Amirmohsen Shahheidari, "Hashtag LOVE"

Those who had the chance to visit the Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn last weekend may have seen hoards of people waiting to take their photo around the most artful rendering of BARF since Millie Brown's last performance. The word BARF spelled out a la Robert Indiana's LOVE is entitled, "Hashtag LOVE" and is the work of Iranian artist Amirmohsen Shahheidari. Below he speaks to Ted Kerr about where the idea for the work came from, how it fits into his pop related work, and it's connection to Kara Walker's "A Subtlety", Robert Indiana's "LOVE", General Idea's "AIDS", and Gran Fury's "RIOT".

Visual AIDS: How did Hashtag Love come to be? What does BARF mean to you?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: The idea initially spawned from my reaction and feelings towards friends and family’s posts on social media that, in my opinion, were examples of oversharing affection and misusing the word and idea of love. Each time I saw such a post, I would leave the comment: “BARF” (or sometimes even: “BAAAAARRRRFFFFFF”). But I didn’t use the term BARF as commentary on how I felt about those people’s affection towards one another. I think caring that much about someone is beautiful and a very necessary part of life. I question the benefit of “shouting it from the rooftops” and overusing a word to the extent that it loses its importance. The idea of how to best use a platform when provided with one in order to nurture or promote something also interested me. In this case the platform being social media, and the idea being love. Does sharing your idea and feelings with so many people take away from the special and private connection that two people have formed? Does it water-down the sentiment or even disparage the idea being expressed? It’s a social matter I believe people should be more aware of when making that decision to click “post”.

At the time that the idea of a sculpture first came to mind, I was being bombarded by many repetitive images from the art world, including Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” exhibit at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. This exasperated me and intensified the type of feelings and questions I mentioned above. So much so that I unfortunately never even attended the exhibit. Even though I initially found it extremely interesting, the repetition of comments and images all around me caused my initial feelings of intrigue to dissipate. The magic was gone.

So with this heightened sensitivity, I wanted more than ever to speak to the unproductive over-sharing and the unnecessary glorification that our society has become so accustomed to - mostly because of the way we choose to use the internet. I chose to do a sculpture with EPS foam, which in hindsight may have subconsciously been influenced by Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx in “A Subtlety” as well. Because of my initial inspiration from the misuse of the word love on social media, I was also drawn to Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” sculpture as a reference. By choosing a well-known sculpture, using a universal idea such as love, and making the piece a large size in its own right, I attempt to glorify something that usually has a negative connotation - the word BARF. All in an effort to show the absurdity in unnecessarily sharing and glorifying any image or idea.

Visual AIDS: How do you see it in conversation with LOVE, AIDS, and RIOT?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: First of all, thank you for properly introducing me to General Idea and Gran Fury. The famous AIDS image is the nearest exposure I’ve had to either group – and that was just in passing. As such my work has obviously never been informed by those groups or the movements they were a part of. But my work definitely stems from the same desire as AIDS and RIOT to bring more awareness to and scrutinize an existing phenomenon.

At the start of this project, I would have said that the rebranding and repurposing of an existing work of art (which in the case of “Hashtag LOVE” I consider more of a parody) that AIDS and RIOT implemented is something I feel more of a connection towards. Robert Indiana’s work, from my understanding, was based on his personal life-long relationship with writing. He therefore felt a natural connection to expressing his ideas through words, letters and numbers. I had never been previously influenced by Robert Indiana and his work. I chose to base “Hashtag LOVE” on his “LOVE” (specifically the sculpture on 6th Avenue in New York City) because it’s a well-known reference to the idea and has been widely shared on the internet via many “BARF-worthy” posts. However, the more research I did in order to get the right proportions and match the font that Indiana had created with “LOVE”, the more I learned about the artist’s influences and processes, and I began to connect with certain aspects of his approach. His focus on form and color and his hard edge style of painting is something I was actually influence by during my time as a student, but mainly via works by De Stijl artists and the work of Ellsworth Kelly (whom I come to find out through this project was at one time Robert Indiana’s neighbor). I also connected with Indiana’s repurposing of found objects and materials in his earlier works on wood. In my day to day life, I find myself drawn to creating messages on found objects by adding or changing elements in order to repurpose the object and its message (you can see examples of this by following me on Instagram @amirmohsenart). I therefore realized that I was drawn towards the Robert Indiana piece for more reasons than I realized.

