Travelling Light

Sara Raza - Travelling Light, 2006

Making a journey in a today's volatile climate can sometimes turn out to be a complicated and laborious affair especially if one insists on travelling light, unaccompanied and on a one-way-ticket. The act of carefree roaming and visually consuming one's surroundings is no longer considered as just a pleasurable pastime. Due to current world events, it is an act that is now under serious threat due to a noticeable upgrading of surveillance. In these times, possessing a clearly mapped out route or carrying excess baggage, in any form, whether it is physical, emotional, imaginary is considered a far more agreeable state of being than travelling light. Living a rhizomatic or nomadic existence, without any visible roots or route, is perceived to be far too problematic for those who regulate, monitor and enforce security on or behalf of governmental bodies whose aim is to decipher, categorise and control populations. Travelling light may simplify the bureaucracy within the regulatory framework of aviation in which we frequently choose to move with today but does it also challenge the status quo in these standardised formations of power, whose sole purpose is to survey and regulate?

Questions about mobility and its constraints, particularly in the domain of urban space, is readily identifiable within the work of some contemporary international practitioners concerned with feminist strategies. Citing the epic and karmic events of recent tragic history as motives for the current fraught circumstances that impede and delay journeys, artists are being forced to reassess and explore the notion of the local urban space or rather, a more accurate term, the globalised city. The globalised city suggests a city or urban space that is both a by-product of globalisation and the patriarchal power games that are performed in the West and executed in the developing world. In particular, this idea of the city has been a substantial and recognisable influence amongst artists who originate from environments of questionable stability (in terms of homeland security) and where portability, both literal and metaphoric, is highly restricted for a variety of reasons not least war, religion, and poverty resulting from aggressive forms of capitalism. In this context, the mobility of women, especially the freedom of women to make their own journeys takes on a special role.

Maria Kheirkhah deploys these notions within her artworks using her position to pursue a journey which comments on both real and imaginary realities. The visual journey that she carries out implies a unique approach to the poetics of immediacy within the discourse of feminist practices, both actual and assumed, principally defying stereotyped notions of mild and subdued 'feminine' or 'feminised' approaches concerning gender and ethnicity. The performative works of Kheirkhah see the artist employing her own body to map out instances of trauma, memory and spatial navigation.

Kheirkhah's highly conceptual performances also reflect upon ideas concerning home, sanctuary and space which straddle both the West and the East. Many of Kheirkhah's performance pieces are inspired by a reciprocal desire to comprehend existence as one moves from one sphere to another utilising both the public and private domain of the UK and her native Iran, opening up a two way dialogue between cultures.

In her performance 'In Love With A Red Wall' (2003), recorded as photographs, Kheirkhah creates a complex scene in which both the private and public realms are seen to coincide together in an absurd and critical socio-politically context. The artist is attired in the compulsory black veil imposed after the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a mandatory uniform for women in the public sphere. However, here one can witness the paradox of such dress situated within the confines of the home or private space, where such clothing is not compulsory. Coupled with this inconsistency, as the title suggests, she is seen to be musing over a red wall within a tightly enclosed space and either occupied with the act of reading to the wall or attempting to embrace it. Whatever the action, one thing which remains undoubtedly clear is the sense of a total and non-reciprocal exchange between the artist and the red wall. Her actions suggest multiple readings about one sided and unequal relationships, but particularly how women act out relationships, which are both idealised and imaginary.

'In Love With a Red Wall' also suggests how social values are internalised by being practiced and performed within the public space in a totalitarian regime and how resistance to these can only be performed within the domestic, private space:- a condition that affects both genders and transcends religions and national borders. The wall may well masquerade as a sign of passion but it equally represents the colour of danger and as a physical object obstructs, hinders or acts as a marker which inhibits anyone from escaping the constraints of spaces marked private and/ or public. Both claustrophobia and agoraphobia are referenced in the work, as the tightly enclosed red wall suggests the suffocation and restriction which might trigger the former neurosis, but the artist's clothes and actions allude to the possibility of the latter as a possible state of mind. The implication of these two conditions can also be seen as triggered by the current climate of mass fear and paranoia generated by governmental bodies as a means of controlling the public and spreading an ideological xenophobia.

In contrast, Kheirkhah's video 'Souvenir' (2003) demonstrates the sequence of a journey of memory, homeland and transplant. In this video Kheirkhah travels to the ancient city of Yazd, Iran, and visits many sites on route to savour a sense of what she defines as 'home'. The artist walks in solitude amongst the serene landscapes of rugged mountains and deserts of the region. There is a profound and complete sense of emancipation within this work, particularly a freedom from the constraints of a dense urban environment. Kheirkhah collects air in clear plastic bags, which she then seals and marks in Persian with the date and location. Interestingly, this action suggests another form of containment, albeit quite different from that of 'In Love With a Red Wall', as this time it is the artist who controls and marks the situation, creating these portable objects. Collecting the air serves as a metaphor for holding on to memories, the memory of this location, which she is then able to transport back to another home. The video ends back in the UK with Kheirkhah placing the bag over her mouth and inhaling the trapped air from Iran.

The difficult notion of transplanting one reality to another is also suggested by 'Souvenir' as there is perhaps a fifty percent probability that a substitute can function as a real lived experience, or carry with it a sense of home. There is always already the possibility of rejection or in this case deflation as reality sets in. As the title aptly proposes the performance makes apparent the reality of a literal souvenir as only a temporary reminder or source of comfort. Nevertheless, Kheirkhah's video performance highlights the nuances of such a transitional object, a necessary respiratory system in order to survive one journey to the next.

Sara Raza 2007

First published in N.Paradoxa/ Documenta 12 special edition, Vol 17, Jan 2006