Roman and Maryam met unexpectedly in Berlin and ever since have lived a dynamic life in Neukölln. After growing up in Frankfurt’s multicultural environment and studying film in Potsdam, it didn’t take long for Maryam to make her mark in theater and film productions. Roman finished art school in France before he started working for Maison Martin Margiela. At first, he followed both interests, fashion and art, but after being in Berlin for a while, he felt comfortable entirely focusing on his art and pursuing his aesthetic desires.
Fed up with the traditional Berliner Altbau, they’ve successfully transformed a 50s prefabricated apartment with concrete floor, lending it a charm reflective of the couple’s character. Almost every piece of furniture is handmade by Roman. Over homemade ginger tea and cake, the couple shares perceptive thoughts on approximating cultures, modern socio-psychological restrictions and the contemporary cracked sense of self.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on ZEIT Magazin Online.
How did you two meet?
Roman: We met in a club – which is actually weird because neither of us ever go out.
Maryam: It was a strange night. We crossed each other’s paths at a crazy point in our lives. At the time I was in the middle of a shooting for one of my first lead roles in the film Shahada, a student’s diploma film, which was surprisingly selected for the official competition of the Berlinale. I played a difficult character and I didn’t feel like going out at all. But, on that night, a friend who had been left by his girlfriend forced me go to a party with him. I was basically standing in a corner of the club all night, wanting to leave, but all of a sudden, Roman was standing next to me.
Roman: It was my first time in Berlin and I met Maryam on the first night. I was living in Paris after my art education in Angers. That night became a turning point and eventually, I moved to Berlin.
Do you miss Paris?
Roman: I grew up in a very small village, that’s why I like to be close to nature. Berlin is quite green with much more green space than Paris.
Maryam: We live close to a park, which has a little zoo with donkeys, goats and camels.
Roman: When it’s hot outside and we have the window open, we can smell the camel pee.
You both speak multiple languages – in which language do you communicate and feel most comfortable?
Roman: We used to speak English, now we speak French. My German is not that good yet.
Maryam: That’s because Berliners love to show off their English. They’re literally using you to practice the language (laughs). But I really enjoy the growing cultural diversity of the city. My family is originally Iranian, partly living in France and England. I grew up in Germany.
I believe that identity is fragmented. This whole system of cultural and national belonging is an illusion. People feel the need to categorize things but putting the stamp of heritage on people often reduces the complexity of who we are. We can be many things – maybe you’re from Spain but your humor is Jewish, you eat French cuisine and fight Italian. And even most of those are only clichés and stereotypes.
Berlin is a paradigm for an increasing approximation of cultures. How do you think this will develop in the future?
Maryam: Naturally, globalization unifies cultures more and more, even people in the Iran can watch The Sopranos nowadays. But something very basic is still holding things back: people are often afraid of the “other.” This fear and the instrumentalisation of it is a very dangerous thing happening at the moment, visible in the growing racism and anti-Semitism in Germany and the rest of Europe.
Roman: I think the problem has a different name, it’s not just racism. I agree that we certainly stigmatize communities, encouraged by religion or history. Due to the economic crisis and other problems, people search for ways to transform their frustration – a process which is also triggered by the media or governments.
You seem to critically observe your environment. How does that influence your art?
Roman: That’s true. I always combine a topic that interests me with an aesthetic desire. What the final piece looks like matters as much as the technique behind it – both compliment each other and create multiple layers of meaning. I always want it to be a reflection of my time.
For example, I’ve been concerned with ecology for a while now. I started to print flowers and plants using car oil. All the plants I choose are facing extinction. In the future, when people look at those pieces, these plants won’t exist anymore. Nor will there be any petrol for production left. The remains of my work will be like a fossil. Mainly, I wanted to play with that thought, but I also followed the idea of nostalgia. Car oil has this great sepia effect, representing the trend of giving things a vintage look.
In your work Nebula you also used petrol to create beautiful images of the universe.
Roman: Yes. The universe and its aesthetic amazes me and gives me peace at the same time. You know, we are so small – our world is so small – but we have such big egos and ignore that the universe is so much greater than our little lives. Nevertheless, all of it is one big united thing. All the planets are made out of dust and gas, and so is the human body. We are nothing more than stardust. I find this thought so beautiful: we are only matter, between you and me, there is nothing but matter.
