Morehshin Allahyari at Upfor: Flux, ambiguity, the unknown

Morehshin Allahyari exhibition at Upfor Gallery explores the jinn tradition for help in understanding the present


Female figures in the Western mythological tradition tend to end up filling one of two roles: either they are benevolent earth mothers or they are evil seductresses who exist only to trip up male heroes. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground or even the possibility of duality. Through video and sculpture, Morehshin Allahyari introduces two jinn that defy this dichotomy in She Who Sees the Unknown at Upfor Gallery through June 24. While the jinn, Huma and Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj, are fearful monsters, they are necessary to survival. Allahyari proposes the rejection of easy notions of “good” or “evil” in favor of flux, ambiguity, and the unknown. Contemporary maladies demand reimagined spirits.

In the pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, jinn are non-human spirits who have the power to affect both humans and the earth. Jinn can be invoked through talismans—written and figurative supplications. Allahyari has included reproductions of three talismans from historical texts in the gallery: one to summon jinn, another to “treat fever” and a third to “treat hallucination and madness”.

Morehshin Allahyari’s ‘Huma’, 3D printed resin/Courtesy of Upfor Gallery, photograph by Mario Gallucci

Huma is the namesake jinn of the exhibition. Immediately opposite the gallery entrance is a figure of Huma and three abbreviated talismans. All are products of a 3D printer. The three-headed female figure is made of black resin; she looks menacing and dangerous. The talismans are clear resin arched shapes with intertwined symbols and script: an alpaca of sorts, a figure with a magic square body, a head with outstretched arms.

Two video works help to explain Huma: one shows Allahyari’s formulation of the figure, and the other the digital construction that resulted in the physical object in the gallery. The video She Who Sees the Unknown: Huma incorporates images of the figure with a spoken account of Huma’s appearance, raison d’etre, and areas of expertise. Allahyari’s version of Huma is an anti-earth mother. She is responsible for fever and madness, both of humans and of the planet. To the left of the narrative video is a 3d Scanning Screen Capture Performance of the technical process Allahyari used to model and digitally manifest the figure. This is identified as a performance because it is a record of the digital scanning process.

The other jinn in the show can be identified as singular, a pair, or innumerable; the ambiguity is part of the unknown. She Who Sees the Unknown: Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj video is longer than either of the Huma videos and combines both purposes in that it gives both a poetic narrative and footage of digital creation process. The story comes from the Islamic account of Ya’jooj and Ma’Jooj (the story exists in the Judaic tradition as well, though they are identified as Gog and Magog). The story was unfamiliar to me but a fascinating one with multiple versions. The key components: Ya’Jooj and Ma’Jooj are entities that were imprisoned behind a metal wall. They were sequestered from the rest of humanity because they were menaces to civilization; they pillaged, ate people, and destroyed. Each day they try to break down the metal wall that separates them from the world by scratching at it with various tools. At the end of each day, they are close to breaching the wall, and they leave with the understanding that they will return and finish the job the next day. However, every morning when the tribes return, Allah has negated their progress by repairing the wall and they have to start again. Ya’Jooj and Ma’Jooj never think to work through the night and never consider asking Allah for permission to break the wall.

Morehshin Allahyari’s installation at Upfor Gallery/Courtesy Upfor Gallery, photograph by Mario Gallucci

Allahyari reconfigures the story to make Ya’Jooj and Ma’Jooj feminine and at once singular and a collective. Whereas in the traditional account, Ya’Jooj and Ma’Jooj are a dangerous menace, here what is considered dangerous is their otherness and unknowability. In the video, the pair are shown as entities with many human heads on serpent bodies that may intertwine at the tail to fit together as a pair. Though the 3D sculpture of Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj isn’t in the June show, it will be at Upfor in late August for a group show with Brenna Murphy and Katie Torn.

The historical and religious traditions that inspired the work are rich and complex and, unfortunately, unfamiliar to many viewers. In recognition of this and in acknowledgment of the depth of her process, a study corner is part of the show. This includes tablets with photo archives, books, and file folders with articles and printed web pages. This is helpful for viewers who want to learn more about the referenced talismanic and occult aspects of the Islamic tradition. At the same time, it is clear that this is Allahyari’s personal archive. The titles on the file folders are cryptic, notations like “becoming,” “apocalypse,” or “cyborg,” and the materials in them are varied. One of the key image sources for the project was the Kitab al-Bulhan or “Book of Wonders,” a manuscript usually identified as having been bound together in Baghdad in the late 14th century. One of the images reproduced is a ringer for Huma with its three heads and frontal squat, except that Allahyari’s Huma has large breasts and a more feminine appearance and the 14th century image is masculine.

The focus in She Who Sees the Unknown is not as rooted in the cultural possibilities of digital technology and 3D printing as Allahyari’s previous work (The 3D Additivist Cookbook project with Daniel Rourke) but there are parallels with the more recent Material Speculation: ISIS. In that project Allahyari 3D printed new versions of artifacts that had been destroyed by ISIS. The replacements were printed in a clear resin so they didn’t pretend to replace the originals, but they were nonetheless physical manifestations of destroyed artifacts. The project received considerable attention though one of the recurring themes of the coverage was the oversimplification that Allahyari was “fighting ISIS” through 3D printing. ISIS bad. Art good.

The dangers of oversimplification and strict dichotomies seem to be at the heart of She Who Sees the Unknown. Huma has the power to destroy and drive people to madness but also the power to create and heal. Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj are imprisoned behind a metal wall because they are presumed to be dangerous, but it is only a presumption. In the video Ya’Jooj Ma’Jooj one of the texts reads: “Restores myths and histories, the untold and forgotten, the misread and forgotten.” The unknown is complex and perhaps unsettling, but it isn’t categorically bad.

The traditions that Allahyari draws upon have been catastrophically flattened in the contemporary world. For far too many people, “Islam” has become synonymous with “terrorism” and therefore “evil.” The jinn tradition, stories like Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj, and manuscripts such as the Kitab al-Bulhan have been subsumed by images of violence and heated rhetoric in the Middle East. How do we “forget” that there was 4000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia before the Prophet Mohammed was born? How can extremists collapse 1500 years of prolific artistic and scholarly activity attached to the Islam in the popular imagination? Allahyari uses both the term “Near East” and “Middle East” in her video texts. We identify Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization,” as the “Ancient Near East,” but in contemporary parlance the same region is the “Middle East.” How did the same place go from “Near” to farther away? How did shared origins of civilization become examples of the unknown, the Other?

Allahyari’s jinn are built up, layer upon layer, through pixels and cobbled together from fragments of belief. She has recast the spirits as feminine and reconceived faith in them for the contemporary world. Huma isn’t responsible for human fevers but rather the fever of the planet, global warming. Ya’Jooj and Ma’Jooj aren’t blood-thirsty demons behind a wall but ignorance and misconception. The charges of the spirits and the content of the talismans change but they are no less urgent or necessary. “Good” and “bad” are knowable but reductive and incomplete. Embracing the complications of the unknown is the way we survive.


Morehshin Allahyari’s She Who Sees the Unknown continues at the Upfor Gallery, 929 NW Flanders St., through June 24.

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