contemporary art

Shirazeh Houshiary

Iran (islamic Republic Of) 1955

Installation, Sculpture

Shirazeh Houshiary
Shirazeh Houshiary
Iran (islamic Republic Of)
May 14, 2015

Shirazeh Houshiary is an Iranian-British installation artist and sculptor.

Shirazeh Houshiary between Iran and UK

Houshiary was born in Shiraz, Iran in 1955. Five years before the brewing revolution’s eruption in 1979, she moved to England. After moving, she studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art (now Chelsea College of Art and Design, 1976–79) and was a Junior Fellow at Cardiff College of Art, Wales (1979–80). In the 1980s, she was linked to the so-called New British Sculptors such as Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg, but her work was distinguished by the interpretation of a Persian cultural background through Western sculptural language.

Houshiary’s three-dimensional works implement Islamic decorative motifs and maintain a minimalist geometry. Her early work consisted of allusive environments and biomorphic sculptural forms, demonstrating an attempt, echoed in later work, to embody spiritual concepts physically. As it developed, her work became more autonomous, austere and concerned with materials that could symbolize a spiritual transcendence of materiality.

Sufism and a Poet Rumi as Houshiary’s Inspiration

Shirazeh’s ideology draws on Sufi mystical doctrine and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian mystic and poet from the 13th century. Drawn from those sources, sacred words are written in Arabic script, minutely repeated and deliberately rendered unintelligible and abstract to produce intricate patterns in graphite and pigment. Although Houshiary derives inspiration from the interdependence of unity and multiplicity, her work is intended to symbolize a universal quest for spiritual union. Conterminous with this is a criticism of the dualisms of Western philosophy, as well as the cults of individuality and originality that dominate Western art practice.

From Sculpture to Painting

Since rising to prominence as a sculptor in the 1980s, Shirazeh Houshiary’s practice has swelled to encompass painting, installation, architectural projects and film. In 1992 she transitioned to making two-dimensional works on canvas as she shifted away from working with defined form in an effort to capture the intangible and formless.
For the past 20 years, she has been weaving a silvery web across all her paintings. It is made up of two words in Arabic repeated thousands of times: “I am” and “I am not.” Crushed together, so minuscule as to be indecipherable, the words embody the duality of existence in the same way as the yin and the yang.
“It’s the overlapping of the two words, being and not being, life and death,” explains Houshiary. “It’s not about meaning. The relationship between the absence and presence is unknowable and leads to infinite possibility.”


Houshiary does not practice any religion and dislikes such labels as “transcendental,” yet her work have an undeniably spiritual quality, a white glazed-brick tower emitting chants from four religions that was erected in Battery Park in Manhattan in 2004.
For her presentation as a Collateral Event of the 55. International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia, Shirazeh Houshiary presented Breath: a video in a re-mastered version, as part of a unique, site-specific installation. Houshiary came to Hotbox Studios in 2012 wishing to bring the film installation up to date to allow for the animation to be played on modern HD LCD screens. Mark Hatchard from Hotbox Studios worked with Houshiary in re-mastering the animation to create a true HD version of the original SD animation.
In the new version of Breath, the evocative chants of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Islamic prayers emanate from four video screens. The sound is choreographed with images that capture the expanding and contracting breath of the vocalists. The installation takes the form of a rectangular enclosure clad in black felt, which is entered through a narrow passage that leads to a dimly lit white interior. There are four screens hung at eye level from which the chants of the different traditions rise and fall, swell and dissipate in a haunting chorus that fills the room and permeates beyond each of its walls. Where inside there is unity, outside is multiplicity.

Shirazeh Houshiary in museum
Shirazeh Houshiary, Breath, 2003 (remastered in 2012 – 2013)

Both of these installations were part of her project to create a spiritual embodiment of the breath, which she considers to be the fundamental essence of human existence, her move to two-dimensional work marked a further plunge into the elimination of structure. Houshiary’s consistent use of the white or black field represents a preoccupation with the infinite; while white expresses the absence of boundary, black collapses into itself as with the experience of falling infinitely. Houshiary’s use of word and text is a common denominator within her oeuvre, though their representation constantly evolves.

East Window of St Martins in the Fields

Shirazeh Houshiary and Horne’s window for St. Martin in the Fields, 2008.
Shirazeh Houshiary and Horne’s window for St. Martin in the Fields, 2008.