Visual AIDS: With General Idea's AIDS, people are allowed to add to the sculpture. Is Hashtag Love an interactive piece?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: It’s actually somewhat fragile having been made of EPS foam, so there is no physical interaction with this piece similar to that of AIDS. Allowing the ability for viewers to add elements to a piece, makes it a social piece of art - or even a social experiment. I did in fact add such a social layer to “Hashtag LOVE”. Aside from the direct interaction one can have with the piece by standing with it in a 3-dimensional space and maybe even standing next to it for a picture, there’s also the social aspect if and when that picture is shared on the internet.

“Hashtag LOVE” actually debuted in a group show I curated in which we presented works by five Iranian-born artists - each of whom exhibited work influences by their time living in the United States. One of the artists, Mani Nilchiani, exhibited a digital interactive piece titled “Are you there?”, which delved into the question of how much the interaction of the viewer contributes to the actual creation (or completion) of a piece of art. Nilchiani’s piece uses facial recognition to interact with its viewers, which for me is sort of an acknowledgement of the viewer’s gaze upon the work of art. In my opinion this gaze, or the use of sight, can be enough interaction when it comes to works of art. However, I chose to reinforce the social layer in “Hashtag LOVE” by posting a sign encouraging people to share their photos online using the indexes #LOVE and #savemoe. To invite a larger and more diverse audience to ponder the idea further. Even maybe start a new, albeit smaller, wave of consciousness that questions the number of times the idea of LOVE is seen online and BARFs on the moments in which it’s used unnecessarily, or even inappropriately. To generally encourage people to give more thought to what it is they are sharing and why they’ve chosen to share it. The effectiveness of the piece will eventually be based on if this image of BARF also becomes just another overshared and unnecessarily glorified image, or will it encourage its viewers to begin thinking more about how they use the platforms they are given?

Visual AIDS: Have you spoke with Robert Indiana, aa Bronson from General Idea, or anyone from Gran Fury? What has been there reaction?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: No, I haven’t yet had the pleasure.

Visual AIDS: What has been people's reactions?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: People seem to really get a kick out of it. I’ve been watching them pop up under my online index #savemoe, and I really enjoy having contributed to a stream of posts online that counteract the same old same old. We live in an era oversaturated with images, videos, comments, selfies, etc. I hope “Hashtag LOVE” is a reminder to be more thoughtful about the way we present ourselves, our personal lives and our ideas to others. To be more sensitive about the actual data and information we chose to share. Therefore, I enjoy seeing pictures of children posing with art rather than sitting around eating or staring at a digital screen of some kind. Couples, even if for a moment, being more aware of their interaction with others. Hopefully their affection for one another being juxtaposed with the word BARF forces them in a way to acknowledge the fact that they are sharing a special and unique moment, and to put a bit more thought behind why they choose to share that moment with others.

Visual AIDS: Your practice seems to be about interacting with the street and looking at the connection between street art, art, and the way the public can view them as connected. How does Hashtag Love fit into your larger body of work?
Amirmohsen Shahheidari: My work has been, and probably always will be, about people – how they interact with my piece and what they get out of it. Whether it’s an alteration I’ve made to a found object or a public mural, the fact that a piece I do is in a public space is really only to ensure a diverse audience is able to see it, and therefore interact with it. “Hashtag LOVE” was brought down and placed in the street for a few hours during the Dumbo Arts Festival this year specifically for that reason. Bringing more attention to and scrutinizing an existing subject matter is the recurring theme in my previous work leading up to “Hashtag LOVE” as well. For example, in my black and white “pop expressionist” murals and marker drawings, I’ve always endeavored to bring about interest in or expose emotions towards various places, people and issues. In these black and white pieces I use the lack of color and the simple line work and text to make difficult subject matters more approachable - more easily digestible - by the viewer. I believe this same effect is achieved by remaking a recognizable piece of artwork, and even more so by the use of humor, such as the use of the word BARF in this case. This is a very effective approach, as proven by the pop art movement as well as the evolution of street art that incorporates social commentary by use of references to popular culture and current events.

Related: Before There Were Memes (AIDS, RIOT, ect) - Visual AIDS Blog

Amirmohsen Shahheidari is an Iranian-American artist. He studied art at the University of Georgia. His work is influenced by the inventiveness of early hip hop culture and the various forms of art it helped foster. Amirmohsen often finds humor where others may not, creating inherent humor and irony in his work that is often reminiscent of pop art. In the end, Amirmohsen strives to not only express his own ideas but also evoke his viewer’s thoughts towards various social and cultural matters. He currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.