Influenced by early avant-garde cinema, Atoosa Pour Hosseini fuses illusion with reality through the media of film, video installation, sculpture, and performance.
A woman dressed in ceremonial garments stares out across the ocean, her back to the viewer, watching dusk fade into night. She picks up a piece of driftwood and slowly draws a circle around her in the sand. Her image splits and doubles as a mournful threnody builds into a cascade in the background. We cut to a close-up of her face, now bathed in white light, as she lowers a pale gauze in front of her eyes, her head darkly crowned by a bishop’s mitre, revealing a hand-drawn pattern of three vertical dots adorning her brow.
This is the beginning of Atoosa Pour Hosseini’s eponymous film installation The Magic Circle, a compelling new work that forms the centre of her exhibition at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. Though no stranger to the binary code of digital imagery, Pour Hosseini’s exhibition films are mostly shot on 8mm and 16mm film and screened with analogue projectors. This affinity for physical media has its aesthetic correlate in the artist’s preoccupations with mysticism and esoteric practices: arenas of human activity that require spiritual or metaphysical energy to be channelled into privileged physical objects and the sacred performance of rituals.
Pour Hosseini is a visual artist and experimental filmmaker born in Tehran, who moved to Dublin in 2006. In the last 17 years, the artist has picked up a swathe of bursaries and residencies (including the Arts Council’s prestigious Next Generation Award), become a member of Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, and is now co-director of the Experimental Film Society.
For those of you who haven’t heard of the EFS, do yourselves a favour and look them up immediately. Brainchild of fellow Irish-Iranian collaborator Rouzbeh Rashidi, the organisation has been based in Ireland since 2004. Maximilian Le Cain, a key contributor to the project, wrote on the eve of its twentieth anniversary that, “I’ve always been haunted by the feeling that the business of EFS is ultimately to transgress the limits of the possible. Its existence is as striking, vivid and fragile as the appearance of a ghost.”
Over the course of the last two decades, the society has gathered a collective of Irish and international filmmakers and moving-image artists under its umbrella, all of whom are dedicated to a distinct set of artistic values and principles. Chief amongst this list is a belief in DIY filmmaking, a credo that urges its adherents to go out today and make work without hesitation: don’t wait for more resources, more equipment, higher production values or other people’s permission. The Experimental Film Society Statement is a declarative manifesto that robustly encourages its readers to believe in their own creative potential and independence. The following selections are indicative of the overall style and thrust of the writing:
Don’t put your passion on pause while waiting for someone else to approve of your vision… Don’t allow a lack of resources to prevent you from getting started on a project… Self-reliance is critical; strive to achieve as much as possible without relying heavily on others…
Given her role in the organisation, it won’t shock you to learn that Pour Hosseini is an exemplar of the dynamic ethos that EFS champions in Ireland, and that her work is an eloquent representative of the formal aesthetic that has emerged organically within the society.
This aesthetic is a combination of pure abstraction and formalist ‘play’ on the one hand, and the codes or languages of psychological symbolism, on the other. In The Magic Circle, its imagery bubbling and striated with the material quality of film-stock, a pagan figure, ‘the sorceress’, performs several rituals in the solitude of a coastal retreat, invoking the transformational power of the primary elements earth, water and fire. The circle in the sand I referenced at the outset returns and evolves across the duration of the artwork; most notably in a circular mirror, immersed in water, that reflects the sorceress’ face, and in the exhibition film’s finale as the sorceress stands surrounded by flames, a windswept emissary in the middle of a fiery circle, as though the two-dimensional shape formed the outline for a portal to an unseen realm. Pour Hosseini’s film, a paradigm of wider EFS artistic conventions, is a proto-psychedelic journey that engages the viewer on the level of the subconscious – creating a feverish, hallucinogenic effect that speaks directly to subterranean psycho-cultural associations, in order to elicit primal anxieties.
Let’s consider this for a moment, as it’s an interesting ambivalence within the text of the film. The question posed about these anxieties is whether they remain unchanged, akin to blockages, afflicted with currents of dread, or are they capable of transformation, of cathartic exploration and recuperation?
The sorceress is played by Yasaman Pishvaei, an Iranian multimedia artist and researcher based in Germany. Taken at face value, her character is the index of a long-standing source of unease in western society, namely witchcraft, with all its connotations of demonic worship and the abject feminine. However, as you may be aware, there has been a resurgence, globally speaking, of tropes relating to magic and the occult in contemporary art. The critic J. J. Charlesworth remarked in 2022 that, “magic, mysticism and spirituality, animism, the figure of the witch, the medium and the shaman, have all made a return to the art mainstream.” Intriguingly, this resurgence is often framed as an effort to recuperate the salubrious value of such practices; the conjunction of art and magic can amount, under this conceptualisation, to a therapeutic exercise, useful for restoring one’s sense of self and for awakening a neglected spiritual dimension in one’s daily life.
So, is Pour Hosseini’s work a meditation on taboo, fear and ritualistic cultism, or does it belong to this new tradition that turns mysticism into a redemptive doctrine of non-commercial spirituality?
As with any artist worth their salt, Pour Housseini’s work doesn’t neatly cleave to either option, and instead invites the audience to sit with them both, suspended in plural possibility. There is something palpably dreadful or dangerous about the sorceress, but her iconographic status as a creator is also assured. In the expanded cinematic performance that opened the exhibition, Pour Hosseini slowly drew back veils to open the room, ran several projectors, and choreographed Pishvaei’s entrance and movement through the space. A haunting soundscape by Olesya Zdorovetska, produced live, contributed to the immersive atmosphere. Pour Hosseini’s interest in the symbolic power of masks, evident in Kinetics (2018) and The Golden Mask (2020), recurred in this opening; Pishvaei strode commandingly through and among the projector lights, wearing a multi-faceted headdress that sent reflections everywhere. At the performance’s culmination, she knelt down, scattered charcoal powder, and lit a candle within a chalked circle. As the flame flickered and spat in the dark of the gallery space, a tremor ran through the audience – something between disquiet and awe.
Atoosa Pour Hosseini’s The Magic Circle is at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios until December 3.