Contemporary Art @ Boğaziçi - Interview Project, 2010

ASHKAN SAHİHİ (Tehran, 1963)

Zeki Peynirci,

One day, I happened to meet this man in an unexpected and fortuitous situation. Back then, he had participated in a project about Istanbul; the reason he was chosen to do this was that he was thought to see and show a more genuine and also unconscious Istanbul. His astonishing portfolio rather supports this claim, which includes arousing shots of the things that can be easily called taboo. That is why; his work has resemblance to Damien Hirst and/or Andres Serrano in the way of using such intimate material audaciously. Like them, he does not hesitate to exhibit lovers' semen squirted on others' faces, or first time drug users' the very moment of the trip premier. So, all these intriguing bounds led me to have this interview with him.

Zeki Peynirci: I read a lot about your portfolio, that makes really sense to me and I actually know quite a lot about it. That's why I want to talk about something else. I want to add that your work is really aggressive and this aggression is related to what I want to talk about.
Askhan Sahihi:
Yes, my work is very aggressive.

Zeki Peynirci: I think it is related to what you want to do I was trying to understand what you want to do because there are some topics: sex, drugs, fear and very intimate things and you use everything. I am sure this is not a coincidence for them to be in your portfolio, isn't it?
Askhan Sahihi:
I suppose that on the question you already summarized some of the key elements. I would agree that my work is very very aggressive, I would agree that it packs in a lot of different subject matters. I think a lot of the series I did are, at this point, summarized on the web site. Our series that were created during a very specific phase in my life, a phase where I felt anger. What I found interesting, I believe is that we tend to explain to ourselves why we think something rather than saying why we feel that: if I go beyond what I think, what do I think? What I mean by that is we tend to come up with excuses for why we see the world in the way we see the world. You can do that on a political basis and be a incredibly politically active person and may not never realize that, yes, while theoretically with all political arguments you have every right to be that angry, that you have managed to never look at your personal anger and your personal fears why you may want to address it in a certain way. You can look at it from a purely spiritual view point and can decide to that it senses OK to wages to spiritual war with weapons and blood or that you pretend everything is OK and you are above all that. And many other definitions of things whether it is a political, philosophical, spiritual, religious, all those. What I find the advantage that you have as an artist is that you can actually experiment and challenge yourself in saying this what I thing, or feel, this maybe what I thing, what I feel, but where does this come from? So, rather than explaining rather than suggesting you have found an answer, I would find it much more interesting, I would find much more in the responsibility of any person, but specifically of the artist because in exchange he/she has the privilege to experiment and ask questions to say 'but why?' why do I feel that? It cannot be just because of our political opinion. It cannot be just because of my religious opinion it cannot be just because of my sexual tendencies or personal experiences. All of those come together. And I think if you do not open yourself to the suggestion that what makes you 'you' or any person that person is a combination of genetic memory, personal experiences, history of the culture that you live in, your personal history, then you have difficulties. Coming back to where you clearly challenged from, what is all this about? I would say, it was at a point, these series were at a point where I clearly felt that a lot of what we are presented as truth are very much the opposite. They are variations of truth that we either have agreed on or we were told we are supposed to agree on; what drug is dangerous, which drug is not, what kind of sexual behavior is OK, which kind isn't, what is acceptable what is not and from my own personal experiences of about twelve years of massive personal struggle deaths in the families suicides, but also prolonged struggle with life: losing my home, losing my country, not being able to go back, what they did to our people, what they did to my father, I felt that I do not want to tiptoe around questions anymore. I am really taking this head on, rather than taking any issue by upping it, by upping it I mean saying if I want to deal with sex and pornography I will shoot even more pornographic series I wanted to bring that discomfort that I feel to the viewer. So, in other words yes, these were absolutely massive excessism for me. I feel incredibly delighted and privileged that I got to do them but I also paid the price. I paid the price by creating an art, for example, that is very well reviewed but usually struggles to sell. I sell art that keeps travelling the world but it doesn't play in any money. But I am OK with that, it is an exchange. I got to address these issues and really feel a sense of cleansing and excessism that I, this point, feel that those subject matters are done. At this point, I really have, artistically, nothing to say about drugs, at this point, artistically, I have nothing to say about sex or violence. They are not issues that I feel are in the fore front of my person anymore and I think it was because I have the privilege to do something as in creating something around them that I can push as far as I can push. I had to pay for it by lot of people not understanding if the person who does these things is privately the same person. There is a lot of person who'd come up to me in the most surprising, rudest ways challenging me with questions about my sexuality. It cost me my marriage and it cost me many friendships. Having said that it is not only the price I still feel was worth paying but I think it is a privilege because it is the equivalent of saying 'yes, I go to therapy, yes I try to found out by myself but how can I take that life force that happens to be so extremely aggressive and create something with it. You expose yourself by people saying I do not want to deal with a person like this reviewing the world as aggressive as it is but I think ultimately it is the privilege that you have as an artist that you can say I will come from a point of questioning I will not come from a point of answers. I would say that most of the art that suggests that it knows the answer is also fairly boring art. And the art that not only suggests the answer but really wants you to take it is in fact called message art, it has a name, it is called message art, in journalism it is called "let me tell you a question'. Whatever I do, if I was a journalist, if I was an artist, if I was anything, I would not want to suggest that 'look, I know, look at me, I know the answer!', because I don't. Have I changed from that period, from that body of work
?... Massively! Because of the work, through the work and the impact that work had on my life wanted was out there. But I am quite happy for it. I am happy for everything it came with. Having said that, I know that I am repeating myself and I am glad that you have challenged me if you think that you haven't, it got me what I wanted, I wanted to blow off steam. I wanted to piss people off, I wanted to spit in front of people and I did and I am quite happy with the result but I feel it is done. That what is on the side right now is literally its own bubble, its own pool and there will not be anything like that anytime soon. I have no sense of the same kind of wanting to pick a fight, as I did it at that point.

