Siah Armajani explains his populist art

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A Post by Ava Blitz

(Ed. note –Iranian-born public artist, Siah Armajani, was guest speaker at the 2003 Fairmount Park Art Association Annual Meeting held recently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sculptor Ava Blitz reports.)

Armajani was a true delight to listen to; a mixture of friendly schoolteacher, anarchist, comedian, warm leftist rebel, wise philosopher and everyman. He showed slides of some of his equally delightful work, from the Louis Kahn lecture room at the Fleisher Art Memorial — warm wood and strict geometry influenced by Shaker (and Quaker) design, to his most recent project, a small bridge for Nashville, with comfortable curves and a space not unlike a Connestoga wagon that shimmers beautifully at night. (Image of “Gazebo for 2 Anarchists” at Storm King Art Center)

American icons of architecture and transportation are important in his work — a locomotive car mounted atop of a bridge in Beloit, Wisconsin, or a series of trailer-like compartments (of Home Depot essence) that create a walkway. Armajani told the story of his engineer who asked to do the landscaping on this project. The artist granted his permission, and when he asked the associate how he came up with the design (suburban tract landscaping), the engineer responded that he simply copied the landscaping of his own home.

Armajani was born in Iran (since 1961 he has lived in Minneapolis) and he has a fascinating and quirky reaction to American popular culture. There are some similarities with the work of Venturi and Scott Brown, but I found Armajani’s sense of design more lyrical, popular and possessed of a poetic edge. Poets and poetry are, in fact, a great influence and presence in his work. He often quotes the work of poets as part of his public works.

The lecture was full of down to earth stories and images- a mix of culture and politics and beautiful design. Armajani is not fond of the mass art of Stalin and despises bad guys like Franco and Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson.

“Public art is not universal in that it is connected to its sense of place, culture, community and politics,” he said. The artist does so many picnic shelters because he “likes to see people happy; and people are happy when eating.” He also is a bit of a recluse “I love people, but mostly conceptually.”

As in all public art, there is the conflict between doing work that the public understands and not compromising the artist’s integrity and creative vision. Armajani believes in democracy in art, not public art as a glorification of the artist. He believes in a discussion with the public, but at the same time, he says, “Art is not social work..not a community planning scheme.” And democracy is not “a descent to the lowest common denominator” but a raising up of the public taste.

–Ava Blitz

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