The solitary owl, which exists in the shadows and cares not to socialise even with its own kind, represents death in many cultures.
In The Blind Owl, a novel written by Sadegh Hedayat in 1937, the symbol takes on an even darker level. When the opening line talks of the “sores in life that, like a canker, gnaw at the soul in solitude and diminish it”, it is difficult to imagine it going anywhere else.
Yet, when Pouran Jinchi picked up the novel a few years ago, she decided to deconstruct it, turn it into visual art and focus on the spiritual message in the pessimistic plot, which is one of self-discovery.
“The book is a little cultish, and I grew up with it,” she says. “It was banned in Iran and parents said if you read it you would commit suicide — so, of course, immediately every teenager wanted to read it and I got my hands on a copy. At the time I think I was too young to understand what he was talking about but then, two or three years ago, I came across the book again and it brought back memories and nostalgia and I became very interested in it.”
Jinchi was fascinated, she says, by one particular line that reads: “I write only for the benefit of my shadow cast on the wall. I must introduce myself to it.”
It is repeated many times throughout the book, thus becoming a visual symbol.
In Jinchi’s solo exhibition, which opened last month in The Third Line in Dubai, all but two of the pieces are composed of only these words, in their original Farsi tongue.
“Repetition is a theme in this book, the author repeats the same imagery over and over again in different circumstances, so my show is a take on that,” explains Jinchi.
“My work is also very repetitive,” she adds. “There is something very poetic about repetition.”
Jinchi is an Iranian artist based in New York who is trained in calligraphy and usually explores the nature of words in both their meaning and form. For this show, also named The Blind Owl, Jinchi has used a variety of styles and materials to present and represent the shadow quote. She has used ink on paper for Black Painting and Pink Painting, in which the letters are painted over and over each other until all meaning is lost and only gaps of white space remain to beckon the viewer beyond the words.
In Untitled #3, she has compiled hand-cut copper letters into a sculptural wall hanging and in Untitled #1, she has dissected the letters into framed boxes to create puzzle-like grids that house the words.
But by far the strongest part of the exhibition is the central piece Untitled #2, where she has written out the entire book on 18 sheets of pink Plexiglas and laid them on top of each other like a book. On the wall behind are 94 sheets of paper, where she has again written the entire story but added only the dots that add punctuation to the Farsi. It is painstaking work but the overall effect is mesmerising. Suddenly the rhythm of the words is visible, as well as their beauty.
“My work always starts from a text or a book,” explains Jinchi. “Words are extremely powerful and sometimes people underestimate them. For me they are so amazing and I can’t get enough.”
But, given the fact that Hedayat committed suicide in a rented Paris apartment in 1951 and that he narrated the disintegrating mind of a mad man, why would Jinchi choose to give amplification to his voice?
“I identified with it, it brought me to who I was and who I am today and it spoke for me,” Jinchi says. “The symbols are opaque,” she continues. “I read one interpretation that said the reason he tries to introduce himself to his shadow is because he has no hope for his voice to be heard. Sometimes I also feel like I don’t have a voice, so I make art and I let art speak for me.
“This exhibition is about my experiences with the book and after they come to see it I’m hoping that people will go, pick up the book and read it and figure out things for themselves.”
• The Blind Owl runs until October 24 in The Third Line, Al Quoz, Dubai