Zeki Peynirci: So may I say that, for example, the feedbacks, all the reviews are a part of the process that you are creating art or, also selling part, I can put on it, all just production and questioning part? For example, you produce something in your studio, but after that a great process begins; all the reviews things, exhibitions, selling, they come to you again and again, do you think that you do art for that process or produce something and question yourself in your little studio closed to all outside effects?
Askhan Sahihi:
If I understand your question right, definitely the first part, and a little bit of second part, I would say, yes, it is something that I just feel that I have to tackle that it is some thought that is really bugging me, that is really keeping me up at night whether it is a publicly presented lives about cultural matters or whether it is something that keep me awake because I feel that it is something that we are having shot down on our throat and it is completely the opposite to my personal experiences how things work, within this work we are referring to those series they were always a sense of enragement at what we publicly say and don't say versus what happens privately and that I felt that a lot of engagement what supposedly has become OK to say is also limited and manufactured. Even if the walls and the limits of what we can say or not say, what we can do or not do expand even that is based on a manufactured concepts within a group of culture. Yes, I have produced art and felt that it is going to be really exciting to put that out there and see how much engagement controversy, rage I can create. At the same time, a lot of it I also feel when you create work, especially now, I mean by that, the age of internet, age of having access to sights, and blogs, and youtube, facebook is about saying I believe what I am saying now even if it is not clearly defined statement has enough image into it, has enough energy to it, enough life force to it that it may become something's, somebody else's hand, what I mean by that is that, for example, I keep the sight open, you can take any of the pictures, anything down there off. You can out it on your blog and you can say 'wow, look at this guy; you will find from this somebody who is speaking up to from look at this case. You know, if this was my country, we would take him to the ditch and shoot him in the head. Yes, I certainly am interested in that, and now I would say I am probably more interested in what happens to the stuff as it has its own life. The fascinating thing I haven't done in a long time, really because I don't feel deeply engaged in those subject matters anymore but I found very very fascinating to put in the drug series and then not go to page 1 or 2 where the big interviews and big things are but go to page 13, 33 and 43 and see what some bloggers say , you know, what happens when that stuff makes it to Russia and Colombia, universities at students. That was much much much more interesting to me that what some reviewer in a very detached manner how to say. I am not saying they did not have good point but your question was clearly 'did you think about the next steps? I did not think of them as I would like this to happen. I would like this to be happening as in it is going to be interesting. I really enjoyed that to put it differently. For me the ideal case situations are when I got a call from a Swedish school book publisher. They said we are at for seven graders, we have the subject matters, as I did in Germany at seven grade, about drugs and drug use. We have always been looking for something that either says 'oh, drugs are bad, you do it once you die' or 'you know, drugs, be careful!' and they said to me 'Can we publish your pictures in the seventh grade book and how much would it cost?' Nothing. I do it for free because that's why I do these things so whether at a museum or at a seventh grade class or sight people can say 'oh, look, there is somebody who doesn't just say, as Nancy Reagan did, 'no to drugs!' or as the fashion magazine suggests 'oh do drugs and you will look like Kate Moss' You know what, you won't look like Kate Moss. You'll still be a pasty stupid fat fuck. If that was the case, if I could look like Kate Moss if I did drugs, I'd be doing drugs now. So, yes, of course, but still, it is not really something that I feel deeply engaged with right now. I am excited that that stuff is out, that the work is out there, I am excited that I did it, I am excited that I am done with it. It is like, you know, I don't know if you ever had that feeling, it is nice to be shaven but it is not nice to be shaven. I look at it and sometimes I think 'woo, interesting' But there is a sense of detachment at this point to those series because I don't think I am that person anymore, and without wanting to be pathetic or anything. It reminds me of when I was kid, when I nineteen or twenty, I was shooting a lot of music stuff for the local music magazine and I would go along with writer to interviews and they would ask some musicians about a song that the interviewer really liked and often you would see this thing that the musician literally couldn't remember that song. They think 'oh, you know, on your first album that you put out', and you would say that, looking at the guys 'oh, wow, yeah, they literally couldn't remember how they have even written that song their song' After all the thing they performed tonight. But there is that detachment or something, well not detachment but you move away. I feel these, they are only into these now, especially they once in a while, children come back to visit on holidays. Once in a while, they suddenly reappear and somebody would have done something and reviewed them and that makes me really happy, whatever engagement they create but I don't look at the world from the same prison anyone. I am really interested in other things. I am really interested in the Middle East; I am really interested in sustainable living. That is one of things I really like to do work on, some sort of sustainable living situations, recycled materials, houses. I am not even sure if what ever comes out or is producing for the next few years will really genuinely be considered as fine art. One of the things I really like about what democracy as in everybody is allowed to study what they want if they parents let them, if they can afford, is that so much much much more art is created that there really is so fewer reasons to take a space, to take it white and hand things on the walls and then people would have to come, drink white wine and say this is worth seven thousand dollars. I am really starting massively to doubt that whole concept. Of course, the art industry does not feel that way because it has become more of a market than ever but that is fine. Things have their own rules and you can do a little bit of this, little bit that. I just see a lot of shows and I look at the wall and I think of it as funny, that looks like the cover of that nut CD and that looks like the flyer invitation I got for a club three days ago in London and the quality is the same the value of the work is the same, the flyer I got for free and pinned on my wall and I really enjoyed it. When I look at a specific, as I did yesterday, I was at a gallery and I looked at the wall and thought that work just is not worth seven thousand dollars. It isn't. It is art, it is wonderful but it doesn't worth that much. Of course, there is the blue chip work that is traded,even contemporary art but there is in terms of what we created in daily basis, there is a lot of amazing stuff. The nice part is that the value is: we all can do it that we all have the right and the freedom to do it and the disappointing value is that unless we market ourselves terribly,it maybe harder to make a smashing living as an artist but you can be one.

