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Rose Issa
The Fabric of Life and Art
by Rose Issa
Real Fictions

Whatever comes, comes from a need, a sore distress, a hurting want. (Rumi) (1)
There is an Iranian saying, In Niz Migozarad, which means “This too shall pass”, suggesting that nothing is permanent. It comes from a deeply rooted spiritual belief that everything we have is temporary, be it power, youth, wealth, beauty and love, or grief, poverty and despair. This attitude is strongly reflected in the Iranian psyche, expressed since medieval times in the poetry of Ferdowsi, Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and Khayyam. Adopting the attitude that nothing lasts can bring a positive outlook on life, however, one must live in the moment, always alert to changes in circumstance. It creates a mental space where we can reflect on absolute time (Zaman), past, present or future and our condition (Hal), past, present or desired future. This reflection mirrors reality and possibility and encourages modesty; humbled, one’s situation is put into perspective and a survival strategy is found. The programme of visual art and film at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt does not claim to represent a country: the participating artists are not spokespersons for Iran. It is not about what it means to be Iranian, nor is it an Iranian show. It is about what artists in and outside Iran want to say today, and how they are saying it.

A new artistic language and its inspiration

Despite strict restrictions before and after the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian artists have continuously tested the boundaries of what can be said or shown, exploring loopholes in the system. Though faced with censorship and arrest, financial constraints, isolation, a weak infrastructure, poor communications and minimal access to information, new strategies for artistic expression were found through brave negotiation and experimentation.
The challenge of creating and constantly refreshing this dynamic new language has been so fascinating that even Iranian artists outside Iran practise within these limitations – New York based artist, Shirin Neshat, veils her subjects and thereby adheres to the Islamic code of representation. By creating a simple, humanistic means of expression which holds great power, such artists transcend restrictions through metaphor, poetry and symbol. Key elements from Iran’s visual tradition are used, such as carpets, veils or street iconography and subject matter is often sourced from historical or true life stories concerning women and children’s rights, social and legal injustice, political upheaval and the natural and domestic environment. From film, video, photography, painting and installations, emerges a style that blurs reality and fiction. Feature films resemble documentaries and documentaries seem like fiction. From artists working outside Iran this language is more conceptual (Armajani, Mahdavi or Tabrizian), from within Iran, more metaphoric. Whatever the method of portrayal, all the contradictory elements of Iran’s culturally schizophrenic life provide a rich source of material: life is integrated into the fabric of art.

Routes of collaboration and communication

Your real “country“ is where you’re heading not where you are. (Rumi)
This programme is about the geographical and cultural paths that Iranian artists follow: some have left their homeland (most of the film-makers and photographers); some return to their country of origin for inspiration (Farmanara, Ghazel, Moshiri, Mehrjui); some live outside Iran but are inspired by events within it (Neshat, Satrapi, Shahroudi, Tabrizian); others live abroad and challenge western concepts (Armajani, Mahdavi, Shahbazi) or navigate between Iran and their adopted country (Abbas). The programme is also about aesthetic choices, whether inspired by one’s own story or other people’s histories, through a dialogue with both the past and the present.
In Iran, artists operate with limited resources – there are very few professional galleries and institutions with the necessary infrastructure to launch an artist’s career. Yet, these restrictions provide a focus and create a spirit of solidarity, forcing artists to collaborate, to create a new forum of exchange for themselves, even in cyberspace, (,,, gooya. com, or iranheritage. com). Collaboration also creates artistic oases: outside Iran, Shirin Neshat works mostly with Iranian friends, the SHAHRZAD collective operates between Zurich and Tehran, whilst, inside Iran, Khosrow Hassan Zadeh often works in association with his artistic coterie, and Abbas Kiarostami has a circle of young protégés who, themselves, mentor others. This collaboration, like this exhibition, is part of a survival strategy, pooling together the energies of like-minded individuals. Artistic solidarity also helps to resolve awkward situations, allowing artists to produce work that reaches international audiences even when public exhibitions and screenings in Iran are restricted or forbidden. For example, recent films by Kiarostami (“Ten“, 2002), Jalili (“Abjad“, 2003), and Panahi (“Crimson Gold“, 2003) were made with overseas co-producers, so, despite having no authorisation for public screening in Iran, the films were shown internationally and the resulting satellite TV broadcasts, videos and DVDs made them accessible to Iranian audiences.
However, international exposure has not led these artists to cater to a western public, as their critics claim; instead, foreign recognition has given them some protection, access to the outside world, more room for negotiation with the authorities and the power to test the limits of censorship yet again, each time expanding the boundaries of expression. Through this new forum of communication, which the philosopher Daryush Shayegan attributes to a common poetic ground, and the poet and critic Mir-Ahmad Mir-Ehsan to the notion of Khala’ (emptiness), the voices of Iranian artists are being heard, and post-revolutionary isolation has been destroyed. (2) With refreshing freedom and inventiveness, Iranian artists today explore and expose the complex paradoxes inherent in a society that, although based on traditional values and archaic religious laws, cannot escape modernism.

