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Iranian-American Artist Seyed Alavi Takes Travelers on His "Flying Carpet"

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Seyed Alavi's work decorates Sacramento, California, airport

Portland, Oregon -- In "The 1001 Nights," Aladdin’s flying carpet whisks him into and out of danger in the skies over ancient Baghdad.  According to Judaic legend, Solomon’s great flying carpet transported him and his court to the farthest corners of his kingdom.  In Veddic tales, flying carpets wing their owners throughout the many regions of what is now India. Seyed Alavi’s flying carpet takes you out to the parking lot.

Yet, like the other flying carpets, Alavi’s work of art, “Flying Carpet,” has something magical about it.  Using aerial photographs, the Iranian-American Alavi has made his 50-meter carpet in the image of a roughly 80-kilometer long segment of the Sacramento River Valley.  The carpet is located on a pedestrian bridge between the terminal and the car park at the Sacramento, California International Airport.  As visitors to the airport head to or from their cars, they find themselves walking over fields and hills, towns and highways, and along the great river itself.  The carpet manages to capture something of the wonder of flight, approximating the view visitors would have if they could soar with the birds.

“In addition to recalling the experience of flight and flying,” Alavi says, “this piece, by depicting the larger California geographical area, also helps to reinforce a sense of belonging and connection to the traveler.”

Since its installation in 2005, travelers have praised the creation.  “Everyone who sees it seems to like it,” said Karen Doron, a communications and media officer with the Sacramento County Airport system.

But is it art?  This is a question that the artist does not appear to concern himself with.  “I want the viewer to have an aesthetic experience before he recognizes it as art,” said Alavi, who was born in Teheran, Iran.

This unorthodox, even irreverent, approach to art, an approach that attempts “to infuse art into everyday life,” as Alavi puts it, might help explain his success in gaining a remarkable number of public art commissions over the last few years.  In addition to "Flying Carpet," Alavi has created public art for installation in towns and schools throughout California, as well as on a rural roadway and at a health sciences center in Japan.  Almost all reflect a certain playfulness and the desire to make everyday surroundings appear in a different light -- qualities that viewers can see in "Flying Carpet."

“What draws me to public art is the idea of making art accessible in daily life -- of taking it out of the museum,” said Alavi, “I don’t want it to stand out as art.”


In fact, some of his art cannot be easily distinguished from graffiti.  Alavi’s “What Do You Think?,” a series of 24 “text murals” in the San Francisco area done in the form of particularly colorful graffiti, is philosophical in content, carrying such enigmatic messages as “Come Out and Walk the Stars,” or “The Shade of Veneer That Coats Us May Differ, But the Wood Underneath is Identical.” 

The texts and the forms of “What Do You Think?” were developed with a number of secondary school students under Alavi’s supervision.  They reflect a deep spirituality that informs much of Alavi’s work.  A bit hesitant to speak about this directly, he conveys that this hesitancy comes less from shyness about spiritual issues than a reluctance to appear to take himself too seriously.

“To me,” said Alavi, “what is spiritual is the search for the essence of life.  I have a thirst for knowing how this whole thing is held together. What is this life and what am I doing here?”

Perhaps it is the nature of such a spiritual quest that results in the ephemeral quality of some of Alavi’s artwork.  As part of one installation, he coated a gallery’s 30-meter wall in honey each day, giving it a sweet aroma and a beautiful amber color.  He also has enjoyed creating images in birdseed spread across a patio while drinking tea in the morning.  Works such as the single word “Hope” or the outline of a man’s form, entitled “Self-Portrait,” quickly attracted nearby birds and were, he laughs, unrecognizable in 15 minutes and gone in 30.  The transitory nature of these works seems to give Alavi both amusement and satisfaction -- perhaps because of the every-changing nature of his own life.

Born in Teheran, Alavi came to the United States as a student to study engineering, not art.  He says that his parents accepted the change in his studies surprisingly well, although he admits that much of their acceptance might have come from the fact that, given the distance between Iran and his school in California, they knew there was little they could do about it.

However large these changes in his life might seem, nothing is wasted, and Alavi’s technical background, when combined with his spiritual questing, may have given him a uniquely creative direction to his art.

“The way I like to work,” he says “is like a scientist who works with instruments to discover a phenomenon.  My instruments are brush and paint, but I hope that my work attains the same end. The artwork is the residue of that process.”

The dynamism and spirit of Alavi's "residues" hold something truly special for the viewer, who is swept for a moment out of his immediate world, and off on an unexpected aesthetic experience -- as if on a flying carpet.

Additional information, including images of Alavi's work, is available on the artist's Web site.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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