In Conversation: Sanaz Mazinani
Sanaz Mazinani is a multidisciplinary artist who makes camera-less, photo-based artworks that touch upon both personal and universal concerns. Her 2019 project, Light Times, revisits some of her earliest pieces of art as inspiration for an ambitious collaborative and sensually immersive experience. We caught up with Mazinani to talk about her artistic process.
Sanaz Mazinani in front of “Blind Shift”, 2018, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © FFOTO
Craig D'Arville, FFOTO: I'd like to start by reading this excerpt from your most recent artist statement. It says,
"Mazinani's work explores how repetition and pattern make information legible, transform seeing into knowing, with the possibility of altering people’s worldview. Working across the disciplines of photography, social sculpture, and large-scale multimedia installations, Mazinani creates informational objects that invite a rethinking of how we see, suspending the view between observation and knowledge."
Can you explain what you mean by ‘informational object’?
Sanaz Mazinani: Well, I think an informational object is every single thing that we encounter throughout our days, but really thinking about the photographic as an object, in a way. So, it’s something that is beyond the surface of an object that informs our daily lives and our world. The information is just the content in it. It's how we read what we see.
“Planar Study (Vertical)”, 2019, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Right! “It’s how we read what we see”. As a multidisciplinary artist working in various media, how do you determine the realization of your ideas? What is your process like and how does an idea evolve from conception to completion – is there a methodology?
SM: I would have to say that a lot of my ideas are old ideas. Like ideas that I had when I was trying to understand who I was as a person; as kind of a teenager even. I have to say some of the concepts that I go back to are from when I was 15 years old and I was trying to understand how I am perceived as a person of color, as a person who has maybe a bit of an accent when I speak, and then imagining how significant the role of photography is in terms of helping us understand other parts of the world we've never been to, and then thinking about how the distribution and proliferation of certain images inform us with a limited view of a certain place.
So going back to your question, in terms of the ideas, I'm still trying to work on that - like a really larger concept - and every time I want to start a new project, I think about how can I talk about this in a different way to challenge myself and to maybe involve more people or get more people to be part of that conversation with me?
“Reflected”, 2013, from the series Site, Sight, and Insight. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: So, it really is a holistic approach; it isn't a “What came first? The chicken or the egg?”-type situation; it's self-referential at this point. New ideas, not better ideas, and--
SM: Yes, exactly, exactly. The ideas always shift. For example, the importance of photography for me was rekindled in the context of truth. Right now, in the kind of political climate and the post-truth world and whatnot, whatever you want to call all of this, really we are every day questioning the source. So I thought, how about if I make a project that took a source and manipulated it through all of these iterations to - in a way - demonstrate how much agency media has.
CD: Interesting. Something that I find personally engaging and exciting about your work is your use of seductive, subversive, aesthetically appealing finishes that really draw the eye. Can you tell us about the importance of materiality or the “object-ness” of the pieces that you make?
SM: Sure. I mean, in the end I'm an artist and I'm an art lover and I love beautiful objects. I think the craft of making it, the time it takes to perfect it, those are really important to me. So I try to make things that if I were to see them without even knowing anything about them, I'd still enjoy spending time in front of them. So that's important to me as an object, but furthermore, I was trying to think about the significance of media. So what happens if you take a picture and it goes from color to black and white? Is there a conceptual shift that happens to you? Do you experience the world differently because it's black and white? Does it feel older just because it's black and white?
So how does all of this change, how does it all change when the media changes? When the scale changes? When instead of it being flat on the wall it's a sculpture on the ground that you get to walk around? So those were just the questions I was asking.
CD: And the delivery of that information and how it's manipulated to affect response?
SM: Exactly, yes.
“Meshes”, 2018, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Your work references the process of making art and traditional craft as well. How important to you is the process in relation to the finished product, the actual making?
SM: I came into the art making world mainly through print making and I used to do intaglio process which is very time-based work; a lot of waiting around and then polishing and inking, and then polishing the plate, and so when you're doing that, it's very meditative. It's almost like this kind of Zen experience but all that time you're looking at the art object that you're in the process of making. So it allows, for me, to fall deeper and deeper into the work. I really value time in the process of making art, and I thought, “Wouldn't it be cool if I also had a show that highlighted the process and the shifts that occur while making the work,” because I don't think that any artist has ever really conceived something and made exactly that final object from beginning of conception of the idea. So, it's really interesting how time kind of shapes one’s worldview in a way.
“Fold (1)”, 2018, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Is it accurate to say that your output is conceptually about photography as both an artistic medium and as a communication tool?
SM: Yeah, that's exactly what I hope to do.
