Underneith, its all poetry:
Tooraj Khamenehzadeh’s I’m Not a Song to Be Sung
by Natasha Chuk (faculty)
Bodies appear floating amid a murky blue background of a three-channel installation, seemingly out of nowhere. They linger for a moment to stare into the camera, gazes fixed, limbs dangling, then disappear, vanishing just as mysteriously as they arrived. The subjects are underwater, making their appearance in the frames especially unusual and haunting. They float away like ghosts. Then they return, descending one by one, and proceed to recite inaudible lines from a poem. Others follow and do the same, one by one, a total of ten, a mix of men and women, all Iranian, floating down and making a direct address to the camera. Their faces are dominated by rapt concentration—eyes rarely blinking— as they negotiate the power between mind and body to keep themselves underwater, against nature, and against everything. We see their mouths moving—and air bubbles furiously make patterns around them—but their voices drown in the atmospheric sound of water, and it muffles their words. This recitation, delivered against all odds, produces a kind of silent howl, a suppressed outcry.
Tooraj Khamenehzadeh’s short, experimental video, I’m Not a Song to Be Sung, engages an aesthetics of protest: meaning is deferred, perhaps entirely denied, and one can’t help but initially feel both empathy for the suffering of the subjects and self-pity for having witnessed and suffered alongside them. Watching this short video is like recalling the recurring nightmare many of us have, which finds us helplessly battling against an unexplained force that induces a physical disability, preventing us from controlling our own movement or speech. (In fact, this nightmare is often characterized by silent screams.) This is our subconscious mind processing a real-life frustration, a sneaky response to our lack of agency and empowerment in our everyday lives. Khamenehzadeh’s work approaches us in our awakened state, where we are differently vulnerable, with a visceral confrontation with the familiar but imaginary battle of our minds at fitful rest. Or, rather, the artwork is a collective nightmare placed before our eyes, only this time, it is defined by the willingness of its participants.
Bodies float down and address the camera, but they eventually float back up, to the surface, to safety, which remains out of view, off-screen, out there somewhere. One subject remains underwater for a noticeably longer period of time: his eyes fixed, his hands clenched, his body defiant, persistent despite everything.
Refusal here is a kind of dissent, disapproval and discord in all its forms. Dissatisfaction in the form of resistance is explored literally and figuratively in this work: it presents us with the idea of a song that isn’t meant to be sung; voices reciting a poem that aren’t intended to be heard; bodies that aren’t designed for life without air; meaning that isn’t easily communicated. The Latin prefix “dis” — as in dissent, disapproval, discord, and so on — has a negative or reversing force. In musical terms, we recognize this in the form of dissonance. Though associated with unpleasantness in music theory, dissonance allows for its own kind of resolution and, more significantly, it is an important form of release and expression. Sounds produced underwater serve as a kind of dissonance, giving the medium of water its own poetic license. Though it distorts vocal language—each orator’s efforts are dismissed by the garbled designations between their words—water blends expressively, reducing all phonic material to the same level, obscuring evenly without preference. Of course, dissonance in music is appreciated through and because of its relation to its counterpart, consonance. The subversive poeticism of water seems to be this work’s consonance.
Water has a similarly elegiac effect on images. As a medium, it filters the visual data the camera collects, forcing the apparatus to bend to its will and deliver us a compromised translation of what it would ordinarily capture. The result is a haunting, silky coating that seemingly hovers over the surface of the material, like an outer layer that separates us from the subjects. Daguerreotypes, a nineteenth-century photographic process, share this layered, ethereal quality. Their subjects gaze back at us seemingly like apparitions. Unlike daguerreotypes, however, whose silvery, polished, mirrored surfaces are reflective, Khamenehzadeh’s underwater images aren’t reflective at all. They seem to absorb and take in, almost beguilingly, producing a hazy blue that both evokes melancholy and calm, a quiet composure. Still the subjects gaze back through this gauzy surface, similarly removed and otherworldly, as if caught between here and there, or here and somewhere. We are on the outside looking in.
This aquatic stage—with its muted color, its obfuscating effects, and its limits on the body— is no deterrent for the perseverance of the participants. Their silent words call out to us, actually summon us, if not to join them, then at least to bear witness to their struggle. Though we can’t make out their words, we are compelled to heed them. Overall, the work leaves us with many questions, but also with an undeniably strong impression, imparting a trace of meaning, muffled and foggy, a message predicated on courage, love, and hope.
For my voice is / Intimate with yours
A version of Ms. Chuk’s text was published in Zard Magazine in Tehran, May 2019