On the Thin Ice of Order
Catalogue essay by Abbas Daneshvari, PhD
Babak Golkar’s series Grounds for Standing and Understanding (2012) is visually stunning and philosophically provocative. For, behind the serene and beautiful façades of these works are often allusions to the labyrinthine spaces of the human mind in search of stability and order within the universal sea of flux and chaos. Grounds for Standing and Understanding contradicts and dismisses the idealism of metaphysics just as Golkar’s Parergon series (2011) rejects the notion of value as absolute and inherent in each and every object and expression. These works establish a system of anti-idealist predicates by asserting that metaphysics is an idea but not a practical, real mechanism. The points raised by Golkar are also raised by Derrida in his deconstruction of Heidegger’s metaphysics where every ground is no more than a trace and “that the trace is neither a ground nor a foundation, nor an origin…”1 While this work is many things within the various hermeneutical structures, here in this essay, Grounds for Standing and Understanding is viewed as a work of profound deconstruction for it, through a play of signs, reverses the hierarchical structures of order and flux; meaning and meaninglessness.
Grounds for Standing and Understanding is an amalgamation of purely white architectonic structures placed upon the colourful designs of Persian carpets. The visual character of these elements is striking as they combine simplicity and complexity, stillness and vibrancy, both in colour and design. The contrast between the purity of the structures, their monumental presences, the towering up of their architectural forms, and the flat, colourful and culturally iconic images of the carpets, is quite inviting. Hidden within these aesthetically pleasing designs are the grafting of the modern and traditional, of the pure and the complex. However, the modern, presented as the purely white and seemingly unadulterated architecture, is nevertheless an offspring and an extension of the old and the traditional. This is a point that Golkar’s imagery openly suggests when the geometry of the buildings is often extensions of the geometric designs of the carpets. In fact, in a vein similar to the philosophical thinking of the late twentieth century, Golkar, through various simulations of carpets’ designs, repeatedly communicates that the purity of the modern is never originary and always derivative; that all purity is the offspring of far more complexity than it dares to admit. Here, we cannot help but think of how the ‘new’ stands upon the shoulders of the ‘old,’ hiding its debts to its complex and labyrinthine past. In fact, this point is essentially present in Grounds for Standing and Understanding, as the suggested distances of time shown through the two designs of the old and new synchronically evoke the motif of heterogeneity, and diachronically allude to the homogeneity that is inherent in the process of becoming and in the affirmation of the one as many and the many as one.2 Aesthetically speaking, the carpet designs also assume a new kind of elegance when coupled with such unaffected modernism. These carpets embody a vibrant liveliness, a kind of Mondrianesque Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–1943), which serve as the ground for the taller and seemingly central presences.
However, aesthetics aside, the most interesting and philosophically suggestive aspect of these works are Golkar’s play on the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside.’ Ostensibly, a carpet belongs to the inside of a building and is a supplement to the structure. The carpet’s role, therefore, is purely decorative and marginal, while the structure is privileged and plays the essential facet in this binary arrangement.3
Of course, the title of the work provides clues to its philosophical allusions. But, even if it were untitled, we may still have arrived at its philosophically charged perspectives through an analysis of the reversal of the inside and outside. This hierarchical reversal of the inside-out and outside-in, logically and practically, disrupts the standing scheme of relations and, at least in one regard, suggests that essence is more likely to be posited where it is seemingly not deserving of assignation. For here, a carpet, a mundane cultural object, has become the ground for the world of men, wherein the world itself is symbolized by the signs of man’s towering constructions and urbanism. The choice of the carpet as the ground is most appropriate for it is not bound, as are the buildings, by the logic of necessity or by the demands of physical laws. Given that necessity often redraws the map of subjective expression, the carpet, as a purely decorative object, is far better suited to reflect the inter-subjective conditions of a culture’s outlooks.
In this new scheme of relations established by Golkar’s reversal, the old forms are assigned new meanings and new roles. The carpet, for example, as a decorative and dispensable item has now turned essential identifying the ground of meaning and existence. Derrida calls this grafting of new meanings upon old forms a double practice, or paleonymics. One significant feature of paleonymics is that it allows for new ways of seeing and communication.4 So what is to come of this double practice and of this paleonymics?
