Exclusive: Amir H. Fallah, a Cultural Hybrid with a Vision


Amir H. Fallah — an LA artist who is also the founder and creative director of Beautiful/Decay magazine, Beautiful/Decay Apparel, and the think tank Something in the Universe — has been exhibiting his art in the Middle East since 2005, and is currently participating in the 2009 Sharjah Biennial. Paul Laster, editor of our sister publication Artkrush, caught the busy artist between tasks to discuss the Biennial, his artwork, the future of the magazine, and his relentless schedule.

Artkrush: What work are you showing in the Sharjah Biennial?

Amir H. Fallah: I’m showing a site-specific sculpture called Eclipse (Watch Tower), a large two-story structure built entirely on location in the atrium of the Sharjah Art Museum. Because of the slanted floors and unconventional construction of the museum space, I chose to work in the atrium, which had the only level flooring in the museum.

Most of my sculptures incorporate living plants that need light, and the museum’s atrium has large skylights that supply natural light to all three floors. All three stories of the museum interact with the sculpture. On the first floor, you stand under the base of a platform held up by four legs, which blocks the natural light in the atrium; that’s replaced by a system of fluorescent lights that shine down on a large mound of dirt with a lone cactus. On the second floor, you come face to face with the platform, which holds hundreds of objects, including ceramic sculptures built in Los Angeles, local ceramic vases and pottery found in various souks in Sharjah, live cacti and succulents, hundreds of yards of rope, rocks, family photographs, and so on. The piece is reminiscent of a prison watchtower.

The sculpture combines reality, fiction, memories, and mementos, and explores how lines can be blurred between what’s real and what’s fabricated. Along with the sculpture, four large paintings hang on the second floor of the museum. The paintings are fictitious blueprints for forts.

AK: Have you previously exhibited in the Middle East?

AHF: I go there about once or twice a year. I first went to Dubai in 2005 for a solo show at the Third Line. They were the very first contemporary art gallery in Dubai. Since then, I’ve shown with them every year or so. I’m actually going back to Dubai on April 18 for my next solo show at the gallery.

AK: Although you were born in Tehran, you grew up and were educated in the US. How do the two cultures converge in your art?

AHF: I often say that people like me, who have grown up with two cultures, are cultural hybrids. We are constantly being pulled in different directions by who we are presently and where we came from. It feels like we’re in a constant cultural limbo. Topics of cultural identity used to play a more relevant role within my art when I was in college, but these days I don’t try to push it to forefront of the work. If it happens naturally, then that’s great, but it’s very trendy nowadays to make work about one’s own cultural upbringing and/or hardships. It’s so easy to toss some calligraphy or women wearing chadors into my work and get attention. There are too many Middle Eastern artists relying on these tactics. I’m not interested in being put on display because I have an “exotic” background. I’d much rather have the work stand on its own, without using cultural identity to prop it up.

AK: The form of a fort is a key factor in your paintings, sculptures, and photographs. What does the fort signify to you, and how has using it solidified your work?

AHF: I’ve always been interested in making work about my adolescent years. When I was around 12 years old, I would go into the woods and build these makeshift structures with friends. We would go inside and talk about girls, pretend we were in a spaceship, or play cops and robbers. In a lot of ways, these memories remind me of the practice of making art. When I work on a painting, I’m looking to create an imaginary world where anything can happen. If I want to turn the sky yellow, I simply paint it yellow. If I want the ground to be pink, then it’s painted pink.

I became so interested in the idea of these forts — these fabricated structures — that I started to paint them into my work. It eventually evolved into a series of photographs, where I would go to friend’s homes and build pillow forts with them in their bedrooms. That, in turn, prompted me to start building large-scale structures with wood. The wooden structures were built out of found wood and other material scraps I would pick up all over the city. Because I have no formal woodworking experience, I used a collage method of attaching one piece of wood on top of another. This patchwork method of sculpting led to my incorporation of collage in the paintings of the forts. It was a natural progression from one medium to the next; each new piece led into the next and carried through new techniques and ideas.

AK: You seem to like stacking lots of things into orderly, cobbled-together heaps. What is it about this kind of aesthetic that appeals to you?

AHF: I paint and sculpt in the exact same way, by putting things on top of one another instead of forming objects or blending paint. I think this comes from my background in painting graffiti for 12 years, where each color of spray paint is painted on top of another. An additive approach of making work just makes sense to me.

