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Tonight at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York, Whitewall’s editor in chief Katy Donoghue will moderate a talk between artist Ali Banisadr and writer Porochista Khakpour. Banisadr’s current show, “Motherboard,” is on view at the gallery through April 19. The artist created the cover art for Khakpour’s upcoming novel, The Last Illusion, published by Bloomsbury. In anticipation of tonight’s discussion, here’s a sneak peek at part of the conversation between the two that will be featured in Whitewall’s summer 2014 Design Issue, out in early May.
Ali Banisadr in Conversation with Porochista Khakpour
By Katy Donoghue
Photographs by Steve Benisty
It’s rare that a writer connects so strongly with the person doing the cover art for their new book. But artist Ali Banisadr and writer Porochista Khakpour have quite a bit in common. They were both born in Iran (within a couple years of each other) and moved to the U.S. at an early age, landing in New York by way of California. They both describe their work as maximalism – Banisadr’s sweeping paintings full of energy, color, and visual noise; Khakpour’s punchy, wildly imaginative, and frenetic sentences beg to be read aloud.
Not all this was known to Khakpour when she first saw Banisadr’s paintings, its chaotic, kinetic composition resonating with her. She reached out to him and over a series of emails, a friendship was formed. Banisadr eventually made the cover art for Khakpour’s second novel The Last Illusion (to be published this summer by Bloomsbury). Whitewall had the chance earlier this year to speak with both in Banisadr’s studio a few weeks before the opening of his solo show at Sperone Westwater “Motherboard” (March 1 – April 19, 2014).
WHITEWALL: I wanted to start with the idea of maximalism, which I think we see in both your work.
POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR: Maximalism, right. I think we have that in common.
ALI BANISADR: I like that word. It’s a reaction against minimalism. Minimalism scares me. I don’t like it.
PK: I also get anxiety with minimalistic writing a lot of the times, too. The idea of a perfect polish; it’s overly handled. One of the things I thought I would do was create a rough texture to the ending [of The Last Illusion], make it sort of raw. I had to fight against the impulse to overly prune it. Everyone wants endings to be final.
AB: It’s like the endings of Iranian films, when people watch it they’re normally like “What?!” They’re always so pissed off.
PK: People want happy endings but why? Everybody’s ending is sad at the end of the day.
WW: When you’re writing, what kind of environment do you prefer?
PK: It’s funny because when I write it has to be completely silent, even sometimes I’ll have white noise machines or wear earplugs. I operate on multiple brains, I’m an extreme case of that, I’m always multitasking. For me, sound can be tricky because my language is within sound and I’m really sensitive to the sounds of words. Sometimes there’s a lot of alliteration or consonants in the language – something that that only poets think about – but for me it is incredibly important. I have to say things out loud. I’ll do a draft and say it out loud. I don’t mind the visuals of the space, but for me I have to control the sound.
WW: And sound plays a role in your work, doesn’t it, Ali?
AB: It’s inner sound. It’s not a sound I respond to like music. It’s more like composing the work requires a certain kind of sound for it to come together. I never think about the names of things, it’s always that I hear this sound and then I follow it to have the work have this flow.
PK: I’m just so fascinated by that. Can you describe that?
AB: There are many different sounds within the painting that even when I look at it now, I know what those sounds are because I followed it to make that gesture. This [gesturing at a part of the painting] had a certain sound for the whole thing to come here and make this turn so you never leave the painting. There are ways and tricks to make the eyes not want to leave the work. All these parts are based on sounds. Its sounds you hear in opera.
WW: Is that something that painting brings about, or these are sounds something you’ve always heard?
AB: Painting brings it out.
WW: When did you first connect sound and painting?
AB: I think this goes back to my childhood when I was in Iran. My mom says that when the bombings were happening I would make drawings based on the sounds and vibrations, to make sense out of what was happening.
Then when I was in graduate school I thought about it and decided to make charcoal drawings based on the sounds of explosions. When I did that, it all started to make sense. It wasn’t so rigid. It was like the composition wasn’t planned, it just came out by itself. Then the narrative developed out of that.
So when I started painting it was the same, the composition comes together and little by little they breakdown to their own narratives and stories. At the end you have to surrender to some of the things that it wants and then you kind of direct it where you want it to go, as well. But never forcing it to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go. That’s when it falls apart. You just have to dance with it.
WW: Is that something you connected to, Porochista, when you first saw his work?
PK: When I saw his work I related to it in a way I’ve never related to a work before. It’s sort of specific. It relates back to a series of dreams I had when I was four years old, one main, recurring dream that came out of that. Ali was in Iran longer than my family and me. We left when I was three or four but my first memories are of those airwaves and sounds and bomb shelters. I vividly remember these sirens. I have such a fear of anything in the air but I never thought that when I looked at his work closely that this could be from that. My dreams are chaos dreams; they looked like these paintings and were basically all the stimuli from this earth, from organic to manmade sounds, and within them are all the narratives on earth, everything happening at once. So in my dream I almost saw a canvas with Ali’s aesthetic.
When I first emailed him a fan letter, it was actually emotional for me because really, I couldn’t believe there was somebody who made those dreams real in that way. And then we talked about it and further connected me to a writer we both loved, Borges. There’s this magical story by Borges, The Aleph. It’s about a device that this artist has in his attic that has all the points on earth at any given time. It’s a gorgeous thing. I read it to my students all the time. There’s an incredible paragraph that represents all the objects on earth at any time. It says rape, steal, wool, skin, hair; it’s all representational and personal in some moments, not personal in other moments. That paragraph feels like Ali’s work. It’s all there. Those dreams weren’t apocalyptic, it was more like the world exploding.
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To read the complete conversation, be sure to pick up Whitewall‘s summer 2014 Design Issue out in May.