The Met Breuer
Siah Armajani has been an unceasing trailblazer for public art, focusing on community and blurring boundaries between art, architecture, and new technology. His work is deeply rooted in history and philosophy, as well as the writings of Persian poets, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born in Iran in 1939, at the age of 22, Armajani immigrated to the United States to attend Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and sociology. He has lived and worked in the U.S. ever since.
His first retrospective, “Siah Armajani: Follow This Line,” was organized by curators Clare Davies, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Victoria Sung, along with curatorial fellow Jadine Collingwood, from the Walker Art Center. More than 100 works spanned Armajani’s six-decade career, including sculptures, installations, photographs, watercolors, and drawings. Rather than focusing primarily on works that speak to exile, the curators presented Armajani’s aesthetic trajectory as a continual query into what the role of public art might be in America today while acknowledging the significance of his political works.
Armajani is best known for his large-scale public projects, including the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (1988) in Minneapolis and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics torch sculpture. Other significant works in the public sphere include Lighthouse and Bridge (1996, demolished in 2018), for the North Shore Esplanade at St. George’s Ferry Terminal, Staten Island, New York, and Fallujah (2004–05), a damning response to the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 during the Iraq War. It is a blatant anti-war piece inspired by Guernica with a shade of Duchamp. Thanks to a continuous PowerPoint presentation, viewers could study Armajani’s public artworks in cities throughout Europe and the U.S., noting the extensive range of his civic art achievements, including bridges, gazebos, gardens, and reading rooms. Sculptures and models revealed the underling influence of Russian Constructivists on his oeuvre. Like the Russian artists, Armajani constructs pure and simple forms that integrate art with the everyday.
In 1967, while working at the University of Minnesota’s computer labs, he became interested in data that allowed him to push both language and art to a new dimension. A Number Between Zero and One (1969) reveals his early interest in technology and his strict adherence to simplicity. A minimal steel column contains 25,974 pages, representing 28,571 hours of printout time.
The exhibition included a striking display of models from the “Dictionary for Building” series (1974–75). Occupying much of a large gallery, a lengthy counter displayed 150 small-scale maquettes depicting the architectural elements of a house combined into different permutations, complete with odd furniture. The houses in the “Building” series (Armajani produced more than 1,000 models) ingeniously deconstruct the concept of a house as an enclosed structure. Windows and walls interconnect at strange angles, and breaks between floors and ceilings challenge physics. A sense of disorientation pervades these uncanny interiors, which are independently complete yet read as if they were 3D sketches.
The open-air construction Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3 (1988) invites viewers to ponder the context and background of a notorious 1921 murder trial. Some believe that the two men were convicted because they were Italian immigrants and anarchists during a time when anti-radical sentiment was running high in America. Viewers are encouraged to browse a library of books on race and revolution and to take notes with provided pencils.
In 2015, Armajani was distressed when migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were discovered asphyxiated in the back of an airtight refrigerated food truck that had been abandoned on the side of an Austrian motorway. The freestanding structure Seven Rooms of Hospitality: Room for Deportees (2017) is part of a series that takes its name from Of Hospitality, a conversation between philosophers Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle published in 1997. Armajani’s work, which is anything but inviting, twists the concept of hospitality. A tall, barbed-wire fence runs adjacent to a ghostly gray guardhouse. A simple bench holds a lone purse and a toppled red structure; a hat rests on a chair—Armajani symbolically references the indeterminate spaces inhabited by deportees, exiles, and refugees. This work resonates with chilling comparisons to the migrant crisis facing the U.S. today.
“Siah Armajani: Follow This Line” demonstrated how an astute artist can delve imaginatively into political issues and produce stimulating work that doesn’t drown in ideology. The internationalism of the early 20th-century avant-garde was a political project that opposed ideology, nationalism, and fascism. As art critic and philosopher Boris Groys has written, “Contemporary art has its origin in this break with national cultural and pictorial traditions—the break that the artistic avant-garde effectuated at the beginning of the 20th century.” Armajani’s is an important body of work given the rising wave of global nationalism and one that younger artists should scrutinize.