Siah Armajani (1939-2020): An artist of public happiness

Hamid Dabashi

“The twilight zones today between art forms that were once quite distinct – painting and photography, architecture and sculpture – have been the locus of the most intriguing art produced in recent decades. And no one has mined the creative potential in these blurred boundaries more avidly than the Tehran-born, Minneapolis-based artist Siah Armajani.”

This was the assessment prominent American art and architecture critic Martin Filler made in his 2002 essay on Siah (Siavash) Armajani and his work.

Armajani passed away on August 27, at his home in Minneapolis, where he had lived and worked for 60 years. He was 81.

A year before his passing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York featured a solo show of his work, the first major retrospective celebrating his life and achievements. On that occasion, I wrote a short essay on these very pages to introduce this master artist of “blurred boundaries” to my readers. In that essay, I questioned the phrase “an aesthetic of exile” usually applied to his work, effectively alienating the artist from his home and habitat in both Iran and the United States. The legacy of Armajani’s extraordinary work demands a different, more real, more meaningful language of space and belonging.

Who is at home in Stephen Miller’s America?

In his 2002 essay, Filler was more nuanced in marking both the US and Iran as Armajani’s “spiritual homes”. Like all other immigrants to the US, Armajani too had a whole world of hidden memories embedded in his artwork.  

Armajani was born in Iran in 1939. In 1960, a few years after a CIA-MI6-instigated military coup overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and aborted the course of democracy in the country, his family sent the then-20-year-old artist to the US.

Once in the US, he began his studies of art and philosophy at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He soon married, settled down to work, and became a US citizen.

Today, in the troubled times of Trump’s presidency, racist hacks like Stephen Miller lurking around his White House have set an entire machinery of savage cruelty against weak and vulnerable immigrants from Muslim majority countries or elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A key factor in these racists’ hate mongering is their belief that English, of which they have substandard command, must be the only language the world speaks.

The lifetime achievement of Armajani reveals a far superior conception of “language” that overrides whether a person has a literate command of English, Persian, Arabic, Spanish, or any other language. He devoted his life and gifted imagination to cultivate a whole new architectonic language in his art.

As Alex Greenberger put it in his obituary for ArtNews: “Armajani’s work, with its vast array of allusions and multifarious forms, is often unclassifiable … But Armajani’s influence was vast, and it can be glimpsed in his public artworks, which can be seen around the US and often take the form of angular bridges.”

In crafting and commanding a syncretic aesthetic he articulated and staged best, Armajani had reached an intuition of transcendence rooted in his art-world. Commanding his own unique language – which was neither Persian nor English but grammatical to his own creative soul bared in public – he was both Iranian and American beyond any borders.

Armajani lived on those bridges he loved to build. He dwelled on his in-betweenness, merrily and fruitfully, as he compromised the false metaphysics of authenticity on both sides of those bridges – Iranians on one side and Americans on the other.

Armajani spoke that language openly, widely, boldly, and beautifully. As an admirer of his wrote on the Walker Art Center’s website: “He is best known for outdoor gardens, gazebos, plazas, and bridges, works that exist at the intersection of art, community, and site and explore what the ‘public’ in public art really means.” He spent a lifetime spacing out the meaning of that public space where art made moral sense.

Armajani spent a lifetime cultivating an aesthetic of public happiness, as Hannah Arendt would have termed it. The terms of that public happiness were spelled out in the works of art Armajani dedicated to his political and artistic heroes – from leading anarchists like Emma Goldman, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, to poets like Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and the towering Persian poet, Nima Yushij.

His later works, as Holland Cotter points out in his obituary for the New York Times: “Were increasingly topical and critical. His 2004-5 ‘Fallujah’ was a protest against the Iraq war. In 2017, Mr. Armajani created a series of sculptural installations, ‘Seven Rooms of Hospitality,’ dedicated to refugees, detainees, migrant workers and other groups increasingly unwelcome in the United States, in contrast to the openness that he, as a young immigrant artist, had so valued.” Though I am very suspicious of that last comment that the US was ever open and hospitable to immigrants.  

Superior artists speak a different language

In his famous tale about Moses and the shepherd (Masnavi 1720-1815), Rumi tells us how God reprimanded Moses for having admonished an illiterate shepherd for speaking to God in a colloquial, friendly, and anthropomorphic language.

It is not any of your business what language my people speak to me, God tells Moses in this story. To every nation I have given a language, the Almighty says. Indians praise me in their language, Africans in theirs. I sent you to bring my people closer to me not to cast them away from me.

There is a direct and unmitigated link between language and divinity, sanctity, and aesthetic sublimity. We have to overcome the ghoulish barbarity of monosyllabic amebae who rule in the US and around the world to be able to listen and comprehend the language of Rumi.

Pitch perfect with Rumi’s language, Armajani’s early works from the 1950s reveal how as a young man in Iran he was profoundly political, celebrating the nationalisation of Iranian oil by Mossadegh, and yet at the same time managed to occasion, from the fragmented and mismatched memories of a nation, a whole new aesthetic meditation suitable for his time and temper.

In his innocent scribbling on the piece he called Night Letter #2 (1957) we can decipher the young man’s dreams: “Mossadegh’s way/Oil is ours/Independence is ours/Freedom is ours.” We can see and read: “Oh Ali, Oh God, Come to our Aid!” We can read: “Your Luck, Our Luck!” But the scribbled words assume renewed meaning in the tapestry of visual emotions that are overshadowed by the name of “Takhti” on the top of the piece – that would be the widely loved and admired world champion wrestler Gholamreza Takhti (1930–1968), the hero of Armajani’s youth. Thus ensembled together, the piece is sad, it is precious, it is memorial, almost childish in its innocence, almost sacred, certainly talismanic, in its certitudes.

With such artworks behind his back, Armajani came to US with a dream. The very first principle in his Manifesto: Public Sculpture in the Context of American Democracy reads: “Public sculpture is a logical continuation of the modern movement and the enlightenment which was tempered and conditioned by the American Revolution.”

Today, we can read that manifesto in two ways: A jaded and bitter way, or by reverting back to the mood and manner of Siah Armajani’s world that offers us a vastly different vision of America that is farthest from the facts of America – a world to which this towering artist immigrated in his rich and beautiful illusions.

“At the present moment,” let me conclude with the powerful words of Cutter in his tribute to Armajani, “when the racist and imperialist messages of old political monuments are becoming clear and ideas about how to create new ones are in flux, he is a useful guide.”

Armajani was more than “a useful guide”. He spent his entire life creating public monuments to which the best of Americans will turn when they have brought down all those racist statues. He came to America to teach them how to be happy in public. If Arendt theorised public happiness for Americans, Armajani staged it beautifully.

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