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Iman Issa: Heritage Studies

Megan Voeller

Installation view: Iman Issa: Heritage Studies, Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2015. Photo: STUDIO LHOOQ

Pérez Art Museum Miami
April 2–September 27, 2015

The conjuring of monuments and memorial sculpture is the focus of New York and Cairo-based artist Iman Issa’s series Heritage Studies, which comprises her recent solo exhibition at Pérez Art Museum Miami. Remaking is at the core of Issa’s practice, as is her critique of—or meditation on—cultural transmission, constructions of “the other” through art discourse and museological practices, and the role of art institutions in postcolonialism. However, Issa eschews the sort of confrontational inversion that seems so often to be swallowed right back up by art, or pop culture, and instead takes an approach that is literally subtle, digging into gaps in communication and understanding that can leave an observer unsettled.

Take HS8: Remains from the Walls of the Second Court, one of seven sculptures featured. It acts as a quintessential Juddean “specific object,” a massive rectangular black box that can’t be apprehended, at least initially, as much more than a big thing around which a visitor can navigate, experiencing her navigation and the object’s slight reflectiveness in the absence of narrative or gesture. Some evidence of hand-applied paint or varnish on top of the box disrupts the effect.

More purposefully, deep notches in the top and sides imply representation. This must have something to do with what the actual wall remains look like, I think, having read the work’s title. The accompanying text, stenciled so faintly on a nearby wall that some eyes might miss it, recalls an artifact of Near Eastern antiquity. In the artist-created object label, the mention of a “second court” may bring to mind a particular ancient Egyptian temple of a particularly august pharaoh, or it may not. (Other titles point beyond Egypt to the region, including Samarra in Iraq, that was a key city during the European medieval period, when Islamic culture flourished.) But the artifact is distant, unavailable, and on close examination of the text, which cites the generic-sounding “International Museum of Ancient Arts and Culture Collection,” has a faint whiff of fiction, suggesting a liminal status between is and isn’t, exactly. (Like the object description, this museum attribution feels uncanny, as if referencing a familiar destination like the British Museum or the Berlin Pergamon, but one that does not, in fact, exist.)

What’s on the floor, the black box, begins to make sense as a sort of afterimage of the artifact summoned by the object label’s text—except that I’m not quite sure what the artifact looks like in the first place—one heavily filtered through the sensibility of a maker schooled in the visual vocabulary of postwar American sculpture. With my gaze shunting between entities that are simultaneously present and absent to various, intriguing degrees (physical box linked to imagined-recollected artifact conjured by representative words, which seem also to want to account for the physical box), I wonder which knowledge authority to latch on to: Perhaps my own (I know what’s in front of me is “contemporary sculpture,” but what does that mean, anyway?), the artist’s (she’s telling me there’s a relationship between these things that she produced and very old things, of which I may have only a vague comprehension of for reasons that are complexly political), or implicitly evoked institutional jurisdiction (I see information on the wall and objects to look at, now where’s the café?).

Each “remake” in the series has a unique personality: mischievous (a golden crescent nestled in a narrow white vessel, the tips of which peek out like a pair of devil’s horns); cryptic (an homage to a statue of a legendary king that suggests a pair of rabbit ears rendered in walnut); and, paradoxically, both enchanting and banal. The finest example of the latter is HS9: Spiraling Calligraphic Script on a Mausoleum’s Wall, which matches up to a row of white sculptural plinths of varying heights linked by golden rods bent into rectangular arches. Without the text, the sculpture comes off as attractive, but shallow, another drop in the bucket of post-minimal riffs; with the text, the piece takes on a layered identity as an exquisite distillation of the visual rhythms of Arabic-script calligraphy. Often, Issa’s sculptures challenge viewers not to take their braininess too seriously, by being just a bit vapid or goofy.

That said, I wonder how easy it is for viewers without some degree of knowledge about art history or wide-ranging museum experience to enter into Issa’s sculptures. Her project is both helped and hindered by a laconic curatorial approach, which on the one hand creates a deliciously restrained installation—perfection, from a formal standpoint—but on the other leaves visitors somewhat stranded in the complexity of the artist’s process. That’s a shame only because Issa’s work offers such rich rewards to an enabled considerer.

If her project sounds quirkily Borgesian— a sculpture of an interpretation, a memory, or the thought of an object of indeterminate facticity—it’s a surprisingly effective way to call up real-life matters of art and politics. I found myself flipping through a mental slideshow amid Issa’s collection: flashes of ISIS destroying artifacts earlier this year at Hatra in Iraq, an ancient city and UNESCO world heritage site, as well as the looting of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum during the 2003 US invasion; a conversation with a Syrian woman who asked why it is the fate of one culture versus another to be fucked over, again and again, by forces from within and without; patrimony battles over historic objects (not just Near Eastern, but also Greek, Armenian, Cambodian, and so on) preserved in Western museums, with focal points from repatriation to whose view of an object’s meaning(s) gets printed on 150-word museum labels (the crux of generations-old, icily civil grudge matches between art historians and curators); and the clinical components, from glass vitrines to methodological best practices, of the invisible ideologies of museum work. One person’s coolly intellectual heritage studies is another person’s struggle to exist.