Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
Sassan Behnam Bakhtiar in conversation with Nick Hackworth on the occasion of Rebirth
NH : Today we’re talking about two displays of your work in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, being presented together under the title Rebirth. There’s the unveiling of a permanent sculpture and an accompanying exhibition of your paintings that will comprise the inaugural show at Villa Namouna, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat’s new cultural centre. The town is your home. When did you move here?
SBB : I came to Cap-Ferrat in 2009.
NH : And how is life as a working artist in such a rare ed location? One tends to associate the Côte d’Azur with the contemporary art of a century ago.
SBB : [laughs] That’s true. There aren’t many living artists in the south of France who are doing what I’m doing! There’s actually a lot happening now in Cap-Ferrat with the new cultural centre and of course there are many great collectors who live here. It’s also great to engage with the artistic history both here and in the region. My last exhibition here was Oneness Wholeness with Jean Cocteau, staged in Villa Santo Sospir, here in Cap Ferrat, Cocteau’s home for 13 years. The show was my creative dialogue with his work and legacy, with which I feel a real affinity. In his work he was talking about the same things that I’m talking about. It’s an honour to be able to continue to express some of the things that these great minds and great artists used to think back in their day. They were the rebels, especially somebody like Cocteau. The sculptures I made were homages to these inspiring figures and the transformations that we can all achieve by connecting with nature, both in the world and within us. The villa, with its beautiful gardens facing the sea, was the perfect place to present these ideas.
NH : Coming up to the present day and your latest works... Let’s start with the public sculpture, Rebirth, commissioned by the town. Can you tell me what the work means to you?
SBB : Well, the sculpture depicts a man, a woman and a child and its focus, for me, is depicting the value of transferring the necessary knowledge
from one generation to another. I think it’s vital for parents to really think about what kind of knowledge they pass on to their children. There’s a void at the heart of most the education systems around the world...
NH : You mean in terms of the type of knowledge that they pass on?
SBB : Yes. You go to school and you study subjects to help you better survive within our system, physics, maths, biology, chemistry etc which is great, and then they start pushing you into different paths because you need to get a job, you’re going to become a doctor, lawyer, professor and so on... That’s all great and vital to be able to have a financial security in life. But at the end of the day, for me, there’s still something vital missing in this set-up...
NH : As in the teaching of a deeper understanding of how to be a human in the world?
SBB : One of the messages of the piece, for me, is the understanding that we are part of nature, and that we are all one. I’m made of the same things as you are and both of us are made of the same things as nature, which is energy, at the end of the day. If we understand this language and if we understand this fact, we can really change our lives in so many ways – improve our mental and physical health, become an improved version of ourselves, evolve in ways we thought not possible, cultivate happiness, adopt a new perception towards what life truly should feel like, just to name a few. I went through this realisation myself.
NH : Hence the form of the work. You’ve articulated the combined silhouette of three figures in wrought iron bars, sprayed white, as if it were drawn in light.
SBB : Exactly! I chose the colour because white represents a connection to our spiritual selves, light, goodness and innocence... Also, when the work is installed on the roundabout [the work’s permanent home], the white will stand out well against the green grass and the blue sky.
NH : And the material?
SBB : I’ve used wrought iron, welded piece-by-
piece. It’s a material I have a lot of experience with. My mum used to work with welded iron back in the day, when we lived in Iran. She had a big workshop in the basement of our house in which she used to create some really cool stuff with a team of welders; art works, pieces of furniture, chandeliers and so forth. So, I learnt to weld, a bit and work with metal from around the age of seven or eight!
NH : Accompanying the unveiling of the sculpture is an exhibition of about twenty of your paintings at Villa Namouna. For some years your paintings, both the purely abstract and the semi- abstract, have been characterised by a distinctive look. The surface of each work is covered with passages of thick, bright hued oil paint that you seem to scrape and drag into one another. The effect is one of painterly cross-hatching, or almost a kind of painterly pixilation. How do you achieve this look and style?
