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Pooneh Maghazehe: IYIA EHI’AHYI, 1649

Central Utah Art Center

By Cara Despain

Continuing her ongoing investigations of collective versus individual identity, social psychology, the symbolic gestures and emblems that identify belief structures, as well as the architecture associated with these ideologies, Pooneh Maghazehe presented IYIA EHI’ AHYI, 1649-a site-specific performance at the Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) January 14, 2011. Focused on a specific group-the Diggers, a proto-communist collective in 17th century England started by Gerard Winstanley (not to be confused with the San Francisco activist/theater group from the 1960s who appropriated the name)-the performance employed four performers carrying out a modern homage to the agrarian 1649ers.

Mirroring the interior architecture of the CUAC space-a historic structure once used as a granary by early Utah settlers-a large construct, suspended by a rope and pulley system, is hung from the rafters down below the mezzanine’s railing.  Chanting performers (Maghazehe herself was not a part) arranged plastic sheeting, contained on either side by plastic rain gutters, and poured bagged landscaping soil onto the triangular plots. They proceeded to plant potatoes and leeks and lay webbing to soak up water from the gutters. As the climax, they turned the large helm connected to the pulley system, raising the hanging structure, adorned with water sacs with tubing, to allow water to flow into the false indoor land.

Pooneh Maghazehe and Skye Steele, IYIA EHI' AHYI, 1649, 2011. Installation at Central Utah Art Center. Photo: Jason Metcalf.

Building on a project she completed at the Bonneville Salt Flats (Diggers photo series) outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, last summer, IYIA EHI’ AHYI, 1649 aimed to examine the notion of communal work in name of God, and the righteous cultivating of land for the greater good of the people. In the context of Utah’s heritage, and the history of the CUAC building itself, the parallels this examination draws are effectively pertinent, and provide a pointed and relevant historical gesture. Though the researched, specific focus was not immediately communicated, the performance breached a kind of boundary between audience and performer: viewers watched a perhaps very familiar (especially those from the rural community of Ephraim) action being carried out in an abstracted yet direct way. By identifying a very basic concept and action (working land for sowing seeds), and placing the performers initially within and around the audience, the viewers in effect can become conceptually the people the crops are meant for, or part of a larger community.

The contemporized and imagined version of their Old World communal farming bridged the gap between the 1649ers and modern day laborers by the context, and especially by the material. Creating the structure using labor/landscaping materials (blue tarp, plastic sheeting, and rough-cut lumber), Maghazehe created a modern agrarian display. Repurposed to form a well-considered and designed aesthetic staging, the materials imbued the piece with familiarity. It also opened up a dialogue between the work and the space, since the structure both mirrored the architecture and required it for the piece/performance to function. This returned a utilitarian function to the building, something seemingly contrary to its regular function as institution for art viewing.

In this way, Maghazehe incorporated the site completely into the setting of the performance-solidified by the interaction people in the space had with the architecture (another prevalent investigation within her practice) and the viewers’ makeshift function as the people the farmers were to serve. The prior knowledge of the backdrop the history of the Diggers provided and of the building’s history is perhaps essential to maximize understanding of the work’s conceptual aim. But that the installation remained long enough for the potatoes and leeks to sprout provided a metaphor for planting an idea. It incited investigation on the interested viewer’s part and allowed time for the concept to germinate, making the performative act a preface to the yield as opposed to being the only dimension of the work.

(January 14 - February 14, 2011)

Cara Despain is an artist, critic, art writer, and curator.  She is currently co-curator of GARFO Art Center and faculty at the Visual Art Institute in Salt Lake City, UT.

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