A short focus piece on Iman Issa’s recent work for Frieze issue 160.
Iman Issa’s work often appears cryptic. The depictions and objects in her work do not necessarily denote their subject matter, nor do they reveal her highly strategic creative process. In many of her recent projects, there is a tacit insistence that her materials – which include sculptural objects, photography and video – speak of far more than their own content suggests.
This is true of Issa’s work in that most content-laden medium, fiction. Her artist book of one-page stories set in contemporary life, Thirty-Three Stories About Reasonable Characters in Familiar Places (2011), which she considers both a work of literature and of art, almost totally omits detail and literary ‘colour’ like names, places or adjectives. The stories are more like fragments, in which the reader must locate a narrative arc in a brief spark of disappointment, an almost insignificant thought, or a disagreement between a handyman and his client. Issa’s writing is not some airy attempt to derive profundity from abstraction, but a search for a different kind of specificity. It suggests that what ultimately characterizes a situation, event or concept may not lie in its own self-evident, completely described form or content. Rather, it might extend itself from an association, a memory or an otherwise insignificant detail.
In making a work, Issa often works ‘as if’ she has a certain relationship to the material or the subject matter, changing position in the development of the piece as a tactical measure. For example, in each of the three parts of the works in her series ‘Triptychs’ (2009) she creates three pieces, each of which is produced through assuming a different artistic subjectivity in relation to a source – for instance, a snapshot she has taken of a bland waterfront communal space – or something that triggers a memory or sense of recognition for her. She begins by treating the photograph like she has never seen it before, and develops a second piece in response. The third element of the triptych will again be made as though Issa is alien to the first two, but will be produced as the piece in which she imagines the connections between the first two pieces. This is a strangely rigid process, involving more alienation than proximity, for communicating a personal memory or sensation; and yet the elements of the triptychs begin to resonate among one another.
As Issa told me recently, in art, you can show someone a chair and say it’s a table, and they may believe you. The magic here in the possibility that the chair is both unique to itself, and that it can signal much else. The distinction between identification and recognition is at the absolute heart of Issa’s practice: identification is the process of knowing something at face value, while recognition is its immaterial and uncontrollable unconscious corollary. Recognition ultimately can define innumerable powerful encounters between people, events, and – most importantly for Issa – art works. I may see a sculpture and be told its title and medium, but it is the alchemical process of recognition that will make me accept this object as an art work. Unlike identity, recognition circulates between and around us in constant exchange. In so doing, in the eye of the beholder it makes things exceptional; it can turn chairs into tables.
In the series ‘Lexicon’ (2013-ongoing) Issa remakes already-existing art works in totally new forms. For this to be conceptually possible (how can an artwork be remade, if not by verisimilitude?), she is working with that question of recognition – how a chair can be a table. Taking works in any media by other artists as source material, she gives them alternative forms, which she considers closely suited to the condition suggested in the title of the original work (such as Labouring or Destiny) Here, she tries to inhabit that artist’s conceptual drives and reasoning for making the work, and attempts to recreate it according to her own sense of how it might enact and communicate itself just as successfully in a new form. When a piece from ‘Lexicon’ is displayed, you don’t get to see or know the author of the original, but a small museum-style descriptive label stands in the place of the source art work. In Destiny, for example, she presents a three-minute stop-motion style animation of wooden rods on a black background, which rearrange themselves into various loose patterns. The descriptive text presented alongside it begins by saying ‘A 1949 ink drawing on paper depicts a seated female figure with long straight hair…,’ going on to mention style (chiaroscuro and crosshatching) and basic details like size.
For me, with Destiny, it’s difficult to pinpoint the relation between described source work and Issa’s piece. The absence of the original work, in any case, signals that an exact match is not the point either. My associations become activated: the rods in the animation become crosshatching at times, and their constant rearrangement does not quite suggest ‘destiny’ but purposefulness, intent and the search for an inevitable conclusion. Ultimately Issa privileges her intuition. I have the feeling that the margin of error in this process is an inevitable condition of the encounter between an artist’s intention and an audience; the difference here is that Issa’s work is ultimately focused on this paradox, raising the stakes to a level that makes the attempt itself the territory of her practice.