Just like petrol. I thought it was a toxic substance for a long time, but in the end, petrol consists of dead organisms buried underneath sedimentary rock. The petrol on my painting will never dry – you’ll ruin the image if you put your finger on it. The motif will stay fragile. Petrol is also a part of the greater unity and it was here before us. Step by step, all planets and all life will turn into stardust again, still, nothing ever dies.
Indeed, it’s a comforting thought – yet, realizing how powerless we are can sometimes be unnerving. Maybe because we grow up in overprotective social structures.
Roman: I’m always interested in society and how it affects our self-perception. I’m fascinated by how we express ourselves in a group, a city or a country. Rarely do people live all by themselves – it’s not in our nature. Right from the beginning of our lives we are part of a family. For the first ten years of our existence we are dependent on others. Afterwards, we seek new groups and communities. From birth, we continuously copy and empathize with the person next to us. We are animals following a group that appears strong to us. Identity isn’t something real, it is more a reaction to our environment, resulting from feelings like fear, envy or desire.
Maryam: Additionally, there is really something you could polemically call a “war on consciousness.” You have all these multinational companies spending huge amounts of money to create a global desire for so-called individualism, where in fact they only reduce us to consumers and create an increasingly unjust society. We are all severely influenced by that – it’s hard to draw yourself out of it.
Roman: Our society constantly tells us to find ourselves. But finding yourself in this case means creating a status for yourself: being pretty, intelligent, strong or whatever. We define ourselves through certain symbols, either through products or clothes. In the end, we display this so-called self to a community – this version of our self can only work in that context. So actually, we won’t find ourselves through these standards, we simply adjust to certain elitist ideals.
That’s an interesting approach, because you worked in fashion for a long time – which is an industry promoting exactly those symbols you’re talking about.
Roman: Yes, I started working for Maison Margiela because I realized that clothes were rarely a subject in art. That was deeply surprising to me since clothing is something so universal and inherent to every culture since the beginning of mankind. People are not even slightly aware of how deep they’re into it, because it’s so natural. We rarely mirror ourselves. I was eager to experiment with that thought. But of course fashion is one of those symbols you use to express yourself in a group. In Paris, for example, people still define themselves through certain appearances.
And in Berlin?
Roman: People are less concerned about brands or money here. I really like that.
Maryam: But the need for recognition by society and this whole idea of lifestyle is a global phenomenon, at least in certain classes in wealthy countries. But fashion and material status symbols are still things you can point at. Now there was a shift. All of a sudden it’s about what you represent as a person. How interesting your life, your contacts and activities are. We suddenly put our intimacy out there, to show a preconstructed image of ourselves, much like we are doing at this very moment. (laughs) But that’s all bullshit that doesn’t count, we just believe it gives us a reason to exist. In this whole world of selfies, of “Hey this is me, this is how I live,” value has become much more subtle and hard to grasp. While trying to keep up, we lose true contact to ourselves and to others. What society deems valuable might be something totally contradictory to what we actually need. It creates a void in the people and they feel lost.
Roman: Of course, because this is not the essence of life!
Maryam: Yes, but it makes you feel guilty! We live in such a materially privileged society. Nevertheless, we are eating ourselves up, while feeling entitled instead of engaging in real things. I feel our generation is doing very little for that and at the same time our sense of self is cracked. We have to step out of our comfort zone.
Roman: But we are struck by fear – our world is made out of fear. We don’t do stuff, because we are afraid of not being able to pay our rent, being left by our boyfriend or getting killed by someone.
Maryam: That’s why we create all these false securities. This is what I mean by comfort zone: we hide in tiny microcosms of relationships or families. It’s crazy that we do not confront ourselves with death anymore, even though this is the only thing we know for certain: that we are born and eventually, will die. Everything in between is up to us. But then we come up with all these concepts of stability. I’m not saying we all should live in a commune, but we should certainly be aware that we should fight for a society we want to live in. Wouldn’t that be amazing if we all took more courageous and bold decisions?