Mountain Sickness: Interview with Leila Seyedzadeh

Leila Seyezedah Passage Arts

Passage Arts had the pleasure of speaking with Leila Seyedzadeh about her life and work. Seyedzadeh is an Iranian interdisciplinary artist based in New York. She creates imaginary landscapes with a sense of placelessness.

Seyedzadeh focuses on natural subjects such as mountains extracted from her subconscious. It is as if she is attaching pieces of her memories, and in so doing, destroying their meaning. Seyedzadeh received her MFA from Yale University School of Art in 2019 and completed artist residencies at Nars and NYFA in New York and at SOMA in Mexico City.

“I grew up in a family where there were no artists. No one was an artist. I don’t know how it happened that I decided to be an artist, but so many things came together and shaped my life in this way.

“I’m a very curious person. I love the feeling of discovering something. I literally can’t stop myself. That moment when I discover something new in my art practice is so appealing to me.

“In Iran, you need to decide what direction you want to go in high school. I thought about going to art school. I was interested in graphic design and I saw how different it was from studying mathematics or something like that. My family wasn’t happy with this idea. I had good grades and they said I should study math or become a doctor. It’s a classic story. It was tough. It was the first time I really fought for something I wanted to do.

“The first year of high school was general education, but I kept thinking of going to art school. I kept thinking that if I don’t go now, then it’s not going to happen. So finally, I went to a private drawing class to learn drawing and prepare for the art exam for the Tehran Fine Art School. It was the oldest art school in Iran, so it was very competitive. I only had two months of experience drawing.

“I’ll never forget the day of the exam. There were about sixty people fighting for about ten spots. I remember seeing how prepared they were. Everyone had so many fancy things: one hundred color pencils and specific drawing pens. It was intense, but I got in with only two months of experience drawing. That’s how I got started in an art school. I learned a lot.

“We needed to draw from landscapes for my drawing course, so they took us to Sa'dabad Palace north of Tehran once a week every week for a whole year. We did drawings of the landscape, the architecture, the people. I was so fascinated by the landscape and the mountains in the background. My major was graphic design but I was so engaged with this part, without even really knowing it. I did everything, but I was more interested in the landscapes than figures or portraits.

“I graduated as a graphic designer and went to the University of Art and Cultural Applied Science. I got my AFA in computer graphic design because things were switching from analog to digital in Iran. But I didn’t want someone telling me ‘I like this part of your work, I don’t like that part.’ I wanted to do the whole thing myself. I wanted those to be my decisions as an artist.

“I took graphic design courses in Tehran, but I was still drawing by hand instead of using PhotoShop. I also decided to take courses in illustration, where I had the chance to explore color. This was the first time I was introduced to color. All of the sudden, I felt comfortable with it. It happened organically.

“I was 24 when I found what I really wanted to do. I started painting. Most of my work was on the landscape. Seriously, I gave ten times as much space to the landscape as I did to any figures. I was thinking that humans are just a small part of the world. In the city we feel like we are everything, but when you go to nature you see how small you are. Like, you are nothing.

Leila Seyedzadeh Passage Arts

Image courtesy of the artist.

“I should also mention, all of my professors in undergrad were men. I had difficulties with that. They had two branches in high school: one for men and one for women. My teachers in high school were all women. I saw that there were things happening for the men that weren’t happening for us. Little by little, I saw the difference. In undergrad, I felt like there was no one teaching me as a woman. Everyone there was a man, and I didn’t always feel comfortable or like I could connect with them.

“When I graduated, I decided to go to a private drawing class. It was the first time I had a professor who was a woman in seven or eight years, after I had developed so much as an artist. That was important for me. I loved being there.

“She motivated me to do observations in nature. When I graduated from art school, I was just painting landscapes. There were no figures anymore. My new drawing teacher led me to discover the landscape and the mountains of Tehran. I felt happy. I felt like something was coming. I was learning more seeing the mountains from a close distance: the texture, the color, the form of the mountain, the relationship between the mountains and the sky, the river, the trees, the whole thing, the whole picture.

