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Surrealism of yesterday, reality of today
On Mehraneh Atashi's photography


August 2, 2005

I had already completed the first half of this review in May when I decided to write an article on the burning issue of deforestation instead, and return to this afterwards. Having completed my task I sort of put off returning to writing again.

Then I came across Natalie Esfandiari's article "What's wrong with us?" In which she in connection with the election time referred to Salvador Dali's paintings and her perception of people as if they were moving objects in his 'paintings of time'. She was obviously referring to his paintings of liquid clocks.

I was amazed and amused at what Karl Jung would have described as synchronization. Others may call it coincidence. And again it could be seen as the web becoming the extended nervo-electronic system connecting us all.

So I got back to finish writing this review not only for what it was, but also as an acknowledgement of her perception. I have also come to think that perhaps the perception of today's reality as a surreal experience is more widespread than I had assumed in the first place.

In a way I feel somehow lighter by the prospect that there may be many more people who share this change of perception - in one way or other - of what we are facing today. Not so alone after all. I am thinking of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Truffaut's filmed version of it.


When Salvador Dali painted his melting surreal clock, he along with other artists of his time had been inspired and influenced by the revolutionary Freudian interpretation of dreams (Traumdeutung, first published in 1900).

In a way the surrealism was in fact the expression of the attention the artists started to pay to their own inner world of dreams. A world which was now accepted to be created by a combination of the individual's instinctive desires and the perception of the individual in regards to the waking state called 'reality'.

Whereas that surrealism in the first half of the last century was more the stuff the dreams were made of - standing in contrast to a reality which was ruled by solid clocks - that same surrealism has now become the 'reality' of our waking lives.

In the last 70 years many things have happened with an unprecedented speed: more high tech destructive wars/ increased oil exploits/ more and more flights (one flight from London to NY produces the pollution equivalent to 3 years environmental damage produced by one person) and the threat of global warming / air and noise pollution / destruction of forests.

In addition there are two major factors which have had an effect on the human psyche in a new way:

- The birth of information technology during the last century which has developed into the cyber melting clock,

- And this century's mass post traumatic syndrome produced by the dangerously repeated and globally broadcasted event of September 11th, 2001 in New York.

With the beginning of the Age of Aquarius (since 2000) we have entered the age of distant communications. At the same time the swinging ethical values in forms of increasing privatisation of services parallel to the centralisation of the control systems in form of ID cards and data of the populations' finger prints (a plan for UK) are already changing our perceptions of the reality.

With the beginning of the 21st century we now live in the surreal time when and where the stuff of dreams are perceived more as solid, than our daily experiences. The clock no longer ticks or tucks, it melts - and so does the time. And the consequences of what we do are as insubstantial as our dreams were in other times.

In the world of the cyber melting clock we move speedily from one space to another, one moment enjoying the con of the virtual reality and next moment knowing deep down that there is only one dimension to it afterall. That there is really no 3D space but one dimension only - an abstract life. Things like time keeping - when meeting friends - is no longer a virtue. There is the mobile phone to announce delays and get away with it.

Politicians talk like robots programmed to give no answers beginning with a yes or no. And the body language they have learned in order to impress the public has become predictable. People in their post trauma state of mind plan one thing today and pursue another by the time you see them again - not even remembering their previous plan.

We have arrived at the surreal in our waking state and our dreams have less and less to say - they don't even care to be remembered and it is not a matter of suppression. The brains are getting exhausted by the radiations emanating from the cyber melting clock; even the dreams are tired.

We now finally live in one of Salvador Dali's paintings. Our reality is nothing but the surreality of our existence - life is not perceived, it is the perception which is lived. And it is from this angle of thought that I connect to the 3 photo essays of Mehraneh Atashi: "Zoorkhaneh", "Cooling off" and "The fall: Mannequin with a View".

For me it is in these three that she particularly depicts her perception as an artist. They are not about capturing time and space, in other words they are not documentary. There is a narrative inherent in them, hence they are more complete than life (in his book Rebel- in the section about novels- Albert Camus made the important observation that novels existed and were popular because life is incomplete).

It is in these 3 photo essays that M. Atashi epitomizes the surrealism (of the reality) of life in Iran. The haunting photos of zoorkhaneh with half naked men and the fully covered woman are reminders of surrealistic pictures not imagined but lived as normal. Pictures turned to life or lives framed into pictures.

My narrative to the process (and in Camus terms no doubt my attempt to complete the life) - from The fall to the Cooling off and the zoorkhaneh:

The fall: What is the crime? Where is the crime? (a reminder of Antonioni's Blow Up).

We see only the mannequin's feet. Mannequin/artist is indoors looking out of the window. A woman (?) crossing the zebra crossing (is that really a safe way of crossing the streets of a city in Iran?). Is there a way out?

Then we see feet inside and the traffic outside. And the leaves of a tree.

