Yasi Alipour '18 Encounters Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan, Iran
Encounters is a series where we talk to Columbia Visual, Sound, and Performance artists about the art that compels them to see and create in new ways.
One would think that abstract art is about, well, abstraction: ideas, concepts, things unseen. Speaking with Visual Arts professor and alumna Yasi Alipour ’18 will change your mind about that. For this interview, we sat down with Alipour to talk about the hand’s gestures in art-making, how Naghsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan, Iran has influenced her art practice, and the many ways she imprints embodied reproductions of the infinite onto paper.
Alipour’s works do not depict scenes so much as they depict moments in time and space. The works emerge from, and have within them, deeply historied algorithms, functions, and modes of counting, of keeping track of time and, perhaps, space. As such, there is a natural nod to the fact that time and space are at once abstract and immaterial. Yet, the works—which hang from walls and at times from ceilings—also nod to the vulnerable material nature of any place, or space, or period of time.
When standing before Alipour’s works, it takes a while to notice that you are not looking at cloth but instead at a more democratic material: paper. Likewise, it takes a second look to understand that Alipour has embedded a love letter to her first home, Iran, her friends, her family, and her own lived experience into these large sheets of folded, dyed, and natural-light exposed paper. Once glimpsed, this facet of Alipour’s work cannot be unseen and exists in concert with the intricate lexicon of angles and parabolas and intersecting lines.
On the day that we met with Alipour in the Islamic Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Women, Life, Freedom protests in Iran had just begun. Several weeks later, when we met with Alipour at her studio, and likewise, today, the protests continue to expand throughout Iran and the rest of the world.
Although we did not speak directly about the protests and the many losses that followed Jina Mahsa Amini’s death, the uprisings that call for freedom and justice punctuated our conversations.
Tell me about your move from Iran to the U.S.
Yasi Alipour: I was born and raised in Iran. I moved here when I was twenty-two—I moved here for school—and now, I’ve been here for more than ten years, but all of that kind of happened accidentally.
One of your formative encounters with art was at Naghsh-e Jahan square, which consists of two mosques, a palace, and a bazaar. How did you encounter this site?
YA: Our high school took us to Isfahan because it is a significant city with a lot of traces of the golden years of Islamic art. The city was once the capital of Iran. It has a lot of breath-taking works of art and architecture.
What stood out to you during your visit?
YA: I still remember my body as it entered the square, Naghsh-e Jahan (Did I tell you, the name in Farsi translates to, “traces of the world”). This square is really interesting. All around it are these large arches, so as you’re entering and exiting the space you can feel yourself surrounded by forms that can only be completed with the sky. And the ceiling in each of these buildings—whether it is the mosques, the palace, or even the Bazaar—are so beautiful. It’s like a poetic world made of abstraction and repetition. Those ceilings just respond to you—you keep looking and you can see someone’s hand winking at you. There’s all this play that the architects and artisans managed with perspective that messes with your sense of the profound and what can be a place to rest. And then on top of it, the square is also full of life and people.
That reminds me of your work, which, despite the strong discourse in abstraction, is also full of life and people. Before we speak about the folding and the colors in your pieces, I’d like to know more about the mental architecture, so to speak, of your art practice.
YA: After I finished my undergrad in the U.S., I went back to Isfahan, and I was thinking about what I was told counts as art. In the U.S. I was taught abstraction as a refusal of the representational. And in discussions of Middle Eastern art, the abstraction was reduced to a simple limitation, a lack. But all of that just did not make sense in Iran. Isfahan opened things up for me, it gave me a world that could hold my questions. Folding is a space where I can exist with the paradoxes. And I continue onward.
Let’s go back to those first experiences of folding. How did your practice of folding paper into repetitive patterns start?
YA: Folding has been consistent in my life. I feel that folding is that thing that kind of came before the why’s. I was folding before I knew what art was. I started folding when I was in middle school. It was a way of drawing for someone who had a really hard time with tools. I wasn’t good with the pencil, I was kind of the weird leftie, I was always smudging things—but folding had algorithms and I could be clean about it, and it had the repetition I really liked. So yes, it has continued very persistently since middle school. And it was never representational, it was always abstract: they were grids, they were math drawings that I really liked.
And out of that came a certain form that you honed in on and began folding?
YA: Yes, the form that I was interested in when I was in middle school—and it still repeats in my work—is a very simple algorithm, it’s a mathematical drawing. It’s kind of a matrix. Imagine two perpendicular lines, Line A and Line B, each divided into n parts. Now the algorithm is simple. Connect point A0 to B1, A1 to B2, A2 to B3, all the way to A(n-1) to Bn. And slowly you realized that you are making a curve. And the more detailed you are (the bigger the number n is), the more smooth your curve becomes. You create a curve using only lines! That used to just blow my mind it still kind of does). Because with only a straight-edge, I had created something that looked like a curve and it looked beautiful and I wanted it in more and more detail; but I wasn’t good with the rulers. I’d want to divide the lines into segments. The spaces in between were reduced to half a centimeter (and even smaller). I wanted to count in hundreds. But of course, I would get my counting wrong, I would have to erase things and it would all get smudged. So, I figured out how to do it in folds. Same effects, exponentially detailed, and no mess. Of course, it has also taken years.
