Letter from Tehran
DASTAN GALLERY | AUGUST 7 – 15, 2015
AB/ANBAR | JULY 24 – AUGUST 20, 2015
ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR
HOMA ART GALLERY, AUGUST 8 – 18, 2015
To my dearest Sheyda,
the soul of my Tehran,
the land of vanishing dreams.
Tehran is a paradox. The airplane begins its descent and the flight attendant announces, “Alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited and Islamic attire is mandatory.” Somewhere in the sky of Tehran, the silent protest of normality ends; wearing jeans and t-shirts, women give in, get up, and put their hijab on. “Welcome to the Imam Khomeini Airport.” You are officially in Iran.
Here, the art mimics life. Tehran’s history is known to Westerners through the news: political turmoil, dictatorships, demonstrations, revolutions, and then dictatorships again. Expectations of the art are set accordingly. Setting foot inside Tehran means moving beyond the stereotypes and facing real complexities. Even under extreme circumstances, in this city—pressed between the traditional, impoverished downtown and the self-negating high-rises of the wealthy uptown—life and art have found fresh paths. What remains is a question as old as this metropolis: Can a city born out of hopes for modernity still find an identity that accepts its history and culture while allowing for progress?
Friday afternoons are designated for gallery-hopping. Tehran’s youth have developed a weekly ritual of meeting in its galleries, resulting in the rapid expansion of galleries in the past decade, while raising excited curators and enthusiastic collectors, and creating opportunities for young artists. As the heat thickens and grownups doze off, weekend boredom rules. Children of this city’s revolution, now in their twenties and thirties, put on their most outrageous clothes, grab their cigarettes and car keys, and hit the road. In a city without bars and clubs, these gallery visits are a chance to see familiar faces, meet new people, name drop, brag about newly gained knowledge, flirt, have tea, smoke cigarettes, and communicate. In each corner, a piece of theater is enacted. A tall woman with long, half-shaved hair showing off her body in skinny jeans and a Pink Floyd shirt and—mocking the failure of the beige robe and bright red scarf to cover her—announces, “Tehran has no contemporary art.” The round, bearded man wearing a South Park T-shirt and yellow jeans is completely captivated. Relying on his higher education, he gloats, “Well actually, it depends whether we mean contemporary with a capital or small C.” Proud of their sophisticated moment, both sip on their tea. For this crowd, consisting of about three to four hundred repeating characters, utterly middle-class and desperately overeducated, the Friday march is, most importantly, a chance to perform normality and briefly forget the oddity of the situation. Hiding behind the glamour of these packed receptions is art that stems from the anxiety of this lifestyle.
A popular spot on the Friday tour is Dastan’s Basement, a small gallery in the heart of uptown. For the past three years, the small basement has been a haven for emerging artists, particularly those creating works on paper. When it comes to the historical identity of the contemporary Iranian art, Dastan’s is determined to find a middle ground by satisfying an old wish: to find a medium in Iran’s history that allows for contemporary visual art. As geometric abstraction and calligraphy were fifty years ago, illustration is currently the latest answer. Traces of it can be found in both the pre-Islamic Sassanid reliefs and post-Islamic miniatures. Yet this forced boundary often fails because of the tendency to simplify the role of the medium to match Western and Modern norms.
As one of the few representational practices allowed, illustration found its path through poetry and literature in Iranian culture. This has made it difficult to establish an independent and significant voice within the medium. Further, the historical absence of individualist values has created a visual language—and accordingly, audience—that is disinterested in the longings of the modern man for communication.
Yashar Salahi’s Macaroni, at Dastan’s, is a good antidote to such concerns. Installed salon-style, the exhibition contains nearly forty obsessive small line drawings and a couple of wire sculptures mimicking the drawings. In each piece, the thirty-six-year-old Salahi illustrates small ideas or comical takes on banal Farsi sentences. The anxious, claustrophobic drawings focus on figures to depict discomfort. In the few works in color, the body is exaggerated to the point of strangeness. In the rest, characters morph and multiply. Deprived of space and forced to unite, they lose their identities. Within its given cultural context, Salahi’s drawings transcend a playful exploration of the body and the social. What ties Salahi’s characters to Iranian history is their reduction to narrative tools and their missing individuality; what makes them contemporary is their longing for identity and their fury over the lack of one. Furthermore, Salahi is equally successful in his treatment of text. In Humanity’s Attire (2014), he borrows from Sa’di Shirazi’s famous poem, “the human body is honored by the essence of humanity / no, this beautiful attire is not sign of humanity” [my translation]. Salahi’s depictions present a suffocating crowd—horridly neutral and staring at the viewer—forced to cover a headless body and hence becoming “humanity attire.” It is a silly joke, but its power lies in its lightness. The significance and mysticism of the country’s classical moral poetry is mocked and nullified by being placed in a contemporary setting. For a moment, through bitter laughter, the artist and the viewer share the absurdity of their situation.
