in Iran do as the Brits do
Uneager to impress yet deeply impressive, the
art I saw in Tehran conveyed originality, grace, and ... 'authenticity'
By Homa T.
April 16, 2004
24th, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was (TMCA) swamped with
capital's young & hip 'honari' (artsy) crowd. Art lovers, university professors,
established and aspiring artists were everywhere to see and to be seen.
into my second visit to Iran, since I left the country with my family some
21 years ago, I was baffled by what I witnessed. The atmosphere
was no different
from any other jam -- packed vernissage of a superstar artist's exhibition
in a downtown NYC gallery. Everything was the same, except for
the exceptional over-crowding which reflected Tehran's madly congested
According to a recent article in the British newspaper
The Guardian, transportation
is like driving in a Formula One race car ... in a 15-year-old Peykan!
Embodying the same enthusiasm, the boys looked their hippest and the girls
pushed the 'hijab'
envelope with their prettied up faces and funky red and pink vinyl sneakers.
an independent curator and art historian, I had taken it upon myself to go
back to Iran to discover the country's artistic scene! What was I to find
were Iranian artists creating? How true was the myth of
naiveté in which the Western media revels?
Prior to my journey, my Iranian,
European, and American friends tried to dissuade me from going back to
the country during the Revolution's 25th anniversary, arriving
on the day of the
much-anticipated and controversial parliamentary elections, and at the
very beginning of the Islamic month of mourning, Moharram.
However, since many major European
and American art journals had expressed their enthusiastic interest in
a review or an article on my proposal to write about my discoveries
of the capital's
artistic communities, I could not turn down such an opportunity.
timing of my visit was prompted by the opening of Turning Points: 20th
Century British Sculpture [February 24th -- April 16th. See exhibit
pix]. The exhibition of modern and
contemporary art is the brainchild of Dr. Ali Reza Sami Azar, TMCA's
director who holds a Ph.D. in architectural history from the University
of Birmingham. The show has been co-organized in association
with the British Council, lead by its director of Visual Arts,
According to advance
sixty works representing fifteen major British artists would be on
display, in Tehran. From Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth's powerful
to Shirazeh Houshiary and Mona Hatoum's stirring multimedia installations,
and Anya Gallaccio's delicate bed of ten thousand roses, the show promised
the wide range of British arts' achievements, in the past seventy years.
More importantly, three very prominent artists --
Bill Woodrow, Richard Deacon,
and Anthony Caro -- were said to be visiting Iran for the opening.
At the outset, I had my reservations about the show.
On the one
I wondered what would
it be like to see a work by Woodrow or Damien Hirst in the middle
of Tehran?! Walking up to the fourth floor of Tate Modern 'made
sense!' But the corner of
Laleh Park, at Karagar Ave... did not quite cut it! On the other hand,
I thought what a courageous task to curate an exhibition of
modern art in a country with
a particularly long and complex artistic heritage.
one set against Iran's seven thousand plus years of cultural
legacy. Britain may be
able to compete
with Iran on literary terms. But, by no means, can she race alongside
Persia's millennia -- old art and cultural tradition. Or, can
From the time
of arrival, my attention shifted back and forth between the
state of artistic
in Tehran to the presence of modern British art in the capital. According
to many Western scholars, Iranian artists have ceased to make
art in, at least, the past century or so.
critics claim that we have been too busy imitating our past, at best,
and others, at worst. Several significantly influential theorists
go so far as to
dismiss the art of the Qajar period, all together, stating that it
was too influenced
by European traditions to be considered genuinely Persian [?]. This
equation subtracts yet another 150 years from our artistic production.
on these prevalent assumptions in the field, I could not help but
think that, perhaps, if as Iranians -- especially artists --
our habit of boasting
about Persia's historic cultural legacy, then, we might just restart
our engines in producing critical works worthy of our tradition.
where are those great
artists who create art worthy of our claims? I kept ruminating
on the reasons behind this lack of 'authenticity.' To what distance
and at what speed
have we traveled away from home to have lost our path?
can Iranian artists be
Persian -- or is it authentically ethnic? -- and, Modern at the
same time? Was authenticity a catch-22 concept specifically
third -- world
countries like Iran, to keep their artists running after their
The morale of
Modern art's claim has been that "imitators cannot be 'authentic'!" Or,
can they? The mother of all post -- modernists, Rosalind Krauss,
has asserted that Modernist originality is 'a myth' and that artists
conceive of a
break with historicism. So where does that leave Iranian artist
(for the past 250 years)?
