Shifting Perception: An Interview with Mina Zarfsaz

By Liz Griffin

After having seen Mina Zarfsaz’s piece “Beef” in Vox Populi’s New Members Show almost two years ago, I became interested in how her work plays with confronting viewers. When I walked around the piece: a long, slick wooden box holding a mirror on one end and a television screen on the opposite end, I realized my mirrored image was being projected through it and onto the screen opposite of where I was standing. A person who I did not know was looking at the screen on the other end. We looked at one another and then both moved on. The piece has stuck with me, and I find myself thinking about it before meeting Zarfsaz for this interview. Inside her studio, surrounded by a lofted ceiling with flat files cleverly tucked high in the walls, we sit down. Our discussion focuses on the artist’s career trajectory and how her work tackles the complexities of hyperreality, space, and technology.

Liz Griffin: How did you find your way to Philadelphia?

Mina Zarfsaz:  I joined Vox Populi in 2016 when I was finishing my graduate studies at Montclair State University.  Initially, I was commuting a lot from Montclair, and after I graduated and had my show in Chelsea, I was thinking about getting a studio in New York.

I had left Pratt in the middle of my MFA and was always thinking to go back to New York. I had friends in New York who were established older sculptors, and they said, “you have to be in New York if you want to make it as an artist.” It happened that I was coming out of my marriage and needed also a place to live. I knew I couldn’t possibly afford working and living in New York at that moment; I had a month or so to figure out my situation. So, I naturally started looking in Philly, and everything seemed to be affordable, more doable. I sent an email to Vox members, saying… hey, I’d really like a live/work space. Does anyone know of one? It didn’t take an hour until Tim wrote back to me.

LG:  And the studio we are in now, behind the doors of Ulises, you share with artist and fabricator Tim Belknap?

MZ: Yeah. The garage part of the house wasn’t all finished, but Tim had most of the studio spaces figured out, and the walls were up, so I helped finish a little and paint. I also helped  rework the bricks behind us, on this new wall and inside of the loft space. I need a lot of floor space with my work. I hadn’t stayed anywhere more than a year. But, I liked being here! So, I stayed.

LG: Oh wow! Are you going to continue to stay?

MZ: Yeah, I think so. Philly is a livable city, I like the art community here, and everything is much more accessible. I miss being in New York. I was working there as a freelancer for a long time and getting a network of clients was hard, but working to sustain them was almost harder.

LG:  I know you went to school for Interior Design and Business Administration and it took some time to get into art. When you eventually found yourself in a visual arts environment, did your ideas translate the way you wanted them to? A lot of your work deals with trying to discern what is reality and encouraging viewers to think about their surroundings…did you find yourself adjusting your concepts in different ways?

MZ: Actually, I had a hard time in grad school, both at Pratt and Montclair, talking about my work through visual arts. I think in the early days, it was all about “what ifs?” and debating about whatever object that was placed in front of you. I would do funky experiments with everyday objects, setting up situations to make my point. Everyone in my class would eventually understand it, but not really, and we’d argue about whether it was art. Eventually, I realized I needed to dress it up a little bit – make it much more visual and stark. Everything I was saying about reality, hyper reality, and representation (and I was making some really big claims), I wasn’t trying to necessarily prove or disprove. I was just questioning a logic. At the time, the questioning wasn’t making sense for my professors. But I had a great mentor, an architect who enjoyed philosophy and design. He was the pivoting point in helping me understand my own ideas. That’s how I found refuge in philosophy.

Beef, empty book covers, 2016

LG: Are there any books you’re reading, or have read in the past, that opened you up and helped form or clarify some ideas?

MZ: Most of the books you see in this piece, Beef, are from 2016. The book I have here is by Alva Noë, a contemporary philosopher whose views are coming from Kant and understanding the relation between mind, body and space. It’s called Varieties of Presence, and when I bought this book as a recommendation by my mentor, I couldn’t just sit down and read it. Every line I went through I would think to myself, this is exactly what I want to say, but I can’t say it! That was when I just started buying a lot of books. Not to read from cover to cover, but to assist as reference.

LG: I find that really helpful too. It’s like releasing pressure on yourself to read from cover to cover. You can always go back! Have you read Noë’s newest book, Strange Tools?

MZ: Yeah! I went to his book signing for that one. He is very cool by the way. Philosophy can be different in some ways than science because in science, everything seems to be very calculated. Philosophy is a little more open. It puts you around, around, and around…you don’t have to find an answer, and it’s more about the process. That’s what I was interested in—the journey. I began playing with mirrors with that in mind, thinking that if mirrors are a representation of reality but they’re not quite reality, then what are they? If mirrors are not real and they are only a representation of reality, we can say that they’re a copy. But they’re not an exact replica—everything in a mirror ends up reversing for example!

If you delve conceptually into mirrors, there are all sorts of myths, stories, and hypotheses around what’s inside the mirror and whether that reality could exist. I aimed at creating pictures that could not be reversed in mirrors or examples where the reflections are not true as their sources, or there was no source and there was only a reflection. I didn’t have a lot of resources to build any of these concepts at full scale, so instead I started making models. I was thinking about what it would mean if the mirror was its own world that you live and exist within.

