When it comes to controversial artwork, Piss Christ might piss off Christians, and Artist’s Shit might cause a big stink, but very few pieces would be considered prohibited. Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand, however, boldly creates artwork that often does more than offend. In the past, she gave away swag bags of acid tabs at one of her exhibits, but now certain pieces actually contain acid. PRØHBTD spoke with Talepasand to learn more about her Blasphemy series, which includes dosed Iranian currency art.
The cultural image of the Ayatollah is pushed into even more extreme provocation in 2015’s Blasphemy VII, an appropriation of the Iranian riyal, which features Khomeini in a frontal position with his eyes looking up and away from the viewer, as if he were preparing to speak to Allah. This was the first time I thought, “I'm going to take these sanctioned Iranian bills that have [Ayatollah] Khomeini's face and dose him with acid.” I found a way to interrupt his holy thoughts and direct his gaze toward an acid drawing of an Iranian nude woman directed at the viewer with legs open and arms curled around a breast and twisted into her hair.
More than 20 hits of lysergic acid used to paint the nude onto the currency lend the image a dangerous quality: LSD is a drug that offers its user a heightened spiritual experience often accompanied by feelings of loss of identity, ego and relationship to the exterior world. It holds the possibility of reconfiguring the structures of gender norms that dominate Islamic societies into a more open, fluid field of relations. Sexually available and confident, the naked woman forms the repressed “other” in relation to Khomeini—the fetishized body that structures the opposite side of representational politics in Iran. Persian women and their bodies have become the surfaces upon which political, economic, religious, and social antagonisms foment. Discriminatory laws against women—such as the state-supported mandate that women are solely responsible for the moral behavior of men—and restrictive access to professional positions and administrative, religious, political, military, economic, judicial and cultural institutions have rendered recourse to the law unstable for Iranian women. They are second-class citizens suffering from systematic disadvantages, structural inequalities and institutional injustices promoted by forms of religious essentialism in a male-dominated society.
One could eat the money and trip. But my trip is on the allegorical layers between currency, religion, female empowerment and illegal drugs that all uphold strict codes across the globe.
In 2009, President Obama inherited 30 years of hostility in U.S.-Iran relations. One of Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives was outreach to the Islamic world, including Iran. However, as my hopes had aimed high for the diplomatic exchange, the political turmoil in Iran had become worse when Obama sanctioned against it. During that time I had started hoarding goods from Iran, like a nostalgic addiction.
While America sanctioned Iran, I was preparing for my first New York exhibition in 2009 titled To the Martyrs! at Plane Space Gallery. This was the moment when my practice took an interdisciplinary turn, all thanks to my graduate education at the San Francisco Art Institute. My first political work had been realized in reaction to Obama’s relations with Iran. When a country is sanctioned, the currency has no value and so the laws against altering its original state become invalid. According to Title 18, Chapter 17 of the U.S. Code, which sets out crimes related to coins and currency, anyone who “alters, defaces, mutilates, cuts, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued,” can be fined or imprisoned as well. But in this case, Iran was sanctioned, therefore the currency is simply a form of paper with which to work.
In New York, To the Martyrs! presented paintings and drawings along with free swag bags of Iranian currency dosed with LSD and blunts rolled with Iranian currency, all individually sealed in red Ziploc bags that I appropriated from the Las Vegas airport. The opening was a madhouse with everyone in a frenzy smoking blunts outside, tearing apart and eating Iranian currency. New Yorkers loved it. The question of the night was, “How the fuck did you get marijuana and LSD to New York?”
The gallery was not privé of my plans to pass out drugs beforehand nor did I utter a peep about packing and shipping as artwork. At that time, nobody knew the wiser. That was then, and now I no longer take that risk. My purpose wasn’t to give away free drugs or to smuggle drugs to New York… or was it? I had the freedom to do what I wanted with the Iranian currency, so I retaliated by using it with illegal substances that are meant to enlighten, escape and politically disobey. My decision was an artistic stance against the declared sanctions and to conceptualize art as an illegal performance. The currency was safely packaged in clear plastic sleeves to safeguard those who didn’t want to partake in an acid trip. A curator at the opening sent me an email accompanied with a photo and story about his acid trip to MOMA: “I got to the Damien Hirst shark tank piece right when I was peaking." Others traveled with it all over the world, including to Iran and Dubai.
