Twilight (detail), 2019. Cast glass and stainless steel, 140 x 67 x 31 cm. Photo: Dave Morgan, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

A Conversation with Shirazeh Houshiary

In her paintings, sculptures, animations, and site-specific installations, Iranian-born artist Shirazeh Houshiary often employs a process of meticulous repetition in order to create forms reminiscent of webs or networks. While her paintings weave together minute lines of words in Arabic script, generating abstract waves in pictorial space, her newest sculptures, built from glass bricks, physically twist around themselves to create helix-like forms in space. The works, regardless of medium, experientially question the effects of movement and depth on our experiences of time and space. Houshiary’s upcoming solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in New York, originally scheduled for May 2020, will be presented in 2021. Below, the artist discusses works in that show and her current daily studio practice in London.

Gegenschein (detail), 2018. Pigment, pencil, and black aquacryl on canvas and aluminum, 190 x 270 cm. Photo: Dave Morgan, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Sculpture magazine: Your paintings and sculptures both employ a repetition of elements, evoking networks or webs. What is the value of repetition for you?
Shirazeh Houshiary: In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that objects are not made of space-time or matter, energy, light, or anything else. There is no basic stuff of the universe—phenomena are ephemeral and mere rising waves in the stream of existence. So physical reality is insubstantial and ultimately composed of sets of fields. It is this repetition that seems to provide the threads for it. To create webs and networks is to interconnect everything, both living and non-living.

Sculpture: You create sculptures using anodized aluminum, glass, and cast glass bricks. How did you first come to use bricks, and why?
SH: Bricks are essentially the building blocks, or skin, of our civilization—we use them to assemble or weave shelter, an enclosure which protects us. Glass, by its transparency, it will enmesh both surface and depth, and glass bricks fuse inside and outside simultaneously.

The glass bricks are made at Studio Berengo in Murano, Venice. I design the shapes and sizes of the bricks and the studio casts them.

Twilight, 2019. Cast glass and stainless steel, 140 x 67 x 31 cm. Photo: Dave Morgan, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Sculpture: Can you tell us about some of your newest works, including the wall-hung sculptures?
SH: For my upcoming exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, I am showing three new glass works, all made of glass bricks. Twilight and Aura are inspired by the shape of the seed pod as it spins and falls to the ground, fulfilling its becoming. These two works are various shades of white, while the other is in shades of black. They rotate to reveal their forms. It is as if they were in a perpetual dance around one another, a dialogue between inside and outside.

I am also showing a glass tower, Origin, again made of glass bricks. It has an elliptical footprint that divides in two: on one side I arranged clear glass bricks, and on the other side I placed smoky-black and semi-opaque bricks. The layers of bricks rise and rotate to create two ribbons of transparent and opaque surfaces. At the fission of its form, the inside space and outside skin dissolve into one another, revealing both presence in absence and absence in presence.

The exhibition will also include two wall sculptures in painted cast aluminum and bronze. These works will merge both sculptural and pictorial spaces in their composition. Their ribbons and loops use the wall as stage to challenge the viewers’ physical and psychological space and to reveal how we inhabit time, in Order of Time, and space, in Strange Loop.

Sculpture: You’ve noted your interest in Islamic architecture “and its use of light and color, reflection and water, which conspire to dematerialize the shape of a building, allowing it to dissolve into its surroundings.” How do you understand your sculptures in relationship to the space they occupy?
SH: The sculptures are marked by a chiasmus of visibility and invisibility and by the use of nuance in transparency and opacity. By projecting a combination of order and disorder in the space they occupy, they encourage the experience of illusion and dreams through reflection and fusion, and suggest forms that dematerialize and dissolve into their surroundings.

The Order of Time, 2019. Powder-coated cast aluminum, 72.405 x 170.407 cm. Photo: Dave Morgan, Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Sculpture: What natural forms or phenomena inspire you?
SH: Water and light have inspired me. Both phenomena help us to understand the world around us by their interference.

Right now in London, we have no pollution—I see blue sky every day. That’s quite unusual for us. Nature has an extraordinary ability to heal itself very quickly.

Sculpture: What is a typical studio day like for you?
SH: I start very early, as I like to read for one hour before working either on my paintings or developing new ideas for the sculptures. My days are usually full of events and experimentation, and I have found play very helpful in developing new methods.

It’s not a very good time because a lot of people are suffering, and you can’t help but be affected by it. But as artists, we have always been working in the studio on our own—that’s not new. At the moment, I wake up in the morning and have nothing in my diary, which is amazing. It’s quite beautiful in some ways because it has given me a lot of time to read and to think, which we don’t usually have because we are running around too much.