Born in Lausanne in 1980, Vanessa Safavi is of Iranian-Swiss descent. She lives and works in Berlin and Basel, but spends a lot of time traveling. She uses her journeys to get to know different cultures and to investigate concepts of ethnography, alienation and identity. Her interest lies both in detecting features of a universal nature of humankind, but also in how specific groups and their cultural identities can develop within a population. Her observations rely both on meeting individual people as part of a community, and on exploring the environment that influences them. Safavi incorporates her interest in social and political issues into her work. This results in the use of a wide range of disparate materials which she joins together, always with a special focus on selecting the right set of materials for a particular work.
In her previous installations, Real Life is Elsewhere (2011, Kunsthaus Glarus) and Plenty of None (2010, Galerie Chert, Berlin), Safavi used sand which she liberally poured across the floor of the exhibition space. The entire floor, covered in the natural material, became the surface of the installation and filled the space with an intense physicality. In the Berlin installation, various items of clothing could be found in the sand, some buried, some more visible; at Glarus, the installation featured small sand sculptures. Sand as a surrogate of the desert is a symbol that alludes to both endless space and freedom, but also to the desert as a place of isolation and death. The artist’s decision to examine a material as specific as sand is also interwined with an interest in African cultures and geographies. The African continent is characterized by many opposites, by indigenous cultural identities, as well as power inequalities among its post-colonial cultures, not even to speak of tourism and its impact on the life of the residents and their country. Safavi explored these phenomena and Africa’s cultural heritage while, among other things, participating in a residency program in Cape Town. In an extremely compelling way, she calls attention to the important influence that folk art — traditional art — still exerts on contemporary art production today. Safavi’s works draw on an aesthetic that, in art history, has already found its echo in the imitation of so-called “primitive” art — the adaption of foreign cultures. In a similar manner, she often uses raw and untainted materials; and she produces her works using the simplest of means. Safavi, however, is not just interested in reflecting on these art history references; she wants to explore the impact these practices and variants still have on today’s art production.
In her new work, After the Monument Comes the People, Safavi’s investigations of another type of formal language come to the fore. The work evokes parallels to Constructivism and its later developments within the purview of Geometric Abstraction. It takes its origin from the previous multi-part sculptural work, Les Figures Autonomes from 2011 in which the abstract figures — simplified symbolic representations of the human individual — seen together comprise a more complex body of work. Safavi ironically poses the question whether and to what degree identity can be constructed using physical attributes by giving each of the structures — composed of simple geometric forms — individuality, making them differ from one another in terms of configuration of forms, color and size.
In After the Monument Comes the People, Safavi returns to her earlier work, Les Figures Autonomes, and creates abstract, slim, upright forms that reflect the human individual. Twenty-three figures are lined up repetitively next to one another and fill the back wall of the Kunsthalle. As a whole, there is something monumental about the work, but, at the same time, it is ephemeral in a way that works of this size rarely are. The thin, lightweight steel frames are coated in white and emerge from the wall in three different sizes. Some of the works have open brass rings in their upper section, thus giving these figures a “face”. This feature functions as yet another reference to the individuality of each of the figures, which assembled together form a kind of ‘community’. The white frames hardly contrast with the pale gray façade and blend into the background, emphasizing once more the work’s unifying quality.
Safavi explores the meaning of monuments in various cultures. In the title After the Monument Comes the People, she revokes their original purpose, which was to embody the community or to act as a symbol of power, and calls attention to the emancipatory potential of social movements. Monuments are commonly thought to embody the ideals and goals of a people. Instead, they mainly support the political goals of the state — a state that has monuments built by the people supposedly for the people. Safavi presents an approach that suggests putting an end to this ideological viewpoint and that provides hope. She addresses how, after the meaning of various monuments has been annulled — whether by removing the government, the regime, or by destroying the monument — the community, the people, will return with their own values and their own ideological perspective, so as to forge from them a single unity. Giorgio Agamben very aptly discusses this in his work, “The Coming Community.” He hypothesizes a community that can only be a ‘new’ one — one that creates a future — if its ideological principles have not been defined yet, if the community first has to develop these on its own. Safavi’s work represents a way of looking at our historical heritage of public monumental sculpture; it calls into question how, as individuals, we position ourselves with respect to this legacy, as well as how, as a community, we are supposed to deal with this culture-shaping phenomenon, with these sites created by ideology. Her approach and her conclusion are both brought to the point in her title: After the Monument Comes the People. After the monument, a dictation by ideology, comes the people, the community, which articulates its own goals.