Memory, loss and migration are all explored in Tara Fatehi Irani’s beautifully evocative work, Mishandled Archive. Here, Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou reflects on Fatehi Irani’s ongoing project and her “mishandling” of ancestral archives.
Several years after my grandmother had passed away, my mother and her two sisters sat together with her few remaining possessions. Seeing them gathered in my aunt’s living room was a rare, if not miraculous occurrence. Every New Year’s Day my aunt would host a dinner for the whole family, but there was always one person who couldn’t make it: a grandchild-turned-adult was unavailable during the festive period, an older relative was too tired to make the journey from north to south London, a loved one was no longer with us. Absences were felt, but not lamented. In the dimly lit living room, the sisters sat with my grandmother’s belongings, thoughtful about who would take what. The eldest opened a plastic bag to find several embroidered sheets and pillowcases, each one starch-like from powdered detergent. The middle sister placed on the table an old leather purse, cracked with use but still unopened. My mother brought forward a cache of black and white photographs, all held together by a sagging elastic band. These were the remnants of lives past, an index of family faces and lost places, a trove of treasure unknown, unsought and unloved – until now.
Unfolding a sheet my mother’s memory must have hopped, skipped, jumped to her childhood; the same linen had been tightly wrapped around a single bed she’d once shared with her elder sister. Caught in the seams and floral curlicues of the pillowcase were stories whispered under torchlight, midnight fights over leg room, confidences held between their girlhood selves. Dreams that no detergent could wash away.
The purse similarly contained its own secrets. Tucked between the inner lining, a yellow hoop gleamed with promise, as precious as it was unexpected. Eventually it would be passed down to me.
When sharing out the photographs, the sisters almost fought over them. Sheets and gold rings tell of births, deaths and marriages, but photographs suspend all such stages. They hold the loved one in a continuous loop of time; they make permanent what the present and future erase. Despite the black and white film, these images contained a world of colour. There was one of my mother dressed as a cowboy, another with my grandma in a yard with some dogs trailing behind her. She looked tired yet content, squinting against the sun, one hand cupped over her eyes, the other gently placed on one of the dogs as if it were a child.
This was one of the images that my mother brought home, a distant past brought near again. After some weeks, I wondered what had happened to the few photographs she’d amassed from that day. Had they been placed in a photo album? Framed next to recent colour photos of nieces and nephews proudly displayed around our house? Or were they hidden from view, slipped between the pages of my mother’s favourite books, an unusual but likely hiding place for cherished ephemera. Looking through some of the books, I thought about the original album these photos may have come from. Where was it now? Why were these photos kept together? Had some of them been lost over the years? What did it mean for my aunts to divvy up the few remaining prints between themselves, only to stash them between the pages of a half-read paperback? Was my mother honouring the dead still alive in the prints? Did they want to speak or stay silent? Was my mother’s reluctance to display them proof that she no longer wanted to hear their stories? Was she muffling their voices in the loudness of other black and white narratives? If I didn’t find any of the images, would they matter to the next person who did?
Questions such as these underpin the work of artist and performer, Tara Fatehi Irani. Inheriting a collection of over 2000 documents (birth and death certificates, letters, wills, obituaries, newspaper articles and, of course, an unprecedented amount of photographs) that span the lives of her Iranian family throughout most of the twentieth century (from 1900-1984), Fatehi Irani set about the mammoth task of sifting through this private archive. Looking at the words and faces of loved ones, some still with her and others long gone, she must have felt the immensity of the past. Like myself, she was faced with making sense of it in the present but on a much grander scale. Unlike me, her response was one of performance-based art. Rather than hoard important documents in the privacy of the family home – in an attic or basement, shut away in drawers, boxes, cupboards, lockers and possibly enclosed between the pages of a book – she chose to turn the archive outwards. That is, she chose to embed the private in the public, the quietly personal in the noisy social spheres she frequented.
Over the course of a year, Fatehi Irani would leave a photograph or document in an outdoor setting. She would carry around copies of the images, but also extracts from letters and official documentation. Her selection of archival material would be random and spontaneous, her only premeditated action being the intent to deposit a personal item in a public domain every day. Finding a site was equally of the moment. Going about her daily life she’d be struck by a particular corner, a particular space, a particular atmosphere. Thus images of living and lost loved ones were left on train carriages, were twined about the branches of trees, left dangling from lampposts, taped onto walls and slotted into the grooves of an airplane window. Like a trail of breadcrumbs leading one home, the images were left in Iran, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, the Ukraine and the UK, and eventually Iran again. They stole away from the archive, migrating westward, yet always gesturing east. They crossed multiple boundaries: literal, political, social, metaphysical divides. Beautiful proud Iranian faces stared out from the graffitied walls of Shoreditch, floated above the province of Como, surveyed the rocky plains of Hormoz Island. The original archive was not so much broken into, as expanded and extended through space and time.
This extension through space and time slipped from “real” time to the wide-reaching distortion of the web. After depositing the image in its newfound site, Fatehi Irani would perform a short dance – a spontaneous, though no less ritualistic, response to the dispersed and displaced archival material. She’d leave annotations on the back of the image detailing the dance, the name of the road or area, the temperature, the number of the image (i.e. 15/365) and instructions for whoever came across the site-specific work. Included in the instructions was the hashtag #MishandledArchive; strangers were encouraged to take the performance online, to journey forward with the image via Fatehi Irani’s actual (web)site and Instagram account. Here the internet reunited all disseminated photographs, all sites, into one universally accessible, but intangible, archive.