Neither the rolled blunt nor Khomeini’s watermark laced with LSD had any form of painting or drawing added to it. The works challenge the viewer to uncover, and thus confront, the tricks and abstractions that coalesce into effective forms of image making and propaganda, and reorder the various disciplinary processes that continue to shape our understanding of “Eastern” and “Western” subjectivity and aesthetics. The laced artwork is a recovery project of the material images of contemporary Iran and a sophisticated détournement of state power. However, the ideological unification between the assumptions and condition of Iran’s theocratic government, the will of the public and the messy history that ignited the constitutional revolution of 1979 can never be fully covered over as mockery of famous propaganda images, including illegal substances, makes clear.
One can find these ideological gaps and contradictions in my work: Much of it begins with the appropriation of mass-produced images that hang in the Iranian subject’s social subconscious, and in particular, Ayatollah Khomeini’s recognizable three-quarter portrait, which can be found all over the streets of cosmopolitan cities as well as in textbooks, on national currency and even over the sink in public washrooms.
According to a 2013 article from The Economist, in the country of Iran, the youth unemployment rate is roughly 28 percent and the inflation rate is over 40 percent, both of which have been impacted by American and European sanctions. This has created a great deal of unrest among young people, who then may turn to drugs to cope with their uncertain future.
Now, eight years later, I continue to research the use of drugs and Iranian currency within my art practice. I prepared 79 Iranian banknotes each containing at least three hits of LSD. The edition of 79 capitalizes on the pivotal year of both my birth and the Iranian Revolution of 1979. As much as I love artistic swag bags and free drugs, I prepared an installation of laced Iranian currency pinned on the wall, like a relic describing two opposing countries with similar addictions. I had faced the challenges between defining art with drugs. Therefore, this time around, I decided to cut out a silhouette of a marijuana leaf with its stem remaining intact to the currency. The LSD remains on the watermark, which happened to be Khomeini’s face. The reference of a marijuana leaf defines its common identifiable imagery for a drug. Pop out the silhouette and take a few hits of acid doesn’t defect the artwork, but rather describes the viewer’s relationship to it. Now, after President Obama allowed a bill extending sanctions against Iran for 10 years, I continued to give value to the currency by way of LSD.
Traveling outside of one’s country is an experience I believe everyone should have. Currency and traveling go hand in hand, and while the conversions are filtered through my mind, I am always sidetracked by the beautiful details and cultural and patriotic indications layered on the front and back of each note. Since my first travels to Iran in 1982, I have collected, studied and created stories of every detailed marking in flowers, architecture, Islamic patterns and the portrait of Khomeini. I find it very fitting that Khomeini’s averting his eyes away from the marijuana leaf acid, though his face is rendered also as the watermark.
Provocation has always been a form of allegory in my work. The portrayal of a Muslim leader is knowingly flippant—a gesture that would surely be censored in Iran, though in America the risks are fewer—but the inclusion of illicit materials takes the provocation further by both parodying the image of Khomeini and making his image complicit in contraband activities, all at the hand of a woman no less. The choice of medium becomes crucial. Currency of one country with addition of drugs confidently declares, “Not only do I have the power to recreate your image”—to own it, in some way—“I will also consume it”—adding insult to insult—“and get high off it.”
My interests aren’t to sensationalize artwork with illegal drugs but rather to use the shared addictions of substances that are found between two opposing countries. I am not candy flipping in Iran or America. I am an artist who decided to use an illegal substance as a painting medium to give meaning to the content of which I paint. Something that can easily be taken out of context given the viewer's own morals. I honestly haven’t tried LSD in my life!
U.S.-Iranian relations will remain difficult. The Islamic Republic will still have a dubious human rights record featuring heavy-handed treatment of women, journalists, intellectuals, and anyone who asks inconvenient questions—are Americans going to follow a similar dictatorship of censorship and oppression by Trump and his administrations? That is one bad trip I hope we don’t all take.