First, philosophically the fulcrum of attention is shifted to the supplement having turned essential. Moreover, functionally and ideally, because of this shift, where meaning seemed clear, it has now become philosophically complex, opaque and highly un-seeming. Golkar, in a mode similar to Barthes’ attempts to subvert and de-petrify history and its established mechanisms has turned all that was seemingly understood enigmatic.5 This paradoxical arrangement calls for a redirecting of our iconographic attention for, as aptly put by William Ray, Golkar has “counteract(ed) the stereotype of received opinion by supporting its antithesis.”6 Second, the ground we stand on is what sustains us, directs us and issues meaning for our lives. It is, in short, the essence from which emanates all values, truths and ‘Truth.’ It is the metaphysical principle par-excellence and the umbrella beneath which all things stand. And yet, here we have a carpet, a man-made object inscribed and adorned with man’s concepts of harmony and order upon it. This carpet conceals, at least, another ground that we are unwilling or fearing to stand upon because of its flux, chaos and perhaps, above all, because it asserts the absence of meaning and the absence of purpose in ‘Being.’ Thus, there is at least one other ground beneath our manufactured ground. Is not the carpet, this thin fabric of ordered design, this static and stable surface, the cover for the flux of being? Is not this man-made form, the only evidence and proof of our stability amidst the universal chaos? Is not this carpet a symbol of the narratives by which the warriors are turned into sheltered prisoners?
John D. Caputo in a well thought out and beautifully written essay speaks of the conceptual ground, the concealment that is to shelter us from un-concealment. He wrote: “… I would say that in the thin membranes of the structures that we stretch across the flux, in the thin fabric we weave over it, there are certain spots where the surface wears through and acquires the transparency which exposes the flux beneath.”7 Nietzsche’s point (voiced by the hermit) on man-made grounds as layers of concealment is an appropriate philosophical parallel to Golkar’s work: … does not one write books precisely to conceal what one harbors? Indeed, he [the hermit] will doubt whether a philosopher could possibly have ‘ultimate and real’ opinions, whether behind every one of his caves there is not, must not be, another deeper cave—a more comprehensive, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abysmally deep ground behind every ground, under every attempt to furnish ‘grounds.’ … Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask.8
This carpet is the ground, the serene covering, by which we try not to face the uncanny of Heidegger and the ‘Fear’ and trembling of Kierkegaard and the ébranler of Derrida and the joyous affirmation of becoming in Nietzsche. The carpet helps us to momentarily avoid Dostoevsky’s madness of being and Camus’ recognition of the absurdity of it all. This ground that we stand on is an illusion of order and it will erode and give way to the chaos that lies beneath its serene forms. If some transcendental deity is our ground then it too, though seemingly ordered and meaningful, is unable to escape the mystery of the flux beneath it. The ‘Ground’ we stand on is a cover to hide either the terror or the joy of becoming the terror, or the joy of flux and of unavoidable change.
In this work of Golkar, as in Parastou Forouhar’s Trauerfeier (2003), the essence of metaphysics and of spirituality is wholly a matter of man’s physical constructions. The works belie the very notion of essence and metaphysics. These works point out directly or obliquely, depending on the reader’s proclivities, that every truth covers and hides another; every ground sits upon another only to deny its own roots, as the buildings standing upon the very complex structure of the carpets show little or no resemblance to them.
No matter how we decide to read Golkar’s Grounds for Standing and Understanding, we may be sure that he is a master of disruption, because he forces us to see the world in ways that ordinary thought would find unsettling if not downright frightening. As Golkar, through this reversal of hierarchy, has not only shifted the centre but has also undone the notion of a centre. For, if what lies outside of the centre, namely what is marginal, can become the centre, then there is no centre. The disruption of the idea of a centre is the undoing of metaphysics.
1. Jacques Derrida, Positions, translated and annotated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 52.
2. This idea is also at play in Barbad Golshiri’s works. An example is Ghayr (2007). For a discussion see Abbas Daneshvari, Barbad Golshiri: Amazingly Original, Contemporary Iranian Art at Crossroads(Costa Mesa: Mazda Publications, forthcoming 2013).
3. Derrida calls this subversion of inside/outside invagination. See Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 198–199.
4. “To leave this new concept the old name of writing is to maintain the structure of the graft, the transition and indispensable adherence to an effective intervention in the constituted historic field. And it is also to give their chance and their force, their power of communication, to everything played out in the operations of deconstruction.” See Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Margins of Philosophy, translated with additional notes by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 330.
5. William Ray, Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 170, 172, 177, 184–185, 203.
6. Ibid., 173.
7. John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 269.
8. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: Random House, 1992), 419.
9. John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics, 268–270.