Angela & Hossein Valamanesh

13.08.14 to 06.09.14


Guardian Angels: The Recent Work of Hossein and Angela Valamanesh


The interconnectedness of everything – the stars, stones, leaves, things animate and inanimate – was considered by Italo Calvino in one of five undelivered lectures published posthumously in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. He reflected on the idea that everything that exists is comprised of endlessly circulating bits of matter which ‘a hundred million times . . . on the way to human shape, [have] been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet …  

From Mary Knight’s essay on Hossein Valamanesh, in the monograph Hossein Valamanesh: Out of nothingness.


The sculpture Guardian, by Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, is an astonishing artwork. It is iconic in terms of its content and singularity, yet it has a strong sense of the everyday, through the central motif of the chair. The antlers, rising from the chair back – like lightning rods – give the whole a surreal and mystical turn. It is like seeing angel wings attached to someone in ordinary clothing. The footprints in the granite rock that supports the entire ensemble, earths us to the gallery floor, and by extension the planet.


If I had to find a one-word description for this sculpture it would be “theatrical”. It is as if we are viewing something happening on a stage. It has the sparseness of Beckett, and the Shakespearean phantasmagoric is there too. But it also reminds me of Henning Mankell [1] the great Swedish crime writer.

Mankell, like the Valamaneshes, uses theatrical devices to make vast landscapes of the imagination appear intimate. In the opening pages of The Man Who Smiled, a solicitor is driving through the fog along a lonely road from a meeting with his wealthy client at Farnholm Castle.


Suddenly he saw something in the headlights. He slammed on the brakes. At first he thought it was a hare. Then he realised there was something in the road. He turned his headlights on full beam. It was a chair, in the middle of the road. A simple kitchen chair. Sitting on it was a human-sized effigy. Its face was white. Or could it be a real person made up like a tailor’s dummy? 


Hossein Valamanesh has spoken about the influence of the theatrical on his life and work. In an interview with the artist Ian North, he said: ‘My involvement with theatre started from a sense of curiosity when I accompanied a friend to a Scout hall in Tehran, where he had joined a theatre group. I became immediately attracted [2].  And elsewhere in that interview, speaking about art’s transformative effect, ‘I think it happens when the audience or viewer confronts an art work and nowhere is this more pronounced than in theatre. In the visual arts it is harder to hold the viewer’s attention and over the years I have tried to do this by the way I arrange the work within an exhibition.  Of course, I hope the works in themselves have certain qualities that engage or seduce the audience.’


Angela Valamanesh is equally clear about her intentions and motivations. But where Hossein traps his creations in a spotlight, Angela pursues hers through microscopes and classical texts, in a way that would have delighted Italo Calvino. A few years ago she wrote that, ‘Images from early microscopes have become the focus of my PhD topic, and acknowledgement of the sub-visible as an overwhelming part of our physical environment has a spiritual side to it. For me it represents a way of feeling at home in the world.’


Bring these two artists’ visions together and in time a contemporary masterpiece such as Guardian is created. It has the nailed down presence of a Picasso bull or a Bourgeois spider. But there is much else in this exhibition – their first in Melbourne for some time. There are independently made works, and there are other collaborations. There are videos, ceramics, drawings, sculptures, paintings, and works on paper. The output is diverse, but there is a unity to it, and seemingly no half-measure between strength and fragility. The titles help one recognise what was fashioned by whom. Angela, precise and descriptive, as in The Anatomy of Plants and Animals no.1; Observations no 4; Ova; or Small Creatures. Hossein, playful, and – yes – dramatic, Snakes and Ladders, No 3; Architecture of the sky, no.1; and the poetic Hasti Masti (Large).  Some of these works are very recent. Others hint at what might come next.


