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Contemporary art from Iran has so far played hardly any role in the perception of the Western art business – except where it fits into the canon of images of media reporting on the Middle East. This postcolonial misunderstanding in the dialog of cultures is what interested the Zurich art historian Susann Wintsch when, in 2005, she set off for Teheran for the first time to do research for the DVD magazine she published, "Treibsand", which could translate as "shifting sands". She wanted to experience on site how artists there work, how they organize themselves, where they exhibit, and above all where they see their place in Iranian society and in the international art business. She intentionally proceeded without a clear strategy and let herself be carried by coincidences and recommendations. Wintsch wanted to remain open for new experiences and perspectives – and so, after weeks of research, she found entry to the little scene that has been exchanging ideas and experiences for quite some time in off-scene spaces and living rooms, outside the purview of established galleries and museums.
"Treibsand" introduces this current scene in a fascinating sequence of portraits, work presentations, and interviews. At the center of the 31 segments are two themes: the mentality of waiting and the gaze of the West, each of which, in its own specific way, shapes everyday consciousness in Iran. On the one hand, as Wintsch writes in the booklet accompanying "Treibsand", current societal and political circumstances do not permit any radical break with the conventions of customary life; on the other hand, that is precisely what the West expects from art in Iran. Together, that creates a singular tension that many artists thematize as one of the central production conditions of their work.
An impressive example of this is provided by the never-realized project by Soghra Zare Aneghezi (* 1960). A few years ago, the artist set up her studio in a former gynecological practice and found old files on patients there. From this material, she wanted to reconstruct the biographies of people who were born in this community in the same year as she was, thus sketching an intimate picture of her own generation’s wishes and hopes. Without success, for the tracks were lost in vagueness: "A Generation Which Cannot Speak" (2005). Whereas Ahmad Morshedlou (* 1973) translates this silence into large-format paintings that show vulnerable bodies in claustrophobic spaces and interpret the waiting and speechlessness as a result of latent violence, Nazgol Ansarinia (* 1979) circles them as a quiet site of memory in his video "Living Room" (2005). The latter shows nothing but a white wall on which the soiled margins left by picture frames, cracks in the plaster, and other barely perceptible traces of life in extreme slow motion appear and vanish again – a suggestive, poetic work on the experience of a fleeting present that stretches into infinity in the state of waiting. A work by Mehran Mohajer (* 1964), "Undistributed Packages" (2005), shows the high degree to which the option of autonomous activity is still open in this seeming standstill. It invokes the utopian potential of the writings stored in dusty cellars, writings brought out by independent publishing houses founded in the reform phase of the Iranian regime and later dissolved. Waiting itself becomes the goal here. It does not mark depression, but, as Wintsch puts it, "the willingness to remain and be on site when the right occasion comes".
That this does not mean the moment when the international art market discovers Iran as the exotic trend of the coming season is made clear by the statements of the artists gave when Wintsch asked them about the critical foundations of their work. Khosrow Hassanzadeh (* 1963), whose silk-screen series "The Terrorist" (2005) formulates a marked criticism of the West’s visual resentment of the Islamic world and at the same time demands the return of the right to self-presentation, tells a short episode of a failed attempt to realize a similar project in the opposite direction in Holland. The planned work "The Orientalist" was to portray Europeans from the Iranian perspective – in the light of the East’s resentment, to put a fine point on it. But the Dutch curators rejected it.
No wonder, says the artist and author Imam Afsarian (* 1975) in his statement. He says the West has no interest in Iranian artists’ analysis of the culture of the Occident. Afsarian, too, has often been confronted with curious curators from the West. And he has learned from that confrontation. "We know what we have to give them so that they can go home with the good feeling of having discovered something brand new – namely us," he says: a bit of politics in art, women’s rights, Islam, oppression, censorship. "And then they load up their ships with junk and kitsch, and after China was the hype of their market for a few years, now it is Iranian art – or what they take to be Iranian art." Afsarian calls this neocolonialism: an asymmetry of the gaze that massively hinders any independent development of contemporary positions in Iran and drives them out of the focus of attention. Between the international market and the official fostering of an art fettered by tradition or by misunderstood Modernism, little scope of action remains in Iran for self-confident contemporary artists.
Susann Wintsch took this criticism very seriously for "Treibsand". Instead of setting off as a trend scout in search of spectacular positions in unexplored territory, her gripping, almost two-and-a-half-hour travel journal traces very calmly the potentials for action that the structures of the local scene harbors. A careful and intelligent approach in the best sense of the term.
Art critic and graphic designer, based in Freiburg i.Br., Germany. Contributes regularly to the online art magazine Regioartline.org.
Analysing while Waiting (For Time To Pass)
Contemporary Art in Tehran
Susann Wintsch (with Parastou Forouhar)
With works and statements by: Iman Afsarian, Haleh Anvari, Nazgol Ansarinia, Mehraneh Atashi, Mahmoud Bakhshi-Moakhar, Shahrzad Darafsheh, Samira Eskandarfar, Farhad Fozouni, Nina Ghaffari, Amirali Ghasemi, Barbad Golshiri, Arash Hanaei, Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Ghazaleh Hedayat, Elahe Heidari, Behnam Kamrani, Simin Keramati , Khosro Khosravi/Farid Jafari, Sohrab Mahdavi, Mehran Mohajer, Ahmad Morshedlou, Ruyin Pakbaz, Neda Razavipour / Shahab Fotouhi, Hamed Sahihi, Alireza Sami Azar, Rozita Sharaf Jahan, Jinoos Taghizadeh, Sadegh Tirafkan and Soghra Zare Anaghezi
ISSN 1662-0577, 143 Min, PAL, 4:3, SFr. 60.- / Euro 40.- / USD 40.-