“Little by little, I decided to try a different medium. I decided to try fabric. My mother was the person who taught me how to dye the fabric. My mother is a housewife, and she knows how to work with her hands. She knows how to work with things.

“I remember back in Tehran, my mother and I dyed a huge piece of fabric. It was summertime. I experimented with my first suspended installations in our garage. The ceiling was so low, and it was such a messy place. I was curious to hand-dye the fabric and see how it looked. In that moment, I really saw how I can have form and color and space. I can have all of them now in this thing that I’m doing.

“The idea drives me to find the right material. I can’t just be a painter or a fabric artist. The idea leads me to the right material.”

“In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to create a mountain, but it looked so awkward in that garage. It was the beginning of my practice.

“After a while I found an abandoned house in Tehran that the city was planning to demolish and replace with a tower. I takes a few months to do that, so I asked the owner’s permission to use the rooms there. I told him, ‘I have this idea. I don’t have studio space. I need this space just for a month.’ Magically, he was ok with that.

“It was the first time I ever had a space of my own. There were a few rooms. I found a room with blue walls and I chose it. I want this one.

“It was a moment of discovering a whole new system, discovering the ability of 3-D space, discovering the possibility of working with fabric, discovering positive and negative space.

Leila Seyezedah Passage Arts

Leila Seyedzadeh, Suspended Mountain I. Image courtesy of the artist.

“My mother is a religious person and she practices every day. When she wants to practice, she covers her whole body in a chador. It’s a large piece of fabric that usually has a beautiful floral texture. When we see that particular fabric, we say chador namaz because we really only use it for that purpose.

“One of my hobbies as a child was playing with my mom’s chador. My brother and I made tents with it and played under it. I felt like my brother and I were creating a new space when we played under that tent and covered the whole room with it. I remember feeling like we were in a very specific place. I remember it looked so magical. It seemed like my whole imagination was creating a fantasy of a whole world. So, when I made this installation art, I flashed back to my childhood. I experience the art through that memory.

“I asked myself, why am I not using chador in my installations? I decided to include found fabrics as well as hand-dyed cotton fabrics. Some of the fabrics in my installations belonged to my mother. I borrowed them, saying, ‘I need this. I need this color. I need this texture. Can I have it for a few days?’ So, my mother and her taste exist organically in my practice.

“I made a series of suspended mountains in that abandoned house. I explored different colors, different shapes, different heights from the ceiling, different carpets underneath it. After that, I had to move out of the space because they wanted to destroy the building.

“A few months later, I got accepted at Yale with this series of installations and drawings from the mountains of Tehran. Before I left, I had a solo exhibition in Tehran where I recreated one of those mountain installations in the gallery space. I asked them to paint the walls blue and I hung the piece in the center of the room. The gallery space had windows going down to the floor, so imagine you’re walking on the street and you see pieces of the mountain. I called it a suspended mountain.

“When I moved to the United States to start my program at Yale, I was faced with so many differences. The first thing I felt was that the sky is higher here than it is in Iran. I remember feeling like New Haven was so flat. I didn’t realize how unconsciously I recorded the details about Tehran. I wasn’t aware how deep my memory of that place was until I was dis-placed.

“The angles of the lines were different at Yale. The colors of the same objects were different. It was a huge challenge adjusting, especially at the beginning. You’re not even aware of these things until you leave a place.

“So, I observed my new environment. I was bombarded with so many new and different things. Obviously, I was overwhelmed by this process. It was too much. I wondered how I could bring this emotion to my work. I thought about my memories of Iran and thought about how I cannot feel related here, how I feel in between, how this landscape doesn't have any meaning for me. I remember one of my professors told me there was a small mountain in New Haven and told me to visit and draw. I went there and it was just a rock. I couldn’t relate to it. It was too foreign.

Leila Seyezedah Passage Arts

Leila Seyedzadeh, Suspended Mountain II. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Subconsciously, I started collecting various images from National Geographic magazines. I started a series of collages. I was thinking about landscapes that don’t belong to anywhere. Each part of the collage belonged to somewhere in the world, but no one knows where. And I put them all together, reflecting their placelessness. I felt like that was the most honest way to reflect my own experiences. Next I did paintings of those collages.