The mannequin falls. But who is looking to the dark shade dominating the outside? It must be the artist.

After a fall there is chaos hence a movement.

Cooling off:  She is out now.

She sees half naked boys playing in joob (abridged for joy-e aab = stream of water. In Tehran it flows from the mountainous north of the city -nowadays more polluted - to the south of the city. From the affluent to the needy).

There are more children now paddling in the water. The little girl joins in joyfully; the older girl joins in more self-consciously and shyly; both fully dressed. The acceptance of the inequalities is already engraved in their souls. The older one has the additional burden of copping with her envy of the modern woman with a camera moving about freely - as she sees it.

The younger one doesn't know this side of her limitations yet. Hence she is more free in her movements/body language and is able to build the relationship which is necessary during the work process with the artist ( is this perhaps why the Iranian directors have preferred under 12 years olds for their films? Have I finally cracked it? Although there is a saying amongst film makers that children and pets win the show if acting, I personally don't think that this is the reason for the choice of the Iranian film makers).

They cool the heat of limitations. In the background we see a block of flats with air conditioning. But freedom and joy is definitely in the foreground. The background is dead and it is the water that is alive and moving. Now they have baptized themselves with water - which is life- and lie flat on the ground contented.

Joy and navels- a reminder of the umbilical cord of the golden age in the womb before the birth into this world, but also of the snakes of healing in the hands of the Cretan goddess.

What M. Atashi cannot do herself - namely cooling herself on the street - she records. And not surprisingly it helps her to move on as she has entered the realm of art therapy, no matter if she is conscious of it or not. Cooling Off shows that her next project is going to be more daring. She has broken out.

At zoorkhaneh initially they won't let her in. The smell -- the most forbidden and suppressed sense in today's civilizations -- is given as the reason. The smell of a woman as the taboo which would bring out the hidden and the denied weakness (za'f) of having desires to the surface, as the contrast to the distraction policy of zoor (strength) and zoorkhaneh,

By having simply been grown up in Iran however, our artist has also learned how to manoeuvre around and survive in a hostile patriarchal society which puts the most limitations initially in order to seem generous when donating a crumb of freedom to the ones who dare to ask for more.

Atashi appeals to the narcissism of the sportsmen and stops their senses of smell by covering herself even more by means of the camera - hiding her eyes, nose and lips while looking at them. They are not watched by a woman as they see it now, but by the whole world outside. For them she becomes the camera which connects them to their world full of men. But this won't last long because soon they will smell their own sweat, which will bring them back to the here and now.

In zoorkhaneh we see again half naked bodies in brotherhood (now the boys have grown up). Also a lot of body hair and again navels, but now is the tyranny of the balls. They even wear pants with the fertility symbol (boteh jegh'eh) printed on them. And even if they are not conscious of this symbolism, the Freudian lapsus would apply anyway.

In zoorkhaneh on the other hand the water of the Cooling Off is missing. But instead we have a mirror - another medium of reflection. But this one relates in a way more to narcissism than to reflections. A movement that is more horizontal than vertical. It is not about looking inside but looking at what is out THERE - the way one is seen, not the way one feels.

Atashi's photos say to the viewer: look at me out THERE amongst them! How would have Jacques Lacan described this situation? The original mirror stage experience rewound and rerun? Or, simply reliving the mirror stage experience in search of identity? Or perhaps a reconstruction of identity?

The mirror here in fact serves to emphasize the surrealism of this 'real' situation. It constructs reality made of fragments swinging between dreams and the waking state:

Half naked sweating men who by creating smells themselves with phallic pride doubled with the help of mirror are giving birth (the original womb envy) to a framed young woman covered from head to toe looking at them through a camera (hence covering her face as well).

The discomfort of our noble machos begins to show. They realize the more covered she is while watching them the more naked they are. And after all they don't disrespect women altogether. You can see they are their mommy's boys.

But there are also other reasons for the fact that she has been allowed to enter their space. The class difference undoubtedly plays a role as well as their need for affirmation and the respect shown for what they do for their health and brotherhood. And last but not least their contribution to keep ancient Iranian tradition/identity alive.

It is this swing between the exclusive manhood and the need to represent noble aspirations that when combined with the excellent problem solving abilities of M. Atashi, serves the progress of the session. The sudden ingenious idea of the presence of the old man rubs the noses of our pahlevans on the floor and meanwhile the inevitable transference has already taken place as well.

She is now the wise woman/ mother reminding them of the deception of time and the transience of life and youth.
She cares and is in control.  Now she can frame herself fully in the mirror reflecting on her environment in zoorkhaneh while the men have something to think about.

Oh yes, and now the walls look interesting.

For letters section
To Vida Kashizadeh

Vida Kashizadeh

Mehraneh Atashi


Book of the day

Borrowed Ware
Medieval Persian Epigrams
Translated by Dick Davis


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