© Stacy Arezou MehrfarI first met Stacy Arezou Mehrfar in my early days of learning photography at the ICP. Many years passed and we lost touch. In a weird twist we didn't reconnect until she moved 10,000 miles away to Australia. Since then I have been rediscovering her work just as the world seems to be discovering it for the first time. When I heard a print of Stacy's would be offered for sale as a Humble Art Foundation edition, I asked her if she would be up for a quick interview. I was very happy when she agreed.
© Stacy Arezou MehrfarAMY STEIN: Starting with Robert Adams’ groundbreaking work on the American West, many artists have attempted to reveal certain truths about the suburban experience. What do you believe is your particular truth about the suburbs?
STACY AREZOU MEHRFAR: The suburban development boom of the early 21st century and subsequently the foreclosure crisis we are dealing with now, is the result of our national desire to achieve the all-encompassing American Dream. I believe there is a latent beauty in the concept of suburb, or community. It is the problems of how we go about attaining our goals that I have looked at in my work. We relentlessly built new neighborhoods in order to fulfill the national aspirations of owning a house, equipped with grassy green yard, and a car (or hopefully two) in the driveway. In our quest to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ we lost site of the fundamental principals of the American dream.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson spoke of this in his inaugural speech when he said: “We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature… Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good, to purify and humanize every process of our common life without weakening or sentimentalizing it. There has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great.”
Over 95 years have passed and the issues Wilson raised in his speech still hit home today. History is cyclical. The problems we are dealing with now are frighteningly similar to those that our nation was dealing with in the early part of the 20th century. These issues are strongly apparent when we look at how sprawl has affected older neighborhoods and even more so when we consider the current state of new developments. Rather than build without consciousness we need to learn from our past to grow our future.
© Stacy Arezou MehrfarAS: Talk about palimpsests and their connection to suburban developments.
SM: The word “palimpsest” comes from two Greek roots meaning "scraped again." A term from the Middle Ages, “palimpsest” literally refers to a parchment that was reused and re-written upon multiple times. In order to recycle parchment they would scrape the original text, flip the parchment 90 degrees and re-write over it. Often, the original text would be so insufficiently erased that it remained visible creating a palimpsest. Figuratively the term describes an object, place, or area that has been altered but still reflects its history.
When I started photographing American Palimpsests, our nation was expanding at record speed. With homes being built in 60 days or less, new developments were budding everywhere. Essentially erasing the natural habitat, we planted green grass over dry desert soil, excavated the earth to build unnatural lakes and developed tracts of homes over acres of wilderness, only to replant identical nonnative trees in our yards. It seemed to me that we have continuously re-written the land to create our own idealized sense of nature.
Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1935 edition of The Frontier In American History wrote: “The appeal of the undiscovered is strong in America. For three centuries the fundamental process in its history was the westward movement, the discovery and occupation of the vast free spaces of the continent.” Over 70 years later and this still holds true.
Americans have throughout history thought of their West as new and full of possibility. The frontier is a concept that has been continuously discussed and regurgitated. Yet we have repeated our actions and our mistakes in our national quest to obtain the American Dream.
AS: Most of the images in American Palimpsests are shot from a distance and show scant evidence of people. What does this say about the lifelessness within these modern living environments?
SM: American life has changed considerably since The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver. The concepts “neighbor” and “neighborhood” no longer have the same significance as they did in the 1950s when Levittown, the first mass-produced community was built. In exchange for the colorful, established neighborhoods that promised hope and kinship, we have built sterile, lifeless, indistinguishable environments in bulk. The local popshop has been replaced with McDonalds, KFC and Applebee’s. And anything “local” is now a car-ride away, so everyone drives.
From 2003-2008 I traveled through 28 states on multiple road trips, exploring countless new suburban housing developments. Days would go by where I would hardly see a soul. Many of the suburbs were eerily silent. Cold, even when it was hot outside. Empty, even before the foreclosure crisis had begun. Traveling for days in these communities was awfully dismal and lonely.
© Stacy Arezou MehrfarAS: Cyril Connolly famously referred to the suburbs as "incubators of apathy and delirium." Movies like American Beauty and the photographs of Gregory Crewdson shed light on suburban detachment while the work of Bill Owens and the TV show Weeds focuses on some of the madness that lurks behind closed doors. Do you see the mere existence of suburbs as evidence of human apathy and delirium?
SM: I love your references. They have all had (at the very least) an indirect impact on my work. I do not entirely agree with Connolly’s statement: ”Slums may well be the breeding grounds of crime, but the middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium.” I am deeply influenced by the middle-class suburb that I grew up in, and I think I turned out all right. Well perhaps I am slightly delirious, but not at all apathetic.
I do believe, as I said before, that suburbs have an inherent beauty. I don’t find fault in the idea of suburb. It is in the way we allowed it to get to where it stands today that I have problems. Unfortunately suburbs have developed into tedious, monotonous, uninteresting- lacking in culture and personality- sterile environments. Connolly also said: "We create the world in which we live; if that world becomes unfit for human life, it is because we tire of our responsibility." I think his ideas here deal more directly with the issues dealt with in my work.
Shabbat Dinner © Stacy Arezou MehrfarAS: When I met you at the ICP in 2002 you were working on your series CONTAINED, which explores your relationship to your Iranian Jewish heritage and your experience living in your childhood home as a young adult. How has your move to Australia affected this project? Do you have plans to expand on it?
SM: In CONTAINED I used photography as a way to interpret my relationship to my parents’ culture. At the time I couldn’t connect with their Iranian customs, but I was forced to exist within them. Since I’ve moved to Sydney I have felt a strong sense of loss for my Persian heritage- I’ve realized how special and valuable and odd such a community is. I miss the scents, the sounds, the food, the colors, the fabrics, the language, and the music.
My parents have recently moved to Great Neck, NY. There are some 15,000 Iranian Jews living there. I have begun to document this community- fascinated by their way of life and the society that has developed in this wealthy suburban town. And now that I am living far away, I have found myself nostalgic for a community I never really was a part of. Once again, I have found myself to be an outsider.
The Other Side of the Street © Stacy Arezou MehrfarAS: Are you finding new inspiration in Australia?
SM: Australia is a fascinating continent. Although it is almost the same size as the US in landmass, there are only 21 million people inhabiting the land. Culturally, it feels very similar to the US- you have the same sort of fast-food restaurants, similar architecture, and the language is the same. But once you dig a little deeper, you come to realize that the lifestyle and certainly the natural landscape, is extremely different- if not the exact opposite. I often find myself thinking that Australia is like the US, only turned upside down.
It took me some time to get settled here, and therefore some time to start making work. I have several projects brewing that deal with Australia and my relationship to my new home. It is too early discuss them in detail, but I am working with the same issues of identity/displacement, culture and landscape I dealt with in CONTAINED and This Was What There Was: American Palimpsests.
AS: Does living outside of America change your perception of the country and its people?
SM: Recently, I went to the opening of a show entitled Bushwhacked at the College of Fine Arts Gallery in Sydney. The show had works from six artists from around the world, including one American. The general attitude of the show was harshly critical of American foreign policy during the Bush years. I walked into the show and immediately had to walk out to get some fresh air. I was so strongly disturbed, and I didn’t really understand why at first. I didn’t expect to have such a strong reaction to an exhibition that in many ways mimicked my own sentiments about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars- but I did.
After a few moments I walked back into the show, ultimately appreciating most of the work. And I realized that a lot of my emotions stemmed from my living abroad. It was hard to swallow “others” expressing such harsh sentiments about my own country. For the first time in my life, I am conscious of the fact that I am “Proud to be An American!"