Listening to the story of one person can help to understand and stimulate empathy – says the visual artist Sara Alavi, who during Malta Festival Poznan 2020, will show her installation Rusalka’s tales, based largely on memories. It will be the first full implementation of her idea, which is about the fact that water can be a threat to some and a source of pleasure for others. She invited the inhabitants of Poznań to contribute to the installation “Rusalka’s tales”.
I feel to present myself as an Iranian-Italian artist, not only Iranian – In this way I feel more comfortable. When I go back to Iran, I am not 100% Iranian there anymore, and in Italy, where I have lived for years now, I am not Italian.
– Were you born and raised in Iran?
Yes, I was born when the revolution broke out and lived in Tehran until the end of my studies. There, were formed my roots. I won’t change them, even if sometimes I really struggle with those tangled roots. I must admit that I am concerned about the events in Iran, I am interested in my country of origin, but I have been living in Italy for more than 13 years – first in Rome, then in Milan – and where I right now call ‘my home’. I also have no doubts that culture, art, history or simply the Italian environment have a big influence on me and my vision in art.
-I haven’t reached Tehran myself yet, but some of my friends did and told me that they had a great time there with young Iranians in nice clubs and pubs (inside home). On the other hand, Iran has a reputation for being a dangerous theocratic regime in the West. Where is the truth?
Nowhere we are entirely free, not even in Europe. So wherever we live, we get used to various restrictions – both in Iran and in Italy. Most of Iran’s restrictions are due to the strong and heavy presence of political religion in public and personal life – they apply it to everyone whether they are religious or not. But to be honest, I never felt that life could be in a different way while I was living there. Perhaps because I was born and raised in Iran, so these limitations were kind of natural for me, I got used to them and learned to avoid them as much as possible. However, I feel similar in Italy, where there are also many different restrictions, just different. This is the case of everywhere in the world, probably also in Poland you have to deal with different nature of restrictions.
-But Europeans like to joke up about hijab, for example.
As a woman, I am not concerning the Hijab as the only and main problem of my country, because I believe things there, in that area, are much more complicated and complex than many people in the West think. The opinion of Europeans about Iran is often very superficial – the context of the entire region is not taken into account, and it is always worth looking deeper.
-How do young Iranians see all this situation?
The young generation boldly tries to change the limitations in its own way, they fight within their own possibilities. Often artists who have to create in such an environment and conditions find their own particular way to do so. Sometimes finding solutions within different restrictions becomes the main theme of their works. Censorship has created a language, maybe the language of layers. Abbas Kiarostami, the famous Iranian film director, even when he was working abroad, made his films as if he was shooting them in Iran. He said it was stronger than him, that he couldn’t do otherwise anymore.
-Being an artist in Iran is more difficult than being an artist in Italy or just different?
I do not know how to answer this question, because I became an artist in Italy. I’m living here in Italy for many years now. And let me tell you, being an artist in Italy is not as easy and romantic as it sounds!
Want an honest but goofy answer?
-I’m all ears.
My father’s great passion was Neapolitan lyric songs, which he constantly sang to me during my childhood. This idea to learn Italian was in my head since I can remember, so It may be better to say I moved to Italy since then. Learning Italian and going to Rome was just a matter of time.
I am very interested in the process of struggle between nature and man. Man as a creator interests me less than the creative power of nature, including water. When it takes control of human creativity, something very interesting happens. But I’m also interested in memories. So I put these two elements together. I am fascinated by the fact that we are able to recreate emotions related to a given event without a personal direct memory, which often helps to feel empathy for something that has been totally forgotten.
-And how does water connect with this feeling of empathy?
Water can give life, and it can take life as well. This connection comes from my desperate attempt to understand what is happening to the immigrants and refugees who are trying to get to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean see in search of a better or safer life. It is difficult for me to accept the fact that we continuously are watching, without any emotion, bodies thrown out by the sea. It has become normal, that some people are sunbathing by this sea, and others at the same time die in it. It made me wonder what I could do about it. How, in first place, can make myself feel empathy, while I am desensitized by the media?
My Iraqi friend once created a strong empathy in me simply by telling his story while he was running away from a complicated situation in Iraq. I understood him more than any news could help me understand Iraq. He simply testified a small part of his life. It made me realize that learning about one person’s story can help to understand and stimulate empathy in a larger scale. Hence my interest comes in memories that have been suppressed by the media, which instead bombs us with news about the tragedies of anonymous people with no hint of human traces.
-Everything you talk about can be seen clearly in your “Entropy” installation (which in Poznan will be Rusalka’s tales) in which drops of water slowly dissolve the boats made of clay while hearing people’s stories.
For three years I worked as a volunteer in an asylum centre in Milan. I had no idea for this installation then, I just wanted to understand what was happening. So I can say that I went there for myself. I met people who told me their stories, not always sad, just different. I archived them and then asked my friends to register those stories with their voices, which became part of the whole installation later, accompanying the drops of water falling on the boats melting them into mud.
-So I understand that the open call for artistic projects announced by the Malta Festival under the slogan “Water is you” has fallen, from heaven matching you perfectly.
You will focus on Lake Rusałka in Poznań, which in a way resembles what you say about the Mediterranean Sea. There, took place a tragedy of forced labourers during the war, stone tombs are placed at the base of the lake from the Jewish cemetery by Jewish prisoners. Inhuman work condition of prisoners to create this artificial lake where now in the summer time in Poznan, residents enjoy their time taking sunbath nearby it.
When I read about the “Water is you” call, I fell in love with the idea of the whole festival, really. From the beginning I felt that there was something very strong about the idea and I knew that I really wanted to take part of it. I sat down to research, fortunately I had a lot of time due to strict lockdown. I read about Rusalka’s history, but also about Polish mythology. I quickly realized that there was something very important and disturbing about all its story. I also connected the Mediterranean Sea with Rusalka. What connected them was water as a destroying element.
-What are you planning in Poznań in Malta Festival is an adaptation of the earlier project “Entropia”?
It will actually be the first full implementation of this idea, because in Italy I have never realized it the way I wanted to. The authorities of the area where the project aimed to be realized, ruled by the right-wing ‘Lega Nord’ in Milan, limited our decision in somehow. It is a long story!
Thanks to Malta festival, I will finally be able to implement it as it should be.
-Will asylum seekers be replaced by the deceased forced labourers in your project in Poznan?
We know little about those forced labours in Poznan, but we also do not have access to their real stories. That is why I decided to imagine their stories. Recreation of those people’s image will be possible in this project by inviting the inhabitants of Poznan to write those stories. This is what the story telling workshops are aimed for.
-You will also run a clay workshop.
Sometimes various logistic problems force solutions that have a great impact on the whole project. This was also the case of my project in Poznan. I couldn’t bring clay boats from Milan, nor would I be able to create them myself less than two weeks, so we came up with a workshop solution in which I would like to involve people willing to help in making these boats with me. The installation will therefore be the result of not only of my work, but also of the residents of Poznan involved in it.
-The story of Rusalka is a sensitive topic in Poznan, do you have any concerns?
In Italian, the word ‘preoccupare’ means being concerned or worry. But looking at the Latin root means to worry about something that is yet to come. Italians, unlike Iranians, are not in the habit of worrying about something before it happens. That is why I am going to be less Iranian and more Italian when implementing this project.
Open Studio In Berlin, 22 July 2015
You may watch a summary of Sara Alavi’s project in Berlin directly on Momentum worldwide platform’s page on Vimeo: Sara Alavi’s Open studio in Berlin