Zeki Peynirci: When somebody encourages something, the money, for example can be the way, or the clubs? Can be the way, they can appreciate the work somehow, but when you go outside in the street there are lots of people who would judge your things that you did and you can say that it is great but can you protect your self from the effects of provoking things? Do you think you are going to do the same thing, the same thing, just your topics, same feedback, or you are little influenced by all that things from outside? Are you free enough to do what you want to do?
Askhan Sahihi: First of all it is a really good question. Many people would not ask such a question. I am certainly free enough because I did the first round. I paid the price, I put something out there and the reactions came back. What the reactions meant to is that I am now divorced, I don't have an apartment, I am travelling working on things, so, for me, personally, yes absolutely and I am surprised at the reaction but it is, as you said before when we were talking about relationships, about me. I am the first one to admit. My art is about me. It is about things that I was angry about however much this is political cultural, it is still my anger and comes some from within all the threads that create the whole that is eye. So, yes I paid the price, I put it out there. I completely paid the price, and I am free enough. To answer your question about why I keep doing that because as I said it was an excessism and lot of that anger I do not feel anymore because I feel I got to work through it with my art but if I tried to be as honest as I can without being drunk and stoned, and with a therapist I would say, for the first time in my life, I feel free enough to do that. If I have anything like that to say again, I would say it, because there is nobody left to say ' oh you cannot do that because of this and that'. I remember once, after the drug series had really taken of American circuit. I went to drop off my dog and we walked into the school yard the principle, a very nice lady, goes 'oh it is Ashkan and he is coming without a bodyguard.' So I have paid the price. These are cultural limitations. There are much bigger limitations. You can sit in a car in Iran with a woman and you may be taken to the up skirt of a mountain and shot in the head. You cannot compare things. These are also cultural limitations that somebody may feel that 'oh my god you know this guy shot the photographer who created the drug series and he should be careful that he doesn't get his teeth punched in.' And this could happen in some other facilities. Especially at the museum opening, when there is sponsorship involved, there are people from insurances, banks, electric companies. They send the person who is in charge with PR and that person has basically the debt of a cooked chicken towards the sort of engagement and then 'what somebody has just died' and you just think ' wow we are going back to that level of the description? Once I did say 'I guess then I wouldn't be here' And she got so angry with me. 'I am thinking you are right, but you are not right'
Yes, I think I am free enough!