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When 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. Nasab
April 16, 2004

On February 24th, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was (TMCA) swamped with the capital's young & hip 'honari' (artsy) crowd. Art lovers, university professors, established and aspiring artists were everywhere to see and to be seen.

Two days 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 streets.

According to a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian, transportation in Tehran 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.

As 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 there? What 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.

More specifically, the 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, Andrea Rose.

According to advance press releases, sixty works representing fifteen major British artists would be on display, in Tehran. From Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth's powerful bronze and stone sculptures, to Shirazeh Houshiary and Mona Hatoum's stirring multimedia installations, and Anya Gallaccio's delicate bed of ten thousand roses, the show promised to survey 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 hand, 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.

Most especially, 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 she?

From the time of arrival, my attention shifted back and forth between the state of artistic production in Tehran to the presence of modern British art in the capital. According to many Western scholars, Iranian artists have ceased to make 'authentic' Persian art in, at least, the past century or so.

These not-easily-dismissible critics claim that we have been too busy imitating our past, at best, and others, at worst. Several significantly influential theorists even 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. Ouch!

Reflecting on these prevalent assumptions in the field, I could not help but think that, perhaps, if as Iranians -- especially artists -- we renounce 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.

So 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? How can Iranian artists be authentically Persian -- or is it authentically ethnic? -- and, Modern at the same time? Was authenticity a catch-22 concept specifically re-enforced for third -- world countries like Iran, to keep their artists running after their tales?

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 must 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, though perhaps not in form, demands a stretch of one's imagination. This is to say that they have been creating works within a set of cultural terms and values for which any medium or, in this case, stimulus may be used. Post-modernist anxiety was the one thing that I had not anticipated to face when I booked my ticket to Tehran.

Yet, when I arrived there, even, on purely theoretical grounds, Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Baudrillard, 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, and in greater part, neglected.

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 art has a particular characteristic. 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 dialogue that 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. Like their 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 these age-old, 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 uninspired styles and irrelevant subject matters are the ones whose voices reach the farthest.

To my wished-for surprise and soothing relief, toward 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.'

Phew! Alas, there it was. I had finally discovered what I eagerly was hoping to find. 'essalat' (authenticity) was another intensely reassuring buzz-word that peppered artists' words and critics' writings with 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, and its power to shock, and gone back to their roots. Roots that are, nonetheless, Western-inspired but that have been "gathered, absorbed, and reflected" upon to a point which render them spiritually "self -- referential and colloquia!"

This 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 home.

Predictably, without our support inside and outside the country, Iranian artists' works may forever be 'caved-in,' and their spirits dimmed 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.

Only if 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.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, 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 loose their grasp."

Bearing 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.

Speaking of competition, any mathematicians 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 6930 years?!

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