Sunday, 15 May 2016

Phobophobia – A Reflection

by Dr Aida Foroutan

If you have seen any of Hamed Sahihi’s previous works, then seeing this exhibition of videos and framed drawings might feel like you are having a déjà vu experience, or recognising an old friend again after a long time. Phobophobia is a new work in a new season, but it is also a continuation of Sahihi’s previous work, and to some extent it is a key to understanding what he was expressing in his previous works. As always, this artist is playful, and thought-provoking, menacing and safe, all at the same time. Hamed Sahihi has entitled this new series as a manifesto to his fears, and to all our fear. The structure of the work is simplicity itself. There are 15 frame boxes, each with a screen displaying a short video; each lasts just a minute or so, but within that minute the sequence loops on itself every 6-10 seconds. Fears repeat themselves and are in essence simple, and each video is an instance of a type of fear. Also, in antique frames the artist has picked up somewhere, there is a series of drawings, on which the videos are based, individually labelled in Persian and English, with the Greek name of the particular phobia referred to in the drawing, and a comment, for example:

‘Metathesiophobia: Change: I fear the change of things I am used to.’

But it is not just a collection of ‘fears’ in sequence – it is a presentation that has a hidden depth, with many layers to it: it confronts the viewer with fears and simultaneously challenges the idea of fear itself by turning it back on itself. ‘Phobophobia’ means ‘Fear of Fear’. In the first place, by giving classical Greek names to his personal fears he objectifies them and shows them for what they are, namely universals, which everyone can suffer from. By putting them into boxes he contains them, and perhaps even tames them. To take two examples of videos, randomly chosen (4, 7):

4. Somnophobia: Incubus –ever since childhood the experience of nightmare and incubus have frightened. Image courtesy of the artist. 

A huge balloon-like shape, which simultaneously has the appearance of a massive rock, ‘floats’ and rotates suspending on cords below it a frame within which a person is horizontal – yet the person does not rotate. This is entitled ‘Somnophobia: Incubus –ever since childhood the experience of nightmare and incubus have frightened me to death, I don’t mind them anymore.’

7. Insectophobia: Insects –When I was young, my cousin pinned a cockroach, the cockroach kept walking. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Two cockroaches constantly circle one another, but each is also pierced through the middle. The title is ‘Insectophobia: Insects –When I was young, my cousin pinned a cockroach, the cockroach kept walking.’

Thus we have several types of images, some with humans depicted, some with creatures, some with objects. In all except one, which I shall discuss below, no panic or actual violence/violation is depicted in the video. The figures and scenes are portrayed neutrally. In Number 3 ‘Pteromoerhanophobia: Flight – I’m extremely frightened of flight’, 

3. Pteromoerhanophobia: Flight – Im extremely frightened of flight.  Image courtesy of the artist. 

we have the looped video of an aeroplane apparently cruising in level flight, safely through the air, and nothing bad is happening: there is no explosion or crash. The fear is literally in the mind’s eye of the viewer, suggested by the image: so, like beauty, fear is in the eye of the beholder.

Many of the fears named and objectified are personal fears connected with existential issues – they are, so to say, philosophical fears – fears about your own mortality and not knowing what happens when we die (for example Numbers 2,5,8,11).

2. Thanatophobia: death –I fear humans turn into nothing. Image courtesy of the artist.

5. Achuluphobia: Darkness –When I was a child, I always walked into the walls when in darkness. Image courtesy of the artist.

8. Metathesiophobia: change –I fear the changes of things I am used to. Image courtesy of the artist.

11. Apeirophobia: Infinity –I have always feared anything infinite that Im unable to imagine. Image courtesy of the artist.

Others, such as mirrors, more indirectly express such existential fears (12).

12. Catoprophobia: Mirror –Im frightened of the world inside mirrors. Image courtesy of the artist.

Some of the videos seem to portray perhaps more local fears, associated with Iran, connected to the period leading up to, and in the aftermath of, the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war: there is a climate of fear in the public domain, the threat from the skies and from beyond the horizons, and generally a culture that is under surveillance and subject to the control of censorship and ‘guidance’. The fears are not drawn out in graphic detail or coloured in. The viewer can ‘read’ the fears suggested in the videos, everyone able to resort to an ample wealth of their own experience of growing up in Iran, enabling them to fill in the detail, and colour in the monochrome sketches. The very allusiveness of the images is all the more eloquent for its minimalism. One of the most powerful of the video sequences, and which is the only one apparently to suggest panic and actual mortal danger as it is occurring, is Number 1, that of a man rising above and falling below the surface of the sea. 

1. Claustrophobia: suffocation –I feared the absence of air. Image courtesy of the artist.

Intellectually one could jump to the conclusion that this depicts Aquaphobia, ‘fear of water’, but it is not. Number 1 is entitled ‘Claustrophobia’ and, with a moment’s reflection, one immediately understands why it is so called. The nature of the fear felt is not the presence of water, but rather the absence of air, as the caption explains. The man who appears to be fighting for his life is suffocating, not frightened of water. In fact it is Number 10, ‘Aquaphobia.’ which is the one that is entitled ‘Drowning: I’ve always feared the sea, I’m never learned how to swim’.

There is a fully-dressed man, who appears to be suspended in mid-air, with boxes falling down from above to below, and circles rising around him. The caption explains: ‘I’ve always feared the sea, I’m never learned how to swim.’ The man is in fact drowning in water, not falling through air, and the boxes are debris (from a shipwreck?) falling past him, and the circles air bubbles rising to the surface. This pair of examples illustrates how, having boxed and named the fear objectively for the intellect, the actual video and drawing create a direct experience of fear subjectively in the viewer.

