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Seraj & Wallace @ Martina Johnston and Royal Nonesuch

Azin Seraj, Still from "Lullaby", 2013, digital video


Azin Seraj and David Wallace offer fresh artistic perspectives on some of the thorny political issues we face in the U.S. in their East Bay exhibits called, respectively, Sublunar at Martina }{ Johnston Gallery in Berkeley and Friends, Family, Neighbors at Royal NoneSuch Gallery in Oakland. These two artists are peers with significant similarities in terms of subject, the way they make art, and their selected media.

Seraj’s exhibition begins with Lullaby, a short filmprojected in Martina }{ Johnston's screening room. Its subject is the effect of U.S. sanctions on the people of Iran. The video has two movements. The first uses footage the artist shot at night near Tehran, as well as images of ice cubes, dyed to resemble an Iranian flag, slowly melting and floating in a tank of water. These impressionistic images are framed by the sound of President Obama’s speech announcing the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. The second movement begins with a joltingly loud montage of imagery sourced from the Internet of people in Iran who have been hurt by these sanctions. This is followed by slow footage of patients in hospitals, accompanied by a dolorous lullaby, sung in Farsi.
Azin Seraj, "Ghazal Moon", 2010, digital print, 24 x 36"

Also addressing inflation, the piece 11,111, in the main gallery, consists of formally framed Iranian currency. The bills are arranged both chronologically and in powers of ten. Importantly, the new 10,000 Toman bill, with its image of Khomenei, has less purchasing power than the 57-year-old 1 Toman bill, with its image of the Shah. In the same room is the video installation Kaseye Sabr Labriz Mishavad / Bowl of Patience in which footage of Iranians speaking about the effects of the sanctions is projected into a bowl of water.

Other works in the show, such as Ghazal Moon, a large-scale photograph, address issues of Iranian identity in a less politicized fashion. Seraj has captured an image of the beautifully tiled Tomb of Hafez, named for the 14th century Persian poet famed for his Ghazals. But the structure occupies only a small portion of the frame, which is filled with a black sky and a softly glowing moon. The sculptural installation Persepolis consists of a small vial of dirt from the ruins of this Persian city.  A light casts a larger shadow of the vial on the wall.  Refracted through the glass, the light has taken on some of the color of the dirt, and projects an image of a landscape or figure.  Seraj’s use of elements of the natural world — dirt, water, the moon — suggest a transcendence of worldly concerns and point us toward a more spiritual interpretation.
David Wallace masterfully presents Friends, Family, Neighbors, the eponymous piece, which the artist calls a “shadow puppet machine.” Slides taken by the artist are projected onto a screen visible in the window of the gallery. A motorized disk creates shadows, which move over the images, shadows of a flock of birds and one General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone. The artist took a large number of portraits of people in his life in everyday domestic settings; people appear in small groups in their living rooms, on the porch outside their house, in the dog park, etc. The same people appear multiple times, emphasizing that they are an interrelated social group. This piece is visible from the street every night from 8 to midnight.
David Gregory Wallace, still from "Predator", 2013, digital video
This is Where We Live is a video projection. A generic house slowly spins on the wall of the gallery. On closer inspection, the colorful, geometrical shape is seen to be a digital construction of appropriated surveillance footage of drone strikes, attacks on houses with unseen inhabitants, “collateral damage” in the War on Terror.
Predator is a short film projected in the rear of the gallery in which the artist follows a boy as he plays with a model of a Predator drone.  He carries the toy through different spaces, following his father down Telegraph Ave. near Cal, riding BART in the afternoon sun through Oakland, passing the drum circle at Ashby Station, climbing an elaborate ironwork trellis on the family’s back porch and playing with robotic bug toys that race through a maze on the coffee table.
David Gregory Wallace, "Friends, Family, Neighbors", 2013, installation with slide projector and shadow puppet machine

What strikes me about this film is that it gives the viewer the opportunity to get lost in a vision of the drone seen through the imagination of a young child, a safe and innocent world far from the battlefield. Viewers are given the freedom to bring their own critical narrative to the piece, to remember at our own pace that we are looking at a sophisticated military weapon developed as a key tool in the so-called War on Terror.

Seraj and Wallace seek to expose the means by which the U.S. effects geopolitical change, calling attention to the violence and suffering caused. They use appropriated images and call on nature as a symbol of transcendence, as in Seraj’s use of the moon, water, and dirt, and Wallace’s projected birds. Both artists present work about a specific political theme, their goal being neither to inform viewers of specific details of the issue, nor to convince them to adopt a specific opinion, but rather to take a challenging issue with enormous implications and break it down, re-presenting it on a human scale so that viewers can make up their own minds.


Azin Seraj: “Sublunar” @ Martina }{ Johnston through June 30, 2013.
David Gregory Wallace: “Friends, Family, Neighbors” @ Royal NoneSuch Gallery through June 30, 2013.
About the Author:
Katherine Sherwood is a Professor of Art Practice and Disability Studies at U.C. Berkeley.  She is represented in San Francisco by Gallery Paule Anglim

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