To make her wall relief titled Three Inches And A Half (2018), Niloufar Emamifar walked around Los Angeles, asking dozens of pairs of neighbors if she could make molds of the property lines they share. On a map, a thin line divides two lots. But scaled to the site, the line can represent an area that’s a few inches wide, and arguably, this space belongs to no one. Only one pair gave her permission: two Palestinian owners of adjacent brick buildings. Over time, the ground on which their foundations rest had shifted, creating a small gap that was three-and-a-half inches at its widest. Emamifar injected silicone into the gap to make a mold, then cast it in hard plastic. The resulting work looks like a vertical strip of bricks: a negative space made material, and an homage to unowned space.
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Emamifar, who is currently participating in the two-year Core Residency Program hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was an MFA student at the University of California, Irvine, when she developed the property line project. She originally studied architecture, but ultimately found herself more drawn to unbuilt provocations and architectural interventions by the likes of Archizoom and Gordon Matta-Clark than to collaborations with developers. Emamifar has collaborated with the Tehran-based architecture collective WORKNOT!. Together, they produced a series of drawings called “Framing the Commons,” studies of shared spaces in Tehran apartment buildings, such as hallways and fire escapes. Examples were shown alongside works by other collectives from Bogotá, Mumbai, and Kuala Lumpur at the Global Art Affairs Foundation in Venice, in conjunction with the 2016 Architecture Biennale. WORKNOT! found that these spaces, which are neither completely public nor completely private, are usually afterthoughts for architects, yet important for creating community.
Emamifar, who has pivoted to art, does not disclose much biographical information. For group exhibitions like “In Practice: Other Objects” (2019) at SculptureCenter in New York, conspicuous blank spaces accompany her name in lieu of a bio.
Recently, Emamifar has been researching LA’s privately owned public spaces. In 2019, she spoke with a lawyer who explained the legal metaphor that became the title of her contribution to the Hammer Museum’s latest edition of “Made in LA.” “Whales are wild beasts,” he told her, “but once I stick my harpoon in one, it becomes my property.” The lawyer was describing the process by which he helped a bank acquire the previously public park where his children play, privatizing it so as to keep homeless people and protesters away from his kids. In privately owned public spaces, which are often bargaining chips between municipalities and developers, constitutional rights are not guaranteed to members of the public. For Iron Holds the Whale, Emamifar wanted to highlight how the distinction between commons and property is usually less neat and less visible than it is in the whaling industry. She noticed that the Hammer’s courtyard is called the Pritzker Family Commons. The Hammer is affiliated with the University of California Los Angeles, a state school, and is, in the museum’s words, “free and open to the public.” Probing this definition of “public,” she placed the words “Act I” through “Act V” in the same aluminum letters that spell out donor names in interstitial spaces there, like the lobby and the terrace. Corresponding text from a play that she wrote is displayed on wall labels. It details imaginary scenarios that are common in many public spaces, but not museums: like a person with a cart full of their belongings circling the Hammer’s “commons.” Throughout, the artist clings to scraps of public space in a neoliberal world.
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2021 issue on p. 12.