The narrative within each video sequence and framed sketch is minimalist, momentary, touching on the primeval and instinctual, dwelling in the unconscious: it is not protracted, rational and interesting to the conscious mind. One of the most revealing of the video sequences is Number 6 ‘Phasmophobia: Demons –I’ve always feared unknown evil creatures.’

6. Phasmophobia: Demons –Ive always feared unknown evil creatures. Image courtesy of the artist. 

The man walking forward, like the conscious mind, never sees the alien creature flying just behind him, trying to grab him but never succeeding as the man is always just out of reach. But we, as viewers, can locate the fear in ourselves as we see the video, fearing ‘what if…?’ These fears are outcomes of our imaginations, thoughts and memories.

If phobophobia means ‘fear of having fears’, it is an apparent contradiction, but it is also perhaps the deepest of fears: whereas phobias (fears) warn us of dangers that are real (fire, falling) or imagined (aliens, holes), ‘phobophobia’ is what alerts us to the danger of fear itself. Pathologically, it may be an extreme phobia which maintains and intensifies anxiety disorders. Hamed Sahihi, however, seems to have confronted and objectified all the phobias, including this most insidious of fears, the fear of fear itself, Phobophobia is, therefore, the antidote to fears. He seems to make light of fear, and this is significant, because in his videos he creates only the illusion of falling. There is no actual falling in the video of the night sky, or of the man standing on the edge. In the artifice of video animations and two-dimensional sketches, the artist alludes to another level of understanding, turning fear back on itself, saying, as it were, ‘I am not going to be intimidated by intimidation.’ His Phobophobia, in this sense, responds to invisible fear with courage: Sahihi’s figures are fearless. What we see is an outer threat to people, and we fear for them vicariously: they do not appear afraid or trembling. Much as in most nightmares, nothing bad actually happens, but in fear we try to escape, and we emote accordingly.

As I wrote in my doctoral thesis ‘The Reception of Surrealism in Iran’, Sahihi does not make parochial or national references – he speaks about the subjective, internal world of dreams and psychological states of fears and feelings, on the one hand, and the global world of cities, highways, industry, international logos, cataclysmic climatic and other events, on the other.’[1] We can gather from his previous works that he has the positive, therapeutic intention that I have suggested underlying Phobophobia. For example, the series of eight paintings Dreams (2004) all feature a small child (with two exceptions male) illuminated and standing on the ground, bottom centre of the canvas looking directly at the viewer without expression. In all the paintings other human figures, and some objects, float around and above him, The Little Prince (from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s novella) complete with his planet, spaceship, roses, star and outlandish plants; his parents, boys and girls, sometimes in real form, and at others in ghostly form. Large moths and beetles crawl around in some, and the last three are increasingly nightmarish. Except in so far as they are dreamlike pictures, with floating figures, they present no strong sense of surrealist conception – they appear to be personal visual memoranda of dreamscapes. And none of them are sinister, life threatening or intimidating. The works are simply populated with fears as matters of psychological reality.[2]

Hamed tells us a story of fears without us getting scared like horror films. A monster gets as close as possible to someone who is unaware of it, but it never touches him. Just as children everywhere have always experienced different types of fears, Hamed Sahihi’s childhood was spent in wartime, as he was born at the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war. The combination of terrors he has experienced as an individual in an uncertain society has followed him throughout his artistic venture. A plane represents not just fear of flying, it is migrating to the west – leaving Iran, and people going away and disappearing into the abyss. Stars are not just ‘up there’ in the void, but where missiles come from and antimissile missiles go to. And, seen like this we can discover multiple meanings by comparing the fears of the present work to Sahihi’s own previous work. At the basic structural level, boxes have always appeared throughout his work – containing, encapsulating and objectifying. 
In discussion with the artist, Hamed Sahihi mentioned how much he was impressed by Karen Thompson Walker’s Ted Talk on ‘What fear can teach us’. I conclude this short review with a quotation from her talk:
And what we say about kids who have fears like that is that they have a vivid imagination. But at a certain point, most of us learn to leave these kinds of visions behind and grow up. We learn that there are no monsters hiding under the bed, and not every earthquake brings buildings down. But maybe it’s no coincidence that some of our most creative minds fail to leave these kinds of fears behind as adults. The same incredible imaginations that produced “The Origin of Species,” “Jane Eyre” and “The Remembrance of Things Past,” also generated intense worries that haunted the adult lives of Charles Darwin, Charlotte Brontë and Marcel Proust. So the question is, what can the rest of us learn about fear from visionaries and young children? [3] 
I shall pursue the exploration of Hamed Sahihi’s uplifting and inspiring work, in connection with my current project on the relation between artists and censorship internationally. In the case of Iran it is not just the censorship of governmental authorities that is of interest, but also the degree to which artists themselves ‘self-censor’. This particular recent work of Hamed Sahihi directly and allusively confronts the phenomenon of artists’ self-censorship of their own work – all deriving from their fear of the consequences of unbridled artistic intentions. In short, it is a great case for study of the artist’s courage to face, name and come to terms with his or her own fears.

  1. Aida Foroutan, ‘The Reception of Surrealism in Iran’, PhD thesis, University of Manchester, 2012, chapter 5.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Karen Thompson Walker,‘What fear can teach us’, Ted Global (June 2012); see, accessed May 2016.

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