This series examines armchair nostalgia—a longing for a past that has never been lived. This can take the form of nostalgia towards past film and fiction. I explore this theme through fan culture, souvenirs, and the fans themselves (for example, Star Trek fans, or “Trekkies”). I ask questions about how fictional nostalgic objects manifest physically, and how they function in reality. I use these quotidian objects as mnemonic aids for my models (non-actors in their own homes). As the model re-enacts the film from memory, I document the temporal act. I present the unaltered photo to the viewer.
/ROJA ASLANI BA (Psych), BFA, MFA, is a Canadian living between Canada and the United Kingdom. Her practice investigates fan culture, fan souvenirs and commercial nostalgia. Aslani has shown in Berlin, Toronto, Kelowna, Vernon, London, Edinburgh, and Tallinn. She has upcoming exhibitions in Victoria and Kelowna.
/FEAR AND DESIRE IN THE ART OF ROJA ASLANI
Roja Aslani’s photographs in her exhibition at the Stride Gallery, called Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be, are documents of solitary re-enactment dramas. In this series the artist is exploring “armchair nostalgia”, a longing that can take form in nostalgia towards past film and fiction. The non-actors in her mise-en-scène photographs perform their parts with a strange, affected, yet endearing nonchalance, which, considering the campy mixture of Dorm aesthetic, Gothic, and Sci-Fi, paradoxically reinforces a sense of authenticity in telegraphing the existential duality of ordinary and extraordinary states. In these multivalent works, the commonplace and fantastic, the actual and imaginary, coexist. The representation of these seemingly incompatible states blend into a multi-layered fusion, like the staging strategies more commonly associated with contemporary media and advertising, and long-standing forms of popular entertainment.
In pop music, for example, when Madonna crooned that she felt “touched for the very first time” in her 1984 chart-topping debut hit Like a Virgin, she was metaphorically expressing that life was about [making] new beginnings, that the material world was also a multi-temporal one, and that virginity, once lost, could, figuratively speaking, be nostalgically re-authored as a frame of mind, an idea, an ideal. Madonna’s breakthrough song, and her work and personae throughout her career, although heralded as postmodern, may equally be considered relevant to Charles Baudelaire’s influential statement over one hundred years earlier, that modernity is, “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, the other half of which is the eternal and the immutable.”(1) Baudelaire’s observation, in its temporal duality, posits that a focus on the present [in art] may aspire to embody both the contemporary moment, and the classical ideal of permanence. Now, in 2010, in the aftermath of modernism and postmodernism, the notion of “the real” not only connotes new meanings, it also represents a renewed interest in actualities, however contingent, bereft of direct experience, mediated, or manufactured. The hybrid state or “post-human” as Jeffrey Deitch once called it, is not just the creative domain of clever advertising, literature or art, but has infiltrated society and popular consciousness at virtually all levels of comprehension, in the effort to accommodate the transformation of the subject in direct correlation to a longing for self-identity, change, and self-invention.
In an essay from the late 1990s, Linda Hutcheon writes about how nostalgia went from “curable” to “uncurable,” and that this transition was made possible by a shift from spatial to temporal sites. She says, “Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to – ever, time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact.” (2) Armchair nostalgia, as filtered through Hutcheon’s writing, and Aslani’s artwork, while likely to be interpreted as the domain of daydreamers and romantics, and more recent generations of couch potatoes, and computer players, may also bear some connection to us all. Armchair nostalgia is “[that] nostalgia that longs for things that have never been lived or lost.” (3) Gothic Obsession: Calvin 001, 2009, depicts Calvin outfitted with costume, accessories, and make-up, all provided by Aslani as mnemonic aids to assist in the actor’s recollection of the film, from which he re-enacts a role. The artist has explained that, until she arrives at their homes, her actors are unaware of the exact role they will re-enact. Upon receiving their directorial instructions and mnemonic aids, they begin to improvise and role-play, while she photographs the experience. In this picture, Calvin (Dorian Gray?) is seen sitting at his computer table in a crowded one-room flat; hemmed in on all sides by the jumble of his worldly possessions, the pensive young man, now grey-haired and talcum-powdered, turns away from his computer screen and slips into his role.
Here Aslani orchestrates a theatre of the uncanny by juxtaposing the unusual with the ordinary. The metamorphosis of quotidian materiality – tangled electrical cables, an unmade bed, discarded lotion bottles, clothes and shoes, televisions stacked one atop the other, DVDs, books, transformed into an aesthetic alter-world – is made possible, not only by the juxtaposition of the costumed actor and the everyday, but in the relation between audience and artwork. (4) The photographic representation is aesthetically and mimetically elaborated upon by the audience through our ability to intellectually and emotionally actualize the experience, however ambiguous the line between fiction and reality. The interpretive anamorphosis of [the picture] meaning is analogized by the actor’s reflection in the mirror propped against the wall, which suggests that, in his identification with his imagined subject, he has turned his back on his other, former self. The blank screens of the powered-down televisions and the black external abyss beyond the partially opened window curtains symbolically absorb the actor’s gaze into the void of the unknown.
On the cluttered table lies an unopened book on French artist Sophie Calle, herself a master of role-playing and disguise. This cryptic reference cues the audience to the work’s many strata of representation. This kind of quotation, commonly associated with postmodernism, is still widely used as a production tool and theoretical strategy by recent generations of artists like Aslani. These artists also view the replication and excerptation of texts and images as legitimate methodologies in their practices, and it might be argued that the manner of acknowledgement in which such recombinant content is deployed is often the tipping point in the work’s success. To her credit, Aslani’s approach to the pictorial mise-en-scène is in the first place about the transparency of the staging itself. Theatricality is communicated as a structural thematic, and as a conceptual foundation for re-imagining existence, however transiently or obsessively experienced, and, as such, mirrors an eternal human desire to imagine oneself in a (nostalgic) place that transcends both space and time. The human capacity for improvisation and the desire to animate the imagination in realms outside of the normalcy of daily life have become distinguishing characteristics of our time. In an openly mocking gesture toward mimesis and the simulacra, the actor-model Petter (The Werewolf?) presents an ironic re-enactment in Petter 002, in which he shields his eyes from the alfalfa sprouts covering his arm as the faux transformation from human to animal gets underway. Here Aslani’s representation of the contingencies of life also functions as a signifier of the immutable cycle of human transformation, and of the study in contrasts between our fear of and desire for change, the transitory, and the unknown.
(1) Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. New York, Garland Publishing, Inc. 1978
(2) Hutcheon, Linda, Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern, See: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/hutchinp.html
(4)Chapter 3, “Image-Screens, or The Aesthetic Strategy of Disengagement”, in The Aesthetics of Disengagement, Contemporary Art and Depression, by Christina Ross, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
/GARY PEARSON is an artist, and Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Studies at UBC Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC. In addition to his own art practice, he is also an independent curator, and art writer whose exhibition reviews have been published in Canadian Art, Border Crossings, and Sculpture magazine, among other publications.