Pooneh Maghazehe: Try the Art, It’s Delicious
Most galleries serve wine and cheese, but this weekend, there's beef in the Fridge (These blog posts just write themselves!). Artist Pooneh Maghazehe, of the new exhibit "I RAN Home (in America)," will be hosting Bastani and Branding Night, a performance piece in which she comments on consumption and her Iranian heritage by branding grilled food with an ornate Persian branding iron. She's also constructed an elaborate, wearable serving platter, which she'll don to feed and engage the guests. City Paper talked to Maghazehe about branding, her heritage, and how her diet can interfere with her art.
What can people expect on Saturday?
They'll be eating meat that I've been branded, and they'll be placed in a situation where they'll probably confront art outside of the context of art on the walls. They'll also develop a relationship between what I'm making and what they're seeing. They are going to be exposed to the art making process, rather than a finished project that everyone is separated from. Normally, when you go to a gallery, you're divided from the artwork, and this is a stab against that. And a it will be a celebration, too! It will be fun.
So what's on the menu?
Branded beef, and some branded quesadilla-type things chopped up. Each one will likely have the brand marking on it. [Guests] will be confronted with the symbol over and over again—it will be on the food that they're eating, and it will lend itself to what I'll be wearing, which is an apparatus to serve all of it. I'll be a walking serving platter. It's very elaborate.
Tell me about your outfit.
I make dresses that are highly decorated Amish dresses. This piece that I'll be wearing is an an extension of the dress. It's probably four feet in diameter, and it's a series of three serving trays over my head. I'll be walking and standing, and people will be eating out of it. I become the art, the people become the art, and people will be engaging with the piece, rather than just looking at it. It's really architectural. It's like a walking object.
That sounds unwieldy. How will you be able to cook in it?
Before people walk into the space, they'll be smelling the grill. Then we'll be grilling meats, and someone will be helping me grill, since I'll be heating the branding iron, and I'll be branding things. Once it's cooked, we'll let it cool, chop it up, and I'll put the piece on, and somebody will put the food on the platter I'll be wearing. I'll go into the space and I'll be hanging around. People will have the option to eat off of me.
So tell me about the brand—where did you get it?
The brand is a spiritual Islamic pattern that is embedded in architecture, tile, and textile. It's a part of spiritual culture in the Middle East. It's a fractal geometric pattern. I see it when I travel overseas. I adapted that, and had it outsourced, and it was created into a branding iron in the Midwest. It's an actual branding iron that requires a propane torch to heat. It's pretty traditional—the same kind that was used to brand cattle when branding was used to make a mark to establish territory for farmers and cattlemen. I've been using the pattern for a couple of years now.
What does the act of branding have to do with your heritage?
I'm Iranian. I grew up in the U.S. I have been traveling between Iran and the States as far back as I can remember. I'm an American citizen and an Iranian citizen, so naturally, we all have our ways of regurgitating what we grew up with. My work isn't always directly about being Iranian or being American, but there are nuances about the European influence of Persian culture. Beyond that, and less about heritage, I'm interested in how belief systems and ideology find their way into our environment, and the way we engage ourselves in this world. So some of this stuff is really elaborate and decorative, and it comes back to Persian decoration. It's also a mix between kitsch, and time consuming sewing methods.
Address the idea of food as art. Is the art the food, the performance, or the experience as a whole?
I don't have this definite stance on food as art. It made sense for the ideas I was thinking about. The reason why branding and meat came about was because I was thinking about the context of branding and how it's been used in the U.S.—how it's used to mark territory. I was trying to engage my own biography. I grew up in the 80's and the campaign "Beef: It's What's for Dinner," was a really popular campaign, and is still recognized by 80 percent of Americans today. It's a very American thing to do, to grill meat. The concept of the barbecue is an American tradition. It's a patriotic statement. It's also the burning of flesh—it's aggressive. I'm commenting on consumerism, and the fact that people will be consuming what I branded was really attractive to me. The separation between what I make as an artist, and what people consider to be art in their world, is something that is useful to redefine.
Do you barbecue for fun too?
I'm a vegetarian. Isn't that hilarious?
So you won't be eating on Saturday?
I'll be making quesadillas. Barbecuing's fun. It really makes the event much less formal, the culture around the concept of the barbecue is an informal one. The idea that I'm taking an informal event and putting on a formal but celebratory outfit, and serving people food off of it can make it more formal, or less formal. It's going to lighten the atmosphere a little bit.
Why are you a vegetarian?
Because it's the primary cause of why our environment is where it is.
So it's not an animal rights thing?
It's an animal thing, too.
So do you feel bad about purchasing meat to use in your art?
I'm starting to become more uncomfortable with it. I don't know, I haven't really resolved that yet. I wasn't vegetarian when I started doing it two years ago. It started with me just sitting on the street with a branding iron and a propane torch, and people would give me stuff and I'd brand whatever they gave me. I was making the dresses in parallel to it. Now it's become more of an event. I don't know if I'll keep doing this. I'm in graduate school. There's a million things that can happen in a week.
If you quit, will it be because of your vegetarianism?
I don't think it will be just because of vegetarianism. As artists grow older, and as they grow more intimately aware of their own ways, the more those things will show up in the work. So it's just a language. If I stop branding, that language hopefully will show up in other work that I do.
Bastani and Branding is Saturday, Nov. 14, from 6-9 p.m. at the Fridge, 516 8th St. SE, rear alley. Free. (202) 664-4151.