“Time is so specific. It’s such a magical thing. Since I moved to the United States, my feelings about this country and this environment and this landscape have changed. Even my feelings about Tehran and the mountains have changed. I tried to work from my memories and tried making hanging mountains again. I made a huge installation piece that I hung from the second floor. I really wanted to make the audience feel like the mountain was unattainable. That’s how the mountain I remember made me feel.

Leila Seyedzadeh, <em>An absent view</em>. Image courtesy of the artist.

Leila Seyedzadeh, An absent view. Image courtesy of the artist.

 “I’m starting to see how my experience as an immigrant shows itself. One of the projects I did at Yale was called Under the Same Sky. I asked a friend of mine to put her phone in front of the sky in Tehran and I projected it live in a room in New Haven, which had a skylight. So, people could see the sky in New Haven on one side and on the other, live video projections of the sky in Tehran. They were so different. My aim was to show that it’s just not the same seeing something for real, and seeing it projected as pixels. I was trying to show how I feel being here.

“I went back to Iran to visit my family after the first year at Yale. It was the first time that I had been away from home for a whole year. I was yearning for home. I felt like I was crossing planet Earth the whole flight back. I saw the borders, the night and the day, the ocean and the land. I was unconscious watching all of these things, trying to find definitions for the borders and the time and the distance.

“Finally, I got back home. Going home allowed me to digest everything that I had gone through in the U.S. It allowed me to understand, a little, not fully, what immigration is and how do I feel about home.

“My feelings about home changed. I hadn’t been there for a year. I lost that time. I lost so many things that happened because I wasn’t physically present. I wasn’t present on either side, not in Tehran and not in New Haven.

“I decided to make a work while I was home. I went to Ramsar in the north of Iran, close to the Caspian Sea. It’s a very green area, it’s beautiful. I took a piece of fabric, dyed it pink with my mother, and hung it from a few trees in the middle of a forest. It was my first time installing something outdoors, but it was inside nature. I was adding my mountain among the trees.

“It was dreamy. It was fantastical. Imagine you’re between all these green trees and you see a huge, pink mountain hanging from the trees.

“I went around the forest, creating a landscape wherever I went. I de-installed it, folded it, put it in a suitcase and took it somewhere else. I was making portable landscapes. I was thinking about the lives of nomadic people and how they move around and build their tents wherever they want, then move somewhere else. Unconsciously, I felt like I was doing the same thing with my landscapes. The feeling of belonging is lost for me. I don’t know how to define it anymore.

“After a few hours, I took the piece down for good. It was up for a few hours, and then nothing. I called it Becoming a landscape in a landscape then disappearing. It was how I felt. Imagine being home after a year of not being there. That’s what immigration does. You feel in between. You can’t even fully relate yourself there anymore, because of the time and the distance. It separates you.

Leila Seyezedah Passage Arts

Leila Seyedzadeh, Becoming a landscape in a landscape then disappearing. Image courtesy of artist.

“I had to leave to attend an artist’s residency in Mexico. Leaving is so tough for me. It’s so painful. That was the last time I was home. Since then, I haven’t been able to go back.

“I went to Mexico to do my residency. The first day I got to Mexico City, I got sick. I found out that it’s common for people to get altitude sickness, because the city is so high above sea level. It’s twice as high above sea level as Tehran. I researched altitude sickness and accidentally found its other name: mountain sickness.

“In Tehran I saw the mountains as a view, as a backdrop. But in Mexico, I was on a mountain. I was living at altitude. Mexico City afforded me the opportunity to rethink the meaning of mountains. “I visited the pyramids at Teotihuacan north of Mexico City, which reminded me of the mountains. I learned so much there. And the whole arts scene in Mexico City is wonderful. There are so many great artists there and I had the chance to visit studios and museums and galleries there.

“I learned about a whole other world and history, other than America. And I feel like I learned more about America there than I did when I was in America. I had more social interaction there and learned more than I was able to in the United States being in my box. I felt like I could ask questions and people could answer.