CD: That's what I get from it.
CD: Yes, for sure.
SM: That's wonderful. Yeah, I mean I hope to do something like that. You never know what the artwork is doing without talking about it in front of people and kind of explaining it. So hopefully, that's why I wanted to remove the image almost from it because I wanted it to be about the photographic process and medium and to show the visual language of photography's different media without it being attached to certain content. So, I chose something that's so abstract and so simple that all you see is the changes, you know?
CD: But it also speaks to other visual arts disciplines like painting; Colour Field art especially. I’m thinking of that in relation to the chemistry of colour photography and also optics and how we see, which is something else that your work is about. Your work is about optics.
SM: Yes, very much so.
“Rome/Tripoli”, 2012, from the series Conference of the Birds. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Let's talk about how so much of your practice involves working with found images. Can you talk about what draws your attention to photography on the internet as a source for your material? What I’m wondering about here is, specifically in the West, the internet could be considered an unofficial or passive Ministry of Propaganda because we, the users of the internet, often mindlessly accept whatever we’re shown as fact. Mass media, in the English-speaking world especially, has deeply integrated itself into, and co-opted the internet, giving us one dominant, ongoing news cycle or narrative. But your work challenges us to consider other perspectives. The found images you source from the internet are essential to subverting that narrative.
SM: Right. I think of myself as a photographer as much as I think of myself as an artist. They're very, very embedded into one another. I photograph a lot. I'm a bit of a hoarder of information and documentation. I make a lot of photographs and I also download a lot of photographs.
So the last I checked, I had about 60,000 images in my archive, some of which are mine - more than half of which are mine - and the other amounts are things that I find interesting in the digital world that I can't imagine not seeing again. So I do a lot of screen captures and I do a lot of downloads and I think a lot about how saturated the image world is. How saturated our spatial atmosphere is that we inhabit from our screens, to billboards, to everything. And I think to myself, “Wouldn't it be interesting to spend some time delving further into the image world that already exists?” So instead of me contributing furthermore to the chaos, I like to think of my work as looking at just a small grouping in further detail and with more time.
CD: Which is also controlling delivery of messages because you're editing what you're showing.
SM: Sure, sure. In a very simple way, it's just like curating an experience for myself and then sharing it with others, yeah.
“Rome/Tripoli” (detail), 2012, from the series Conference of the Birds. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: That leads us to your newest project, Light Times. can you talk a bit about your desire to revisit some your earliest work as a starting off point for this latest series?
SM: The importance of going back to 2002, 2003, was to think about where my head was at when I was first questioning the structuralist nature of the photographic media and thinking about what were the important elemental forces that made a photograph a true image and how important was light, how important was photosensitivity, how important was the lens, the camera, and when I was making this work I was thinking a lot about abstract expressionism and Colour Field painting and the importance of that group of artists who redefined the painting world by making absolutely abstract images that were really about paint and canvas and colour.
I decided that I wanted to remove the image part of the photographic medium but in reality, the recorded image is very significant. So, going back to this tool - this group that looked at the tools of how to make an image - I thought, “Wouldn't it be interesting if I used these abstract, camera-less images, or fields of colour, as images to then further manipulate?”
“5LPI/CMYK, 2018, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © Sanaz Maziniani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: That makes me think immediately of “5LPI/CMYK”, the print that really shows the artifacts of pushing a colour enlargement. That artwork is the key image in the show for me, almost like it's the thesis for the entire show. My sense is that what you're talking about in your recent work is going right to that point; the synthesis of how we see, how we perceive information, how we choose to document what we document and then edit down to show to other people.
SM: I think that's really observant of you. That's one of the first pieces that I made for the show. When I started, I wanted to maybe even only talk about digital manipulation, so that one is going through all the techniques in Photoshop, copying and pasting and pixelization and as you said these are the kind of steps that we recognize rather easily. Then once I made that, I was like, “This is really great, this is like an ode to Photoshop,” and then from there I was like, “Okay, let me think, really try to push myself to imagine what are other ways I could manipulate the image that's not only really related to Photoshop,” so that's what the rest of the show kind of ended up being.
“Veiled”, 2018, from the series A Study in the Vertical. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Let’s get into the other elements in this series that push the idea of photography as a medium. You like to collaborate with others and for this project you worked with your brother Mani, an artist who works with sound, as well as perfumer Ayala Moriel. Can you talk about the importance of collaboration in your practice? For example, is it a practical choice to achieve a specific outcome, or is it perhaps second nature for you to want to work with like-minded people towards a common goal?