So at that point, you were folding the lines of the algorithm into the paper without any color applied.
YA: Yes, you know sometimes I laugh thinking, being a folder means I make invisible drawings. I had one geometry teacher in high school who really helped me out, she said, “Yasi, no one can see your drawings. The lines you make are the same color as the paper.” So she suggested, “One good way to make it visible is to make it three dimensional” (she would also tell me stories of mathematicians that carried in their pockets pieces of paper to fold. I always imagined the Iranian female mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani). Any fold is very easy to make three dimensional. You just push some folds inward, push some outward, and then it kind of becomes this sculptural form. It very quickly stops being a drawing that is on a surface, becoming something that is architectural.
It was around that time that we visited Naghsh-e Jahan square. That architecture was really important for me. It was like finding a whole world—old, full of life, traces of hands and bodies, full of patterns.
Let’s talk more about Naghsh-e Jahan square and those tiles you’d pointed out to me at the MET that resemble the ones you encountered in the square.
YA: I was just floored looking at the tiles; and they’re different forms, they each kind of have their own logic, but they’re part of a tessellated whole. They’re kind of fragments of the site. The first night we got in [to the square], it was too late to go inside, we couldn’t enter any of the buildings, but the shops were open. So a bunch of us school kids were going from one store to the next, looking at which tile we wanted. And the stores themselves were run by the artisans. They were patiently (and some not so patiently) teaching us how to look. I remember having this sense that a world was opening up to me. My folds could belong somehow. These tiny small tiles could fit in the palm of your hand, and then if you looked around, you'd realize that this whole beautiful architecture was pieced together by them. I was simply in awe.
I still have the tile I bought that night. It still lives with me, even now in Brooklyn. And it has this very distinct blue that to me is of that world.
From what I’ve gathered, it took you a while to shift from using black dyed to blue cyanotype paper. What, for you, is the difference between the black and the blue on paper?
YA: I started with the black paper and I was almost exclusively working with it for three years. The black paper had been great at showing my lines, allowing me to do my thinking, to be able to look back and see it in different ways. The black paper has a way of tracing my hand as it folds.
There’s definitely a difference between the pieces on black paper versus on blue paper.
YA: Yes, definitely. You know, the piece you saw at the door that you said looked like a cloth, that was one of the last pieces before I started the cyanotypes, and at that point I was really interested in the exhaustion of the paper, the gray space, the tear. The texture of the exhausted paper changes; the feeling of it in my hand changes: I can feel the fibers disintegrating. They become soft and almost pliant. And I remember leaving my studio and turning the lights off and thinking, 'Oh, it looks like lights,' because at certain points there’s so much pressure on the paper, and what has been taken away becomes sort of luminous.
It’s interesting to consider luminosity because in some of your recent works, the blue cyanotype creates, for me, a texture similar to glass. There’s a shift, in that sense, into a different facet of luminosity. It has a different effect on me.
YA: The blues get to me, too. The color blue has a deep history in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. You can just feel it, in the architecture, in Miniature painting, in the tiles, the textile, the printmaking. And there is this distinct moment in history, where cities like Isfahan became places where different cultures, artisans, and materials came together. And one of the main things they were exchanging were hues of the color blue.
It was kind of random, how I encountered those blue hues again; I knew I was inspired by them, but I had to find a way that the colors worked in my practice, with the kind of logic and algorithms in my practice. My use of cyanotype started right before the beginning of Covid, and it was because of Columbia’s LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies and their emphasis on experimentation. [Professor] Tomas Vu-Daniel has been a really important mentor to me. He was the one who urged me into doing it. He’s a really special art educator. He knows how to be patient and yet stubborn enough to help you open new ways. I have a hard time changing the material I use, because there are so many questions embedded in what I’m folding. Changing tools can be really hard for me.
What was difficult about shifting tools?
YA: It has been really hard to find a space for color in my work that doesn’t feel illustrative or like an afterthought. I have always loved that in folding, the paper is not made of a front and back; the drawing is not on a surface, the fold is within the paper itself. It has never felt right to make the folds visible by adding something on top. But again and again I find myself thinking of ways to make the folds visible; because the folding of paper is my space of silence…and you know how that is, it is the kind of silence that becomes a lifeline, a space I long for, and one I have fought to find, fought to sustain and protect. Yet, I want it to be heard, to be seen, I want people to spend time with the work. I remember, even in undergrad, I would try to find ways to do rubbings of the folds, just so I could get some visibility. That never felt right. But the cyanotype translated into what I do so quickly.
