Exhibitions of progressive new Iranian art have flourished over the last several years, in commercial galleries in the Middle East and in diasporic centers like New York and London. The most recent major contribution to this ongoing introduction is Iranian Arts Now at Cité International des Arts in Paris until July 24. Though the emergent profile of contemporary Iranian art has been supported by dealers like Leila Heller in New York and the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, broader public exposure is being facilitated by museum exhibitions, and notable ones include Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum in 2009 and a current exhibition, Contemporary Iranian Art from the Permanent Collection, at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
Iranian art has also been secured firmly in broad scope exhibitions that showcase art from the Middle East more generally. Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, curated by Fereshteh Daftari for the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006, posed an investigation into the problematic usage of the term “Islamic” when describing and categorizing works by recent artists from the Middle East, only to be criticized for ignoring overtly political art and its critique in a heady post-9/11 atmosphere. Whether or not such criticism was warranted toward Daftari’s curatorial directives, it does make apparent unfair expectations upon Iranian artists, or any artist from the Middle East, to supply political commentary for Euro-American viewers.
That expectation, and that of educating the public about Islam or Middle Eastern cultures, often denies a more nuanced understanding of artistic and cultural perspectives in favor of works that placate audience assumptions. In an exhibition of works co-selected by a powerhouse group of Iranian curators that include Heller and Daftari and represent more than sixty artists, viewers are given a broad, unthematized overview. Indeed, the breadth and scope of Iranian Art Now seeks to present works that are both politically charged and highly experimental.
Artists working within Iran are producing works of great technological skill and conceptual acuity, noticeably in place of strong political content. This does not mean that by contrast the diasporic artists solely imbue their work with politically motivated issues. However, artists within Iran must be careful in broaching political content, and this was clear at last summer’s Venice Biennale. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a participant in the Biennale since 2003, and last year’s pavilion, occupying a floor of the Palazzo Malipiero on the Grand Canal, featured some striking work that focused more on national identity and traditional art influences than an address of world issues where the country figures noticeably at the current moment.
The gallery of Cité Internationale des Arts is a large venue of five floors, and the curatorial focus of Iranian Art Now has been divided by medium, where performance, photography, and video figure prominently. It is a testament to the exhibition’s organizers that politics and criticism are not the only content. However, Arash Fayez, Azadeh Akhlaghi, and Saba Alizadeh are three promising new artists whose art powerfully focuses on politics and societal issues. In the series My Expired Utopia, Fayez (Teheran) places small polaroid shots of sites that have been physically or metaphorically marred by human events since the 1979 Revolution. Placed next to their aerial maps, with streets richly lined in red to mark the location of these histories, the polaroid as an outdated medium emphasizes the dissipating collective memory of the lost potentials of these sites.
Akhlaghi (Australia) inserts herself into large-scale history photographs, teeming with actors who reenact powerful moments in the history of Iran since the beginning of the twentieth century. Like vibrantly colored film stills they cinematically provide a narrative of historical realities that may not be known to either Iranians or an outside audience, such as the government assassination of a family during the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1907). Alizadeh’s (Teheran) photographic series, Light and Soil, lends an ambiguous depiction of violence with projections of pale light onto a surface in a domestic room. A photograph of a bed with crumpled sheets below an open window reveals upon some inspection a cadaver. Blood stains visible, there is no indication of crime or cause, but that a peaceful domesticity has been irretrievably altered, a subtle hint toward the dissolution of public and private under Shari’a law.
Both Akhlaghi and Alizadeh use their own bodies in the photograph, and this intermediate positioning between the viewer and object follows in works by video and performance artists. There was much buzz the night of the opening reception around Amir Baradaran’s performance piece Marry Me to the End of Love, which could also be viewed via live stream on the web. A witty exploration of temporary marriage, Baradaran invited attendees to “marry” him for the length of a few minutes. Under Islamic law, the only proper situation for sex is for procreation and under marriage. Temporary marriage (Sigheh), colloquially known as “pleasure marriage,” allows couples a loophole; however, it is historically disadvantageous for women, whose virginity is highly valued. Further, only divorced or widowed women can request a temporary marriage, unlike men who can request it at any time. There is current controversy over public support of temporary marriage in Iran, which is seen by some as an arcane custom. However, divorced couples take advantage of the edict, securing temporary marriage permits so that they can, for instance, travel together more freely. A gay artist, Baradaran “married” people of varying ages, orientations, and gender, subverting an institution that demarcates bodily desires and reinforces hierarchies of gender and sexuality.
The video selections were also largely performative in nature, and swaying toward technological innovation over specific content. Perhaps the youngest artist in the exhibition, Niloufar Zolfaghari includes the piece he completed for his undergraduate work, Just a Reminder, which shows a black and white close-up of an eye being sewn shut with the help of artful editing. The task is set to a traditional, popular song in Iran about national identity. Similarly, Golnaz Esmaili’s piece Distortion shows a close-up of her eye under running water. These brief yet executed works use the body ambiguously enough to encompass both political readings and the very personal emotions that artists of any nation often excavate. Iranian Arts Now may not give new audiences a concise and seamless understanding of what characterizes contemporary art from Iran, but in today’s global art climate the expectation of strict continuity along the lines of nationalism is a bygone project. One is left, however, impressed by the galvanizing energy and ambition among Iranian artists that doesn’t seem to be decelerating any time soon.