The commission for the East Window of St Martins in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, presents a cross, warped and spanning from a circular motif, as if reflected in water. Installed as part of the £36 million refurbishment project which took place at St Martin-in-the-Fields from 2005 to 2008, Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne’s East Window is beautiful in its apparent initial simplicity, made of etched blown clear glass and similarly monochromatic peened stainless steel.
“The universe is in a process of disintegration – everything is in a state of erosion, and yet we try to stabilize it. This tension fascinates me and it’s at the core of my work”, she said.
One aspect of the brief was that the window should “successfully animate the light”, and it certainly achieves that, whilst maintaining the interest of the viewer with its other-worldly curves.

Collaboration with Victoria Beckham and Jimmy Choo

Shirazeh Houshiary, Chrysalis at Jimmy Choo's store, 2014
Shirazeh Houshiary, Chrysalis at Jimmy Choo’s store, 2014

In 2014 she is featured not only with an upside down Christmas tree, based on her Tate Britain Christmas tree in 1993 in Victoria Beckham’s new showroom in Dover Street, but also with a specially commissioned 26-foot sculpture that hangs from the roof down through the central stairwell of Jimmy Choo’s Townhouse in New Bond Street. It has taken a year to complete and is a first site-specific commission within the UK fashion industry.

Entitled Chrysalis consists of an inner core and an outer skin which Denis sees as combining the elements of strength and fragility that characterize the classic Jimmy Choo shoe. Looking at it at eye level, it is transparent; the open brick style components strike Denis as emblematic of the new DNA he is bringing to his business. But when seen from the top or bottom it resembles a serpentine body that changes imperceptibly under the influence of a discreet lighting system.

Smell of First Snow

Shirazeh Houshiary, Allegory at Smell of First Snow exhibition at Lisson
Shirazeh Houshiary, Allegory at Smell of First Snow exhibition at Lisson, 2015

Cross-sensory perception quickens and multiplies in Smell of First Snow, Shirazeh Houshiary’s eighth exhibition at Lisson Gallery in 2015. Through painting, drawing and sculptural work, Houshiary approaches the intangible and evanescent, articulating a metaphysical reality that lies beyond mere form and surface.

Accompanying the paintings are also sculptures made in the same year. Two wall-based works, Allegory of Sight and Allegory of Sound, explicitly strive after synaesthesia. Resembling dancing ribbons or darting wavelengths, these cast stainless steel sculptures are coated in dense black and evanescent white paint respectively, creating a dialectical evocation of these vital senses. Lit from above and attached to the wall, they traverse not only between two- and three-dimensionality, but also between the physical and immaterial worlds, throwing shadows whose echoing delineations form a continuation of the works.

Turner Prize Nomination

Turner prize 1994 poster tate museum
Turner prize 1994 poster

Ever since her moving to Britain, she has returned to her home country only twice; the lack of democracy, in politics and in the home, depresses her.

“I don’t want to deny my roots. My Persian heritage is definitely there,” she says. “It’s not something I need to defend or fight for. It’s just there.” But she feels more connection with her adopted country than with her homeland.
In 1994 Houshiary was shortlisted for the Turner Prize at the Tate Gallery, London, together with Willie Doherty (who presented the first video work to be exhibited in the Prize), Peter Doig, and the winner Antony Gormley. In 1997 she was named professor at the London Institute (now University of the Arts).

Houshiary‘s presence in museums and public collection ranges from Tate Modern, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum… She has taken part in major group shows worldwide and also had numerous solo exhibitions at places such as the Lisson Gallery in London or Lehmann Maupin in New York, which both represent her.

Houshiary once said, ‘An artist is someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects … In my work there is a continual invention of already existing forms and symbols precisely because the problem is not to be original, or indeed to establish a distinction between forms of knowledge, between East and West’.

