“Habit is like a cotton blanket. It covers up all the sharp edges, and it dampens all noises,” Vilém Flusser mused in his 1984 essay “Exile and Creativity.”11
Vilém Flusser, “Exile and Creativity,” in Vilém Flusser: Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 105.
Comfortable and self-affirming, the familiar is “a mud bath where it is nice to wallow.”22
Ibid., 107.
There’s a sensation of wading into that warm gooey tub when you first encounter Minneapolis-based artist Siah Armajani’s sculptures from the 1970s at his Met Breuer retrospective, “Follow This Line.” His models of houses, bridges, rooms, and gates draw from an old-timey tradition of plain vernacular architecture gleaming with middle-American wholesomeness, but look a little closer, that air of comfort turns out to be a trick—an innocently nondescript bridge doesn’t let you out the other side, a dependably sober log house refuses entry, a Norman Rockwell main street is shuttered and shrouded in black. The noises of strangeness rush in, forebodingly.

For the expelled, who has been uprooted from a life of cozy continuity, “everything becomes unusual, monstrous, in the true sense of the word un-settling,” Flusser wrote.33
Ibid., 105.
And it’s this perception of the world that drives the exiled “to discover the truth” of experience, inconstant and fractious. In her catalog essay for “Follow This Line,” curator Clare Davies argues that Armajani’s career has been steered by an “aesthetic of exile” predicated on mutable perspectives and renegade modes of operation that force you to be vigilant, nervously attuned to the way things don’t work.

Armajani permanently left Tehran for Minnesota in 1960, as a 21-year-old political dissident. This show compellingly asserts that what Edward Said described as the affinity of the exiled for plurality and opacity was already guiding Armajani’s little-seen work of the 1950s: fragmented and obscurely coded collages and drawings created in the aftermath of the United States–led ouster of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953, which restored the Shah to power. Armajani was already estranged from his environment, it seems, even before he became one of the expelled.

His series of collages “Night Letters,” for instance, are inspired by shah-nameh, an elliptical form of writing secretly circulated by anti-regime protesters to call the people to action while evading the censors’ understanding. Night Letter #1 (1957) plasters together mismatching paper panels scrawled with activist slogans, stamped with bureaucratic wax seals, and adorned with painted winged figures that recall Persian miniatures. Other early pieces, 13 of which are on display, also draw on popular culture, with splintered, sometimes illegible allusions to folk songs, school lessons, street graffiti, and poems by Hafiz and Rumi. It’s exciting to see these works, partly for their rarity: probably because they’re not obviously accessible for Anglo interlocutors, they don’t figure much in the critical writing on Armajani, and they were never exhibited until 2011, at New York gallery Meulensteen. But they’re key to the story, setting conceptual terms that would consistently reemerge throughout Armajani’s career: the ordinary artifacts of everyday culture, scattered language and difficult communication, gaps, and voids.

Perhaps because the Tehran pieces were largely unknown, and perhaps due to West-centrism, critics have often described Armajani’s move to the US as a revelatory rupture that led him to abandon the past and assiduously adopt the artistic languages of his new “home,” as if he were motivated by an assimilationist impulse. But certain foundational interests persist, though his forms and materials change. A Number Between One and Zero (1969), produced at the University of Minnesota’s experimental computer lab, is a taller-than-human-sized stack of 25,974 sheets of dot-matrix printouts that weighs 500 pounds and took 28,571 hours to generate, all kept in tidy, compact order by a steel scaffolding. It’s a spatial representation of the value of the digits between zero and one, a value too small and atomized for the human mind to comprehend, but which looks larger than life. The same year, Armajani swung to the opposite pole and devised A Fairly Large Number: a million-digit figure represented by an audio recording of the artist narrating the computer program that generated the exaggerated sum. The supposedly direct, utilitarian language of code is used to communicate ludicrously useless values; the tools of the utopian tech world aren’t deployed to explain the world and make it more usable, but instead to reveal a transcendent foolishness. In fact, the social critique is still there, as is the interest in syntax (here, of mathematical systems), and the tendency toward wonted forms (this time, of offices and labs).

Those elements continue throughout the exhibition, which is gravid with objects, densely arranged—as if mimicking the works themselves, with their ambiguous plots and dark thickets of reference. Things get eerier over time. Armajani’s unsettling Dictionary for Building (1974­–75) began as a daily studio exercise, when he would craft miniature models of discrete elements of a house (windows, staircases, closets) arranged in decidedly un-homey ways. Offered like a bouquet of prepositions, there’s a series of tiny windows perched atop a stair, standing next to a stair, sheltered under a stair. He created over a thousand of these models, but destroyed almost all; most of the 150 remaining ones are on view, a pocket-size forest of relational spaces.

Those relations, though, are between things and concepts—not humans. The same holds true for Armajani’s public works, for which he is probably most famous, executed between 1970 and the mid-2000s, everywhere from Minneapolis to Staten Island to Amsterdam. His bridges, gazebos, and reading rooms seem more like propositions to frustrate than to serve any community. At the Breuer, there’s a recreation of Armajani’s 1988 Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room #3, where an assortment of chairs, benches, pencils, and books (selected by artist collective Slavs and Tartars) would suggest a space designed to foster reflection and thoughtful conversation between visitors. But the chairs are stilted, set up on dark, claustrophobic, covered platforms; the pencils jut out from wooden blocks like spiky armature. Do not linger here, they seem to warn. You don’t belong.

Sitting there, I was reminded of the Polish word for home, dom. In the literature of the late eighteenth century, when the state of Poland temporarily ceased to exist, the word dom could expansively and nostalgically connote dwelling, landscape, region, language. We are not at home in any of those places in Armajani’s work. This position of displacement comes with suffering, and longing (that English word is meager—I mean the inebriating melancholy of the Portuguese saudade, or the chest-tightening yearning of the Romanian dor). But could it also open a new horizon of possibilities? Those at home suffocate under their comforting blankets; the exiled breathe an illusion-free air.