Farewell Hossein Valamanesh

Feb 25, 2022

On January 22, 2022, a contemporary Iranian-Australian artist of exceptional vision, who lived and worked in Adelaide passed away. He was 72. The image that heads this blog is untitled, yet even without a title to suggest its meaning, this sculptural installation has stayed with me since 1999 when I first saw it at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It was the work that I thought of when I heard that Hossein had died. The image that you can see, is in fact, a photo I took of an old newspaper clipping that I’ve had in a folder of Valamanesh’s works sitting on a library shelf in my study. It felt right to use this old and faded clipping to celebrate his life as an artist because it represents what I treasure about his creative philosophy.

What I’m hoping to inspire in you, is the motivation to find an artist that speaks to you in the same way. If not now, then maybe a little later, and perhaps when you least expect their influence to have an impact on you as a person, an artist, or both. I have the newspaper article next to me now – the art critic Benjamin Genocchio wrote so many things about Valamanesh’s art practice that rang true with me, that the article is literally covered in 21 years of evaporating orange highlighter pen, as way back in 2001, I scored through statement after statement, trying to make sense of why I felt so immediately drawn to his art works.

Genocchio writes of Valamanesh as a poet whose tools are objects rather than words. Valamanesh never looked far for these tools – they were from his everyday life, but it was the way that they were selected and combined that gave the viewer the sensation of something so much more than the sum of their parts. The article says, “Here is an artist who speaks with compassion for everything inside us that is scarred or unresolved.” This was written in 2001, yet we have all felt some semblance of this emotional uncertainty in the last few years with a global pandemic.

Hossein was born in Iran, migrating to Australia when he was 24. Sufi poetry, calligraphy written in the Persian language of Farsi and mythologies drawn from Persian culture have informed his creative practice. Genocchio uses the phrase “itching spirituality” to describe the sensations that infuse his works. I would agree with this. Whist I am not religious or particularly spiritual, there was an immediate recognition of some kind of “otherness” to the simplicity of his inverted lavender branch with oil burner when I stood in front of it. The light cast from a clean white spotlight threw shadows that wove about my feet – nothing else existed in the space. It was easy, standing there, to believe that our throwaway culture made moments like this incredibly special. It’s less easy to keep this pure precision of imagination in one’s mind when real life takes hold again.

But, 21 years later, the fascination is still there. The article calls it a certain kind of enchantment that comes with a brilliant facility for the perfect placement of his beautifully crafted objects. Of course, this piece of “magical sculpture”, as it’s referred to in the article, is only magical if we’re willing to respect its power to move us in some way – and not always the same way for everyone. Just this one sculpture can be looked at from four different viewpoints – physical, visual, cultural, environmental. Who you are, the experiences of life that you bring with you, your passions, hopes, dreams and convictions – all of these will inform how you experience this carefully constructed statement of one artist’s fertile vision.

Now, research online for another work titled After Rain, 2013. Valamanesh installed this work for an exhibition entitled Heartland. Again, he used an inverted tree. But this time, the tree is animated – whirling in an anticlockwise motion. The gallery space is dark, illuminated to reveal a moving shadow-strewn perfect circle of fallen leaves below the revolving tree (search for a video of the work). 14 years lie between Untitled and After Rain. Valamanesh once said “I am a maker of objects, a maker of situations…” In 2001, he said [My work] “is about memories, nostalgia, ideas of transformation and change. Search within yourself, it is all here.” I think this is what life is about – we go through life addressing each of these four conditions – sometimes as separate experiences, sometimes as a complex web of understandings.

I looked back to the notes I made at the exhibition in 2001:

  • How does he invoke both his own imagination & that of his viewers? What is it about his work that offers the viewer an uplifting/spiritual/contemplative experience?
  • The fact that we are time-poor is important: that we value consumerism above non-materialistic pursuits – that we don’t value relationships, memories, beauty, or our cultural heritage and natural environment as highly as we do our possessions.
  • For Valamanesh, TIME is critical to the understanding of his work – stories and narratives take time to tell – his work takes time to contemplate.
  • He uses SPACE magnificently. Space creates for him the means to encourage viewers to stop and contemplate – you can’t hurry the absorption of his work as it needs to be absorbed slowly.

Of course, in between Untitled and After Rain there’s a wealth of expression in a wide range of media and materials. There’s also a wealth of symbols and their meanings to explore – Silhouettes and Shadows; Ladders; Flame; Water and Wells; Lotus Leaves; Bowls; Shoes; the Door; a Bed; Stairs; a Carpet; and a Swirling Skirt.

On this note of a swirling skirt, I’d encourage you to look for The lover circles his own heart, 1993 online. Somehow, I’ve always thought that this otherworldly work is the link between Untitled and After Rain that holds my admiration for Hossein Valamanesh in thrall. Farewell, and thank you Hossein, for the gift of poetic imagination.

Wendy Muir
Art Eye Deer Teacher