Shirazeh Houshiary lives in London.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2015Smell of First SnowLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
2015Future Seasons PastLehmann Maupin, New York, NYGroup
2014Love Story: Anne & Wolfgang Titze Collection21er Haus and the Winter Palace, Vienna, AustriaGroup
2014Venice Architectural BiennialVenice, ItalyGroup
2014Nostalgic for the FutureLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomGroup
2014Reductive Minimalism: Women Artists in Dialogue, 1960-2012University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MIGroup
2013The eye fell in love with the earLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
2013Breath - Collateral Event of the 55th International Art ExhibitionLa Biennale di Venezia, VeniceSolo
2013BreathJhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, IndiaSolo
2013Writings Without BordersLehmann Maupin, Hong KongGroup
2013Sculpture in the CityCity of London, LondonGroup
2013Line and FormMarc Straus, New York, NYGroup
201350 Years of Collecting Islamic ArtMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NYGroup
2013Calligraffiti: 1984-2013Leila Heller Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2013GlasstressVenice BiennaleGroup
2013PatternBroad Art Museum, East Lansing, MIGroup
2012Shirazeh HoushiaryLisson Gallery, Milan, ItalySolo
2012Shirazeh HoushiaryLA Louver, Los Angeles, CASolo
2012Kiev BiennaleKiev, UkraineGroup
2012Common Ground13th Architecture Biennale, VeniceGroup
2012Summer ExhibitionRoyal Academy of Arts, London, United KingdomGroup
2011Shirazeh HoushiaryLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
2011AltarSaint Martin-in-the-Field Church, London, United KingdomSolo
2011Made in the UKRISD Museum, Providence, RIGroup
2011Creating the New Century: Contemporary Art from the Dicke CollectionThe Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OHGroup
2010Shirazeh HoushiaryLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
2010The 17th Biennale of SydneySydney, AustraliaGroup
2010Drawing to form: Art from the Weltkunst Collection Irish Museum of Modern ArtCrawford Art Gallery, CorkGroup
2008Shirazeh HoushiaryLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
2008TropismiArte Contemporanea, Rome, ItalyGroup
2007Douglas BreathJhaveri Contemporary, MumbaiSolo
2007Shirazeh HoushiaryHyde, Dublin, IrelandSolo
2007What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the CollectionMoMA, New York, NYGroup
2007PureSean Kelley Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2007ReverenceHVCCA - Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, PeekskillGroup
2006Shirazeh HoushiaryLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
2006Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of LookingMuseum of Modern Art, New York, NYGroup
2006A New East Window for St Martin-in-the-FieldsChurch of St-Martin-in-theFields, Trafalger Square, London, United KingdomGroup
2006Motion on PaperBen Brown Fine Arts, London, United KingdomGroup
2006Twice DrawnThe Tang Museum at Skidmore College, Syracuse, NYGroup
2006Out of Time: Contemporary Art from the CollectionMuseum of Modern Art, New York, NYGroup
2006The Contemporary Persian Scene: The American and European ExperienceLeila Taghinia Milani Heller Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2005EffervescenceMusée des Beaux Arts, Angers, FranceGroup
2004Works on PaperLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
2004Breath by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip HomeBattery Park, New York, NYSolo
2004The search for identity, new visionsDoncaster Museum and Art Gallery, Doncaster, United KingdomGroup
200420 YearsGalerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, AustriaGroup
2003Shirazeh Houshiary - Recent WorksLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
2003Shirazeh HoushiaryTate LiverpoolSolo
2003Shirazeh HoushiaryLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
2003Back in ShapeSouthampton City Art Gallery, Hampshire, United KingdomGroup
2003From Dust to Dusk - International Exhibition of Contemporary ArtCharlottenborg Exhibition Hall, Copenhagen, DenmarkGroup
2003HappinessMori Art Museum, Tokyo, JapanGroup
2002Shirazeh HoushiaryMuseum SITE Santa Fe, NMSolo
2002Thinking Big: concepts for twenty-first century British SculpturePeggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, ItalyGroup
2002Sculpture Biennial Munsterland 2003Warendorf County, GermanyGroup
2002A Century of InnocenceRooseum, Malmö, SwedenGroup
2002SkulturBasel, SwitzerlandGroup
2002TenableNewlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall, United KingdomGroup
2002As FontesAfrika Museum, Berg en Dal, The NetherlandsGroup
2002Group ShowLehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2001Sculpture ContemporaineSubstances, Lyon, FranceGroup
2001New WorksLehmann Maupin Gallery, New YorkGroup
2000Self-PortraitsLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1999Shirazeh HoushiaryLehmann Maupin, New York, NYSolo
1999Art Worlds in DialogueMuseum Ludwig, Cologne, GermanyGroup
199910 Intensita in EuropaMuseo Pecci Prato, ItalyGroup
1999British SculptureSkulptur im Schloßpark Ambras, GermanyGroup
