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
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
I was amazed and amused at what Karl Jung would have
described as synchronization. Others may call it coincidence. And
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
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'.
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
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
- The birth of information technology
during the last century which has developed into the cyber melting
- And this century's mass post traumatic syndrome
produced by the dangerously repeated and globally broadcasted event
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
Politicians talk like robots programmed to give no
answers beginning with a yes or no. And the body language they
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".
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
but lived as normal. Pictures turned to life or lives framed into
My narrative to the process (and in Camus terms no
doubt my attempt to complete the life) - from The
off and the zoorkhaneh:
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
(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
After a fall there is chaos hence a movement.
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
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
They cool the heat of limitations. In the background
we see a block of flats with air conditioning. But freedom and
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)
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.
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.
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
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
and the waking state:
Half naked sweating men who by creating smells
themselves with phallic pride doubled with the help of mirror are
(the original womb envy) to a framed young woman covered from head
to toe looking at them through a camera (hence covering her face
The discomfort of our noble machos begins to show.
They realize the more covered she is while watching them the more
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
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
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