What WE Are: Ali Mahdavi

Surrealism proves that imagery is not insanity. In the world of Ali Mahdavi, it is reality, and art writer Catherine Millet explores it. 

English Translation : Charles Penwarden

I first met Ali Mahdavi at the Crazy Horse. I had been taken there by a friend of mine, who had taught him at the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris. She it was who introduced me to the artist at the end of the show of which he was the artistic director. Thus, although I am by profession an art critic and not a chronicler of Parisian nightlife, I met Ali in a cabaret. I have total confidence in my friend’s judgement anyway, but I must say that I was really enthusiastic about the show I had just seen. So I was perfectly ready to respond to the work of this unusual and multifaceted artist.

Once a critic, always a critic: I must admit that I watched and enjoyed that show as an art writer. Perhaps my eyes delighted – a bit less, admittedly, than those of the man who was with me – in the superb bodies of the strippers. Above all, it was captivated by their fragmentation by the light show, their duplication and multiplication by the projection of geometrical grids on their naked skin, their metamorphosis into graphic signs filling the space of the stage at the Crazy Horse. That stage, as is well known, is one of the smallest in the world, hardly any bigger than one of those big paintings – grande machines, we call them in French – that can be seen on the walls of our museums.

Some of the artist’s best-known photographs, notably his self-portraits, show the body held by an arsenal of instruments such as struts, canes and crutches. Mahdavi has also photographed bodies so tightly squeezed into corsets that their owners seem to want to transform them into a perfectly symmetrical X, the X seen on the stage of the Crazy Horse when the dancers’ outstretched arms and legs saturated the space with a human grid. Elsewhere, a body that seems disjointed like a puppet is held in the crossbeams of scaffolding, and in another image the model is simply imprisoned, or pushed against bars, or even bound to them. All these representations bring to mind what the artist says about the time of childhood and education, namely, that it is a period of training or breaking in. Born, like Mahdavi, in Iran, art historian Rose Issa has spoken of the “quest for perfection” that was inflicted on the artist in his childhood. In this he has something in common with the great majority of Iranian woman, whose body is the only thing over which they are allowed to exert any control.


How do you measure an artist’s maturity? By the mastery with which he deals with the demons of childhood that linger in the unconscious. Mahdavi’s latest work is a surprising short film, Forbidden Love. It is an explicit homage to actress Romy Schneider (the story of a woman mortally wounded by the death of her son) and an indirect one to Marlene Dietrich (the heroine bears the same name as that actress in the film Desire: Madeleine de Beaupre). The film attains perfection in its equilibrium between sensuality and delicacy, and even distance and humor. It shows the unlikely encounter between Dita Von Teese in the role of a gentle, pure-hearted junkie and a young French North African whose casual violence somehow becomes elegance.

I am well aware of what has already been said about Mahdavi’s work, in which refinement sits beside cruelty, in which the most perfect beauty verges on monstrousness: jewelry that is close to instruments for aesthetic surgery, a likeness of Marlene Dietrich made from a skull covered with a stocking and precious stones. Isn’t an artist someone who shows us the other side of appearances, the reversibility of our values? But it is also his role to eventually gain the upper hand and become the “artistic director” of the world he puts in place, or, to use the old vocabulary, a demiurge. Consider this photograph in which the artist’s rigid body seems to be held up by splints. Can we be sure that they are really restraining him? Does not his imperious posture rather suggest that this body is in fact in control, and that the metal rods supported by his joints and prolonging his limbs are linked to invisible objects that he is moving, making him a kind of one-man band?


I am always particularly aware of the way bodies occupy a space, to the way that, in painting, figures occupy the space within the frame. Take Russian primitivism, that is to say, the art of Malevich and Goncharova before those painters discovered abstraction. If their peasant men and women move us, it is because their bodies fill almost all the available space in the canvas, to the point that we sometimes feel they are going to shatter the frame. One might think that they were enclosed, but one could also say that it is their presence that defines the space of the painting. From the strictly compositional viewpoint, the second interpretation is the correct one: the positions of the bodies and their movements structure the pictorial space, and the equilibrium and harmony of this space transcend the awkwardness of the peasants. Well, I was recently put in mind of these works by Malevich and Goncharova when looking at a series of Mahdavi’s photographs of a dancer. There it really does look as if the framing of the image was determined by the length and the more or less acrobatic position of the posing model’s arms and legs. The dancer stands as an excellent example to emphasize a feature of Mahdavi’s principle, namely that the constraints imposed on the body will one day lead to mastery of that body and even of what surrounds it.

But there is more than the possibility of action: there is also the faculty of expression. As I have already suggested, the deftness with which Mahdavi metamorphoses bodies into signs is fascinating. In opposition to a tendency in current photography which represents human beings as inert objects, their gaze often inexpressive and bodies supine, Mahdavi likes to have his models take poses that, if not always acrobatic, are at least contorted. He says he takes his inspiration from the poses of fashion models in the 1950s. But it goes further than that: sometimes, models not only have to show off the lines of their body and the features of their face, but also their hands. Who looks at the hands in a fashion photo? Ali Mahdavi and those who admire his work. Milla Jovovich’s fingers (for example, on a cover of this magazine) spread wide, bend and touch, forming an elegant and intriguing visual language that makes one want to learn to decipher it just as Renaissance connoisseurs could interpret the precise of hand movements and the signs addressed to them with their fingers by the figures painted on the walls of palaces and churches.


And while I am on this subject, there is another procedure that Mahdavi takes from the tradition of painting. This consists in suggesting modeling by means of the subtle distribution of light. Whereas, underneath their layer of gloss, most magazine covers are desperately flat, on the cover I have just mentioned it looks as if the beautiful Milla’s shoulder is lifting the paper, offering itself for a caress. Using the very homemade device of a pole, the artist has developed an extremely fragmentary way of lighting bodies and especially faces, of which sometimes only the most salient features emerge from the shadow – an effect which further heightens their relief. When the face is underscored only by a thin strip of light, one is reminded of the way an artist uses white gouache to heighten a drawing and thus enhance the bodily presence of the figures.

One particular pleasure afforded art lovers by Mahdavi’s photos, whether for art galleries or fashion magazines, is seeing how the artist uses contemporary technological tools to revive a tradition, quote an illustrious predecessor or reactivate a procedure, sometimes mixing several different references from very diverse origins. Thus, his portrait gallery of mummified and richly bedecked animals recalls that dire priestly fashion show in Fellini Roma, while at the same time harking back to the tradition of Baroque bestiaries. Here we see a nod to Salvador Dalí: there, to Man Ray.

Among the most striking metamorphoses realized by the artist is the one featuring Kim, a woman with only one arm whom he fits with a wing, suggesting a fine metaphor for the chrysalis, a troubling version of the sphinx, derived form the grotteschi tradition.

But this comprehensive knowledge of art history is not the only thing that distinguishes Mahdavi from most of his fellow photographers, and fashion photographers in particular. No, what gives him the freedom to come up with such images, the power to carry off this kind of metamorphosis, is that he also puts himself on display, imposes strange transformations on himself, keeping his highest form of irony exclusively for his self-portraits. In other words, he exposes his own person to the risks of his art. See how his bald skull gradually changes into an aspergillum, or how this artist who was long haunted by his childhood, shows a bunch of sleeping babies emerge from his own skull. Out of all these self-representations, there is one that can be said to sum up the artist’s position. It shows a small puppet bearing Mahdavi’s own features. The artist is a puppet, but here it is the puppet that is pulling the strings.

Published in Issue 37 – Black.

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