From Persepolis to Personapolis

This mirror inside me shows… I can’t say what, but I can’t not know. (Rumi)
Whether documenting key historical moments, courageously depicting the public and private self, celebrating pop culture, sculpting pure concepts or exploring the poetics of art, the participating artists show the viewer how to transform life into art. Three photographers – Mitra Tabrizian and Abbas, who live in Europe, and the late Kaveh Golestan, who lived in Iran – capture the essence of injustice and of dramatic, pivotal states of change.
The selection of black and white photographs by Abbas from the “Iran Diary“ series covers thirty years of Iranian history (1971–2003) documented for the Magnum agency. We show Abbas’ portrayal of the Shah’s reign, epitomised in his set of photographs of the notorious celebrations at Persepolis, where international artists and heads of state were flown in for a glamorous event in celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian civilisation. The extravagance of the event and the huge criticism it elicited, came to symbolise the start of the rebellion that heralded the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In addition, Abbas’ more recent images of life in Iran are presented. These are mostly of youth culture – pictures made after his emotional return visit to his country after 17 years of self-imposed exile (1980–1997).
The award-winning photojournalist Kaveh Golestan chose to remain in his home country throughout its years of turmoil, documenting the darker side of pre- and post-revolutionary Iran in his reportage photography. He was always moved by the plight of the underclass, the underprivileged, the victims of war and society. His photographs, taken, in the early Seventies, of Tehran’s red-light district (Shahre-no), or of victims of the Iran-Iraq war, mostly children, all reflect his desire to “make people look at what’s happening”. Golestan died tragically last year, blown up by a landmine, while filming the invasion of Iraq for the bbc network. Both his place of death, Kurdistan, and the manner in which he died – by a landmine – typified the subject matter that he had covered for many years.
On a different scale, Mitra Tabrizian’s photomontage, “Surveillance” (1990), is a panoramic assembly of three key periods in Iranian contemporary history. It illustrates the role of the ‘west‘ and the clergy in Iranian politics and its serious implications for women’s identity. In the background of this panoramic scene, which reveals the continuous cycle of ambition and deceit, the demonstrators persistently show signs of resistance to the different powers.
On the left, a meeting in 1953 symbolises how the CIA, under British supervision, orchestrated a coup d’état in Iran, (Operation Ajax), to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, who wanted to nationalise Iranian oil. The Iranian clergy, who saw Mossadegh’s democratic leanings as western in concept, supported the British
plot to eradicate his government. However, the British miscalculated the extent of America’s ambition, as it promptly assumed control of the Iranian oil industry. The image on the right illustrates a different handshake from 1979, that which brought the clergy to power. American policy was divided between supporting the Shah or the clergy. The Americans chose the clergy. The Left, which favoured deposing the Shah, joined forces with the religious Right. This time the Americans miscalculated the extent of the clergy’s ambition.
The central image encapsulates events in 1982, when post-revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist discourses led to the rediscovery of Islam as a new national identity. On the verge of civil war, with the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) killing thousands of young men, resistance to fundamentalism had to go underground. This time it was the democratic Left and Liberals, who had joined forces with the clergy, who miscalculated the extent of the clergy’s ambition. That year, Iranian women lost many of their rights: family protection law was discarded, the veil became compulsory, and co-education was banned.

