Sam Kiyoumarsi chronicles the accidental and ignored cracks and corners of the city he lives in, in heartbreaking color and detail. So why hasn’t he had a show in years?
This is second of a series in Rogue‘s spotlight on the outsiders of the art world.
Sam Kiyoumarsi in an abandoned lot in Cubao. Photo by Geric Cruz.
Every now and then, while hurtling through the dense thicket of social media, a picture stops me in my tracks. Sometimes the momentum gained while skimming through a flurry of posts and statuses make me almost miss it. I scroll back. I pause and climb up to the page like a miner backtracking towards a glimmering spot. Wait. What is that?
Every once in a while, a photograph stands out from the horde of breathtaking yet generic views—sunsets, beaches, and lavish meals. There is a photograph immensely banal in its abstraction that it has become the exception, inviting me to look closer: a peculiar composition involving lines and tones orchestrated by the formation of cracks on an old floor tile. This is one of Sam Kiyoumarsi’s photographs. One of the many atypical snapshots he uploads daily with utmost religiosity, breaking the monotony of selfies and undermining the strings of Likes that flock to the “picturesque.” “There is no hierarchy when it comes to considering what is photographic,” Kiyoumarsi tells me after meeting him in Cubao—the place where he has lived for several years now and the stage for many of his pictures. “The world is nothing but a set of symbols anyway,” he adds. “Who are we to ignore the symbolic over the photogenic?”
The symbols he describes are the fortuitous visual nuances of daily life that pervade his photographs: a wall stripped of its paint, a pile of leaves, a stack of cardboard, the glare across a mirror, a prism landing on an asphalt, or shadows forming on the pavement—all are unexpected encounters from his daily walks in Cubao, which he claims are too emblematic to ignore. He starts out from his apartment, which he describes as some kind of neo-platonic cave. Armed with nothing but his pair of smartphones, he sets off without really searching, but mindful of any kind of energy an object or occurrence might transmit.
Kiyoumarsi, who is only in his mid-30s, already seems to possess the temperament of an eremite. Sporting a stubbly beard that bespeaks his Persian descent, this Quezon City native talks about his art without the usual soliloquys that champion the need for expression, the exploration of forms, or any similar notions. He gets to the point right away: “I am anti-definition.” He appears tired of the hubbub that surrounds exhibitions, galleries, and art prizes. “I try to sell my work online, plain and simple,” he adds. “If someone is interested, they usually send me private messages.”
Inside his apartment, a throng of knick-knacks, notebooks, photographs, magazine cutouts, and empty soda bottles with protruding plastic straws of varied colors orbit a quasi-solemn space under the stairs, which serves as his studio. He apologizes profusely for the mess. From everywhere around that spot we see drawings and paintings on paper scattered on the floor or left hanging on the walls. A shiny, black electric guitar stands out from a clutter of unidentified broken gizmos, which made me recall how I first met Kiyoumarsi as a musician playing for a death metal band more than a decade ago. “My first attempts in making art has always been preceded by my interest in music,” he says.
All three photos by Sam Kiyoumarsi.
In another part of the room, a curious collection of ink tubes split in half are piled up. “I never leave anything out,” he says in trying to explain the heap of broken pens. “I cut them and squeeze every ounce of ink I can get and put it in my drawings.” From this, it is not hard to sense a kind of spirit that never takes anything for granted. It reminds me of Thoreau’s naturalist fervor, which made an appeal to suck the “marrow of life.” I look at Kiyoumarsi’s mangled ink tubes and can’t help but decipher them as allegory to this creed.
On his desk lie heaps of old paper he’s salvaged from a junkshop. Aside from his photographs, he’s been using these for his drawings. He describes the different kinds of energies that can be drawn from used paper as opposed to the lethargy of unsullied ones. He would always begin by marking them out of instinct and spontaneity. His compositions are abstract, unstructured, free flowing, and are made up of lines, inkblots, dabs of paint, or other pre-existing stains. Thin scrawls of ink roam endlessly on the paper’s surface like an entity constantly searching for its own beginnings. The result is a massive bedlam of lines, scribbles and colors, appearing both chaotic and illuminating, like an anomaly in nature itself. Works of artists from the mid-20th century like Wols, Tapies, Dubuffet, and other artists associated with tachism, automatism, and art informel come to mind.
But the way Kiyoumarsi perceives and uses objects are far removed from any celebrated art movement. The way he composes through instinct, the way he shatters his pens, the way he takes refuge in the antiquity of junkshop papers—everything comes as transference of energy for him. With his own brand of scrutiny and magnification, everything that surrounds him seems to gain a life of its own.
Is he our modern-day shaman? Is he communicating through energies and symbols? Is he our Id, teleporting us back to the primal? However we decide to interpret this eccentricity, it is well worth to keep in mind that art history has claimed its roots from indigenous tribes’ pantheism: of assigning spirits and personalities to objects. Though Kiyoumarsi may have reverted to these ancient mysteries, like alchemy and symbolism, he does not forget to implicate them with our modern-day conditions. “Nothing has really changed ever since,” he says. “Our technologies are still based on the same technologies since man discovered the mirror.” For him, our devices—cellphones, tablets, cameras—are nothing but embellished, glamourized mirrors. They still carry the mirror’s same and sole function, which is to reflect whatever world we have come to know.
Kiyoumarsi, as an artist, has always been self-taught, learning mostly through conversations with artists he admires. But he knew from early on what he wanted out of his art, which is an irrevocable return to the purity of simply being “there,” untainted by definitions or social constructs. Hence, he has grown to become less reliant on the system, and has become an outsider from within society’s eyes. He tells me he doesn’t really have much of an opinion about it, especially every time he imagines the possibility of suddenly waking up with a bird’s-eye view, from where nothing in being inside or outside really matters.
Kiyoumarsi decides to step outside his studio while there is still light, ready to absorb the world’s bits of energy and alchemize them again into bytes of data through his camera. He starts shooting anything within range. From a litter of kittens he rescued to a smiling neighbor or some unsuspecting pedestrian, as well as to some interesting, abstract harmony of lines and shapes made possible by a committee of galvanized iron sheets, telephone wires, and an old, dusty, hanging tarpaulin. He takes a picture. We both know that later on these pictures will find their way into the World Wide Web. That’s why I didn’t bother to ask the usual “When is your next show?” I knew, just by looking at him and by imagining the thoughts he has immersed himself in, that the world has become his own art space, that his exhibitions have been streaming daily ever since, and that they can be accessed by anyone who has grown tired of the usual view.
This story appears in Rogue’s August 2016 Issue. Available in your nearest bookstore.