ART AND POLITICS IN IRAN
The Promise of Loss: A Contemporary Index of Iran
Arario Gallery | January 14 – February 27, 2010
It would be an understatement to say that Iran exists in turmoil largely due to internal conflicts. The ideological separations occur on two levels: within the Islamic community there are historical differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis. This we know. However, what has come into international prominence in recent months, given the aftermath of what many believe to have been a bogus election, is the tension between “the Islamic Republic of Iran and the idea of Persia,” (to quote the catalog essay of the exhibition, The Promise of Loss: A Contemporary Index of Iran) which constitute strong differences between orthodox and liberal positions within the fabric of Iranian society. In either case, this “continuous face-off” has been more or less the mainstay over the past 30 years. In addition, it would appear that forces from the outside have had a tendency to exacerbate these conflicts, either by taking advantage of the disjuncture (as in the Iran-Iraq War) or by lacking a clear understanding of the history from which these conflicts evolved. In our highly mediated, politicized era, this conundrum has found little respite. Internal political conflicts emanating from within the region are never easy to discern, particularly when interpreted from the outside. Ambiguity filters through the news media, and, in the process, oversimplifies the reality. As a result, the unreality is heightened through the rhetoric of confrontation. It is a power play on all sides perpetuated through heavily invested globalized networks. Conflicts are instantly “branded” and the consequences of this branding are authorized by “the news.” The question is: whose news?
The game of conflict is what we get from media and what we have come to expect. In contrast, an effort to discuss the internal circumstances at work in Iran with detailed accuracy might actually begin a discussion that would lead to diplomacy. Media moguls would regard this point of view as belonging to the old school of journalism and therefore irrelevant. Instead, we are offered standardized ploys of non-negotiation that eventually begin to dictate foreign policy. As diplomacy succumbs to irrelevant excess and speed, perspective is lost on the human condition, namely, that human beings really do live in a world of differences. By ignoring this fact, and by ironically citing the term “globalization,” the opposite strategy comes into effect, thereby suggesting we must inevitably acclimatize our non-thinking apparatus to the aerosol of sameness. Unfortunately, sameness is not the reality in the Middle East and clearly not the reality in Iran. This is the major premise employed by Berlin-based curator, Shaheen Merali, in organizing The Promise of Loss: A Contemporary Index of Iran at the Arario Gallery in West Chelsea. In support of his thesis, Merali states that “the exhibition is a consolidation of many dashed hopes [where] artists enable both a reading of the situation and encouragement to cross the distance where the bitterness of loss reigns within the national morale.”
Artists such as Samira Abbassy, Behrang Samadzadegan, and Jinoos Taghizadeh stand out in the way that they narrate horrors, games, absurdities, and atrocities through their symbolic figurations. The photojournalist Abbas Kowsari creates fantasies in which women in black chadors change roles with the police, aggressively at work keeping the population in line. On a lower key, the video artist Rozita Sharafjahan employs repetitive loops where people walking in the street suggest a claustrophobic environment where one fears any display of difference.
Curating an index of Iran is a daunting task given that many of the artists included in the exhibition actually live and work in Tehran and continue to produce social and political comments. The Promise of Loss—an ironic title indeed—marks a different approach from most of the exhibitions of Iranian art that were shown in New York during the summer of 2009. (The notable exception would be the one organized by gallerist Thomas Erben, who previously traveled to Tehran for the purpose of organizing an exhibition of both established and emerging artists.) Some of the artists in The Promise of Loss were familiar to me from my visits to Tehran in 2007 and through meetings outside the United States. Two of these artists, Mandana Moghaddam and Parastou Forouhar, live in Sweden and Germany, respectively. Their installations and paintings not only confront viewers with issues such as women’s rights and the casualties of the Iran-Iraq War, but also strive to communicate a point of view that aspires toward positive change.
Iman Afsarian lives in Tehran and is truly one of the significant artists currently working in Iran. His paintings of dark interiors and common household objects, appliances, and furnishings, shown without figures, are filled with distraught feelings of solitude and alienation. Babak Golkar, a young architect, does installations in which designs from Persian carpets are extended into three-dimensional space, creating structures weirdly reminiscent of the models built by Malevich in Moscow during the 1920s. In connection with this exhibition, there was a panel discussion the day following the opening in which art historians and a group of artists spoke about their work. For some reason the curator was not present, and the discussion was strangely apolitical, almost as if the impetus for the event was another exhibition, a cautionary display shown somewhere else. The somewhat eerie mood that transpired only further emphasized the loneliness, anxiety, and suspension that many Iranians feel—the fear that the wrong word in an uncertain place will project an unpredictable backlash. This, of course, is closer to the truth than the audience—or, for that matter, some of the panelists—may have cared to understand.