Drug policy reformers often note that U.S. drug laws restrict cannabis more severely than crystal meth, which suggests the government thinks medical meth is more legitimate than medical cannabis. Ironically, many Persians in the Islamic Republic of Iran actually do view crystal meth as a health supplement in that it helps them lose weight. Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand highlighted this irony by crafting giant meth pipes for her latest exhibit, Westoxicated, at Zevitas Marcus (through March 18) in Los Angeles. PRØHBTD spoke with Talepasand about meth during our extensive five-part interview.
In America, meth represents a genuine public health problem. On the long list of available drugs on the market today, meth can be found near the bottom of that list. I’ve heard people say, “Meth is a dirty motherfucker.” It is bad, plain and simple. In my opinion, it doesn’t make you feel or become any better than you already are.
Basically, Mexico and the U.S. combined represent a meth powerhouse. Now in Iran, the meth fears have arrived into something so familiar that I remember back in the ’90s when the reality of how the drug quickly spread the harm it can actually cause. Similar to how meth went down in the U.S., Iran found itself in a similar situation in how political ideas sow panic and injustice to communities already on their knees. Destroying countries within and how it has crossed borders almost seem like a nuclear warfare on the health and well being of an entire country. This has to be the boldest deconstruction of the meth epidemic yet.
While stopping by a corner store in San Francisco in the Mission district, I noticed packaged meth pipes containing tiny roses inside the pipes. I asked, “Oh, you're selling meth pipes,” and the store owner quickly responded, “No, no, no. That’s not a meth pipe, but a rose.” I laughed out loud while thinking of [Rene] Magritte’s painting of a pipe inscribed Ceci n’est pas une pipe—"This is not a pipe"—but it is and with a rose.
At the same time, I received my monthly subscription to The Economist that included an article on how meth found its way into the hands of the Iranian people. Dealers would target women where they converse the most, beauty salons, and their pitch was, “If you smoke some of this, you will lose weight.” These women—middle class members and young teenagers—started smoking that pipe with crystals of false hopes and dreams. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, thought it was absolutely absurd, so I reached out to my family and friends who confirmed to me that it really was a big issue in Iran.
I felt the urgency to address the issue in my artwork. After further researching the rising problems of methamphetamines in Iran, I took to the streets in San Francisco to study the pipe myself. I visited smoke shops on Haight Street and asked, “Do you sell meth pipes?” Once again, the clerk would quickly shout out, “No, no, no. We don’t have that here.” I knew that they had it. I’ve seen them before in smoke shops and corner stores. I went home thinking, “Why can’t I find a fucking meth pipe anywhere?” That’s when my partner explained, “You can’t ask for a meth pipe. You need to ask for a glass pipe.”
I returned to Haight Street determined to find a meth pipe. At random, I found a smoke shop that was owned and operated by a Muslim family, and the women who worked there all wore headscarves. I felt that I found the right place, where the research was all part of the process and offered meaning to whatever it was that I had planned to paint, draw, sculpt or in this case blow. I ran up to the counter where I found a display of arranged meth pipes and said, “I need these please.” The woman wearing the headscarf didn’t even blink an eye or gasp at my request to purchase the pipes made to smoke meth. I bought a few pipes of varying sizes and returned to my studio. I had no idea whether I wanted to paint or draw them, cast a pipe into a mold or bronzed. None of these immediate ideas felt right. When confronted with an object in my studio, I often think of artists such as Magritte who manipulated objects in response to associations, or Jeff Koons, who took the clown's balloon dog trick into a larger than life scale. So I proposed the idea to create the largest meth pipe in the world.
I am not a glass blower, so after further research, I found the most amazing glassblower right in Oakland: Alexander Abajian. Not only is he the best glass blower on the west coast, we happened to study at the Rhode Island School of Design at the same time. Similar friends, attended the same parties, it’s unbelievable how connected RISD alum really are. When I reached out to Alex about my ideas for the meth project, he absolutely loved it. Like myself, he is an artist who is always up for a challenge. When I showed up at his studio the next week, he and four other assistants had prepared four larger than life meth pipes for me. “I asked for only one!” but from one perfectionist to the other, he just wanted to get it right. I of course bought them all, and after a conversation of how wild the idea was to magnify such a dirty and nasty associated object, we decided to make one of the pipes appear used by acid etching. After a few swirls of acid, the pipe was left with the illusion that it’s used or being used.
The meth pipes have previously been exhibited in Switzerland during the 2015 VOLTA Art Fair in Basel. I didn’t expect the audience to understand exactly what this massive glass art piece described, but to my surprise, many actually did, especially the “boujee” youths. It was the perfect floor piece for selfies, watching people crouch next to the pipe snapping photos of them enacting the gesture to smoke from the end of the pipe's long neck. Hilarious.
Back in the States, I brought a pipe to Los Angeles for my longtime friend, mentor, green guru and creator of Plant Life LA, Kenny Wujek. He loved the piece and the idea of creating it into a terrarium of planted meaning. In a few magical hand gestures and scoops of dirt and bark, he brought to life a pipe and sculpture with a plant. He added a Wandering Jew, or Tradescantia Zebrina, a name that describes the plant's will to spread itself everywhere until it finds a place it can grow happily. I have always known Los Angeles, which Iranians often call “Tehrangeles,” as a place Iranian Jews have called home since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The terrarium pipe was a way for me to describe a community who had fled their country of Iran to secure their beliefs and way of life through religion. This is why the piece rests in the entryway at the Zevitas Marcus exhibit.
I am not yet finished with the meth pipe. I have plans to continue studying the object further into paintings and anticipate the possibilities of creating a larger installation within a museum setting. Westoxicated is the follow up to my 2015 exhibition Not an Arab Spring, and I look forward to continuing to develop more work that responds to these issues of social justice and the narcotics that are politically driven to destroy certain cultures and groups.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Talepasand photo by Aaron Hewitt.