SBB : Well revealing too much detail [laughs], I begin with the background, which takes a long time because that’s all about creating the textures in my work. To create texture I always look for a reaction between the natural pigments that I use and another key natural water based element.
NH : Water? But you work with oil paints, don’t you? That’s very unusual, to mix water with oil...
SBB : It is unusual. I stumbled on the technique by chance one day. For a long time I’ve created my own paint using raw pigments and oil and one day some other product got into the mix, which led to this discovery. Basically, it becomes dough-like while it’s drying and so more material, bitty and inconsistent than it would be normally. The moment when the paint is half-dried is very important to me. Timing is everything otherwise it won’t work. A crust forms that I break and then scrape and redistribute the paint across the canvas. In some paintings, this kind of texture is pretty much everywhere. In other pieces it’s in concentrated in portions of the canvas.
NH : Within the selection of works in the show, I’m drawn to the new body of paintings that you call The Flowers of the Soul...
SBB : Yes, as you can see The Flowers of the Soul, are little bit different from the other works, but since they really work with the theme of Rebirth, we decided to include some of them.
NH : In them I especially like the contrast between the textured grit of the backgrounds and the delicacy with which the petals, and thus the forms of the flowers, are articulated.
SBB : What you see when you are looking at the petals is in fact the under painting that is popping out. I scrape out the forms of the flowers. Like excavations. Obviously, I add paint as well sometimes, but it depends. It’s a mix of both. I just go with it, y’know? It feels very intuitive when it comes to doing these flowers and in fact the series began in a very playful way. I was working on my earlier series of paintings The Age of Energy and I started just scratching stuff on the surface of the canvas and I began scratching out the shapes of flowers. That’s how these flowers were born.
NH : I also like the fact that these paintings feel connected to some previous great depictions of flowers previously made in the South of France, in works of Van Gogh and Cezanne in particular.
SBB : These flowers are also very personal for me, as symbols. I’ve gone through a lot in my life, and one fairly traumatic experience I had when I was younger in Iran, was being kidnapped and imprisoned. I disappeared for three months and was tortured for few weeks in that time. Thankfully I’d already started working on my meditative practices and so on, which really helped me to survive in there. While I was there... I was in a little tiny cell, one by two metres perhaps, very cold, dressed only in my boxer-shorts, given no water for a about a week, no food for ten days, and I was there for two weeks. I lost about twenty kilos. All I could do was to rely on my inner self and I used my own energy to survive. What happened at one time, while I was meditating, I started visualising these very positive blurbs of flowers that popped here and there. Those flowers left a mark in my psyche, and I never forgotten their shape. So these Flowers of the Soul works connect to a very sensitive time in my life. Funnily enough, the more I move forward in my artistic career, I go back in time. I never planned to talk about this and other personal experiences I’ve had. I just wanted my work to do the talking, but people started asking and it got to the point that it felt right to share my experiences. The first time I did that was around my show Extremis at Setareh Gallery in Düsseldorf.
NH : And how do you relate to your other works, most of which are abstract? Do you see these paintings as representing anything, or are they more purely aesthetic works for you?
SBB : It depends, but generally, for me, they represent the life that lies beyond what we see physically with our eyes, the realm of energy. I see my work as a window into what is constantly happening all around and within us but is unseen. But people see what they want to see. I see what I want to see. Some people come and tell me they see a sunset or a landscape, others see flowers.... but overall these latest works represent for me a sense of being reborn again under different rules and different values. Simple values, something as simple as going and lying on grass, exchanging some energy with the earth. Believe me, you’re going to feel so much better if you do that for twenty minutes a day. I’m not trying to be especially philosophical about these things, even though most of the stuff I do might be seen as quite deep. If you read my essay The Age of Energy you’ll understand where I’m going with all of this talk of energy. For me, the secret of life is energy and I’m trying to put it out there in a very simple way so that people can really relate to it and feel it, in their own way.