SM: It has been incredibly rewarding for me to collaborate with my brother Mani on “Shift”, the sound component of Light Times. He is really smart and a very deep thinker and when we work together, I think we really push each other in new and interesting ways. He has a whole set of expertise that I don't. He knows so much about sound, music, and he studied philosophy, so he has this whole other background of knowledge and his practice is different than mine. So when we collaborate together, both of us bring new ways of working but also new ideas. So the sound element for this exhibition was commissioned by the Bentway in Toronto. We made a piece for their fall program that was on view for three months, a sound sculpture, and a lot of the things that Mani and I had been talking about and thinking about had developed over years. The sound sculpture is conceptually very close to the ideas that I was exploring with the work in this series. So instead of making a new piece for the exhibition, when we talked about it we agreed that a lot of what we want to do for this piece is already in this recorded composition.
We are pressing our own LP; Side A is a collaboration between myself and my brother Mani and Side B is a synthesizer performance that was performed through those speakers at the Bentway with Michael Snow and my brother.
CD: So is it accurate to think of this collaboration as a conversation?
SM: Exactly. Collaboration as conversation. Collaboration is a way to push forward ideas, and with Ayala Moriel, a perfumer who has studied this and who has been making perfumes for upwards of a decade - she knows her stuff. When I went to her we could have that conversation on this much higher level about scent in a way that I'd never talked about scent before and I learned a lot from her but also I think it was definitely a mutually enjoyable collaboration because I don't think she'd ever made anything that was so conceptually kind of “out there”; like, “Let's make a scent that describes the photographic medium.”
What we decided to do for the scent is to create a room fragrance. I wanted it to be atmospheric. I wanted entering a space to feel the same way as when you look at a photograph; this feeling of being confronted maybe, or transported. The idea of The Photograph. So we made the scent kind of like,“wet”, and chemical-y and technical, or something to reference the dark room without it being stinky like a dark room. At first, the concept was - thinking about a photograph when you capture an image - it's that decisive moment that you have recorded. It's that one little second, but as time goes by, the reference to the image and the time changes. Our memory of it fades and also the significance and the content tends to shift. This was the challenge I proposed and Ayala created this incredible piece out of it. When at first you smell the scent, it's very specific, it's very kind of sharp and bright, but it kind of dissipates into space and malforms and changes to mushroomy, or woody, or earthy.
CD: So this scent then ends up referencing specific known things in new ways. It asks people to think about how they perceive and digest experiences as well as the memories of those experiences.
SM: Yes, exactly.
“Primeval Fusion”, 2015, from the series Imminent Infinite. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Connecting these newest works with past projects like your series Imminent, Infinite, it’s easy to identify the metaphysical aspect of your process. But your art is also inherently hopeful and seeks an emotional connection with the viewer; there’s a vulnerability. Do you explore those ideas for your own satisfaction or with an intention to reach a wider audience?
SM: Oh, definitely both. It starts off from what I'm interested in but in my heart I kind of think of myself as an activist still. I'm definitely interested in opening doors and helping people experience the world in a wider, more encompassing, more open way. So, if somehow my work can do that, that would be amazing. I don't expect that it will, but I hope that it might.
“Forever in the Sky (Scroll #7) (detail), 2017. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Thinking of your projects, Forever in the Sky, and Conference of the Birds, some of your work might seem confrontational to some viewers. How important is communicating a wider geopolitical engagement in your work to your audience?
SM: Confrontation is the best! I know a lot of people shy away from it but for me, I believe that without confronting reality you'll never get ahead and you'll never improve or better yourself. In this work that you're referencing, I like to have a little bit of a shock just to pull your attention and then maybe we can have a conversation.
Installation view: “Rome/Tripoli”, 2012, from the series Conference of the Birds. © Sanaz Mazinani / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery
CD: Lastly, speaking again to the materiality of your art and those very differently realized projects – the use of silk scrolls with Forever in the Sky; or the sculptural, lacquered plexi mounts of Conference of the Birds – it affects how the viewer interacts with each artwork. As objects, they tempt the viewer to want to touch them, which influences the perception and processing of each piece.
SM: Yes. I'm making art, so I want someone to have an enjoyable aesthetic experience with the work, so colour is really important to me; shape, pattern, all of these things are part of a visual language that we learn and that we learn to enjoy. I think a lot about the way that someone might approach the work, so from far away it might have one meaning to a viewer and when they get closer up - and if they want to engage deeper - there's further information in there to unpack and maybe enjoy.
If you are interested in purchasing a pressing of “Shift”, the vinyl component of Light Times; or ILLUME, the conceptual room scent, please contact us: info@FFOTO.com