Mishandled Archive challenges the very notion of what an archive is predicated on and purposed for: preservation, protection, control of past thoughts, stories, identities and bodies. A mishandled archive is, essentially, no longer one. By its very definition, an archive should be ‘handled’ with utmost care, the white gloves always at the ready. In her subversion of archival space, intention and meaning, Fatehi Irani asks us not so much to think outside of the archive but to rethink its conceptual standing, to reconstruct its classificatory and conservative nature, to reconsider its purpose in our lives, even our collective history. In her exploration of archivist approaches and particularly in her live performance-based installations, Fatehi Irani goes further than this. She demonstrates that an archive, regardless of how personal the contents, is the first selective and possibly violent interpretation of lives not always destined to be read or examined by anyone, archivist or specialist. By mishandling the archive, by redistributing its precarious, precious content in foreign and incongruous spaces, she highlights its polysemy, its rich interpretive value, but also its inaccessibility; the archive’s inevitable and inbuilt resistance to further discovery.
To see images of Fatehi Irani’s family around London, is to see the archive reanimated, rebuilt, realigned. It is seeing the archive embodied. When looking at these tender portraits I am not looking at the Other; I am looking at a city that is now othered, estranged and strange to the warm and intimate world captured in the photographs. Images of cousins, uncles, aunts, great grandparents and many more unsettle because they are anachronistically resettled and still of their own foregone, prolonged moment. They’re alarming and charmingly personal. Situating them in the impersonal partly revivifies the images, together with the recorded movements made by the artist herself; they move, she moves through space and time. I am invited to create a narrative around the image, to at once confirm its process of memorialisation, guess at its memory-making, but I know my reading will never hold up to their truth. Regardless of the personal and impersonal dialectic established by the image in situ, I feel chosen by it. Its fragmentary and anachronistic status mirrors my own precarity.
Recollection is an apt term when considering Mishandled Archive. Each image recollects distantly, mysteriously, evasively for the passer-by. Take, for example, the formal photograph of a group of men (285 /365) hanging from a tree in south London. The centre of the print has been removed; in its place a berry-clustered branch appears, a sun dappled sky is visible. The dissected image thus creates a frame around the site, with Fatehi Irani’s camera phone framing the moment. Judging from the heeled feet lining the bottom of the photograph, the centre ground of the image would have featured six women posing for the camera. In their place a grassy, sun-strewn skyscape expands. Here the process of recollecting, remembering, is disrupted, but the image in turn re-collected and recollected anew in the artist’s photographic documentation of it on Instagram.
Forward to the live performances – at first in Iran and then East London at Toynbee Studios – and the term ‘recollection’ doubles, takes on an additional physicality, is spatialized, grows a tongue. Recollected in the performance space at Toynbee Studios are many of the images found in the Mishandled Archive project; not quite all, but at least half of the 365 days, images, sites, recorded dances and instructions, photographed and printed again, are here, suspended from the ceiling, hanging by translucent threads. Stepping into the darkened space, weaving in and out of recollected recollections (transferred from a virtual site to a material one), I’m reminded what a layered, incoherent and selective thing memory is. Freud was right about the palimpsest. Here history is memory renegotiating its place and presence in the present. Here history is in transit, its face stays the same but the voice changes.
Weaving in and out of the reassembled archive, Fatehi Irani tells parts of stories, scraps of anecdotal occurrences. She could be relating the middle or end or beginning of one life; the lack of logic doesn’t matter, it’s the feeling we’re left with that stays. The sense of suffering and joy; of individuals and bodies momentarily living again in this communal recollection. Flashes and semblances of past figures washing over the audience. And the gaps – the cut-out centres or redacted parts – of a story, of the archive, matter. This is how the wandering, wondering audience enters the space, the images, the recount. This is how we attempt to make it our own.
At one point during the performance I’m given a small passport-sized photograph. It shows a young man dressed in an army uniform. His body is positioned sideways-left, his eyes focused left too. He is proud, all buttoned up, literally, with a collar that goes all the way to his chin and a hat that almost falls over his eyes. I do not know who he is to Fatehi Irani, who he is in her family line, who he is to anyone, but I feel his sense of pride and responsibility as a military man. I feel his sense of being officially counted and counted on. Of being a boy before this picture, before donning the hat, and a man after it. Did he live to tell the tale? Did he live to earn the stars that trim his jacket or fall in mortal combat? I look from image to image, suspended and floating, ghostlike, in the air. After the show, I find my man. He sits on top of an old gas valve in Marmora Road, south London. Suddenly I’m struck by his vulnerability, his youth; by his boyhood squared by man’s clothing.
It’s figments of the past that make Mishandled Archive a rich, evocative and haunting experience. Like my mother unpacking and unfolding the linen of her childhood, I’m transported to a past life, to a past world, as if it’s my own. I’m given a piece of a larger puzzle, a small bit broken off of a vast ancestral structure, but I’m not asked to fit it back into place. I’m invited to make the image of the soldier mine; to allow its displacement to displace me from my own time and space, from my own preconceived ideas and logic. To unsettle words, as it has done here, and recollect afresh – to remember in many tongues and languages and movements as is possible under the sun. To remove what is hidden and suppressed, perhaps in a paperback book or a dusty archival box, in order to hold and behold the past, and let it all live again.
Tara Fatehi Irani’s site-specific performance-cum-installation, Mishandled Archive, was shown at Toynbee Studios, Artsadmin, on 14th March 2019. Her project is ongoing and upcoming performances will be announced. To find out more about Fatehi Irani and her work, click here and here.