“When I got back to Yale, I had a lot to make. I had so many new ideas and I made so many new works of art. I started making work for a wider audience. In the beginning, I was faced with the feeling that none of my peers knew what I was talking about. I began to understand how things could have different meanings for different people in different contexts. I began thinking more about materials and language and translation.

“In my first semester, for my first-ever public talk, I said a poem in Farsi called ‘Blue Sky.’ I was thinking about the sky here and the sky back home, how I’m missing the mountains and feeling so far from where I was. I felt like there is a side of me that is boldly invisible.

“I used GoogleTranslator and I did that on purpose. I read the poem in Farsi in front of a room of Americans. I wanted to put them in a situation where they hear another language where they can’t even understand one word, then giving them a very bad English translation.

“I made a series of work using language as a material, called The landscape of my voice. I used my voice as a material, recording both in English and in the Persian language. I speak English every day, but I still think in Farsi. I used the visual imagery of the frequency of my voice and my voice rose and fell like mountains.

“I created a landscape like that and drew the lines on glass, creating a meaningful landscape. I created a landscape of placelessness, of not belonging. It’s a new, dreamy landscape that I created.

Leila Seyedzadeh Passage Arts

Leila Seyedzadeh, Mount Qaf. Image courtesy of the artist.

“I think about Persian literature as well as language. I made an upside-down mountain based on Mount Qaf, an imaginary mountain in Persian literature. It’s the highest mountain in the world and the mother of all the mountains in the world. It also means the farthest place in the world. When I’m feeling lazy and not wanting to get something across the room, I say I can’t get that. It’s on Mount Qaf.

“I was thinking about this metaphor. I was thinking about how I am the farthest distance away from home. I was thinking about how I had become unattainable from home. I related to the story of Mount Qaf and made an upside-down mountain with a hand-dyed cotton rope. I made knits out of the ropes with various colors. This is accurate to the story, because Mount Qaf is emerald green and the sun rises above it. So, I used green-blue for the mountain and yellow for the peak. I left lots of space between knits to make use of negative space. It wasn’t a flat surface anymore. I was thinking about illusion and fantasy. I was thinking about how something can be present and not present. I was thinking about all of this, because of my experience with immigration.

“I take inspiration from Persian miniatures. I always look for my color palette in Persian miniature paintings. They’re not what you would expect. They’re colorful, high contrast, sharp colors next to each other.

“When I graduated, I moved to New York City. I remember a friend of mine wanted to drop someone off at JFK. She was from abroad and she wanted to move back home. I was surprised because she was doing the opposite of what I was doing. I was trying to build a new beginning for myself in the U.S. after graduation. But she was going back home.

“The first time I landed in this country, I landed in JFK. It was the first place I saw in America. I subconsciously flashed back to my personal experience there. My friends went to the airport but I said I just can’t walk in there. I was thinking about the meeting of borders. I was thinking about the travel ban. I was thinking about how borders have visible and invisible functions. How can you define a border in an ocean?

“People were coming and going from JFK but I could not. I was staring into an invisible border. I didn’t even want to go inside because of the travel ban.

“The duality became so important to me. Existing and not existing. Visible and invisible. Present and absent. These became my main concepts.

Leila Seyedzadeh, <em>An absent view</em>. Image courtesy of the artist.

Leila Seyedzadeh, A memory of a view. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Quarantine did not change my life, but now the rest of society was experiencing something similar to me: not being able to visit their families, having to communicate with just a few people, not having many options, and having to stay in certain areas. What I experienced suddenly extended to the rest of society.

“When I installed Under the Same Sky at Yale, where I presented a live video from the sky of Tehran with the sky of New Haven, the faculty couldn't believe it. But if I did that now, in a year when people are on FaceTime and Zoom and so many virtual apps, they would understand it. People would say I could talk to my family on FaceTime and it hurt, because it’s not the same. Now I think that piece looks more familiar. I see how everyone is tired, missing life, wanting to get back to normal. That’s how I have been feeling for a few years.

“This pandemic has built borders, invisible borders, between people. And it has also shown how we are all connected. We should care what happens to someone somewhere else. We stand and fall together like dominos.”

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