February 26, 2013

Bullets and Balloons in Tjaden Hall

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Silver balloons afloat, drifting lazily back and forth, gleaming with light from the gallery lamps. This is The Persepolis Project, an exhibit which opened Monday at Olive Tjaden Gallery. Based off of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, The Persepolis Project is first and foremost a statement piece. In 1972, Warhol’s original Silver Clouds was part of the Cunningham Dance Company’s contentious Persepolis Arts Festival in Iran. The festival was shocking, not because of the art displayed, but because in a time when the people of Iran were poor and struggling, the festival represented a lavish reminder of the Shah’s abuse of power. Another reminder, of course, was the heavy military presence.

The ubiquitous presence of the Shah’s military at the festival was not jarring to attendees, nor did it go unnoticed. In fact, one thing was certainly noticed: the storage of The Cunningham Dance Company’s silver props in the same room as the military’s machine guns. Raja’a Khalid’s M.F.A. ’13 piece in Tjaden Gallery is a statement about the festival and more generally, about what it means to be a patron of art.

Inside the white-walled gallery Khalid’s balloons hang on strings that, unlike Warhol’s, are tethered to the ground. The weight holding them down, bullets. From what I can distinguish from the photographs, Warhol’s “clouds” floated free, much like ones made of water. Held aloft, but in no danger of colliding with the ceiling, they contained precisely measured helium. Dense bundles of sleek sliver clouds dotted the otherwise empty space, stunningly reflecting natural light.  Warhol’s exhibit exemplified freedom, awe and simplicity.

If that exhibit exemplified freedom, this one can only exemplify repression. The artist stated that the exhibit is “not about a dictator’s megalomania, or the sad follies of his regime,” but a reflection on what his regime led to — limited freedom. At a glance, the balloons look like storage items, left over from the 1972 festival. Yet unlike those haphazardly scattered predecessors, these balloons were well-organized. The balloons in the center of the room stand together, like a group of dancers in formation. The rest set up camp by walls, by windows or trapped behind air vents.

The balloons glide forward and back, linked together, never floating beyond the radius of their strings and their bronze bullets. With this constraint, Khalid forces us to think about those who attended the art festival in Persepolis. Were they similarly restrained by the tethers of their society? By the violent potential of bullets? Like in this exhibit, violence was out in the open, in the machine guns held aloft on broad military shoulders. In the gallery, bullets sprinkle the floor. The effect, as they lie at the viewer’s feet, surprises and discomforts. Never have I come this close to a bullet before. I could have touched it if I had wanted to, but I did not feel the desire to familiarize myself with the surface of that violent metal.

Art is meant to be free. To take the mind to a new place, to surpass the restraints of reality. Khalid asks us what art means when it is not allowed to transcend these boundaries. When balloons are not allowed to float on their own. When they are so dependent on their mortal enemies, an item that could puncture them and leave them splayed and airless on the floor.

When art depicts or reacts to war, the result can be discomforting, yet beautiful. But when war is forced into the realm of art the result, is discomforting and frightening.

The Persepolis Project runs in Olive Tjaden Hall’s Experimental Gallery from Feb 25 to Mar 1.

Original Author: Arielle Cruz