When is an orange peel not just an orange peel? When it is a protagonist in Laleh Khorramian's touching narrative videos on show at The Third Line gallery in Dubai. The Iranian artist has taken the lowly fruit rinds and cut them into human forms to tell a story of love and loss in her latest show, Zenith and Nadir. Using time lapse photography, Khorramian captures the orange peels' transition from freshness to decay, a process that parallels the trajectories of many human relationships.
Though watching the slow desiccation of orange peels sounds about as thrilling as watching paint dry, the audience is treated to an emotional and lifelike journey. There are two films running on loops in the gallery. The longer one, I Without End, follows two orange peel figures through their daily routines. The viewer is a fly on the wall of their house, a witness to their intimacy and inevitable decay.
Though it looks effortless, the piece involves painstaking and meticulous work. Khorramian carves the human silhouettes out of orange peel, then sets them against backdrops she has made that look like dollhouses, complete with windows, doors, tables and beds. The interiors are lit by timed flashlights which mimic the fading light of the sun. The result is a chiaroscuro-like light which evokes the works of George de La Tour.
It might seem a little absurd, but Khorramian is not the first contemporary artist to work with rinds. Louise Bourgeois was also known to make orange peel men. Khorramian says she got the idea for the stop-motion films 12 years ago, from her friend who had the habit of making orange peels into figures. "My friend used to do them and throw them away and I would go take them from the garbage and pin them on my wall in my room," says Khorramian. "I would watch it dry - not literally - but over days and I was like, 'Wow, what if there were two people? That would be really fitting if there were two'."
The video works are a continuation in a series stop-motion animation films, each of which explores a different natural element such as earth, water or, in this case, fire, which is personified in the emotions of the characters and the transfixing light. In the beginning of I Without End, the camera is so close to the orange peels that the skins look like tiny organisms swimming beneath a microscope. As the camera retreats, the figures begin to appear more human, curling their arms around each other in a Gumby-like embrace. In one scene, a figure bends itself away from the doorframe in a gesture of anguish in what looks like a couple's row. Later, the emotional tension increases with the peels bent in anguish with straight pins lodged in their backs.
The sequel, I Without End ... Meanwhile, explores the same themes, but with more motion and less abstraction than its longer counterpart. It's sort of a soap opera staged with fruit, but if there is a storyline, Khorramian insists that it's unintentional. "I didn't necessarily intend for there to be a narrative. I had always wanted to make a very intimate film and I had this inkling it would be with orange peels," she says. "It wasn't like, 'Let me think, am I gonna use clementines or grapefruits?' It was very specific - I don't think I am going to work with other fruit."
To outsiders the idea of citrus fruit as high art might seem a bit hard to swallow, but these powerful works strongly refute any criticisms of their unconventional materials. Khorramian herself was also curious about the outcome, as it was only after months of filming, a year of editing and "watching the oranges do what they do" that the concept began to take shape. In the end, what emerges is an exploration of the concept of regeneration: that what comes out of the earth goes back into the earth.
These themes run throughout Khorramian's works in Zenith and Nadir, through the films and into the film sketches and works on paper. Khorramian has made rich, dripping monotypes that are then cut and reconfigured into abstract landscapes clad in evocative green, blue and grey. There is also a green stained glass tondo (circular art work), entitled Green as a Heart, a large-scale replication of the window in the orange peels' house, which represents the most direct connection between the films and the other works. Though the paper works and the stained glass window are compelling, it's the two films that steal the spotlight.
Khorramian is a petite, almond-eyed brunette, and her raspy voice and sarcastic humour jibe with the sometimes dark nature of her work. "What are you going to show and how close you are gonna go?" says Khorramian. "Because in that process, you can be very dark or you can bring out very specific themes. I did want to show the very ugly side." The artist originally studied film direction but didn't think to use stop-motion animation until four years ago. To create I Without End, she connected a 16mm camera to a computer in her bedroom, posed the peels and took a still image every 30 seconds until the peels had dried completely, a process that took about four days.
"I really slept so badly during that time, because all night I would wake up literally every 20 minutes and listen for the cameras and hear them go 'ka-sheek, ka-sheek' and then I would be like, 'OK, I can go back to sleep'," she recounts with a laugh. "Because I don't have great equipment, the cameras would just stop; it was like having kids or newborns or something - you wake up at night and listen to hear their breathing and then you can go back to sleep."
Khorramian may have lost sleep making her film, but watching the orange peels act out human dramas is strangely soothing. Honeyed ochres and berry-tinged rays of light bathe patterned, curlicued fabrics in the small rooms that make up chez peel. Though these works reference Iranian artistic traditions - the artist was born in Tehran and raised in the United States by a very traditional Iranian family - Khorramian feels it's unintentional. Rather, she says, the Iranian influence is either projected onto her work by viewers or is so intrinsic to who she is that it just shows up in her work without forethought.
"It might be there, but there are a lot of things I draw from that come more from Fra Angelico and Giotto than Persian miniatures," says Khorramian, adding that the Iranian touch is more palpable in her life than in her art. "It's coming from the way I sense the entire world, and it's not just speaking for Iranian people." Instead, she says her aesthetic preferences have always leant toward the Christian religious art of the Middle Ages and her videos, full of slowly shifting jewel tones, are like watching the sun set in a cathedral. Green as a Heart also picks up this aesthetic, with the use of stained glass - a technique she learnt especially for this project and a process she describes as arduous and at times dangerous.
This is the second show in two years at The Third Line for Khorramian, who is based in New York. And though the subject matter of her films is sometimes edgy, she says that she's received only positive responses in the UAE. Her work sold out on opening night and Khorramian says she's ready to come back to the region to show in public interactive spaces in the Emirates. "If I made anything here, I would like it to be something very accessible; something anyone can encounter, not just select people," she says. "You constantly have sun and there's a big potential for working with light." Luckily for her UAE-based admirers, working with light is what Khorramian does best.