The artist discusses his interests in collecting and scientifically cataloguing nature and how our own state of being is in constant flux between doubt and certainty.
Canvas: You studied painting at university, but has this medium always spoken to you?
Morteza Pourhosseini: Yes, it has. Ever since I was a child I have harboured a strong passion for participating in art and with a particular focus on painting, which is undeniably one of the most challenging forms of artistic expression. University provided me a means to express my emotions and thoughts, refine my skills and techniques, and enhance my understanding of art history.
Unfinished Book (2019–ongoing) includes technical drawings on paper of plants and other aspects of the natural world. What draws you particularly to the botanicals?
The Unfinished Book series has been in production for several years and still continues. The initial idea originated from the creation of an artist book, the first part of which was developed during my stay at Cité international des arts in 2019. I have always been interested in collecting various items, including plants, stones, shells, photos and maps, and a significant portion of my collections is related to books and manuscripts with scientific, religious or historical themes. The series is a combination of repurposed old book covers as well as scientifically illustrated drawings of plants, accompanied by the names in Arabic. You won’t find any titles on the book covers. Instead there are details of well-known photos depicting wars, revolutions or human discoveries.
Collecting and studying plants has always been a personal interest of mine, and I approach it with meticulous attention to detail. I believe this practice can have a direct connection with self- knowledge. Engaging in the detailed drawing of plants often involves spending time in nature, observing its beauty, and documenting it. This connection with the natural world can have a deep impact on self-knowledge. Expressing the nature of this relationship has always been challenging for me, but it may cultivate a sense of awe, humility and interconnectedness, prompting contemplation of our place within a broader ecosystem. It can also provide valuable insights into our values, beliefs and priorities.
What inspired the title for your series Before the Fall (2016–20)?
The title is influenced by the story of the expulsion of man from Heaven in the third chapter of the Bible. But what impressed me most was a c.1425 fresco called Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by the Early Renaissance painter Masaccio. I researched this painting for years and even went to see it in the church in Florence where it hangs. The people in my paintings are caught in the moment before being kicked out of heaven. Before the Fall is a waiting moment for me, a moment after committing the first disobedience of humanity to discover the truth. This is a symbolic view of the way that, throughout history, artists have tried to express truths for the people of their time.
The search for truth is a complex and ongoing endeavour that spans various fields of knowledge. From the creation of the story of Adam and Eve up until today, these efforts have been multifaceted and are deeply affected by individual beliefs, cultural views and the accumulation of knowledge over time. I only imagine scenes of those moments of human contemplation in nature and depict them for my audience.
Can you elaborate on the wounds in the paintings? Is there a further link to religious iconography, such as stigmata?
To me, these wounds, scars, birthmarks or blemishes on the skin hold a perpetual allure. Each one represents a reminder of a memory and an experience. I believe that beneath our clothing, we all bear wounds – some physical, which may heal over time, and others spiritual, which may linger throughout our lives and serve as markers of our past. In general, the use of classical icons with religious undertones is a highly sensitive matter in contemporary art. I employ symbolism in these works to offer commentary on social and political issues. Depicting an image akin to Christ’s wounds on contemporary bodies allows for a critique of social injustices, oppressive systems and the violent repercussions they entail. This imagery may prompt my audience to contemplate the violence inflicted upon individuals and societies, thereby underscoring the necessity for societal transformation and the pursuit of social change.
Many of the figures have their eyes covered with foliage, gazes are lowered or looking off into the distance. What are they looking at? Or looking away from?
I always enjoy being immersed in nature and becoming one with it, like walking in the heart of the forest or diving in the sea. This return to nature is perhaps similar to the return to the womb of the common mother of all of us. But most important of all is the mysterious and unknown feeling that is created by covering the faces and eyes. This can invite the viewer to think about the hidden aspects of the identity, gender and unknown characteristics of humans.
There are also issues of censorship and restriction in Iran. Artists are always looking for new ways to express and display their ideas in countries with strict laws on freedom of expression. Maybe this covering and hiding the bodies among the plants has this function for me, which I see close to the same paintings related to the story of Adam and Eve and covering oneself with tree leaves. At least this can make me think less about the censorship problem.
Your show last year, In-Between at +2, touches upon the setting of the paintings as if the subjects are in transit or an unknown void. How did this idea develop?
For me being nowhere is a way to represent everywhere. When you don’t refer to an individual or characteristics, that person can be anyone, so covering faces with plants makes them lack a specific identity. It’s similar to the images we see in our dreams – we think they are familiar, but we know very well that we have had these visions before. In the In-Between series, I put the people in undefined and unstable situations, stuck between doubt and certainty. This is also a reflection of my way of thinking, that nothing in this world is certain and that our contemporary society is in this space of the unknown, as every day we gain new clarity in facts and our beliefs. I also worked with this concept with my series Quandary (2016), which references moments of confusion and doubt. I always look for the meaning of life in this short moment between being and not being, between certainty and uncertainty.
How do you select the plants and foliage used in your work?
I’ve always paid attention to plants, even when I was young. I was born in Ahvaz, in the south of Iran, and I spent most of my childhood there. Its natural environment is vast and diverse. Now, whenever I travel to a new city or country, I try to study the nature there. I go to botanical gardens and museums, and if I can, I collect seeds, plant them and grow them, or dry flowers in the pages of my notebook and classify them scientifically. The plants in my works are from this collection of plants that I have collected over the years. I photograph and study them and finally use them in my paintings. Right now, I’ve been in Belfast for a while and I am happy to be here during the spring so that I can witness and be fascinated by the different types of nature that are found in the northern part of the planet.
This interview first appeared in Canvas 108: The Root of It All