Even as a toddler, Gelare Khoshgozaran could tell something was wrong. She fumed as she hid under the stairs with her parents, wondering why they laughed and told jokes while jets flew overhead.
“I would look at my brother’s face and he was terrified,” says Khoshgozaran. “And I knew that although this was kind of fun — hiding under the staircase with your parents in the dark — this was really serious. … I remember the feeling of rage toward my parents that they were not capable of understanding the amount of danger and the scale and severity of how vulnerable we were.”
They did understand, of course. And Khoshgozaran would later come to realize that this was the only way they knew to comfort her during some of the most traumatizing moments of their lives. Little did Khoshgozaran know that the Iran-Iraq war would affect multiple parts of her life, even after she moved to the United States in 2009.
“Rocket Rain,” the artist’s solo show at Human Resources in Chinatown, explores both her personal story and the collective history and symbols of communities affected by the war. Envisioning the show was only half the battle: Khoshgozaran asked for the help of friends and family to gather materials and share their own stories of how their lives were affected by the war. Khoshgozaran’s mother was pregnant with her during the war, something that always stuck with the artist.
“I thought about the time that I was actually in the world but not really, but in my mother’s body,” says Khoshgozaran. “So that kind of presence and absence.”
Charting the effects of the war on her family’s life before, during and after her birth meant revisiting family photos but also newspapers distributed during the war. Khoshgozaran collected the newspapers corresponding to the nine months of her mother’s pregnancy and organized them into the seasons of summer, fall and winter. For “Rocket Rain,” she brought the focus to the crosswords in the newspapers — a seemingly unimportant part that nevertheless carries a certain meaning.
“I thought about the crossword puzzles just because they have this really different temporality and a really different place within a newspaper,” says Khoshgozaran. “They’re more or less neutral in the sense that they don’t really have a content that is made of text until you fill them up with the words that are the answers to the questions. And I thought about that sort of temporality of someone sitting during the time of war and doing this line game of solving the crossword puzzle as a very banal day-to-day practice.”
The banal and the immediate seem to meet in the show. Outside of the main area, three photographs greet the viewer. They are snapshots of three separate UN meetings in 1982, 1986 and 1988 when the “General Assembly voted for the end of the Iraq-Iran war.”
Once inside the main space, the viewer’s eyes take a few seconds to adjust. Hanging in the middle of the space are the blank crossword puzzles arranged in a way that almost forms one large puzzle, as Khoshgozaran explains. Next to the puzzles are two sheets of Plexiglas with giant duct tape Xs covering them.
“Those were probably the first abstract encounters in my life as a child,” says Khoshgozaran. “Just this isolated duct tape X on glass because that’s how you protected the glass from shattering when there were jets flying over. But that’s very iconic to everyone who grew up in Iran, especially in major cities during the war. Still, up until when I left seven years ago, when you go around Tehran you would see abandoned buildings and hospitals and hotels that would still have those duct tape Xs in them.”
While Khoshgozaran recognizes that a lot of the pieces in the show carry an autobiographical meaning, the show is still meant to bring up conversations about war, trauma and memory that might be relevant to people outside of Iran. A live video feed of the UN webcast shows major meetings happening in real time; a video of moving newspaper pages focuses on the language surrounding war.
“This is not just a thing of the past,” says Khoshgozaran. “This is the moment of any Syrian child – any child that is living under those conditions right now as I speak, as I have my exhibition open.”
The things U.S. citizens might take for granted made it difficult to put this show together. As the artist explains, sending things to Iran is much harder than just showing up at a post office and addressing a package. Receiving them also proved difficult. Packages on the exhibition’s floor, lit from the inside, show the markings of U.S. Customs after the packages are “monitored and opened and scanned.” Each object that she received brought up more pieces of social and personal history.
“When you start to remember, it’s always fragmented,” says Khoshgozaran. “There are all these anecdotes that my parents told me that at some point I’m not sure if one memory is mine, actually, if I remember it or if it’s the story that my parents told me and I kind of adopted it as my own memory.”
But the moment beneath the stairs always stands out. Khoshgozaran’s family was able to get out of the city at one point and take refuge in a “tiny village.” But those moments of trying to untangle the danger of the situation and the fear running through her — even at such a young age — affect her life today. Looking back at these objects is not just a way of preserving the past, it’s a way to try to understand the present.
“Rocket Rain” is on view at Human Resources, 410 Cottage Home St., Chinatown, through Dec. 18. humanresourcesla.com.