AK: In previous interviews and writings about your work, you’ve mentioned the influence of zines, punk-rock music, and DIY creative culture. Are these things still influential in shaping what you do?

AHF: I’m still very much interested in these cultures. I discovered all of these things in my adolescence. I joke around a lot that my interests haven’t changed much from when I was 16, and in some way that’s still true. I’m making a painting right now called The Saddest, Saddest, Saddest Love Song Ever, which depicts Morrissey, Elliott Smith, Johnny Cash, and Robert Smith all hanging out and singing to one another in a fort. I discovered all of these musicians in my teenage years, and would repeatedly listen to their various sad love songs. I am simultaneously making fun of teenage notions of romance, while celebrating that feeling that you had when your girlfriend broke up with you and you cried yourself to sleep with Morrissey crooning in the background.

AK: You’re a very prolific artist who has made a lot of work since getting your MFA from UCLA in 2005 — especially considering that you also run a magazine, a fashion company, and a think tank. How do you do it all?

AHF: It was a challenge when I first got out of school and had to figure out how to manage my time, but I’ve come up with a crazy schedule that works for me. I wake up every day at 7am and head to my studio, where I paint for about two hours. Then I head to my office and work on Beautiful/Decay and Something in the Universe until around 6pm. Then it’s off to home to hang out with my fiancée, Jessica, and relax. The next day, I wake up and do the same thing. It would be great to have more time for my art, but I make it a point to go to my studio every single day. I’ve kept that exact schedule for the last three years, and it works for me. I don’t want to wake up one day and have any regrets about not working harder.

AK: The videos of the making of Terradome at Art Dubai 2008 and Eclipse (Watch Tower) at the 2009 Sharjah Biennial amusingly reveal your process through time-lapse photography. Aren’t you afraid of giving too much away? Do you view the videos as documentation or artworks themselves — in the way of a Barnstormers video, for instance?

AHF: I started filming the sculptures for two reasons. The first is that I would spend months of planning on a piece that would only be up for about a month, and then would be destroyed. The second reason was to document the work in a more complete manner. There’s no way to get a sense of the sculptures in one still photo. They have so much going on, and are so large, that you miss a lot with photographs. There’s also a lot that you don’t see in the videos. For instance, I worked with various architects, ceramicists, and electricians to make the majority of Eclipse (Watch Tower). That piece took over eight months to realize, and much of the process was off-camera. The videos document the assembling of the pieces, rather than the entire process.

AK: When you started Beautiful/Decay as a magazine, you lettered the issues, rather than numbering them. You are now on the last letter of the alphabet, Z — where do you take it from here?

AHF: I never thought that Beautiful/Decay would last long enough to see issue Z go to press. I’ve often joked around that we would start lettering issues AA, BB, CC, etc, but I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

I’ve always wanted to expand Beautiful/Decay beyond a magazine. I was never interested in creating a mainstream publication and dealing with advertisers and distributors. B/D started as a DIY zine, and before I knew it, it had grown into a business. With the culmination of the lettered issues, we decided it was time to shake things up and look at how we could make a better magazine that escapes the regular trappings of traditional print publications.

Starting in June, we’re relaunching B/D in a new, expanded format, with the release of issue 1. The format will be a book/magazine hybrid with double the page count and no traditional advertising. We will be printing a very limited number of copies per issue, and will sell the magazine by direct subscriptions at beautifuldecay.com and at select bookshops. The goal is to give our readers expanded articles, interviews, and an overall richer, more in-depth experience. Each issue will come with limited prints and artists’ stickers, and will be hand numbered.

AK: Public response to your artwork is growing — and with good reason. Do you ever consider giving up everything else and just making your art, or is it all too interconnected?

AHF: It’s all interconnected for me. Most of my artist friends teach or work as artist assistants. I would much rather work for myself and create something interesting while I’m at it. In a lot of ways, I think of Beautiful/Decay as a reference manual for work that I’m interested in. Since I select the content, I’m constantly looking to feature artists whose work inspires me.

Amir H. Fallah’s work is on view at the Sharjah Biennial 9 through May 16. His solo exhibition at the Third Line in Dubai, Make It Believe, opens April 22 and runs through May 21.

Image: Amir H. Fallah, An Alter for Your Life, for Your Death, 2008