Domestic and urban disturbances

The changes in women’s status and how this affected Iranian women is explored with humour in the work of two young female artists, Ghazel, who now lives in France, and Shadi Ghadirian, who lives in Tehran. In contrast the two young male artists, Peyman Hooshmandzadeh and Mehran Mohajer, are fascinated by Iranian urban landscapes.
Ghazel’s witty video series, “Me“ (1997–2003), continually jumps from indoor to outdoor activity in a series of short haiku-like self portraits, lasting from one second to two minutes. Coming from a privileged background, Ghazel portrays herself water skiing, motorcycling, swimming, diving, riding, sunbathing and ballet dancing, all whilst wearing the chador imposed on her in her teens , which renders her completely out of place in these activities. She left Iran in 1985 but continued to visit her country of origin. Her work finds the humour in tragi-comic situations such as solitude, frustration, claustrophobia, and in the desire for recognition. Her familiarity with foreign languages, shown in texts running across the bottom of these video diaries, adds a further dimension to her self-parody. She insists on keeping mistakes in the texts, to reflect her multiple imperfect identities and her foreignness both at home and abroad.
Shadi Ghadirian’s series, “Domestic Life“ (2002), is shown as a photo-assemblage. Here women in chadors are rendered anonymous, their faces covered with kitchen utensils. Ghadirian was inspired to make this domestic series after her marriage, when her family, in-laws and neighbours kept giving her equipment to improve her domestic skills (she has little interest in cooking). The faceless women wear the lightweight, patterned and colourful chadors that are mostly worn at home at prayer times. The objects covering them – a teapot, grater, meat cleaver, iron, broom – look both sinister and ridiculous. The images are repeated and casually arranged to form one large tableau that continues Ghadirian’s witty parody of expectations and restrictions. Her fascination with the paradoxical life of women in Iran today, shown mostly behind doors, is a spirited wink at authority, showing the impossibility of restricting a person in a situation that can be saved by humour.
Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, in contrast, is a keen photographer of the details of life in open, public spaces. He has extensively photographed men in traditional gymnasiums, tea houses and Tehran’s streets – his series, “Hands and Belts“ (1998) involved stopping male passers-by to take pictures of their leather belts, hairy hands, flashy rings and innocent poses. Through these small details, the sitters reveal their insecurities or confident machismo.
Less concerned with matters of the street and more structured within the semantics of photography is Mehran Mohajer, who has recently been photographing stills from Iranian TV programmes, advertisements and satellite broadcasts (Satellite television is forbidden by law, though present in most homes and hotels, even those owned by the government). His more recent diptychs, “Traditional Photo Studios“ (2003), with its mixed backdrops of saints and gardens, are of the photo studios in Mashhad, a pilgrim city infamous for its recent serial killings (also captured in the mixed media work of Hassan Zadeh). These images are a colourful reminder of a place that was once the centre of attraction for many religious tourists who came to have their pictures taken in front of backdrops of religious icons and Shi’ite saints and imams.

Biographical and autobiographical diaries

Khosrow Hassan Zadeh has a dark take on contemporary Iranian life. His series of large monotypes, “Faheshe / Prostitutes“, (2002) pays homage to the victims of the Mashhad serial killer. The images are taken from police portraits of local destitutes / prostitutes that were then published in newspapers – photographs that facilitated the murder of these women by a self-appointed moral “avenger”, Said Hanaii. Considered a hero after his arrest, the killer’s surprised reaction at the judges sentence acts as a testimony to his belief in these acts of atrocity. Prior to his execution, he and his supporters continued to expect the government to show leniency, believing him to be a hero for maintaining moral values. This is further contextualized by Maziar Bahari with the chilling documentary “And Along Came a Spider”, 2002.
Once a Basidji, or volunteer soldier, Hassan Zadeh recognised the distorted ideology behind the criminal’s motivation. Hassan Zadeh, who is inspired by both his sur- roundings and by real events, is now a self-taught artist and poet, with a fascinating life story that has been the subject of various documentaries by the bbc and Arte.
In a much more schematic narrative style, the artists Parastou Forouhar and Marjane Satrapi illustrate how interpreting imagery and graphic novels can address difficult, controversial subject matter that is hard to express through more realistic depictions. Delicately and subversively, they share their personal experiences of the politics of identity in a startling way.
Parastou Forouhar’s installation from the series “Bemusterung” (2004) designed with stylized, decorative, small geometrical motives of instruments of torture is taken from the portfolio of samples of textile designs that were first shown in to 2003 at her solo exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. Her work is closely related to the death of her activist parents, Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar, who were brutally murdered in their home in Iran in November 1998. Her parents, advocates of Dr Mossadegh’s policies in the 1950s, had fought against foreign exploitation and were arrested and imprisoned several times by the Shah. After the Islamic revolution, her parents continued to campaign for the separation of state and religion. Their horrific murder, which was followed by a series of killings of dissident intellectuals in Iran (a period known as qatl-haye zanjiri or chain killings), was the inspiration for Forouhar’s video works and wallpaper illustrations, where sinister scenes of torture are drawn on a merry pink background.
In the enlarged comic strips (2004) from “Persepolis“, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, humorous, outspoken autobiographical memoirs of the artist are illustrated in comic-book format. With irony and tenderness, her funny, powerful and heartbreaking images in stark black and white, tell the story of her life from childhood to adulthood, growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, experiencing war-torn Iran and living in exile. It is a life entwined with the history of her country and paints a portrait of daily life in Iran with all its bewildering contradictions between home and public life. It illustrates how acts of defiance, however minor, take place under totalitarian regimes and how the human spirit triumphs in the face of oppression.

