On August 27, 2015, seventy-one refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were discovered, suffocated in the back of a truck that had been abandoned on the side of an Austrian motorway. Sealed in an airtight, refrigerated food truck, the asylum seekers died at some point during their 530-mile journey from Röszke, Hungary, to Munich. Emblazoned with the logo of the Hyza meat company and pictures of delicately arranged sliced meat, the inviting exterior of the truck stood in sharp contrast with the horror found inside: 60 men, eight women, and three children, all dead. A replica of the truck appears in Seven Rooms of Hospitality, a recent series by the Iranian-born, American artist Siah Armajani. Titled Room for Asylum Seekers (2017), the miniature 3D-printed plastic model measures just over a foot long and about five inches tall, seeming toylike, playful, even. Only after reading the text below—pulled from a newspaper headline—does the reference to the grisly episode become apparent. Begun in 2016, Armajani’s Seven Rooms of Hospitality responds with thoughtful urgency to the contemporary migrant crisis, representing the uncertain spaces occupied by refugees, deportees, and exiles.
Born in Tehran in 1939, Armajani was politically active from a young age. In 1953, a coup orchestrated by the United States and Great Britain forced Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, into exile, strengthening monarchical rule and restoring Western control over the extraction of Iranian oil resources. A youthful supporter of Mossadegh, Armajani joined the National Front resistance movement, which opposed the shah. In 1960, fearing for his safety, Armajani fled Iran, escorted by armed guards onto an airplane, effectively exiled for his pro-democratic political activities. He immigrated to the United States, settling in the Twin Cities, where he has worked as an artist ever since.
Throughout his career, Armajani’s work has touched on the subject of exile, memorializing figures who have been displaced by geopolitical conflicts. It can be tempting to romanticize exile—Edward Said, speaking to the “pleasures of exile,” attributed the nomadic figure’s “plurality of vision” to his “awareness of simultaneous dimensions.”1 Today, the art world has found a kind of solidarity with the exile, the itinerant condition neatly mirroring the cosmopolitanism of contemporary art’s global reach—no matter that anguish, sorrow, and indignity define the former. In our moment, exile also seems a slightly anachronistic term, relying, as it does, on the rigidly defined geographic boundaries of nation-states—a sharp contrast to the free flows of information exchange that characterize 21st-century globalism.
However, if recent events are any indication, we may not be as global as we think we are. We are now reminded that even the internet, once imagined as the ultimate medium for globalism’s deterritorialization—digital communications, untethered from geographic specificity and national borders—remains yoked to very real nation-states, capable of manipulating the flows of information through propaganda campaigns, digital espionage, and the dissemination of fake news. What’s more, nationalist sentiment has gained new traction—Brexit in the UK, anti-immigrant, protectionist rhetoric in the US, and the political gains by New Right parties throughout Europe come to mind. Under these conditions, contemporary art’s globalism might take on new significance, a challenge to the darkest impulses of nationalism, based as they are in fear of the cultural other. Against this backdrop, Armajani’s work sets forth competing understandings of the global, which inflect and cannibalize one another to test the possibilities of the global in our time.
The series takes its name from Of Hospitality, a conversation between philosophers Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle on “the question of the foreigner.”2 Prompted by the imposition of punitive immigration laws in Europe during the 1990s, Derrida questioned how the generous act of hospitality could be criminalized:
I remember a bad day last year: It just about took my breath away, it sickened me when I heard the expression for the first time, barely understanding it, the expression crime of hospitality [delit d’hospitalité]. In fact, I am not sure that I heard it, because I wonder how anyone could ever have pronounced it […] It concerned a law permitting the prosecution, and even the imprisonment, of those who take in and help foreigners whose status is held to be illegal. This “crime of hospitality” (I still wonder who dared to put these words together) is punishable by imprisonment. What becomes of a country, one must wonder, what becomes of a culture, what becomes of a language when it admits of a “crime of hospitality,” when hospitality can become, in the eyes of the law and its representatives, a criminal offense?3
The absurdity at the core of the law sparked Derrida’s thoughts on the ethics of hospitality. In his lectures, Derrida asks what it means to extend hospitality to the foreigner—without conditions. “Absolute hospitality,” Derrida explains, “requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner…but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names.”4 Thus, absolute hospitality does not require that the foreigner subscribe or conform himself to the laws, customs, or language of the place that welcomes him; indeed, to do so would be to demand of the foreigner an impossible task—that he ask for hospitality in a language which, by virtue of his status as a foreigner, is not his own.
Of course, there is a paradox at the heart of the law of absolute hospitality. At its most basic, hospitality concerns the crossing of boundaries; hospitality does not exist until one welcomes another across a threshold. In this, there is the possibility for perversion of the concept, for hospitality to turn against the guest and be used as a defense of the host, to become about the right to a threshold, the right to the privacy of the home, and the right to welcome or refuse the guest as one pleases. It is easy to see how this rhetoric can be corrupted into a nationalist discourse about the right to define, even protect, one’s home, culture, and heritage. In the nationalist imaginary, the language of exile is used as a weapon against the foreigner: every man, the logic goes, has a right to his heritage and homeland; the foreigner threatens to transform the culture of this home, to destabilize economic security, and, in doing so, to make the host an exile in his own home.
