Typographic Objects and Three-Dimensional Poems

Farhad Fozouni

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Farhad Fozouni is an award-winning graphic designer whose inventive typography takes its inspiration from both Persian calligraphy and the visual culture of Tehran's streets. In a film by Hamed Yousefi produced for BBC Persian, Fozouni states he aims "to capture Tehran's ambience with typography." His design projects, Fozouni explains, "give life to Farsi script" and make it possible to "create designs for rap or rock with Persian fonts."

Fozouni also makes objects and installations that he calls "poems." In both his design work and his art, Fozouni exploits the tension between legibility and playful materiality, and between the typographic geometry of Latin letters and the calligraphic fluidity of Farsi script.

Aftershock Poetry, the first museum exhibition of Fozouni's art, was held at the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, in 2014. Curated by Nina Tabassomi, the exhibition took place in the Zwehren Tower, a remnant of the city's medieval wall.

Made especially for the tower's fourth floor, Rain-Fear Poetry is a three-dimensional "poem" of typographic anarchy: Latin letters, Farsi calligraphy, notational marks, and typographic ornament are suspended from the ceiling. The visual cacophony reminded me of trying to find my bearings among unfamiliar signage in a foreign city but here, in Fozouni's tower room, I share the space—not with typographic signifiers—but with typographic objects and free-floating diacritical marks.

One particular diacritical mark that frequently surfaces in Fozouni's art is the tashdid. For those who don't know Farsi, the tashdid looks like a small rounded w or bird wings. For the Farsi speaker, the tashdid, placed above a consonant, indicates the consonant should be pronounced as if it were doubled. In Rain-Fear Poetry, the tashdid, floating in space sans consonant, a suspended inflection, casts wing-like shadows on the floor.

Anne Carson has characterized consonants as "the actions that start and stop sounds." The consonant edges sound, as a wall edges space. One of the artist's more interesting uses of the tashdid is in Corner Poetry. In this site-specific work, the tashdid has been placed in a corner off the tower's stairwell. The corner, an odd walled-off space where once a doorway might have been, bears a diacritical mark of doubling, thereby conflating wall and consonant, ad hoc architecture and language.

In Blades Poetry, a series of sharp-edged stainless steel typographic forms on wood blocks, the tashdid might be mistaken for an ornament. The typographic marks are so stylized that the language-blades, both ominous and beautiful, register less as language and more as decorative objects or talismans.

Fozouni insists on "poetry" as the name for all his works on view at the Fridericianum: Rain-Fear Poetry; Blades Poetry; Tight Poetry; Corner Poetry; Aftershock Poetry; Slide Poetry. The term "poetry" emphasizes the artist's use of language as material, his manipulation of graphic markers as both signifiers and aesthetic objects. While Fozouni's works allude to feeling—longing, fear, misunderstanding, displacement—they are not autobiographical but rather explore the interface of personal expression and public address.

Fozouni's experiment with lyric voice, typography, and materiality is most striking in Slide Poetry I. In this work, pairs of handmade slides are projected on the wall. The two projectors are each turned at an angle with the result that the slides are oblique squares of light that overlap. Lines of a poem in English appear on the left, and Farsi lines appear on the right. The poem expresses yearning for a loved one:

(I wish)
we were amid
the raspberry bushes
(I wish) . . .

Whether reading English left to right or Farsi right to left, the reader arrives at the middle where the slides overlap. One slide may appear to bleed into its partner; English phrases may overrun Farsi script, or Farsi may obscure the English. Some slides are blank. Others are marred with scratches, cuts, perforations, a strand of hair. Punctuated with these blank or damaged slides, the poem's refrain of longing is saturated with materiality and light. There are no more than a few words on each slide, and the persistent click of the revolving slide carousel functions as aural enjambment: if the line break had a sound, it would be this click of a carousel.

On the occasion of the exhibition Aftershock Poetry, Fozouni answered questions about graphic design, visual art, poetry, and Tehran's streets as a source of inspiration. The artist's answers were translated by Zoya Honarmand.

—Eva Heisler
Visual Editor

First, could you tell me about your background as a graphic designer?

I started doing graphic design when I entered university in 1998. Alongside graphic design, I was always doing other kinds of art, such as video, painting, and drawing, and writing poems and stories in my journal. These activities were never separate from one another; I never thought any one was more valuable than the others. I always thought of graphic design as another kind of art. That's why I never identified as a professional graphic designer but rather as someone who experiences the space between graphic design, art, and literature. Most of my design work has involved making posters for art exhibitions, concerts, and theater; doing art direction for arts, philosophy, and cultural magazines; and designing books for art and literature.