Most of these questions manifested themselves in A Series/D3. In this piece, there is a little more deception. Deception to make a point, though, not so much as to actually deceive my audience. Despite looking like a mirror at first glance, when you think it’s an exact replica, your expectation is broken as soon as you walk around and engage closely. That’s when I think you can start questioning and perhaps be open to different realities: the moment when an expectation is broken or disrupted for the lack of a better word. I feel like when I am playing with an idea, I want to pose multiple questions. It’s not only one question for me.

A Series/D3, mixed media installation

LG: What are the questions?

MZ: They are generally about things we take for granted or figuring out what scenarios people go through when they see the work and how they engage with the objects or environments.

LG: And you’re not trying to dictate the narrative they tell themselves?

MZ: Not at all. These works were kind of the starting point for what’s driving my current work right now—mostly about engagement. I hesitated for a long time to give people instructions. I was really trying to have the work invite people on its own, or have a sense of invitation, but that’s all very difficult in relation to the nature of questions I was asking and that’s why I did this piece, DSeries/B1. It’s my only piece that has instruction. As you would enter the gallery, you had no choice but to step on this weird floor.

D Series/B1, mixed media installation, 2015

LG: Did the floor move or shift? What were your instructions?

MZ: No, they’re different heights but the same material. Everybody was asked to fix their eyes level on this line and not look down as they moved around. Despite the directions, the piece was more about touching and not as much about looking. A simple task like walking can be taken for granted easily, but under strict rules on movement, you can still try to adapt and relate to your environment with whatever other senses that are available to you. In this case, it seemed as though you had to extend your eyes to the wall not to lose track of your spatiality. I was trying to ask the questions like how does one engage with vision when they move? Does the eye work like touching works? I’m initiating questions in search for some answers, but I don’t always find them. You can drive yourself crazy trying to find answers. Sometimes, I think it’s just a matter of engagement.

LG: When you enter these spaces or try to put yourself in these spaces, do you have a reality or narrative you tell yourself? One you like or defer to often?

MZ: No, I don’t…every single time is different. In certain projects I have worked on, I brought objects from outside, asked many friends to come with me in order to multiply the presences inside the space…I played with many variables but all of that becomes research that you have to tuck away for some later experiments.

LG: I’m glad you started off by describing the entry point for yourself. It can be really helpful, especially for young artists trying to think about broad terms like reality and hyperreality. Sometimes work that plays with vision can be difficult for me to access because I’ll feel like I’m missing it—missing the reality, or the vision of what the reality should be.

MZ: It’s really easy to fall into trickery that an artist has set up. There are so many different notions of space. One model is that of a container; you put stuff into a container. From a philosophical standpoint, you can’t separate your body and put it somewhere else. Anywhere you put your body is going to be a space, right? So, technically, they’re inseparable. That idea is one of the avenues where I enter my work. But, in visual arts, it can be really hard to engage in material like that.

LG: So when you set up Beef at the Vox show, you were working with engaging or shifting perception?

MZ: Yeah. I had a two way mirror that was hiding a camera attached to a computer inside. The camera being the eye and the computer being the brain that was processing the audiences image. Don’t ask me why the wooden frame turned out to be this long. There were so many different kind of outcomes that could have happened, but “Beef” was about fragmenting the person in their environment and also literally creating a looking glass. There’s an aspect of technology in this work that’s more present than in some of my other pieces.

Beef, mixed media installation, 2017

LG: Do you feel like there’s any negative connotation with this piece?

MZ: When I was at Pratt, there were many discussions about how technology affects us negatively. But, relative to that time, I attended a talk at the Museum of Art and Design that made me think technology is not inherently bad, but that we abuse it to a certain level. Back then, I was using technology in my work to try to criticize technology itself. This time, I gave more agency to the technology; you think you’re seeing yourself, but it’s the technology seeing you. You can question who’s the author: are you making that picture, or is it the machine that’s making its own manifestation of you? I understand how that could make some uncomfortable.

Since this interview, Zarfsaz has worked on two projects on absurdity, 4CAST a collaborative project at Window on Broad of Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of the UArts, a theatrical piece called Thinkering Materiality as part of her Leeway Performing Arts Residency as Asian Arts Initiative, and a collaborative exhibition at Pilot Projects with Tim Belknap, Up Stream, Down Body.

Mina Zarfsaz is an interdisciplinary artist, designer and system thinker who works across the fields of art, technology, philosophy, architecture, and design. Her work seeks to invert common tools and social control to create dialogue, exchange critical perspective, generate questions and ideally inspire a better understanding of what we perceive as reality and its representations. Zarfsaz has attended Pratt Institute’s MFA ComD program and received her MFA from Montclair State University in Studio Arts. She holds a BFA from State University of New York, a BA in Business Administration from University of Alzahra and an Interior Design Certificate from Tehran University. Her collaborative exhibition with Timothy Belknap at Pilot Projects opened on March 16, 2019.

Liz Griffin is a painter, writer, and senior at Moore College of Art & Design. She has interned for Title Magazine, Icebox Project Space, and the Clay Studio.