Nicky Nodjoumi: We the Witnesses
On ViewHelena Anrather
September 10 – October 23, 2021
Bruno Latour takes issue with newspapers and how they divide our knowledge of the world. The grid sets the limits; its columns and sections flatten the complexities of cities and imply a sovereign objectivity to the recording of events. What is local is kept separate from what is global, as the panels of a newspaper page categorize our cultural experience. It affects our memory, our proximity to events, and sends the primacy of our own perception receding away from us.
What is exhaustible versus what is inexhaustible comes to mind in Nicky Nodjoumi’s We the Witnesses at Helena Anrather. Newsprint is exhaustible. The images that circulate within newspapers, the ones that swarm around events, elicit quick shocks of something limbic but rarely have permanence past the next day’s issue. Their value is in their speed; their ability to catch our attention and their inability to hold it. It is this speed, this exhaustibility, that Nodjoumi’s dérive challenges. Painting provides permanence to these images, giving his practice urgency as it searches for something inexhaustible.
Nodjoumi, a revered artist from Iran forced to flee his country during the Iranian Revolution, continues to pull images from the Associated Press and the New York Times, collaging and fragmenting them into non-narrative representational paintings. It is their relationship to circulation, specifically their role in forming public opinion, that keeps him occupied.
Nodjoumi understands the radical gesture of cultural memory; its meaningful alterity to circulation and its speed, its implied objectivity, its impermanence. Noticeably, in We the Witnesses, Nodjoumi has extended his interest in images beyond the ones circulated by the AP and the Times to include more images of his own making, mixing the static viewpoint of his body’s presence and his affecting record of events into the spinning horizon. A splice of his photograph of a Portuguese landscape appears multiple times in the show: its blue sky and bare trees can be seen in both Landscape with Different Angles (2020) and the titular We the Witnesses (2021). The broken landscape emerges from behind wrestling politicians, reminding us that the tilting horizon of a collapsing climate is at stake behind political theater. Blending the two together is more critical irony than pastiche; a skepticism of who deserves to observe and report.
The massive, churning ink drawing Here is Aleppo (2017) feels like the core of the exhibition. Ruins embody the fragile space between what is exhaustible and what is inexhaustible; Here is Aleppo is able to achieve a sublime effect between the two. Here it might be engaging in a kind of political sublime—our perceived powerlessness within a system of abstract power and indecipherable policy that is completely disconnected from majority interest, ultimately finalizing the destruction of cities and culture. The three-panel drawing is a repository, and it is a prime example of Nodjoumi’s depth; a balancing act between historical record and Nodjoumi’s expressive hand that forms a dense fossil of disaster. The drips of ink impinge the image, acting both as aleatory scatter to its attempt at recording while also making the triptych read like a constellation of disaster. It is these lyrical gestures that capture the exhaustible information of the image and transmigrate it into something inexhaustible.
Every body carries a landscape with it, and it is through the window of Aleppo that I can see Nodjoumi’s practice more clearly. If it weren’t for his use of color, We the Witnesses would bury us. When viewed in black and white, the images of Nodjoumi’s works are painful ciphers of mourning. The segmented bodies wrestling without gravity and the warm weather fauna of Portugal being torn and reoriented all amount to a doom scroll that is ultimately about the spectacle of politics and our own powerlessness, our own impermanence. It is his color that complicates the imagery, draws us in, that acts as a needed mirage of affect. Color makes the heartbreak lie in wait; it goes off slower and deeper to record itself within us as something inexhaustible.
For the most part, the bodies in Nodjoumi’s work are still fragmented, a continuing motif within his practice. But then there’s the woman pictured in front of mountains in Mountain Climber (2016). She is an invisible rückenfigur, standing before us while also allowing us to look through her body to see the sky and mountain beyond her. I began googling the mountains that surround Iran, mountains I’ll most likely never be able to visit, feeling for a moment what Nodjoumi has made inexhaustible. Agnès Varda once said, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes.” Nodjoumi carries many landscapes with him as a political exile. His work is a witness to power, and lays claim to land and the events of it for its people—their sense of place, its memory, their witness to a lode of experience that exists beyond power. Nodjoumi’s enduring presence holds an account, bears witness, to something as permanent and inexhaustible as those mountains.