Unleashing thoughts at the Rijksakademie - interview with Sam Samiee

Unleashing thoughts at the Rijksakademie - interview with Sam Samiee

Image: Sam Samiee's installation at the RijksakademieOPEN 2015

To kick off this new series our team member Léon Kruijswijk had a conversation with Sam Samiee (1988, Tehran, Iran). From January 2014 – December 2015, Sam was a resident at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. 

After the RijksakademieOPEN 2015, Sam Samiee’s installation was stuck in my mind, so I seized the opportunity to get to know more about his practice and time at the Rijksakademie voor beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Sam and I met on an afternoon at Witteveen Visual Art Centre, Amsterdam, where at that moment his exhibition The Bedroom Posters was on show, combined with an exhibition of Rijksakademie fellow Naïmé Perrette. Besides work he made at the residency, this exhibition also includes artworks made before and just after that period.

Within his painting practice, Sam steps out of the canvas in order to include the space and invite the viewer to navigate through it. He 'overcomes the death of painting in the indeterminate chaos of contemporary art by proposing a new epistemological role for the medium in the post-cybernetic age' (1). In his work, he deals with themes such as psychoanalysis, the Persian term adab, war, boys, crucifixion as a centrality of the western visuals and how to de-territorialize that, the male body, the femininity of the male body, the uterus envy, de-symbolizing the phallic object, symbolizing the feminine phallus, just to name a few.

Image: Crucifixion according to Acts of John and Hatef Isfahani, acrylic on canvas, 2016

Interview

Léon: Most of the time the Rijksakademie is not open to a general public. For a few days each year in November, the RijksakademieOPEN takes place during which anyone can come by to explore the studios of the current residents. For the artists, these open studio days could be considered an opportunity to show their work in progress to a variety of audiences; gallery owners, museum staff, collectors, students, general public. What is it like to show the artworks you have been working on peacefully to such a big, and diverse audience? 

Sam: From September, when we take off [with the preparations], it escalates, the stress and everything. You want to be seen, you want to have a good place in the building, you want to have good PR. Any big show is difficult to put together. It is about details the viewers don’t see, but backstage we have to work so hard. I ended up sleeping 4 hours a night, and ending up running on adrenaline. You loose weight, you don’t sleep, you don’t see any of your friends, you don’t go out of the Rijksakademie so much but it is also exciting. I showed in both 2014 and 2015, but of course in 2014 I had a smaller show. In 2015 I had two rooms, I had the big room and the library setting.

Léon: How was it for you during those days? What were the reactions from the audience?

Sam: It was fascinating, it was amazing. I was very lucky because I got a lot of good reactions and many papers wrote about me. NRC wrote about me, Parool, Volkskrant, that was it I guess. A few websites and a few blogs wrote about me.

After the open days I was tired and still restless. I had a few other shows upcoming. I showed at Fons Welters, I had a very big show with Mohammed Salemy in Prague [Artificial Cinema at Tranzitdisplay, Prague, Czech Republic], I participated in a show at De Nederlandsche Bank [Engage, Exchange at De Nederlandsche Bank, Amsterdam, the Netherlands], a show at HeArtpool [Hengelo, the Netherlands] and here at Witteveen. It was quite a lot, all in the beginning of 2016. As you see it is very much the result of the RijksakademieOPEN. We can criticise that it is too important because the spectacle becomes the register for success then. Maybe you don’t get the best place in the show, or the best PR. I was very lucky I got the large room, maybe one of the largest or best rooms.

Image: Mojtaba from Bedroom Posters: Belivers, acrylic on canvas framed with ipad prints, 2015

Léon: Here we are in your exhibition The Bedroom Posters at Witteveen Visual Art Centre. Could you tell me more about the difference between what you made before the Rijksakademie and from which part it is clearly visible you made it at or after the Rijksakademie?

Sam: The boldest difference I think, before and at the Rijksakademie, was that I was exposed to a very precise orientation of the art world; that was very contemporary art oriented, it is very post-internet, it comprises a lot of video art. The first year I got in I was the only figurative painter. So it was, I should say, very frustrating. I arrived there and I thought I was going to a Greek academy to exchange ideas and to do research and learn more, but then I realised it has its own hierarchy of artists, people, and age gaps, which made me think of how to respond to contemporary art.

I kept saying to the director of the Rijksakademie, whatever problem it has, it never fails to represent the reality of the art world today. So to bring people from all over the world, from different generations, from different backgrounds, from different classes, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, but once you’re in, it becomes like a gladiator situation. It is like imperial forces fighting who’s best. And, what is especially the case with painting, is that it is not a very hype and hip medium. I wasn’t very appreciated in the first year, but [fellow artists and teachers] saw that I was insisting and very dogmatic about my medium.

I continued. You can see it in the first room, there are paintings I made before the Rijksakademie. And then all the way through I started to unmake the works that I did before: to dismantle them, to put them in an installation and to think ‘what is painting really doing today?’. Contemporary art has a set of brilliant questions that I was exposed to: politically, ethnically, economically, and artistically, which I think made me to think about painting. In many ways [the residency] is influential. I’m still chewing, digesting and processing things that I learnt there.

Image: installation view at Witteveen Visual Art Centre

Léon: Could you say that you first worked very figuratively and that you moved to a more conceptual approach due to the Rijksakademie?