You were saying earlier that in folding, you're always returning. What are you returning to?
YA: That’s a good one. When I was in school the kids used to say, “When it comes to physics, if you return to where you began, it is as if you never left, as if there was never a journey.” It haunted me.
So, yesterday my students were [at my studio] and I was saying to them that I never fold without unfolding—I don’t fold a line on top of another line. And one of them interjected “Isn’t unfolding a fold?” They crack me up. But yes, each time I fold a line, I undo it, I flatten the paper again.
Why do you do that?
YA: Well, for me, the first step in folding was trying to make a gridded paper that was ‘correct.’ My dad is an engineer—I grew up with those checkered papers, and I was determined to fold something as accurate as that. So in that sense, the 'going back,' in some way, feels like I’m still making the checkered paper.
Do you think that has a relationship to your fascination with Isfahan Square? The architecture has to be so particular in order to create those kinds of effects.
YA: Yes—and when I was growing up, I never thought about how lucky I was for this—the architecture around me at the time was made by people who were mathematicians, artists, and poets at the same time—and they didn’t see any difference among all of that. They were like, ‘I made a calendar, I’m writing these poems, and obviously if you’re making a building, you need these beautiful forms in it’…and all of these, for them, were one thing.
I’m interested in considering the connection between making something in a specific place—like that piece over there, The Light Waiting for You (2022), which you made in your sister’s home-office—and how the artwork becomes a memory and a testament to a place and the time spent in a place. The artwork creates these points of connection.
YA: That’s everything! For instance, I have been trying to write this piece to find language for all that is happening in Iran right now, the sense of being moved, scared, concerned, horrified, hopeful, proud, exhausted, defiant, beyond defeated, persisting…the list is kind of infinite. Suddenly I realized that what I’m trying to write about are conversations I had a few weeks ago, on a Saturday with my sister while we were driving around in her car for a whole day. She’s a working mom with a five-year-old, so we drove from one location to the next, spending time with my nephew. In between, we talked for hours. We were talking in Farsi and we have this shared knowledge of things, these agreements, you know—we watch the same news channels, follow similar people on Twitter, more importantly we’re haunted by the same events. It’s those words that I’m trying to write about. With her I discuss things not only in Farsi but what is deeply my mother tongue. The conversation has a different speed. How could it ever fit on a page?
I love the physical act of writing, a pen rolling on a piece of paper. For me, it is a way of feeling things. Sometimes, I wonder if folding is my way of writing letters that I can’t write in language.
It’s like a bodily language. A personal imprint of time spent.
YA: Exactly, the folding is incredibly bodily. And I trust it, I trust my hand as it feels the paper; I know when my lines are right, my hands know if I missed a point—I don’t need to look, I know my folds through the making, I know them through the movements my hands made. It is very much about the hand and the touch.
More than anything, it’s always been a way of saying: I’ve been here.
Yasi Alipour is an Iranian artist/writer based in Brooklyn. Her tactile works on paper uses folding to explore mathematics as a language, with all the historical, social, political, mortal, and embodied ramifications any language holds. Alipour currently lives in Brooklyn and wonders about paper, counting, and silence, probing personal history to parse issues around political interruption and unstable histories. Recent solo exhibitions include Bavan Gallery (Tehran, 2022), 12 Gates Gallery (Philadelphia, 2022), She is a recipient of Critics of Color (2021/2022), Sharpe Walentas Studio Program Award (2019/2021), Rema Hort Foundation Emerging Artist Nominee (2018/2019), and the Triple Canopy Publication Intensive (2018). Her work has been exhibited in the United States and internationally, in spaces including two person exhibitions at Transmitter Gallery (2022, NY), the Geary Contemporary (2021, NY), and has been featured in many group exhibitions including Secca (2020), Venice Biennale (2019, IT), Hercules Program (2019, NY), 17 Essex (2019, NY), Limiditi-Temporary Art Project (2018, MR), Practice (2018, NY), Museum of Contemporary Art Vijdovina (2018, SR), Art in Odd Places (2017, NY), and PPOW (2017, NY). Her writing has appeared at the Brooklyn Rail, Spot Magazine, Curstionist, Asia Contemporary Art Week, Photograph Magazine, Volume One/Triple Canopy, and the Dear Dave. Her recent featured interviews include Julie Mehretu, Dorothea Rockburne, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Okwui Okpokwasili, Sanford Biggers, Yto Barrada, Hans Haacke, Mark Dion, Aliza Nisenbaum, Jane Benson, and Kevin Beasley. In Fall of 2021, Alipour was invited as the guest editor of the Brooklyn Rail’s Critics Page. Alipour holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a Faculty at Columbia University, SVA, and Parson’s MFA Fine Arts.