Mitra Tabrizian: Beyond the Limits...of Photography
Introduction to the Tate catalogue, ‘this is that place’

T.J. Demos
17 February, 2008

In Mitra Tabrizian’s Border, a suite of photographs from 2005-06, isolated figures appear lost in thought, caught in moments of reverie stolen from everyday life. Haleh, a middle-aged woman, sits in an armchair, a suitcase at her side as if she’s waiting to depart. Parvaneh leans against a wall near a stairwell, pausing before a sign that reads “circle,” suggesting the repetitious cycles of workaday existence. Rasool, a young man pictured holding a bouquet of flowers, rests on his parked scooter on a pathway near a forest, gazing into the distance, seemingly second-guessing the commitment he’s about to make. Time has momentarily stopped for these people, their far-off thoughts leaving their inert bodies behind. As we learn from Tabrizian’s descriptions, all of them have crossed borders, coming to the UK from Iran to find a better life; yet it is clear in these photographs that they have also brought those borders with them, remaining painfully divided between their present circumstances and the longings for home, or aching to feel at home, elsewhere.

While Tabrizian’s earlier work, including Beyond the Limits and Lost Time, has frequently focused on the social dislocation of figures situated in generic environments, such as corporate interiors and suburban parks, Border marks a shift in her oeuvre; for its portraiture of real individuals distinguishes it from her longstanding exploration of photography’s post-documentary status following the era of post-modern simulation. Nevertheless, while Border alters thematic focus--from nonspecific corporate types to actual immigrants--the series continues Tabrizian’s longstanding investigation of the way in which social displacement is expressed through photography’s disconnection of image from referent, resulting in scenes of uncertainty that rupture the continuity of quotidian life.

What explains this photographic uncertainty concerns both the technological advances of photographic imaging, and the wider cultural conditions in which those advances are set. Certainly a key factor has been the development of digital imagery and post-production procedures since the ‘80s, which has meant that photography can artificially construct just about any scene it wants to, such as a man falling from a tall building, or a letter ripped up and flung to the wind, or a woman positioned perilously in the middle of a motor way--all of which are pictured in Tabrizian’s pieces. The digital image no longer offers an indexical sign--like a footprint or a shadow--of something real, what Roland Barthes termed the “that which has been” of photographic reference, and with its severing from reality, the image is cast into the realm of imagination.

This digital turn has paralleled--not surprisingly--a gradual demotion of photography’s documentary tendencies in practice. According to the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall--whose work bears precedence for Tabrizian’s own--the aim of art photography has become a matter of creating “pictures,” for which the verification of truth is no longer at issue. Rather, what counts is the image’s expressive power, which, by mixing the conventions of narrative painting and computer imaging, it might deliver in any number of creative ways. Of course, Tabrizian’s practice has been dedicated to making certain kinds of pictures, imaging in particular the ennui of our contemporary existence under advanced global capitalism--what Stuart Hall, in a past essay on the artist’s work, termed “a critique of the everyday life of contemporary corporate-post- modernity and its ‘systems’ of representation.”

In this regard, Tabrizian’s images of the hard, slick surfaces of cold corporate architectures, superficial networking ceremonies attended by non-individuals subsumed by their monotonous business-world uniforms resonate as well with the classic accounts of postmodernity, such as Fredric Jameson’s analysis of its schizophrenic social fragmentation, waning of affect, and amnesiac fixation on presence at the expense of history. That Tabrizian’s figures appear trapped in this dystopic milieu perhaps explains their resulting existential crises--the episodes of sudden catatonic immobility, aimless wandering, regressive withdrawal, even suicide--which appear as the dysfunctional environment’s damaging consequences on human life.

Of course with most everyone now familiar with the artifice of digital photography, it may be difficult to view Tabrizian’s work as pursuing the same postmodernist strategy of critical mimicry as practiced decades ago--consider Robert Longo’s drawings of businessmen caught in moments of paroxysm, or Cindy Sherman’s photographic citations of classic Hollywood cinema, both of which simultaneously parody what they repeat, but with a telling excess or difference that signals the critique. For Tabrizian’s part, the obviously staged quality of her images--which quotes the art of quotation--brings into view not only the emotional indifference with which social breakdown is typically encountered in the mass media and movie industry, such as in the films of Quentin Tarantino, but also the potential apathy with which art audiences regard the work of critical appropriation. That these photographs anticipate the blasé viewer who is no longer moved by the critical exposure of the social indifference toward others explains their melancholy aura.

Still, the endurance of Tabrizian’s cultural critique is that its thematic portrayal of the social isolation and psychological breakdown of corporate-post-modernity occurs by uncovering its motivating representational factors, including the digital turn, the eclipse of the real in post- documentary photography (and film), and the reign of postmodern simulation. So what of Tehran and Border, which depict real people, rather than nameless characters set in fictional scenarios, even if those fictions bear a certain social truth? Despite Border’s return to reality, accompanied by the personal testimonies of its subjects, the series’ dramatic titles and fragmented positions-- like so many film stills--maintain the representational uncertainty that has long guided Tabrizian’s photography. In other words, the expression of exile--the impossibility of feeling at home abroad as much as in one’s place of origin, as is clear in Tehran’s depiction of socially isolated figures placed under the domineering portraits of Iran’s rulers--means that not even the return to photographic reality can offer the security that might salve the existential anxiety accompanying migration.

While the experience of loneliness would seem to inspire the longing for empathy, caring relationships, and images of home, Tabrizian refrains from offering such nostalgic fixes. Instead we face figures who stare into the distance, their imagination--if that is indeed what it is-- ultimately unavailable to us. In this vein, her photographs show that documentary’s representation of the fullness of subjective reality is ultimately never possible, for there is always something more to people than what their images can capture. Like the longing figures in Border, our only recourse is to invent that meaning for ourselves.

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