Got a smartphone? Want to use it to question concepts of national identity, iconography, and curatorial practices? Viewable on the application Junaio by pointing a Smartphone camera at an image of the Italian painting Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Amir Baradaran’s latest work Frenchising Mona Lisa does just this.
In his artist’s statement, Baradaran says he wishes to question concepts of national identity, property and curatorial practices by drawing a parallel between the naturalization of the Mona Lisa into French society and the distortion of the hijab debate in France into a “lightening rod about Frenchness.”
Frenchising Mona Lisa uses augmented reality (AR): hold a smartphone camera up in front of an image of the Mona Lisa and she comes to life, pulling a French flag over her shoulders like a scarf. Then, with a half smile she lifts the flag over her head, arranging it to cover her hair. The approximately fifty-second animation has a comic tone, however the message is clear. France has long been hostile toward the hijab – as recently as January 25 (two days before Baradaran’s project launched) a parliamentary committee recommended the banning of the hijab in public places such as hospitals and schools. Yet the resistance to this ban, while established and passionate, nevertheless has not lost its sense of humour. The wan smile of Lisa del Giocando as she pulls the tricolor flag over her shoulders indicates that she recognizes the irony of her situation: in spite of her obviously Italian roots, she has found herself a symbol of French culture and an icon of the Louvre, passing her days idly in central Paris.
Through a comic piece verging on the absurd, Baradaran has made his point. The French debate on the hijab has come to dominate policy on secularism and “politicians from the right and the left have been engaging in a one-sided argument, castigating (their interpretation of) Islamic practice while religious underpinnings of Western secularism go unacknowledged and undisputed,” claimed Baradaran in an email to The Daily. This “presupposes that the culture of hijab and that of France are static, unchanging and unchangeable,” he continued. In other words, he believes that the hijab has been exploited by French politicians who fiercely oppose it in order to win public opinion, while Western religious symbols go largely without criticism.
Iranian born, brought up in Montreal, and currently based in New York, Baradaran struggled from a young age with the concept of national identity and geo-political boundaries. His past and present have tackled these issues, in addition to topics regarding race, gender and other forms of discrimination. In spite of discussing heavy issues, Baradaran’s work has a lighthearted, and even self-deprecating, tone. In a trailer for Frenchising Mona Lisa, a voice lists the ten worst things to happen to the Mona Lisa over the course of history, including theft, poor restoration, and of course, the installation of an Augmented Reality artwork over the Mona Lisa that will change her appearance forever. Baradaran’s recent work The Other Artist is Present, in which he highjacked artist Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, again demonstrates his tongue-in-cheek style.
So, why is Frenchising Mona Lisa only viewable via smartphone? Baradaran wishes to share with you, the future, or futAR, of contemporary art. By making art more accessible and more easily created by and for the general public, Futarism challenges currently held notions of ownership and curatorial practices. In his manifesto regarding Futarism, Baradaran writes that Augmented Reality “creates a peculiar kind of mischief making.” By “taking” canonical works of art from large Western museums such as the Louvre and then building on them, Baradaran sees his work as “a new type of graffiti making as it defies our notions of sabotage, trespassing and vandalism.” These ideas of graffiti, vandalism and comedy draw definite parallels with Baradaran’s past work, including his guerilla performance, The Other Artist is Present. When asked if he viewed himself as a graffiti artist of sorts however, Baradaran replied that he is an artist who is not media specific.
Augmented Reality also allows artists to take existing works of art and “turn them into AR tracked objects. New artwork will then be layered onto these objects.” This concept, described as a “hint at our future while it reckons with our present” carries the significant assumption that future art will be built upon the foundations of work that has come before it. Indeed, Frenchising the Mona Lisa does just this by giving an already famous work by Leonardo da Vinci a new and different significance. Though he may not admit it, Baradaran is most certainly a graffiti artist, manipulating the appearance of existing images and distributing artwork to the masses. Whether or not other artists follow his lead is another question.
Apart from being a new artistic medium, AR will also help artists to present their work to the public. Baradaran commented that “climbing the ladder of art world success necessarily entails finding gallery representation and exhibiting at museums of increasing importance. This progress confirms the validity of an artist’s work both as art and as significant…this is not a democratic system but reflects the interests of hegemonic power.” By employing AR, artists can escape the unfair process of selection and present their art to the public in an easy and accessible way.
Adjectives used to describe Frenchising Mona Lisa have ranged from “unsettling and bizarre,” to “clever,” or “hilarious.” Regardless, this strange endeavouris enjoying growing success in the art world. It is questionable whether other artists will adopt AR as a new artistic medium. But whether or not it catches on, Baradaran’s goals to help in the proliferation of art seem no different to those of any other artist. As he put it, “we wish to augment the world.”