Sam: No, I always worked very conceptually because I have a background in mathematics and engineering. And I still am a very conceptual and abstract artist I believe. Both my parents are very much into mathematics and I come from Persian culture, which is all about poetry and conceptualism. So that wasn’t the case. Also, you see, I still made figurative works while I was at the Rijksakademie. I had only to think how to inclusively put all these practices together. Things are happening in my mind, my heart, my memory. In my studio I became more involved in theory than before. I was always holding back, not to allow this mathematical conceptual philosophical way to think enter my work necessarily, and do more painting, and at Rijksakademie I unleashed it. Also, the Rijksakademie helped me to find confidence to show my writings.

And, of course, it was the first time that I would meet a lot of professionals who did not come from a painting background, like filmmakers, conceptual artists, writers, evolutionary biologists, political figures, psycho-analysists, philosophers, art historians, which is brilliant. I probably met more than 50 or 60 people in 2 years. It stretched my painting practice in many ways.

Léon: Is it the case that when you were at the Rijksakademie your work became more of an installation practice in a way? That you stepped out of the canvas?

Sam: Yes, yes. I didn’t step out of the canvas, but I stepped out of the lostness [sic] of the question where the location of painting and canvas is. It is almost after Duchamp and television. That we don’t know where painting should be. We have to come with some things that painting can do that other mediums can’t. Maybe it is also not only the question of installation, because installation is very general. How the viewer would be able to navigate himself in a more creative way. An installation actually allows you to be in the real perspective but also plays with the idea of the virtual perspective. 

Image: installation view at RijksakademieOPEN 2015

Léon: I am curious, you were enrolled in the Rijksakademie programme from January 2014 to December 2015. Can you enter the very first moment you entered the Rijksakademie, when you were starting?

Sam: Yes, when we entered, it was a very frustrating time because the merger with De Ateliers got cancelled. They were still in the post trauma order of the cut of the budgets and the cancellation of the merger, so we had the worst introduction ever. That I wrote about constantly. I criticized it, I talked about it.

A professor from the University of Amsterdam gave an introduction and told us how lucky we are as the residents that are now able to get money to work; with all the things going in the world, because white people are hungering in the world. I found it quite, very, very unpleasant to hear from someone who never had experienced to live in a war or coming from a no-state, or coming from Taiwan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, someone who would not be labelled as gay, lesbian, underrepresented, that someone tells you that you are lucky. Better you sit there and I tell you how lucky you are; a white, straight, middle-class European, coming from Italy and studying in the Netherlands, and having a position at one of the most wanted, most represented, most luxurious universities, you have no idea how lucky you are. If you are talking to someone from Iran, one of the most politically loaded countries in the world, you better know what you are saying. So that very beginning was very confrontational. 

Image: We from Bedroom Posters: The Beliver, acrylic on canvas, 2015

Léon: Your answer relates to my next question. At the Rijkskademie there are 49 artists every year, they all come there to expand their artistic practice, they all come from different backgrounds, social and cultural, all were educated differently. How has your practice benefitted from this mix of artists?

Sam: Many of them never get involved with you. More sad is that the Dutch artists get the least involved with the conversations. Too much comfort allows them not to be confronted with us, foreigners. I hope that will change a bit; we are there to learn something from you, and you can learn something from us. Not just that it becomes a tunnel to get PR. But the reality is that some people can afford not to care about it. More than ever I realised it is really about class. I am talking on behalf of a white Iranian, coming from Tehran, having rich parents. But I dare to say that when you are very comfortable in a position, you know your shows are secured, you know everyone will love you. Why would you bother yourself with questions some foreigner will bring up to you? That’s a pity I think.

I benefitted a lot, really a lot, from so many other people there, which I usually wouldn’t be able to meet. Especially me with an Islamic background. The Islamic world is not that good with exchange within itself. In particular when you are from Iran, you are totally cut off from the Arab world. Or Turkish world. So there were a lot of Arab residents that made me realise that so many diversities within the Islamic world exist. I have also been in touch with a lot of Asian, African and North American residents.

I think the Rijksakademie still fails to create and give meaning to the public spaces of the institution, where it could push towards more interaction among fellow residents and towards more engagement with current social issues. That’s a pity. Nothing is pushed there. We are completely free, but it is too much freedom. I wasn’t there only to work, but also to talk. 

Image: installation view at RijksakademieOPEN2015

Léon: Do you consider to do another residency at this moment?

Sam: I have applied for one in New York, Fire Island. I don’t know if I get it or not. I really wish that I would do a residency in Japan, and Ahskal Alwan in Lebanon would be very exciting for me. Also, I am thinking about running a residency in North Iran by myself in the family house that we have, which  is a significant house in that city. So hopefully.

Actually, a friend and I want to run a space in Enschede, TANKSTATION, we wish that it would become more engaged with the local community. My friend is taking it over from September and I also want to become involved in it, hopefully to bring something new to Enschede. I like the city.

When looking further ahead,  I really wish that I will be holding a few residencies, or at least being involved in directing or helping them. I think it is a very lovely idea, and I think, just like anything else, that it can get better.   

 1. Press release 'Sam Samiee ~ The Bedroom Posters', Witteveen Visual Art Centre


Interview with Sam Samiee conducted on 4 May 2016 for DutchCulture | TransArtists.