Against the tide of entrenched nationalism, we might look back to the global aspirations of the early 20th-century avant-gardes. The avant-garde’s internationalism was a political project, one that stood in opposition to nationalism and fascism; as Boris Groys reminds, “Contemporary art has its origin in this break with national cultural and pictorial traditions—the break that the artistic avant-garde effectuated at the beginning of the twentieth century. The artists of the avant-garde wanted their art to become universalist, to develop a visual language that would be accessible to everyone, beyond traditional cultural borders.”5 Armajani’s engagement with Russian Constructivist design harbors traces of this universalist project. In pursuit of forms that could integrate art with the everyday, Russian avant-garde artists developed a practical and useful art with a global horizon; their efforts coincided with the dream of worldwide socialist revolution that characterized Bolshevism.
Informed by the design of Soviet workers’ clubs, Armajani’s structures reanimate the social and collective impulse of international modernism. Room for Detainees is a square, open-sided structure, featuring a corrugated roof supported by nine slender beams. The design is self-evident, with every joint, every point of intersection, clearly visible. Red and black—those quintessential Constructivist colors—emphasize the points where two-dimensional planes meet. The room is fitted with simple, unadorned furniture—a platform bed with two pillows and no mattress and a square table surrounded by four straight-backed chairs. The arrangement might be described as pragmatic or practical, if it weren’t for the central support beams that pierce through the center of the bed and the table, undermining the functionality of the furniture. Function and utility break down in the work, as if to lay bare the contradictions of the avant-garde project—its eventual collapse into “useful design,” the cheap detritus of commodity capitalism. For Armajani, modernism’s internationalist project cannot be thought outside of the legacy of globalism; the work points to the fine line between revolution and monoculture.
As if to stave off the ravages of a homogenous globalism, Armajani’s work returns to the common, ordinary, and low. For most of his career, the artist has constructed his models by hand, leaving the marks of fabrication—unevenly applied veneer, rough wooden edges, and globs of hot glue—clearly visible. Seven Rooms of Hospitality began as a series of axonometric drawings on graph paper. Armajani transformed the drawings into handcrafted models made of balsa wood, cardboard, and paint, and then each model was subsequently rendered as a plastic model. While the rough-hewn wooden models reveal traces of the hand, the pristine, uninterrupted surface of the 3D-printed versions translates the avant-garde aesthetic into the language of the mass-produced commodity—the dream of international revolution turned global commodity capitalism.
Further complicating this uncomfortable alliance, Armajani’s work alludes to early American vernacular building. While such references to American regionalism may seem hermetic and insular, Armajani has often turned to these forms for their latent social potential, frustrating attempts to render the regional in protectionist or isolationist terms. The artist explains:
In the early American log cabins, grain elevators, silos, farm houses, barns, and bridges, the structure, the framing, and the boarding were open. There were gaps in the process in order to reveal the construction … It showed why and how things were put together. One part was not erased by the other .… One part was always next to the other part … one resided next to the other. One looked after the other. One belonged to the other and the two belonged to a totality.6
How easily the language in this passage slides from formal description to social framework; by the end, one becomes uncertain if Armajani is referring here to buildings or people. Again, the promise of the collective undergirds the architecture. Room for Deportees, built to full-scale, includes a gable-roofed guard booth that resembles the matter-of-fact, balloon-frame structures that were popularized around the mid-19th century. Using simplified building techniques, balloon-frame houses were often communal constructions: based on shared know-how, they could be assembled by a community of helpers in just under a week. A chain-link fence topped with a thicket of barbed wire juts out from the back of the booth, creating two distinct spaces. On one side sits a US mailbox, denoting American territory; on the other, seating suggests a waiting room or holding space for those soon to be deported. A man’s fedora and a woman’s purse suggest human figures who are eerily absent. A model of a red farmhouse, another nod to American regionalism, rests off-kilter on one arm of the bench, evoking the distant memory of a place once inhabited. But even at his most pessimistic, Armajani can’t quite let go of the promise of community. In the holding area, a single straight-backed green chair rests next to the naked pine bench. Two slats of the green chair are rendered in unfinished pine, as if to drive home the interdependence of the two units: “One resided next to the other. One looked after the other. One belonged to the other and the two belonged to a totality.” While Seven Rooms of Hospitality constitutes a clear indictment of the nationalist politics that have produced the global refugee crisis, Armajani also finds hope in the project, attempting to revive the revolutionary internationalist energy of the avant-garde, alongside the communal impulse of vernacular American building.
In Armajani’s most recent work, subtle indictment turns to urgent declaration. This summer, longtime friend, Christian Bernard, invited the artist to participate in an art festival in Toulouse, France. In response, Armajani shipped a 10-foot tall canvas emblazoned with an image of the Statue of Liberty. Originally a gift from the French people to the United States, the statue is famous for those lines of hospitality inscribed on its base:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Today, the artist is not so sure that these sacred words are safe from harm. Here, Armajani returns the statue to the French people, along with a declaration, which reads in part, “I present to you, Christian Bernard, citizen of France, for safe-keeping, until such a time when Liberty returns to these United States, my offering of the Statue of Liberty.” Alongside his statement, Armajani includes a copy of the original patent for the monument, with exact measurements for its fabrication. In the event that the statue and its official documentation are destroyed, Armajani’s declaration ensures that someday liberty may be restored.
1 Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 186.
2 Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
3 Derrida, “Derelictions of the Right to Justice (But what are the ‘sanspapier’ lacking?),” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971–2001 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 133.
4 Derrida, Of Hospitality, 25.
5 Boris Groys, “Towards a New Universalism,” e-flux 86 (November 2017), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/86/162402/towards-a-new-universalism/.
6 Siah Armajani, “The Glass Front Porch for Walter Benjamin,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2002), 368.