The opulence of modesty

Making a significant decision about one’s personal life is the inspiration behind Shahram Entekhabi’s monumental installation “Kilid” (2004); a huge key made of aluminium and red, green and white lightbulbs (the colours of the Iranian flag). The key symbolises the factors that propelled him to leave Iran in the early 1980s – at the age for young males to commence military service. “Kilid” relates to the period of mobilisation of the youth during the Iran-Iraq war when adolescent soldiers were ordered to clear minefields. They would be given a small plastic key to unlock the gates of paradise after dying a martyr’s death. For Entekhabi, the key came to symbolise his escape from death and the life he chose in exile as an architect and video artist. His use of lightbulbs is a nostalgic reminder of public spaces in Iran that are illuminated to celebrate various events and ceremonies, be it weddings, national
holidays, or a martyr’s memorial day.
SHAHRZAD, a collective founded in 2001 by a group of friends – the photographer Shirana Shahbazi, the writer Tirdad Zolghadr and graphic designer Manuel Krebs have re-created “Jamaran” (2004), a facsimile of a display case in the former apartment of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Khomeini museum in Tehran, in which his few personal belongings are displayed. shahrzad works with icons and familiar objects and figures, presenting them in a new light, through simple and unexpected methods of recontextualisation. By merely ‘moving’ the relics in question from one museum to another, and from one state cultural institution to another, a radical shift in perception is created. By reproducing the perfume bottle, the walking stick, the robe and the Qur’an that were allegedly Khomeini’s only belongings (proof of his modesty and religiosity), shahrzad raises questions about aura and value, about relics and mass-produced objects, about iconography and documentation. They say of their work, “It underlines the links between representation as Darstellung, as aestheticized portrayal, and representation as Vertretung, as powerplay or political substitution.”
Farhad Moshiri, like the majority of the artists selected, is at ease in many media including installations, painting, video and photography. “Living Room Ultra Mega X” (2003–04) is an installation of a bed, four armchairs, a sofa, two chandeliers and side tables in gilded, fake Louis XV style, with ghetto blasters placed like cushions along the walls in the Eastern manner. A vitrine full of gilded objects, “Golden Love Super Deluxe”, contains everything from mobile phones to toys and decorative objects. Moshiri’s parody of the nouveau riche taste for gold and gaudy objects is also full of physical pleasure. His work is not a criticism, but rather a funny observation of consumerism; how something garish and pretentiously precious exudes an aura of wealth, no matter what is underneath. His website of 150 slides of “Post Islamic Revolution Buildings of Tehran” (2004), with its Roman façades mixed with a cornucopia of other “isms” also reflects the mindset of the nouveaux riches and the colour of their social status.

Sculpting pure concepts

The taste of opulence is also reflected in Ali Mahdavi’s work, which reveals the marriage of the ornament and the macabre. His installations of five sculptures “I II III IV V” (2000) representing the Pope, the Cardinal, the Priest, the Abbess and the Nun, were made in collaboration with Monsieur Pearl, the famous Parisian corset maker. Mummified dogs and cats dressed in rich papal and ecclesiastical robes, embroidered with pearls and semi-precious stones, turn slowly on musical boxes around the central figure of the Pope.
Mahdavi fled Iran with his brothers and sisters as a young child, crossing the border by night disguised as a Kurd. While studying painting and photography in Paris, he became impressed by Christian liturgy and admired, with somewhat mixed feelings, neo-Gothic literature and films. A well-known fashion photographer and ex-model, he has persistently explored the cult of beauty and the ambiguity of aesthetic diktats. The tortured body fascinates him, and he often depicts his self-portrait with instruments of torture made of gold. “The pursuit of perfection”, from which he suffered, is the basis of all his work.
Perfectly executed concepts are the domaine of the sculptor Siah Armajani who has blurred the boundaries between art and architecture for more than forty years. Armajani created sculptural installations for public spaces, experimenting with the concept of community development. “The Glass Room for an Exile No. 2” (2003), Armajani’s sculpture for this exhibition, differs from his previous work as you cannot enter this particular room. Enclosed by glass, a material whose transparency fascinates him, the room exists only for its beauty, and even the tilted mirror is positioned so as not to reflect any activity. Previous works invited audience participation, but now Armajani says he is disillusioned and “does not believe in the sanctity of place” any more, because, through savage capitalism, “the canon of art, and the aura of the viewer has been destroyed”. Contrary to many artists in the show, he does not believe in self-exploration and tries to erase all personal self-expression in his work. A recluse, he “loves people, but conceptually” and likes to live his life “without any trace”. For him “exile is a state of being… nobody goes back… there is no place to go.” He insists that “one has to be stubborn, unreasonable”, and thus shares a common language with artists living in Iran. Above all, he concludes that “the language of public art should be a poetic language.”