You are both a graphic designer and an artist-poet. How do you negotiate the demands of graphic design (legibility, persuasion) with poetry?

I learned over time how to put aside the conventions of graphic design and to make my own rules. For me, graphic design is itself an art form in which I record my feelings while simultaneously communicating the required information. But since the words I used for graphic design were never mine—they were given to me by clients—I needed strategies to create the atmosphere I wanted. So, as a designer, I acquired an ability to create ambience and convey meaning alongside, and with the use of, words. In my poetry, I use words among all the other design strategies I've learned; I do not confine myself to using words alone. Rather, I might eliminate certain words or phrases from my poems and play with the shape, color, size, and material of the remaining words. This way, the poems become much shorter and more appealing to readers; and the meanings and feelings typically codified into words, which then have to be decoded by the reader, are conveyed more directly.

My poems are sometimes posters, sometimes magazine advertisements, sometimes slide shows, sometimes installations, and sometimes music. And sometimes even completely personal performances. Poetry for me consists of more than words. And I'll use any tool for composing poetry that makes for more compelling transmission. For me, choosing materials, media, or tools is part of the composition and the process of poetry. Like a poet who chooses her words carefully and deliberately, this is how I choose my media.

In the last few years, you have made installation/poems, such as Rain-Fear Poetry created especially for the Fridericianum. Tell me about Rain-Fear Poetry.

Rain-Fear is a poem about the fears that my surroundings produce and that force me to live within the confines of a definite, preconceived structure. This fear is mostly transmitted to me through cowardly, compliant, and seemingly successful people.

Rain-Fear, and other poems I've composed as installations, like Tehran [0002] and Can a Poem Commit Suicide?, are poems that are completed with the passing-through of the audience. The audience enters the poem, walks around in it, and completes it.

Do you see a relationship between your installations/poems and street art or graffiti?

In graffiti and street art, words and images break the frameworks of the spaces in which they are located. They escape their usual habitats and attack the streets so they can make their statements through shock. My poems also try to say what they have to say through shock. This shock happens not just through the breaking of a spatial framework but also through breaking the frameworks of different media, materials, and disciplines.

How does the visual culture of Tehran influence your art?

Tehran's streets are my main source of inspiration, but I draw my inspiration from much more that just its visual culture. Just as certain laws regulate its streets, so do they construct the layout and composition of my work. In Tehran, not all presiding laws are enforced but, at the same time, there are many unwritten laws that are followed. In order to live on those streets, you need to discover this system that the city itself builds. This system is made up of laws from different sources, such as culture, history, the state, and modernity. Tehran is a city with a thousand layers, which one must understand if one wants to understand the city. In my work, too, there are hidden laws and many layers that I want viewers to discover.

Can you talk a bit about the Tehran Poetry Series?

The Tehran Poetry Series is a collection of poems addressed to Tehran as my beloved—a beloved that I don't feel loves me as much as I love her. It started with a graphic design called Tehran [0000] that said, "I love Tehran," transliterated into Farsi script. This refers to a time when I was preparing to leave Tehran. In those final days, I recorded a song with my brother called Tehran [0001] in which I address Tehran as a beloved who does not reciprocate my feelings. In the first year, when Tehran and I weren't talking to each other, I made a poster and an installation (Tehran [0002] and Tehran [0003]) in which I invited Tehran to Berlin in order to work on our relationship problems. Over the past eight months, I've been working on an ongoing collection of stories, Tehran [0004], consisting of fake diary entries that I am purported to be writing from Tehran. I post these stories as I write them, directly on my Facebook page, often with Youtube links. All of them are shaped by the various problems in my relationship with Tehran.

Can you explain the ideas behind Blades Poetry?

Blades Poetry is a series of poems made from vowels, images, wood, and blades. Illegible poems. You can read neither the words nor the images. It consists of symbols that are neither words nor letters. Rather, they are vocalization signs written above and below Farsi and Arabic script to make a, e, o sounds or to denote emphasis on a silent letter. So these poems simply resemble sobs, sighs, or screams of fear and shock. They are composed of fragments of familiar objects, which then create unfamiliar images. All of their bodies are composed of blades coming out of wood and have bright desk lamps in the lights of which the blades create long, sharp shadows.

How is your work indebted to Persian traditions, such as the miniature and calligraphy?

The word "tradition" can issue a death sentence. One might imagine Persian miniatures and calligraphy have died and I'm building something new from their corpses. I prefer to think Persian miniatures and calligraphy are very much alive and my work is part of their continuation. My work is not so much indebted to Persian traditions as it is a part of them.