Deep in downtown Tehran, one finds another popular stop on the Friday tours in a traditional Iranian building turned experimental gallery. Ab/Anbar Gallery aims to rid the contemporary of paradox by eliminating the historical. Since its establishment in 2014, it has been “the” place to find world art. Besides providing lectures, screenings, and residencies to foreigners, it has continuously aimed to present the work of non-Iranian—mostly European—artists. Jabberwocky, the group exhibition of seven international artists, is such an attempt. Here the young Iranian curator, Ghazaleh Avarzamani—who met most of the artists while earning her MFA in the UK—begins by explaining the untranslatable title of Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem and her interest in “language, cognition, and meaning.” The artists of Jabberwocky are from many walks of life. Beyond that, the exhibition is uninterested in filling in the gaps for the audience. As a result, beyond the glamourous surface, the works are lost in translation. Beirute, with a mayo blessing (2014), the fascinating project of the Lebanese artist Christine Kettaneh, trying to find her national identity in the popular Brazilian sandwiches called Beirute, is reduced to an entertaining installation of bread. The exhausted viewer, bombarded and belittled by the cultural gap, is forced to rush onward. Next, one heads to an intimate vaulted basement space to find the work of Nooshin Farhid, one of the few native artists of the show. She wants me to go to heaven (2003) is a sixteen-minute video depicting a middle-aged couple. In the first half the woman speaks while a typewriter masks her voice. In the second, the male counterpart explains the premise of the project in English, “the woman’s obsessive voice is extinguished by the sound of the typewriter and the silence of the man is intensified by his gesture.” Neither the idea, nor the presentation of the piece are unique but the male’s inarguably thick Iranian accent captivates, making the most of the audio incomprehensible. Sitting in this old room in the heart of Tehran, surrounded by foreign text, foreign words, and foreign art, listening to this elderly man and his familiar broken English is heartwarming. Meaning is taken away from the great conceptual monologue of this fatherly figure; what remains is the nostalgia of a childish game of imagination in which one is allowed to conjure one’s own meaning.
Finally, in the middle of the city one finds Homa Art Gallery, a relatively traditional gallery without any overt conceptual goals. Inside, the artist Mehdi Hamedi displays a series titled “All That is Solid Melts into Air.” In this absurd and obsessive series, Hamedi explores famous Islamic architecture, its motifs, abstract geometry, and the treatment of sacred text, on the unlikely material of used cigarette cartons. With masterful treatment detail, Hamedi creates tiny but magnificent drawings of such monuments on cigarette boxes. He employs popular Western cigarette brands like Kent and Marlboro with their easily recognizable logos, and the popular Iranian brands 57 and Bahman, which are named after the Shamsi year and month of the revolution and have less iconic designs. The worn-out boxes—pointing to the void of the 200 cigarettes they once held—reference the passage of time. Moreover, each of the astonishingly unique spaces brings to mind mystical Islamic environments: sacred texts have been replaced by the hollow typography of the modern brands. Finally Hamedi adds calligraphy, mimicking the practice of incorporating Farsi poetry, but simply saying “all that is solid melts into air.” Not only are the final results mesmerizing, but they contain the totality of the paradoxes of contemporary Iranian art. They are an absurd ode to the cigarette-toting Friday travelers, free souls in the most ridiculous of situations.
And so the afternoon turns into evening, and the Friday crowd slowly joins the anonymous trail of cars stuck in Tehran’s ever-worsening traffic. The truth is that decades of such events may not provide any answer to these anxieties. Yet the streets of this city will hold the memory of all these aims, and the beauty of their willingness to fail.
One returns to the airport, the doors of the airplane close, the seatbelt sign is turned on, and as the wheels roll on the asphalt, women let their scarves slowly fall. The stubborn desire for freedom reasserts itself with the official announcement that one has left Tehran. The illusion fades.