London’s Delfina Foundation hosts its first show in four years, with Gelare Khoshgozaran’s To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels seeking to shed new light on senses of belonging and exile.
Gelare Khoshgozaran’s To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels is the first exhibition hosted by the Delfina Foundation since 2019, and Khoshgozaran’s first solo show in Europe. Guest curated by Eliel Jones, it features three films — two of which are new commissions — that elaborate on Khoshgozaran’s ongoing exploration of the effects of displacement, and on narratives of belonging when places of affinity are uninhabitable.
Although the artist and writer has long been invested in thinking through exile, To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels is the first exhibition through which she has sought to speak to her personal experience of migration. Each of the three films has notes of autobiography, understood in relation to collective, but not universalised experience, and to the potential of exile to build transnational solidarity.
Khoshgozaran was an artist-in-residence at the Delfina Foundation in 2021, and her connection to the space can be felt through the approach to display. The first film we encounter, The Retreat (2023), is cordoned off by a heavy curtain, with two benches facing a large screen. Filmed in 16mm and digitized to HD, the work follows the course of an ‘exile retreat’ where Khoshgozaran has gathered a group of collaborators who are barred from returning home. As we turn the corner, a pistachio-green-and-gold shining banner is pinned to the wall and draping onto the floor across from the second film work in the exhibition, To Keep the Mountain at Bay (2023), a digitized Super 8 film conceived as an ode to Etel Adnan and her relationship with California. This plays beside the final work, To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels (2023), a hand-edited animation of Gulliver’s Travels that shares the exhibition’s title, a quote from Jonathan Swift’s book. The works are in a sort-of chorus, of voices speaking with and over each other, the atmospheric sound of clicking frames and background noise reiterating the generative nature of sharing space.
Born in Tehran in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq War, Khoshgozaran is based in Los Angeles, where she completed an MFA in 2011. The Retreat expands on her 2022 essay ‘The Too Many and No Homes of Exile’, in which she writes about life in limbo, and how Los Angeles manifests as “a map of exile”. This sense of collective connection in individual exile is what drives The Retreat, alongside the potential of ‘othering’ or redefining and forming institutions.
Khoshgozaran was inspired by Argentine thinker María Lugone’s concept of ‘playfulness’ and ‘world travelling’ as a developing world feminist practice, rather than a bourgeois leisure activity, and by the work of Catalan psychiatrist Francesc Tosquelles, who sought to reform psychiatric hospitals and gave refuge to people fleeing war and persecution during the Second World War at Saint-Alban Hospital in southwest France. The asylum became a refuge for people seeking asylum, and this double meaning is part of what the artist thinks through in the work.
The film invites you into the space of the shared dynamic of the retreat, through a mix of close-up and expansive views of the environment. Conversations and interactions are abstracted, appearing mostly as a shared voice-over, with a few moments of convivial chat caught on camera almost from the perspective of the table, with hands gesticulating over plates. The absence of clear characterisation establishes an almost contradictory balance of privacy and intimacy — inviting the viewer in, without offering up the full context of the experience.
In a conversation with Eliel Jones, Khoshgozaran said: “We had this collective experience where each of our languages and life experiences meant we had very different encounters in [the hospital]. Reflecting on that complex experience together was quite incredible. Processing that as a group was the synthesis that I was hoping for.”
To Keep the Mountain at Bay is a dedication, but an anti-nostalgic one. Weaving together fragmented images and voices, of Etel Adnan, her poetry, the ocean and a mountain, the film makes an argument against passivity and assimilation. For Khoshgozaran, Adnan’s work became “almost like therapy”: “[her] poetry gave me a way of being present and consolidating that sense of your head and your heart being somewhere else.” Adnan was curious about, and connected to, California; engaged in its history and contemporary life, without compromisingher care for and connection to Lebanon. “Her work is equally invested in being here and over there in a way that makes the two simultaneous — one is not possible without the other,” reflects Khoshgozaran. The film is beautiful and evocative; the use of Super 8 almost encourages a sense of nostalgia, while the voice-over rallies against it, pulling you away from the comfort and ease of distance.
To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels makes use of Jonathan Swift’s novel to highlight the contradictions embedded in the depiction of adventurers and travellers, and those migrating and seeking refuge. The title of the work, and the exhibition, refers to a moment in the book where Gulliver is told his narration is too fantastical, and he is not allowed to be the author of his own experience. For Khoshgozaran, this mirrored questions of faith and incredulity towards supposedly fantastical accounts in narratives of trauma: “where lived experience can indeed be a lot more surreal than a fabricated, fantastical narrative.” Her hand-edited version of Gulliver’s Travels, taken from a 1938 animation, reverses the story of the coloniser who gains the respect of the locals, by cutting and shifting the order of the narrative. In Khoshgozaran’s retelling, the story begins with Gulliver in confinement, and as the film progresses his body ends up washed up on the shore, exhausted after moving the boats of local people while being attacked. The fiction of the singular, heroic, coloniser is subverted, and dissolved of its Hollywood sheen.
To Be the Author of One’s Own Travels runs until 6 August 2023