1997Shirazeh HoushiaryBritish Museum, Islamic Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1997Shadow of LifeLondon Contemporary Art Fair, London, United KingdomGroup
1997MeditationMadrasa Ibn Youssef, Marakesh, MoroccoGroup
1997Sculpture at GoodwoodGoodwood Sculpture Park, West Sussex, United KingdomGroup
1997Follow Me - Britische Kunst an der UnterelbeSchloß Agathenburg, Agathenburg, GermanyGroup
1997Negotiating RaptureMuseum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, ILGroup
1997Sculpture from the Arts Council CollectionWhitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, United KingdomGroup
199723rd Bienal Internacional de Sao PaoloSao Paolo, BrazilGroup
1995IsthmusLe Magasin, Centre National d’Art Contemporain, GrenobleSolo
1995IsthmusMuseum Villa Stuck, MunichSolo
1995IsthmusBonnefanten Museum, MaastrichtSolo
1995IsthmusHochschule für angewandte Kunst, ViennaSolo
1995Contemporary British Art in PrintScottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, ScotlandGroup
1995Contemporary British Art in PrintYale Center for British Art, New HavenGroup
1995British Art of the 1980s & 1990s - works from The WeltKunst CollectionThe Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, IrelandGroup
1995Dialogues of PeacePalais de Nations, Geneva, SwitzerlandGroup
1995A Changing World - Fifty Years of Sculpture from the British Council CollectionCastle Riding Hall, PragueGroup
1995Arte Inglese: A New GenerationGalleria Marabini, BolognaGroup
1994The Sense of UnityLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1994Skulptur Statt DenkmalGalerie Marion unRoswitha Fricke, Düsseldorf, GermanyGroup
1994Sculptors’ drawings presented by the Weltkunst FoundationTate Gallery, London, United KingdomGroup
1994Turner Prize Shortlisted Artist’s ExhibitionTate Gallery, London, United KingdomGroup
1994Sculpture at GoodwoodThe Hat Hill Sculpture Foundation, Goodwood, United KingdomGroup
1993Turning Around the CentreUniversity of Massachusetts at Amherst Fine Art CenterSolo
1993Turning Around the CentreYork University Art Gallery, OntarioSolo
1993Turning Around the CentreUniversity of Florida, the Harn Museum, GainesvilleSolo
1993Dancing around my ghostCamden Arts Centre, London, United KingdomSolo
1993Second Tyne InternationalNewcastle-upon-Tyne, United KingdomGroup
1993Machines for PeaceVenice Biennale, ItalyGroup
1993State of SiegeBienal Internacional de Óbidos, PortugalGroup
1993Tresors de VoyageMonastero dei Padri Mechitaristi dell’ Isola di San Lazzaro degli Armeni, VeniceGroup
1992Shirazeh HoushiaryGalleria Valentina Moncada, Rome, ItalySolo
1992IsthmusLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1990Dujourie, Fortuny - O’Brien, Kapoor, HoushiaryRijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, The NetherlandsGroup
1989Les Magiciens de la TerreCentre Georges Pompidou, Paris, FranceGroup
1988Shirazeh Houshiary Centre d’Art Contemporain, Musée Rath, Geneva, SwitzerlandSolo
1988Shirazeh HoushiaryMuseum of Modern Art, OxfordSolo
1987BreathLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1987Skulptur Projekte 87Westfalisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Munster, GermanyGroup
1987VesselsSerpentine Gallery, London, United KingdomGroup
1986Shirazeh HoushiaryGalerie Paul Andriesse, Amsterdam, The NetherlandsSolo
1986Sonsbeek 86. International Sculpture ExhibitionArnhem, The NetherlandsGroup
1986Skulptur - 9 Kunstnere fra StorbrittanienLouisiana Museum, Humlebaek, DenmarkGroup
1985The Poetic ProjectDouglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, IrelandGroup
1985The Poetic ProjectThe Arts Council Gallery, BelfastGroup
1985The British ShowArt Gallery of Western Australia, PerthGroup
1985The British ShowArt Gallery of New South Wales, SydneyGroup
1985The British ShowQueensland Art Gallery, BrisbaneGroup
1985The British ShowThe Exhibition Hall, MelbourneGroup
1985The British ShowNational Art Gallery, Wellington, New ZealandGroup
1985Seconds Ateliers Internationaux des Pays de la LoireFRAC Pays de la Loire, Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, Fontevraud, FranceGroup
1984Shirazeh HoushiaryLisson Gallery, London, United KingdomSolo
1984British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, BirminghamGroup
1984British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984Ikon Gallery, BirminghamGroup
1984British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984Royal Scottish Academy, EdinburghGroup
1984British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984Mappin Art Gallery, SheffieldGroup
1984British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984Southampton Art GalleryGroup
1983Shirazeh HoushiaryCentro d’Arte Contemporanea, Siracusa, ItalySolo
1983Shirazeh HoushiaryGalleria Massimo Minini, Milan, ItalySolo
1983Shirazeh HoushiaryGalerie Grita Insam, Vienna, AustriaSolo
1983Beelden - Sculpture 1983Rotterdam Arts Council, Rotterdam, The NetherlandsGroup
1983New ArtTate Gallery, London, United KingdomGroup
1982Shirazeh HoushiaryKettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge, United KingdomSolo
1982Aperto 82XL Biennale di Venezia, Venice, ItalyGroup
1982Objects and Figures - New Sculpture in BritainFruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, ScotlandGroup
1980Shirazeh HoushiaryChapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, United KingdomSolo