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Published September, 2008
byline: Rachel Cole
Zing Magazine


The recent Democratic National Convention in Denver saw an explosion of public art transforming billboards, buildings, and parks, and demonstrations so theatrical as to perhaps qualify as performance art (the widely publicized attempt to telepathically “levitate the Mint,” for example). So while local anarchists were getting creative by wearing wizard costumes, every gallery or museum within a ten-mile radius of the Convention was hosting some form of politically-charged exhibition, and Rage Against fans were clamoring for tickets to the free show which was expected to ignite the most intense face-off between riot police and activists (and anti-climatically, did not). Amid this commotion, artist Tom Loughlin was calmly sitting in a lawn chair near his large-scale installation, pictures of you: images from iran, at Civic Center Park, casually though passionately speaking about his experiences in the Middle East.

Standing inside the brightly-colored chiffon as it swishes in the wind, surrounded by the grit and chaos of an urban environment, gives a peculiar sensation of wearing the dress of a geography, as if it’s possible to pluck at the edges of a city and wrap it around one’s shoulders. The structure spans 60 feet long x 25 feet high x 25 feet wide, and is composed of different components of Persian architecture, including a dome and an archway typical of traditional houses (indicating hospitality), and two wings representative of a bazaar, accompanied by portraits of Iranians. All images, including the mosaic detail from a mosque, were produced with photography. An audio component plays traffic, poetry, and interviews with citizens. Combining the inquisitiveness of journalism and the aesthetic compassion of art, the result is something like a 3-D interactive documentary. “I want viewers to have the sense that something beautiful is in jeopardy,” remarks Loughlin.

Given that The National Museum of Iraq and the Mesopotamian art it housed (among other invaluable objects, architecture, and culture, to say nothing of human lives) was unceremoniously devastated during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad and discourse on both sides of the two-party system edges toward war with Iran, the timeline and concerns of Loughlin’s project extends well-beyond the DNC. (He attempted to exhibit at the RNC, but the best St. Paul could do for him was under a bridge near a highway). The global conversation of photography during the last thirty-five years has included controversial images as disturbing as those by the late Kevin Carter (depicting starvation and necklacing practices) and others as exquisite as Steve McCurry’s, “Afghan Girl,” of National Geographic fame. This increasingly relevant human drama of desolation and radiance as evoked through the camera lens is present in Loughlin’s piece, too. The gesture of PICTURES OF YOU isn’t a self-contained recreation of an Iranian edifice to manufacture for the American viewer what it’s like to be there. Rather, it blends the textures of landscapes whose strict political borders fail to represent the human lives within, generating a versatility of possibilities for exhibition because the appearance of the translucent material is so contingent on the background panorama. For example, during the Civic Center Park display, the gold-leaf dome of Denver’s Capitol Building was visible through the translucent portrait of a mullah, or Islamic priest, and the muted rumble of a street in Iran mingled with the white noise of Colfax and Lincoln.

Loughlin is currently working on fundraising, an effort which will include road shows to bring awareness to his project, and be able to exhibit it in communities across the country. For him, the raw material is the variety of viewer reactions and how the spectrum of political beliefs and cultural background complicate a western understanding of Iran. A part of the process is to encourage self-awareness too, a common misinterpretation of the piece as a mosque, for instance. “When you say that Iranians are human beings, it evokes strong feelings for people,” he comments. Most emotive to this, is the collage of evocative portraiture, vibrancy of architecture, and the fragility of material, together operating as a reminder that creating, appreciating, and connecting with beauty is a distinct and cross-cultural human trait.

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