The poetics of beauty

A poet and installation artist living in Berlin, Farkhondeh Shahroudi, has been elaborating on the concept of the garden as Paradise for many years. Using hand woven carpets, with their motifs of stylised blossoms, buds or bushes, she has created a site-specific installation for the exhibition “Garden / Bagh” (2004). By covering the listed concrete columns at the entrance of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt with handwoven carpets which, in Persian tradition, represent a garden, itself the symbol of paradise (behesht) and the afterlife, and by taking this man-made garden outside she puts a twist on her idea of Garden in a Garden, reflecting Shahroudi’s notion of Paradise being the recreation of beauty and one’s homeland in exile, no matter the scale.
Two artists who have attracted the greatest international public and critical acclaim in recent years are Shirin Neshat, who works in New York, and Abbas Kiarostami, who works in Tehran. They share the taste for a Zen-like simplification and efficiency, in form and in words.
The subject of several major solo exhibitions in the usa and Europe, Shirin Neshat first became celebrated for her “Women of Allah” series (1993–1997), where she inscribed photographs of herself with texts by the 20th-century feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad. In the past seven years she has moved from photography through twofold projection film installations to short films and is currently preparing her first feature-length film, ”Women without Men” which, like “Tooba” (2002), was inspired by contemporary writer Shahrnush Parsipur’s novels. “Turbulent” (1998) is part of a video trilogy that Neshat realised with a team of close friends and colleagues, which includes ”Rapture” (1999) and “Fervor” (2000). Neshat’s art, which has a distinctively stark and minimal style, refers to the social, cultural and religious code of Iranian society. Most of her work focuses on the polarity and dynamic between men and women in Islamic societies. In “Turbulent” the singer Sussan Deyhim performs an abstract solo without words to an empty auditorium while her male counterpart (the voice of the legendary Shahram Nazeri, mimed on screen by the film-maker Shoja Azari) sings Rumi to an audience of men. Neshat uses familiar symbols such as the veil, and strong contrasts – black and white, picture and script – to challenge perceptions of contemporary Islam, within the tools allowed in Iran.
Abbas Kiarostami’s video installation, films, photographs, paintings, poems and theatre work, all portrayed with poetic modesty, reflect the minimalist style that the artist has persistently followed, demonstrating how very private thoughts and visions can be expressed in public with great poetry and daring. His recent venture into theatre, “Ta’ziyeh” (his version of a popular Iranian Passion play), performed in Italy in the summer of 2003, showed the ever-inventive Kiarostami demonstrating to the ‘western’ public the essential importance of such plays – their effect on the audience. While the Italian audience watched the drama unfold, projected onto six on-stage screens were films of an Iranian audience reacting with great emotion to the same play. His most recent work “Five Long Takes” (2003) brings this language to its Zen-like conclusion: one still camera, human characters replaced by firstly animals, then objects, and then total darkness, except for the reflection of the moon on a lagoon. Kiarostami is a man of few words, whose sharp critical mind is full of suggestions, inciting public participation or reflection, encouraging the viewer into listening and watching: “I don’t mind if people fall asleep”!
Neshat and Kiarostami’s visual and narrative style have come to epitomise the unique politics and poetics of Iran’s new aesthetic language, one that forms a bridge between the public in Iran with its diaspora communities, and that also leads a non-Iranian audience to greater understanding and appreciation of contemporary Iranian aesthetics.
What emerges in the work of the Iranian artists in this exhibition is a sense of detachment, playfulness, longing and love for a country whose history, rich in poetry, has engrained in them an acute sense of observation and patience. Their visual language mirrors society’s flaws and dreams, challenges social realities, and assumes the shape and colours of life with its new patterns of engagement. Reflecting on the fabric of life, this exhibition therefore celebrates, through these far-reaching waves of artistry, an ocean of creative energy.

1 The Rumi quotations are taken from: “The Essential Rumi”, translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Harper, San Francisco 1995
2 Cf. their essays in the first part of this book