Both artists recently completed six-week research residencies in Washington DC. I’m intrigued to hear what will emerge from this intellectually and emotionally immersive experience. “Hossein had a Smithsonian Artist’s Research Fellowship,” Angela tells me, “and I arranged funding through VAB’s residency program. We did not have a studio, so just collected ideas for future works. I visited the Dibner & Cullman Libraries. They’re attached to the Natural History Museum and American History Museums and both have fantastic collections that include early scientific illustration. I’ve been interested in early images drawn with the aid of microscopes, dating from early 1600s. They’re the most beautiful drawings. The paper is aged, spotted, and mildewed. There were the flea and louse drawings of Robert Hooke, and many visual observations by Italian and Dutch naturalists. The librarians were a bit puzzled but really helpful. I could only take a pencil and notebook to the study rooms, although they were happy to scan anything for me. The result is, I have lots of ideas for new ceramic work, and works on paper, which I’m just about to start.”


By contrast, Hossein was based in the Freer/Sackler galleries of Asian Art. There he looked at Persian miniature paintings from the 15th century. They are mainly illustrations of books of epic poems. And with his attraction for the theatrical, and sometimes cruel, gesture he plans to make a series of life sized photographic works, bringing some of the violent but beautiful images to life.


These two important global artists have exhibited widely – individually, together, and collaboratively in galleries and museums in Berlin, Glasgow, Finland, Tokyo, Warsaw, Singapore, and all over Australia and New Zealand. Much has been written about them, but for those wanting a greater in-depth knowledge of what makes them curious about the universe, about each other, and about material ways of communicating their findings, I can highly recommend two fairly recent monographs on the artists: Angela Valamanesh, About being here by Cath Kenneally, and Hossein Valamanesh, Out of nothingness, by Mary Knights and Ian North (both published by Wakefield Press).


Taken collectively, these books give both glimpses and deep insights into the lives of these intertwined artists who reach out alone, together. All life experience, as the Valamaneshes show, can in the hands and minds of sentient beings turn into creativity. Knights, who begins her beautifully constructed essay evoking a conversation between Marco Polo and the Kublai Khan, as imagined by Italo Calvino sets the scene (again in a theatrically focused way), in her opening lines, “A fire blazes on a Persian carpet. Placed in a clearing in Australian bush at the edge of the desert, it implies home and a sense of belonging.” But all belongings, no matter how deep, can have sudden endings. Thankfully, when Hossein suffered a heart attack in 1995 it marked a new beginning rather than an unknown transition. Faithfully, creativity was there when most needed. As Knights writes, ” From The Heart (2004) also explores mortality. A luminous full moon seems to be suspended in infinite blackness. The silver disc, riven by deep shadows, shimmers and pulsates. As the seconds pass, the opaque surface thins into a translucent organic membrane threaded with veins. A heartbeat and a stanza from a poem by Rumi read aloud reverberate in the space. The thirty-second film was made with the x-ray images from an angiogram of the artist’s own heart captured on 35 mm film. Edited by Hossein with the couple’s son Nassiem, it is awesomely beautiful. The threading cardiac veins reveal the frailty of the human body and the narrowness of the gap between life and death.”


In the book on Angela Valamanesh, Kenneally describes how the artist “is reading Darwin’s Worms, thinking about evolution and about her own obsessions. Allowing instinct to guide her, she begins from images that exert a pull, ‘happy if (the result) accidentally tells a story’. That story seems, for all its modesty of intent, to be the creation story, the story of life on earth.” The story, the grand narrative, of the Valamaneshes.


Dr Peter Hill is a Glasgow-born Australian. He is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is an international correspondent for ARTnews (New York) and Artpress (Paris).


[1] For me Mankell remains the most interesting and the most compassionate of all the Scandinavian-noir writers, for two reasons. One is his social conscience, the other his sense of the theatrical. Both are connected through the six months he spends every year working with his theatre school in Africa in support of AIDS research.

[2] Knights, Mary, and North, Ian. Hossein Valamanesh, Out of nothingness, Wakefield Press, South Australia, p.12

[3] Knights, Mary, and North, Ian. Hossein Valamanesh, Out of nothingness, Wakefield Press, South Australia, p. 87