 3-D models of goddesses, monsters and female genies originating in the Middle East.

Allahyari aims to challenge existing narratives – whether they relate to issues of global warming, contemporary oppression, or the effects of colonialism or discrimination on people due to race or gender.

“A lot of these figures are forgotten or invisible or misrepresented,” she explains. “There’s a long history of monstrosity with feminism, monstrosity as this negative thing that can be something that you embrace, as a way to turn around that power structure. When we talk about superheroes, it’s very much male-[dominated], so I wanted to bring out these female figures and find ways of retelling their stories.”

The artist’s personal experience of “otherness” has obviously influenced her creative mind-set. During the initial travel ban declared by U.S. President Donald Trump, which also included Green Card holders from certain Muslim countries, Allahyari says she found herself stuck in Europe, not knowing if she could return to New York. The experience became “very real,” she notes, when she later saw friends who were unable to regain access or reunite with family members.

A demonstrator holding a "No Muslim Ban" sign during a protest in Washington, United States, October 2017.Credit: Bloomberg

This is “a new era of how people’s bodies are being banned and rejected in this country, allowing all this space for hate,” she declares.

Who’s in, who’s out

Allahyari and Zalmanson, along with the Jerusalem exhibition’s curator, Maayan Sheleff, are posing questions relating to geopolitical borders in an increasingly digital world and confronting the virtual with the physical.

“In a sense, we’re showing both the opportunities and the limitations of the tool that is technology,” says Zalmanson.

“We live in a world in which so much of our communication is computer-mediated, through Facebook and Twitter and Skype, and we sometimes think it’s the real thing. But it’s not – it is a degenerate or limited version of reality,” he adds. Indeed, the impressive, lifelike body of Allahyari as it is being brought over by digital technology is, ultimately, a mere plastic substitute.

As long as immigration and displacement are on the rise, Zalmanson sums up, people will have to constantly face the question of who’s in and who’s out. “We often demonize those who are behind the fence,” he says, “and I think the use of technology, with its magic, will challenge that by creating a new reality, which doesn’t allow the kind of isolation that was possible just until recently.”

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