Performance: Atoosa Pour Hosseini, 'The Magic Circle'
- 19 October 2023
Influenced by early avant-garde cinema, Atoosa Pour Hosseini fuses illusion with reality through the media of film, video installation, sculpture, and performance. She works with the material textures of 8mm and 16mm film as well as digital processes in moving image to explore layers of space and timelessness. Her combination of these technical devices with rich symbolic archetypes creates a cinematic encounter of memory and perception.
Pour Hosseini’s technique invokes the play of light in nature and its insistent elemental forces of water, fire and air, which have inspired the interior world and psyche throughout human history and spirituality. The solar cycle and reflections on water’s surface are recurring motifs, as well as light phenomena that occur when recording with analogue cameras, such as refraction and lens flare. Her new film installation The Magic Circle takes the crepuscular hours of dusk as its setting, allowing the dissolution of light to reveal the enchanting or ominous possibilities of nighttime. The film’s saturated and dreamlike palette, Olesya Zdorovetska’s unnerving layered vocal score,1 and Pour Hosseini’s installation of hanging chiffon fabric are lures into a mesmeric landscape, a dreamlike blurring of unconscious experience.
The Magic Circle portrays a foreboding character wearing veiled garments and a ceremonial headdress, enacting rituals associated with conjuring and magic. The sorceress, played by Yasaman Pishvaei, traces circles in the sand in front of a rolling seascape, and paces around a darkened interior illuminated by candlelight. These meditative actions appear to recreate purifying or protective spells. Pour Hosseini’s mastery of lighting, superimposition and the chemical alchemy of traditional film processing animate the spectral out-of-body apparition of Pishvaei’s character.
Pour Hosseini’s collaborative practice engages performers, composers, and fellow filmmakers in her moving image works and ‘live cinema events’, creating an atmospheric orchestration of her exhibitions with the ritualistic processes of live 16mm film projection, sound and movement.2 Her staging of the exhibition incorporates several moments of veiling and unveiling that create a mise en scène of dramatic storytelling and intrigue. A compelling clay face sculpture, a self-portrait made by Pour Hosseini over a decade ago, gazes upwards from a mound of yellow sand. A larger mask that takes the form of a pyramid-like structure is also elevated on a plinth. It is assembled of many interconnected triangular mirrors and is worn by Pishvaei during a performance that initiates the exhibition, concealing her face and reflecting its environment in the exhibition. Opposed to the typical symbolism of a mask as a foil for psychological expression, here the tone is more ambiguous, casting the viewer as the subject in its many-faced mirror.
The prevalence of witchcraft, its punishment and expulsion, align with the growth of misogynistic ideologies over many centuries. Prior to this time, priestesses, mediums, herbalists, healers, midwives, and other roles persecuted through the myth of witchcraft, were community members connected to nature and seasonal practices. Pour Hosseini’s The Magic Circle takes as its primary influence the 1886 painting of the same name by Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse. The painting depicts a woman drawing power from a smoking cauldron and using a wand to draw a protective circle around herself. The circle excludes several symbols of evil associated with witchcraft, such as crows and frogs, in a barren desert landscape.3 The Victorian artistic trope of depicting women as enchantresses, or having the power to deceive or cause harm, paralleled the concurrent Suffragette movement and campaigns for women’s rights.4 The painting also relies on tropes of Victorian exoticism, which further ‘other’ the subject and put distance between ideas of a magic realm and the increasingly industrialised world of the late 1800s.
Pour Hosseini challenges and repurposes this symbolism and suppressed power through her ‘radical capacity for conjuring a shadow vision of the world from a place of exile’.5 The final scenes of The Magic Circle show the sorceress tempering flames and observing the endless tidal movement of the sea from the shoreline within a circle of fire. Fire is the most ancient of magics and, along with art-making, one of the earliest forms of human self-discovery. Through its cyclical propensity for destruction and regrowth, a new world may come into being.
1 Zdorovetska’s score creates an immersive tension with modified cello and percussive elements mixed with the extremes of vocal range - from whispers and murmurs to screams.
2 Pishvaei’s spellbinding performance reproduces gestures from the film as intense actions in the gallery space, including the drawing of a large charcoal circle on the ground, and placing a candle at its centre.
3 “…His oeuvre also includes a number of Middle Eastern subjects, in which he drew on the work of contemporary artists such as J.F Lewis (1805-76) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), rather than on actual experience. This is one of Waterhouse's earlier works, and reflects his fascination with the exotic. The woman in this picture appears to be a witch or priestess, endowed with magic powers, possibly the power of prophecy. Her dress and general appearance is highly eclectic, and is derived from several sources – her hairstyle is like that of an early Anglo-Saxon; and her dress is decorated with Persian or Greek warriors. In her left hand she holds a crescent-shaped sickle, linking her with the moon and Hecate. With the wand in her right hand she draws a protective magic circle around her. Outside the circle the landscape is bare and barren; a group of rooks or ravens and a frog - all symbols of evil and associated with witchcraft - are excluded. But within its confines are flowers and the woman herself, objects of beauty…” Excerpted from Tate catalogue entry by Frances Fowle, December 2000. John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886. Tate collection.
4 “…Many of the paintings here feature a beautiful woman. Sometimes she is a passive, decorative form, but often she is a dark and brooding femme fatale, a symbol of seduction, deception and destruction. The 'fatal woman' may reflect late Victorian male fears as women campaigned for equal rights and new roles.” Excerpted from Manchester Art Gallery text panel referring to Auguste Charles Mengin, Sappho, 1877. Manchester Art Gallery Collection.
5 Maximilian Le Cain, ‘Memory Without Past’, Atoosa Pour Hosseini 2011-2021, Oonagh Young Gallery, Dublin, 2022
Atoosa Pour Hosseini is an Iranian-Irish artist filmmaker based in Dublin. Recent exhibitions and screenings include Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2023); fsk Kino am Oranienplatz, Berlin (2023); Oonagh Young Gallery, Dublin (2022); Jeu de Paume, Paris (2021); Project Arts Centre, Dublin (2021); The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon (2021); The Lab, Dublin (2018); Museum of the Moving Image, New York (2017). Pour Hosseini is a Co-Director of Experimental Film Society. Her monograph was published by Oonagh Young Gallery (2021), and an artist’s book was published by TBG+S (2022). Pour Hosseini’s work is held in the collections of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Arts Council of Ireland.
The Magic Circle Collaborators: Experimental Film Society, Dublin; Lotus Architects, Dublin; Filmwerkplaats, Rotterdam; Olesya Zdorovetska, Yasaman (Yassi) Pishvaei, Peter Tansey, Lichun Tseng, Rouzbeh Rashidi and Jann Clavadetscher. Special thanks to Clíodhna Shaffrey, Michael Hill, Maximilian Le Cain, Michael Higgins, Rachel Fallon, and Ronan McCrea.
Commissioned by Temple Bar Gallery and Studios. Kindly funded by the Arts Council Ireland Project Award (2023).