Siah Armajani (1939–2020), one of the most distinctive voices in international contemporary art, passed away on 27 August 2020. Born in Iran in 1939, Armajani moved to Minnesota in 1960 and lived there for over sixty years. His protean, experimental practice encompassed installations, public art, sculptures, and works on paper. M+ has three historic works by Armajani in the M+ Collections.
Doryun Chong, M+ Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator, spent six years in Minnesota, where he worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 2003 to 2009. Below, Chong shares his personal reflections on Armajani’s work after his passing.
Siah Armajani was there in so many different ways, before I even knew who he was.
Growing up, I loved watching Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. I still sometimes watch them when I find recordings on YouTube. I watched the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta in real time on television; the image of the cauldron tower in the Olympic park is vivid in my memory. Although I didn’t yet know it, that tower was designed by Armajani.
Fast forward a few years: I started working as a curator in the San Francisco Bay Area and, looking for experience at contemporary art museums, I was lucky to find a curatorial position at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally, I intended to stay for only a year, but my tenure at the Walker extended to six years.
Armajani lived in Minnesota for most of his life. He moved there from Iran when he was just twenty-one, and became a citizen in 1967. As a young man in Tehran, he was heavily involved in political activism against the monarchy. His family sent him overseas to protect him after Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power. They chose Minnesota because his uncle was a history professor at Macalester College in St Paul, where Armajani started studying. He probably didn’t realise that he would spend the rest of his long life in Minnesota. Eventually he would become a long-time local fixture as well as an internationally exhibiting artist. He also became a well-known and respected quantity at the Walker Art Center.
Right in front of the Walker is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. From there, the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge connects pedestrians and cyclists to Loring Park over Hennepin Avenue, one of the main arteries of the city. This bridge, completed in 1988, is one of Armajani’s most recognisable public works, and I’ve walked across it many times.
Bridges are key motifs for Armajani. It's tempting to think of the motif as just about bridging cultures and creating understanding, which is an important reading, but we can read other layers into it as well. It makes me think, for example, of the ‘Twin Cities’ of Minneapolis and St. Paul. These two cities formed and prospered because of their positions as hubs at the source of the Mississippi River, connected by numerous bridges.
One thing that makes the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge special is a poem by John Ashbery affixed with large metal letters all the way across the horizontal beams above your head. The untitled poem was commissioned for the bridge by Armajani, who was a lover of literature and philosophy, words and ideas. There was a time when I knew the whole poem by heart because I crossed the bridge so often. During my time at the Walker, Armajani once came to the museum for an event and I remember walking up to him, as a very young curator, and saying, ‘Mr Armajani, I'm very honoured to meet you. I cross the bridge all the time.'
In 1970, Armajani created a short-term project called Bridge Over Tree for an exhibition organised by the Walker. He built a temporary bridge to go over a tiny tree to protect it. When I saw a photo of the work, the image stuck with me. I found it so quirky, hilarious, and charming. Something about Armajani’s work is remarkably vernacular and approachable, even though there’s always something mysterious about it at the same time.
When you cross the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge into Loring Park, you quickly find another work by Armajani: Gazebo for Four Anarchists: Mary Nardini, Irma Sanchini, William James Sidis, Carlo Valdinoci (1993). This gazebo is dedicated to four American anarchists from the early 20th century and surrounded by plaques with poetry by T.S. Eliot. Coming across it prompted me to reconsider my ideas around anarchy. Anarchism, as a traditional ideology, has to do with self-determination and individual liberty. It indicated to me that Armajani was thinking about the idea of liberty—in relation to American history, and to his own personal history of being a political activist in Iran.
Years after I left Minneapolis, in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to acquire some important works by him for the M+ Collections. This was thanks to the work of Rossi & Rossi gallery, which organised an exhibition with Armajani that prompted me to rediscover his work. After that exhibition, I met Armajani again—this time in Hong Kong, which was wonderful. Later, I got to visit his studio in Minneapolis.
M+ ended up acquiring three of Armajani’s works, reflecting three different aspects of his career. The first one, Dictionary of Numbers, is from 1957, when he was just in his teens. The work belongs to a series that interprets Persian miniature paintings and scripts, exemplifying his lifelong interest in text, inscription, and philosophy. It was an eye-opening experience to see this very mature work by a very young artist.
The second work we acquired for the M+ Collections is The Number Between Zero and One, from 1969. It was first shown in a landmark 1970 exhibition at MoMA called Information. Curated by the legendary curator Kynaston McShine, Information was arguably the first exhibition that highlighted the globally emerging movement of conceptual art. Armajani’s contribution was a conceptual sculpture consisting of 25,974 pages of dot-matrix printout of an imaginary number between zero and one.
To create the work, Armajani came up with a formula to calculate how many numbers there are between zero and one. It took around twenty-eight hours to print all of the pages. When Armajani and his assistants stacked them, the sculpture was almost two and a half metres high.
The third work by Armajani in the M+ Collections is called The Art of Bridge Making 3 (Münster Pedestrian Bridge), from 1974. This is a maquette—a small model of a potentially larger work. It is representative of Armajani’s strand of what I have come to think of as ‘unarchitecture’, a crucial part of this practice that developed since the 1970s. The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, for example, has a form that is both functional and non-functional. The curves draw a catenary line, or arch, which looks functional—as in a suspension bridge—but here it is aesthetic rather than necessary. That's what I mean by ‘unarchitecture’: it does things that it doesn't need to do, which takes it into the realm of art.
Armajani sadly passed away in August 2020. In the two years before he passed, he had a retrospective at the Walker in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue will help ensure the preservation of his legacy, and a firm foundation for research of his practice over the coming years. At M+, his legacy is now embodied in works created in 1950s Tehran and 1970s Minnesota in the course of a life trajectory of migration, displacement, and resettlement. They have continued their journey and now have a new home here in Hong Kong.
My personal experience of living in Minnesota in the 2000s was an opportunity to challenge my assumptions about diversity and multiculturalism, as well as the civic function of museums and cities. Coming to the Midwest from California, I found the history of the expansion of the United States, from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to the West Coast, so much more visible. In California, I was used to patterns of migration from China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian countries. In Minnesota, the history of migration had been largely German, Irish, and Scandinavian. More recent immigrants were Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong people—who found home there after the Vietnam War—and, starting in the 1990s, refugees from Somalia. The long history of colonisation of the First Nations also felt much more palpable. I often felt out of place, and it makes me wonder: What did it feel like for somebody from Iran to end up in a place with such a unique context?
In retrospect, I feel that I learned a valuable lesson from Siah. He left his homeland at such an early age and then embraced, in his own way, middle America so completely and intimately. All of his bridges, his architectural works inspired by the vernacular language of buildings in the Midwest, his love of English and American poetry, and his exploration of the history of anarchism in the United States—I think all of that is related to Armajani becoming American on his own terms. As other aspects of his work show, however, he also never stopped being Persian.
As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). This discussion has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Doryun Chong is Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator at M+.