To think that -- unbeknownst to themselves or not
-- Iranian artists have been working under postmodernist conditions,
not in form, demands
a stretch of one's imagination. This is to say that they have been
within a set of cultural terms and values for which any medium
or, in this case, stimulus may be used. Post-modernist anxiety
one thing that
not anticipated to face when I booked my ticket to Tehran.
when I arrived there, even, on purely theoretical grounds, Walter
and Foucault were the order of the day, among the capital's young
and educated population. I was amazed at how familiar and 'up-to-date'
(another favorite term) with Continental philosophy and aesthetic
theories were the
engineers, teachers and artists whom I met.
The most obscure and
hard to find
films (even, by NYC or London standards) by Pasolini, Polanski,
and Takovsky were on their
must-see-or-die list. I thought, like any worthy riddle,
there surely had to be an answer -- part ironic, part predictable,
As a point of comparison, my attention swung back
to the readily available show
of 20th century British sculpture. Re-reading several key
texts, time and again, I was reminded, that like its people, British
During my first visit to the TMCA, I clearly re-recognized this
peculiarity which was beautifully illustrated in the exhibition.
In purely aesthetic terms,
British art gathers, absorbs, and reflects the traceable influence
of several major forces. First, there is the impact of non-Western
visual art and culture
echoing the country's colonial and post-colonial activities.
Second is the primarily Continental (non-British)
tradition of conflicting
Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi, initiated at the beginning
of the 20th century. The third is the prominent and justifiable
dominance of post --
WW II American art
on British sculpture.
"So what is so British about 20th century
British sculpture?" The answer lies in British art's unifying
strength with its exceptional ability to
render so many varied influences self-referential and colloquial,
in other words, distinctly British.
And, "How come they get
to 'imitate'... and we cannot?!" Because they can. Because
they are good at it. Practice makes perfect, so says the wise man.
German cousins [though not as efficient],
when the Brits put their minds into doing something... By George!
they will do it.
Desperately trying not to become bogged down with
tradition-ridden, and weightily conventional, art historical
inquiries, I asked to be
introduced to 'some interesting' artists. As discretely as I could,
I tried to avoid the usual suspects. Unfortunately, as in most
countries, those with
styles and irrelevant subject matters are the ones whose voices
reach the farthest.
To my wished-for surprise and soothing relief,
the end of my four-week visit, I caught sight of few random glimmers
of faithful invention. At last,
I had the opportunity to meet several excellent Iranian artists
(ages 22 -- 38) whose work -- shamelessly and sentimentally expressed
filled me with
delight. Uneager to impress yet deeply impressive, their art
conveyed originality, grace, and ... 'authenticity.'
there it was. I had
what I eagerly was hoping to find. 'essalat' (authenticity) was
another intensely reassuring buzz-word that peppered artists'
regularity and conviction. Some declared that the types of Iranian
artists whom I had met have abandoned the by-now-established
grammar of New Art,
its power to shock, and gone back to their roots. Roots that are,
but that have been "gathered, absorbed, and reflected" upon
to a point which render them spiritually "self -- referential
combination of aptitude and action, I believe, is the mark of true
genius. Rarely exhibiting their work, these artists live and labor
in their ' caves,' as some
describe their state, in faithfully hermetic tradition. They carry
within them rarely equaled and concentrated degrees of inquisitive
originality which reflect
the tremendous complexities of contemporary Iranian mind. Intricacies
that slip away undetected, especially, from those of us who are
living away from
Predictably, without our support inside and outside
the country, Iranian artists' works may forever be 'caved-in,'
and muted. Alternatively,
taking our inspiration from Tehran's "Formula
One" condition, we may regard this cross-continental race
as a welcoming game of human creativity of the highest order.
we oblige nurturing
circumstances for production and display of excellence, can Iranian
artists -- like their British
counterparts, for example -- engage in an exhilaratingly sophisticated
global competition of poetic and intellectual rigor.
had written of a Lydian sage who had tried to dissuade his king,
Croesus, from confronting Persians by alarming him
that if Persians won the war, "They will keep such a hold
of [our pleasant things] that we shall never be able to make them
the same spirit, let's just hope that Iranian artists become motivated
by Turning Points' inspirational -- or is it instructive? -- role
as to re-evaluate
their priorities according to complexities of their native land's
past achievements, present concerns, and future hopes.
out there who can calculate just how long it will take for the
West, riding its
new uber-sonic planes traveling at five times the speed of light,
to catch up with our remaining
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