Universes in Universe

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Operation Supermarket

Operation Supermarket: Re-branded products and packages as a discourse on capitalism.
By Sohrab Mohebbi | Sep 2008

In these times of frequent flyers, random checks, wireless discos, online casinos, post-Warhol, old Young British Artists, million dollar skulls, Islamic London, Hybrid cars, and cyber wars, one could imagine the prominent Iranian art couple Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi stepping out of an air plane into the surprisingly WiFi-enabled aisle of Tehran international airport. Struggling to digest the single serving of in-flight chicken salad, they follow the signs to the baggage claim. Because of the zero tolerance drug/alcohol policy of the country, there is another checkpoint after the baggage claim for a possible random check. The x-ray monitor detects chocolate bars, detergents, cereal boxes, a package of some unknown powder, and more. The inspectors immediately jump and stop the couple. A bearded officer in dark green uniform and brown slippers asks them to take their luggage and follow him to a small inspection room on the side – needless to say, not so politely. They put their suitcases on the table that he shows them and he starts going through their stuff. They ask him to be more careful and he gets angry and starts throwing their belongings out of the suitcase. He then unwraps the chocolate bar that says Tolerating on the package, opens the Ask Why cereal box, empties a bottle of dishwashing liquid that reads Friends. The custom officer destroys most of the pieces of the series called Operation Supermarket in front of the creator’s eyes Tolerating the Intolerance. After finishing the inspection, he tells them to re-pack their possessions and that they are free to go. Then the officer takes a sip out of a bottle of mineral water with a Kit-Kat for a break. [1]

The project Operation Supermarket consists of a series of commodity advertisements and packages mixing "poetry with detergent" as the artists describe. The emphasis is on the commodification of mainstream media traits of the Middle East, but also on a wry parody of the mythical hopes still pinned on the commodity itself as a capitalist agent for change.

Just on the other side of the Persian Gulf, Dubai is the biggest free trade zone in the world, and commodities from all across the globe are piled in its gigantic warehouses and malls and find their way to the markets all across the region and into the world. As a result, our shops are filled with Nikes and Nestle and Armani, just like the Western world, and we are all fascinated by our variety of choices.

The series points out the pervasive effect of Western global capitalism on the everyday life of the general public and how the citizens start to define themselves as persons by what they take from the shelves of the marketplace. These works offer manipulated packages of common household objects available at any common supermarket in the world. The title "Supermarket" suggests an allusion to global consumerism and products as the vehicles of its manifestation as the new figure of Empire.

Not more than ten years ago, our only washing machine powder in Iran was Barf. It wasn’t more than a couple of years ago that they added a caption saying barf means "snow" in Farsi. The Islamic system that had theoretically battled the so-called Western culture now has allowed a flood of products to wash out the levies of subsidized national goods.

The work titled "We are all Americans" suggests our fascination with everything American. This Americanization of a society is defined by the ratio of commodity fetishism to the range of product accessibility. Global corporations, when localizing their advertisements, adapt their jingles to the local cultural attributes. Thus poetry with detergent is also a reference to Iranian oral culture and its obsession with poetry, a tradition deeply rooted in Iranian society. The artists re-brand and transform these items into a discourse on capitalism. The new guise of the image, altered from an advertisement to an artwork, consequently modifies the way the image is encountered and discussed. The artists deploy these ready-made advertisements as a platform for smuggling a new content. The immediate quality of these images - as parts of a common global image-repertoire - are used to convey a differentiated message in a fashion that contradicts their raison d'etre.

In his work, Moshiri makes direct reference to everything kitsch, as the post-colonial monuments of contemporary culture of Iran and the region. He refers to the post-revolutionary drawing books, water fountains at the intersections and main squares of the cities, the furniture of the parvenu, and the Western and Westernized brands of products. But nevertheless these works go way beyond the local boundaries. With consumerism as a global tool of expression, our lexicon of products forms the vocabulary of our times. The lines of carts behind the supermarket register suggest a modern form of communication. Shoot first, make friends later is the product of a global paranoia and people killing people is what that makes everyday headlines. In fact some of them do remind us of the postcards of demonstrations outside WTO summits. And perhaps the artists are raising the question of how can we stop the famine in Africa with the choice of our soap and how can our bathroom shelf criticize out government? How can we protest with the brand of our underwear and how can we ask for forgiveness with the choice of our moisturizers. And with our preferred set of detergents we express our love, asking: "MY SOUL, MY UNIVERSE, WHERE WERE YOU ALL THOSE DAYS"

It was either Elvis or the Beatles, now it’s Pepsi or Coke, and maybe the question is how do you brand yourself as a human being?


  1. This article is only the writer's viewpoint and not of the artists

Sohrab Mohebbi

Artist/writer from Tehran. Currently studying at the Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, USA.

Operation Supermarket

Inkjet prints
100 x 75 cm

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