Exhale

Exhale

A provocative unveiling

by Christine Huskisson

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Nearly fifteen panels of translucent silk hang at the entrance of the Tuska Gallery for Contemporary Art on the campus of the University of Kentucky. They overlap in such a way as to block any clear view of the interior of the gallery space that houses the B.F.A. exhibition of Roya Ramezankhani.

Each panel is approximately five feet wide by twenty-five feet in length – falling ceiling to floor and attached by a delicate framework at the topmost side. The majority of the panels are imprinted with a single form bound by masses of the same silken material. The material is soft, white, lightweight and draped sensually over some of the forms and firmly restricting others.

Inside each of these images is something distinctly female, possibly an image of the artist, who is a recent graduate of The School for the Visual Arts and Studies at the University of Kentucky. But, it is important to note that these images are not self-portraits alone; they are far more insightful. Could they be representations of ancestral identities who are the essence of this young woman? Could they be an examination of self on a level far deeper than the aesthetics of female form alone?

As I wandered through this installation of hanging fabric, some of the figures remained straight and sober as if they were ghostly sultans protecting something very private; another brushed against me with the longing of a soul seeking to find something lost or stolen. Blown into motion by a fellow observer, one of the silken panels suddenly turned away from me as if she could no longer tell me about the beliefs and traditions that had made her who she once was.

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I stopped in the middle of this hanging installation to ponder what little I knew of this young artist, mostly from her artist’s statement. I knew that Roya Ramezankhani was born in Lexington, Kentucky to an Iranian-American family. I knew too that she was interested in exploring those things that separate us from each other, from ourselves, and from the physical world around us. Beyond this veiling, I could see the public space where Ramezankhani would perform that evening.

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Just before entering that space, one last image struck me: it was undoubtedly an image of the artist bound tightly into the fetal position with material stretched over her facial features and open mouth as though she were unable to breath. It was then that I realized these hanging images, through which all must pass to experience Exhale in its entirety, were heralds proclaiming something of rarity – the birth of young talent.

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The artist and another woman emerged from behind a video of beautiful fabric moving as delicately as a dropped sheet onto a bed. Dark colored thread then unraveled falling from the top of the video image to the bottom. The performers stepped into a space where thread was carefully arranged in a perfect circle on the floor of the gallery. They both adopted a fetal position and remained quiet for what seemed too long.

Ramezankhani then came to life in fits and starts, skin squeaking across the cold linoleum floor. Audible breaths of sigh and relief empowered her. After repeatedly slumping and rising from the floor, she reached an upright position and fell again. At this moment, the second female figure came to life, struggling and assisting Ramezankhani at the same time. Awkwardly the two figures, dependent upon one another, stood, held onto each other and exited the circle of purple thread.

For me, the performance signaled a move from the private realm to one of public gesture and sure-footedness. Was the artist referencing the public (zaher) and private (batin) identities that are a significant part of her Iranian heritage? Could she have been foreshadowing her career as an artist?

I would like to think both. It seems that this artist has taken the time needed to examine her place as a woman and as a woman artist. She seems aware of important precedents in the history of body and performance art, particularly as they were influenced by the feminist movement. She employs techniques from artists like Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), who presented a more challenging image of the female form than that historically produced and consumed for the male gaze.

Ramezankhani’s imagery recalls the surreal nature and intimate experience of works by Woodman, but she does not use photography and video to blur or whitewash. Instead Ramezankhani seems committed to combining an array of media including installation, dance and video to revive something in herself as well as others.

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Francesca Woodman / © George and Betty Woodman

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Francesca Woodman / © George and Betty Woodman

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Ramezankhani’s work is also influenced by the performance artist Tashia Paggett. Both combine dance and the visual arts. But, more importantly, what Ramezankhani seems to have gained even at the inception of her career is what Paggett considers a mantra: that for each performance the artist’s internal experience must be as informative as what the audience is taking in – that to exhale means inhaling first.

Exhale
Roya Ramezankhani
B.F.A Solo Exhibition
Summer, 2014
Tuska Center for Contemporary Art
Fine Arts Building
University of Kentucky
465 Rose Street, Lexington, Kentucky