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A vibrant song without words

Iranian Shirana Shahbazi contrasts natural objects with bold, artificial settings.

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As I open Shirana Shahbazi’s book, the first image I encounter is a human skull with a bright pink background. I’m at full attention. Meanwhile, published by the Barbican Art Gallery, London, and The Swiss Institute, New York, has the style of a museum catalog.

But despite a short introduction and a brief essay at the end, this is not a book to be read. It is to be felt. Each image is printed in the middle of a single page, suspended within a large white border, like pieces of art hung with equal importance.

Most of the images in this book are still-life constructions. However, sprinkled through the book are portraits of a man, a woman, and a few landscapes. Fruits, flowers, moths, birds, coral, seashells, and skulls appear over and over again, transforming them into icons. Each is set against a flat, colored background. In many cases these backgrounds seem artificial. In others, the objects cast a shadow, raising the question: Are these digital or analog images? They could be both. It seems that Shahbazi seeks meaning through this ambiguity.

Even in some of her still lifes, or nature mortes, it is unclear if the plants are alive or if their roots are potted. A still life by definition removes an object from its original environments, and Shahbazi’s use of landscapes underscores this fact.

Adding to the sense of contrast is the appearance of some of the same images in both color and black and white. And yet the most dramatic effect is when we encounter what looks like a background with no composition at all.

Born in Iran and living in Europe, Shirana Shahbazi is probably shaped by both traditions. The continuous reappearance of the same subjects in different compositions throughout the book creates a sense of language and rhythm. Whatever it is that she is saying here, it is not necessary for us to know to enjoy this work. It is what we feel, how we respond to these images, be it physically or emotionally, that matters. We can imagine that there are sentences – songs – encoded in her work. And that is enough for me.


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