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Attending the opening of internationally well-known Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s comprehensive exhibition on March 7, 2016 at the Tehran Museum of Modern Art (TMoCA), a sense of déjà vu came over me.
In the aftermath of the much anticipated Nuclear Deal, the proud Iranian capital witnessed the arrival of a new horde of foreign dignitaries and businessmen, followed by yet another group of curators, collectors and museum directors from abroad, who had seemingly discovered the immense riches of the Iranian contemporary art world. I wondered what would or could be the effect of this latest invasion on an art scene which, like the majority of the population, experiences severe economic hardship due to the imposed sanctions. There is no doubt that the endemic art scene was never so vibrant, boasting ever more players, galleries, artist-run spaces and independent initiatives. But the local art world seems to hover in a liminal in-between state, were expectations for the future are mixed with forms of anxiety and apprehension. In a flash, the work Des-Integration (2012, video-performance) from Yashar Azar Emdadian sprang to my mind: we see the artist standing on a Persian rug in a public park, and he shaves his nude torso completely. Is the erasure of the bodily marker the ultimate step for an Iranian artist to get accepted by the international, Western-dominated (art) community? Or, on the contrary, does the adherence to an international discourse eventually lead to the loss of the self altogether? I sensed different forms of disorientation and indistinctness in paintings such as Nasser Bakhshi’s series Amalgamation (2015). We see forests of raised arms and hands, perhaps protesting or just celebrating, but for what and to whom?
Almost inevitably two lines of thought came back to me: on the one hand, the interplay between governmental policies, the local and international markets and their subsequent influence on the Iranian art scene; and on the other, the complex relationship of Iran’s art practices with the search for cultural belonging and the desire for an, albeit relative, aesthetic autonomy. Importantly we have to distinguish here the specific art scene in Iran from its large diaspora.
The modern hidden in the mirror
Since the Qajar Dynasty, and the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (who ruled from 1848 to 1896) in particular, Iran witnessed a rapid, top-down imposed modernization −a modernity that was often contested, for many decades, and that symbolizes in a way Iran’s precocious and at the same time tumultuous relationship with the modern. Naser al-Din Shah was instrumental in the introduction of modern photography and painting in Iran. We would like to mention here important figures such as painter Kamal al-Mulk (* 1847-1940), probably the father of modern Iranian painting, and photographers such as Antoin Sevruguin (* 1840?-1933). Especially fascinating to me is Sevruguin's intriguing photo of Naser-al-Din Shah sitting at his desk in the Hall of Mirrors (1890?). In a way, it summarizes Iran’s complex relationship with modernity. In this remarkable photo Sevruguin seems to transpose part of Diego Velázquez famous painting Las Meninas (1656) onto 19th century Iran. Like the Spanish Baroque master, Sevruguin depicts a royal scene, in this case the Qajar King sitting at his desk, whilst including himself also as author within the portrait. But there the comparison ends: in Velázquez’s ensemble portrait the figures of the Spanish King and Queen are reflected in the mirror at the back of the painting, probably hinting at the hidden power relationships and the dominating position of the royal couple which basically stands outside the painting. Instead, Sevruguin pushes the subject of the work, the Qajar King, towards the back of the hall, and leaves an open space in front of the viewer. Strikingly, it is Sevruguin −with his camera− who is reflected in the mirror behind the King. Thus, it is the artist or art itself what is dominating the monarch and the absent viewer. In a sense, I felt that no matter how much modernity and Western-influenced modernism are forced upon a population, the personal and the local view will prevail and the artist will make his own version, add his own interpretation. Since the Qajar, Iran boasted several important art movements where the influence of the government was often instrumental. I refer here, for example, to the famous Saqqa-khaneh movement (established in 1960-62) during the Pahlavi dynasty, where we witnessed a fusion of local traditions and interpretations of Modernism. Subsequently, the different governments of the Islamic Revolution (1977 till now) adopted different positions towards modern and contemporary art, from openly supportive to clearly restrictive. Since 2005, the role of the gallery system and foreign auction houses has increased significantly.
Beyond identity politics
In 2016, the drive, the desire for an artistic self-determination could be overshadowed, again, by the renewed expectations of a culture industry hungry for easy definable identity-based movements. In itself this phenomenon is not new. I witnessed this personally from 2005-2006 onwards, where a number of auction houses and institutions fueled by a group of galleries engineered a form of ‘Iran Boom’ with a host of travelling exhibitions covering large parts of the known world. The fact that most of the participating artists had been working since the late 1990s, and that this ‘non-group’ was only a small part of a very large and multifarious local and diasporic art scene was seldom mentioned. In a way, this small group represented Iran, the region, the beliefs, and their perceived cultural difference was often the only unifying trait or curatorial criterion. I refer here to a generation of artists born mainly in the sixties and seventies that emerged in the second half of the nineties, such as Bita Fayyazi (* 1962), Khosrow Hassanzadeh (* 1963), Sadegh Tirafkan (* 1965-2013), Mehran Mohajer (* 1964), Shadi Ghadirian (* 1974), Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar (* 1977), etc. Several of them participated in the seminal group exhibitions of the TMoCA, often labelled with terms such as "Conceptual Art" or "New Art." It’s this generation of artists that came to the fore during President Seyyed Khatami’s administration (1997-2005). After the traumatic war with Iraq (1980-1988) and the international boycott against the country, this was the first generation of artists that had the freedom to experiment and create overtures to the rest of the world and the West in particular. This specific moment in time remains for me the most intense, exciting, experimental, and even unfinished object-based phase in recent Iranian contemporary art. But this situation changed just a few years later: I refer to the impact of the influential Christie's auction in Dubai (2006) or the many touring exhibitions, mainly in the West. Hence the global art market caught up with the blossoming Iranian art scene, and its relatively probationary and laboratory condition was partially interrupted and even reoriented. After the international art market's apparent ‘discovery’ of Chinese, Indian and other national and ethno-cultural movements in the nineties, it was Iran’s turn. The voracious hunger for easy recognizable, and thus marketable, artworks that confirm a set of preconceived, often Orientalist visions about Iran, Islam and related forms of extremism, the situation of women, etc., led to a proliferation of essentialist ethnic-based group shows. The repercussions on a number of more recent art practices were alarming, where the often playful or analytical and critical positions towards local cultural heritage and the orientalist stereotypes, gave way to a jubilant embrace of identity-based subjects and motifs.
So what’s next? A number of artworks where elements of absence, disappearance or even dismemberment are at the heart of a practice in which experimentalism is kept alive −instead of an overabundant play with the glossy and the slick− stand out.
I recall works such as Where the heads of the renowned rest (2009) by photographer Mohammad Ghazali (* 1980). We recognize views of Teheran as seen from the fleeting and empty gaze of a number of statues of well-known figures. Then, there are the installations and related interactive performances by Neda Razavipour (* 1969) such as Self-service (2010-2016), where viewers are invited to cut parts of their own Persian and Iranian heritage. In her most recent performances she piles and shatters elements of her own biography. And finally Barbad Golshiri’s (* 1982) most recent works presented at the Curriculum Mortis exhibition (2015), a set of astonishing tombstones and grave markers of people, artists, writers and poets dear to the artist. Golshiri operates as a bibliotaph: below the tombstones he hides references, scriptures, writings, all waiting to be remembered, to be dug up. His works activate curiosity, memory and fight amnesia.
Belgian art historian and curator. He curated exhibitions for the MSK & SMAK Museums (Ghent), Gynaika (Antwerp), CC Bruges, and works freelance. He is currently one of the curators of the Bruges Triennial for Contemporary Art and Architecture.