For a mystic like ancient Sufi poet and philosopher Jalal al-din Rumi, the progression toward “nothingness” — known in Persian as “heech”— is spiritual. No matter what one’s external circumstances may be, self-awareness is an art to be realized personally, deep within oneself.
“Since you are more than tongue can tell, behold how eloquent I am without a tongue,” he wrote almost eight centuries ago. “Like the moon, without legs, I race through nothingness.”
Iranians have, throughout their history, engaged in this pursuit of spiritual progression — both during Iran’s millennia-long institution of monarchy and also after the country’s 1979 Revolution, which brought with it the establishment of an Islamic Republic.
Through it all, they have adapted to the challenges that came with new shifts in rule, infusing the realities of their external circumstances into personal rituals (such as holidays or prayers), and saturating their poetry and art with symbolism. Through the written word, the creation of art and an inherent flexibility, Iranians have always managed to communicate “without a tongue.”
Rumi, whose 800 year-old poems are, coincidentally, the most widely read throughout the United States, remains deeply revered within all strata of Iranian society. His teaching of humanity as Heech, or nothingness, is most prominently conveyed through the work of contemporary Iranian artist and sculptor Parviz Tanavoli.
Tanavoli’s sculpture, Poet Turning into Heech, which depicts the body of a man turning into a poet, is the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection of contemporary Iranian art in New York.
Like the word Heech, which is written in Farsi script, the flexibility embodied by Tanavoli’s Poet melds elegantly with its environment. “Artists, to me, are also poets,” Tanavoli told me. “The Poet is a man who feels everything, senses everything but cannot change anything. It is now the poet who determines philosophy, makes a statement and criticizes the structures of our societies… and tries to reflect it in his artwork.”
Nestled within the Met’s newly renovated Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central and Later South Asia, the contemporary Iranian art collection embodies seven works by six Iranian artists, each conveying a raw fusion of historical and contemporary subjects spanning the realms of philosophy and identity, gender and politics, poetry and society.
Each artist fits into one of three generations: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (b.1924) and Tanavoli (b. 1937) were both born and raised during the reign of Iranian monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi; Y.Z. Kami and Shirin Neshat, born respectively in 1956 and 1957, grew up during the reign of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. Ali Banisadr and Afruz Amighi, who were only three and five years old when Iran’s monarchy was overthrown in the country’s 1979 Revolution, witnessed the establishment of an Islamic Republic and grew up during the 1980s while their country was embroiled in a bloody eight-year war with Iraq.
“What makes these works so profound is the works in and of themselves, but also their connection to Iran,” says Sheila Canby, the Patti Cadby Birch Curator in charge of the Met’s Department of Islamic Art. “The references to earlier history make these works much more interesting, and add dimensions that wouldn’t be there if it was just photojournalism,” she said.
Tanavoli agrees. “Of course, artists are moved and also touched by their history and political situations, wherever they are — they cannot escape it. Some reflect it more personally than others.”