Sahar Safarian Baranlou at Pratt Studios Gallery

by Jonathan Goodman

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Sahar Safarian Baranlou. Self-Portrait; Farewell. 2016. Video Still from 2-panel video. 25 minutes.

Sahar Safarian Baranlou is an Iranian-born student in Pratt University. I have worked with her on her written thesis, which is based on the show she had this March for a week, at a student gallery. For the exhibition, she submitted a two-panel video (space problems prevented her from setting up a third panel). The work is entitled “Self-Portrait; Farewell,” and lasts just over 25 minutes in a loop. It consists of a poem in English, parts of which are displayed on screen for a short period of time, which are then followed by exotic, elaborate footage of billowing sheets, often with a narrow opening, suggesting the rite of birth. By calling the work a self-portrait, Safarian Baranlou opens up the possibility of biographical interpretation, although the terms of the video are relatively abstract, and it takes some doing to connect the poetry with the imagery. Still, in the case of this work, she brings forth an experience greater than the sum of its parts.

The key to understanding “Self-Portrait; Farewell,” lies in the juxtaposition of images and pictures. The poem, written in English, begins, “Close the door/sit quietly behind the desk/open the drawer….” It continues with simple commands involving simple physical activities. The repetition of the verbal phrases is echoed visually by the repetition of the swelling sheets, which attain a magical, mysterious presence in the film. If we think of this work as a portrait of the artist, suddenly both word and image are infused with a significance that is deeply personal as well as being visually abstract. What do the words mean in light of what we know about the video’s context? And what do the billowing folds of cloth signify? The commands feel like an attempt to establish rational order within the flowing intuition of the imagery. So perhaps the two create a complex portrait of a person who has at least two sides to her sensibility: symmetry and feeling. The overall effect of the work is highly poetic and evocative in its installation of a personal presence. Additionally, the sense of subtle mysticism is enhanced by a sensitive sound track of contemporary classical music from Japan.

Poetry remains in high regard in Iran, as it does in most middle-eastern countries. Safarian Baranlou established a lyric sequence in the two video screens in the gallery space, each placed across the corner and synched so that the imagery seems to repeat a few moments after we see it first on one screen. The sheets, as they fill up, look quite literally pregnant with spirit, perhaps echoing the artist’s idea that the fluidity of the imagery is a way of offsetting the rigid structure of the verbal orders. The overall effect is one of enigma, in which signs and presences act as though they are transmitting hidden information. When we remember that Safarian Barnlou also includes the word “farewell” in her title, it seems clear that she is not only presenting a self, but saying good-by to it as well. This farewell may also refer to emigrating from Iran. Whatever the artist’s motive, “Self-Portrait; Farewell,” resonates deeply in the thoughts of the viewer, who is startled by the quite literally veiled intensity of her art.

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