A couple of days ago terrorists bombed the Iraqi city of Karbala – the holiest and most visited land of the Shiah Muslims. I happened to hear about it from a friend who lives nearby. Surprised to see the absence of mainstream reporting I hoped that twitter could tell me more. Instead a tweet told me “The media is suffering from Iraq fatigue”.
Was I being told that if a war or struggle is reported on long enough, readers (or should I say viewers) become desensitised and the news must move on to scarier stories still capable of “shock”. How, I wonder, have we come to this?
Often, art and philosophy help me with troubling questions and, as I pondered these issues, I recalled the work of Taha Heydari. I saw his work at Haines Gallery in San Francisco in August. His fantastic technique of layering found images which he actually paints on canvas is as mesmerising as it is chilling. It results in strangely familiar world of encryption and blur. Time stops when you come face to face with Goebbels crossed with a glowing crucifix.
As an artist who tackles mass media with objectivity and a sharp but considered eye, I felt his work could provide me with some guidance and perhaps enlightenment. I called him up to learn more about his work and, in true 21st century form, we spent a morning together – over FaceTime (me in NYC he in Baltimore).
I asked about RDS, a picture so explosive you can almost feel the heat. He tells me “RDS” was actually the name given to the first types of nuclear bombs. In “RDS”, The image is of an explosion is juxtaposed with a picture Taha found on Instagram of folks in a cinema. He also points to the similarities of people attending a church sermon. The referencing of religion and destruction are no accident. He tells me “with all its beauty and possibilities the moving image changed the course of history forever, it has brought people together and caused collectives, it has pushed people apart and caused destruction, it arrived like an atomic bomb and nothing has ever been the same again”.
Already in the 2014 series “Few Steps Away” mass media imagery takes centre stage in Taha’s work. He tells me the series is inspired in part by what we see when we channel zap on our TVs. On closer observation, however, these common-place images are drawn over with lines depicting scenes of military men, politicians, medical operations. The series evokes the effects of image overload: when the dramatic and the banal all blur into one.
A year later and after moving from Tehran to the USA, Taha’s practice changes focus and in works like “See Something Say Something” and “On the Stage” he explores and questions the effects and power of screens and mass media. Corrupted images of billboards, hostage takers, wrestlers and of a beheading are all brought together. “The screen makes violence consumable makes violence sharable, its propensity to repeat and propagate an extreme image until it becomes banal is the true violence.”
Taha’s Instagram account (@taha_hey) is an art piece all on its own, juxtaposing the moving image with the static and always to a great musical score. A General Electric advertisement shows a corrupted Guantanamo video on a TV, all to Zayn’s hit pop song Pillow Talk. He tells me the ephemeral nature of social media and the collective yet short-lived qualities are what first attracted him to the medium. “The collective sharing via pixels strait onto the screens of others is so interesting, for example hashtaging makes a sudden collective but its so short-lived. A screen is the most ruthless thing there is. It’s fun for me to fiddle with it”.
Ultimately Taha’s work asks the hard questions. What is the relationship between the viewer and a screen? What are the powers of a moving image and ultimately mass media? As an audience how and why have we become desensitised to images of violence? The answers I imply are that the screen, the source of so much beauty and a key evolution of our times, has a dark and twisted propensity. Taha’s work reminds us of its ability to render the hernias banal and the frightful ordinary. It is up to us to remind ourselves that behind each screen is a story, and behind each story is an actual living human person.