Contemporary Art in Iran

A Taste for Controversy

Subtle, many-facetted and not without scathing humor – contemporary Iranian art uses a wide range of media and undermines stereotypes, as shown by the example of the art magazine Treibsand. By Amin Farzanefar

Subtle, many-facetted and not without scathing humor – contemporary Iranian art uses a wide range of media and undermines stereotypes, as shown by the example of the art magazine "Treibsand". By Amin Farzanefar

​​Teheran, with its 12 million inhabitants, not only boasts more and more fast food restaurants, pizzerias, soft ice cream chains and Benetton shops, it also has countless bookshops and a total of 200 galleries. In addition, modern art is presented in so-called "off-galleries", in the risk-free sphere of semiprivate circles, as well as on special websites.

This scene has now been explored by two artists. The Swiss Susann Wintsch and the Iranian Parastou Forouhar, who has lived in Germany since 1991, traveled to Iran a total of five times between 2005 and 2006 and now present the art magazine "Treibsand", published as a DVD.

An avant-garde in a time warp, eager for change

"Treibsand – Analyzing while waiting (for time to pass)" combines filmed installations and performances, art videos, photographs, pictures and commentaries by artists, critics and experts.

In contrast to the blare of propaganda from Teheran, the new Iranian art presents itself as subtle and many-faceted. The title provides an initial hint: "Waiting in the time warp" points to the stagnation that confronts an Iranian avant-garde eager for change.

For instance, the video "A Few Centimeters above Sea Level" by Neda Razavipour shows a trapped goldfish – the traditional Iranian symbol of happiness – whose glass container is gradually blackened by ink. Samira Eskandarfar also thematizes the overall confinement, the lack of public space.

​​In her film "Monologue under White Light" a young couple performs increasingly absurd private rituals, ultimately speaking in incomprehensible, Dadaist phrases. And in the photographic work "Bodiless" Mehraneh Atashi shows her approach to the men's "house of strength" (a kind of traditional fitness center that is forbidden for women): the young artist photographs the ritual martial training with chains, wooden shields and heavy clubs indirectly, through a mirror.

Inexorable change

One of the crucial sponsors of this new artistic diversity is Alireza Sami-Azar. As the long-time director of the Teheran "Museum of Contemporary Art" he sent Iranian artists into the west with grants for foreign work stays, thus giving them access to the international art market.

After Ahmadinejad came to power nearly two years ago, he was removed from his position. Nonetheless, he believes that the reform movement initiated by his predecessor Chatami is inexorable:

"This period had more influence on contemporary art than the changes caused by the Islamic Revolution," says Alireza Sami-Azar. "The political about-turn in this period was embedded in a deep-rooted process of cultural change which I believe can no longer be stopped."

Sami-Azar points to an impressive balance: 60 percent of art students are women, and overall women are playing central roles in the young art scene. In many places independent artists have organized themselves, struggling for the right to have a say at the universities as well.

The use of new media in the arts reflects the opening of a once-isolated society that has been taking part on globalization via Internet and satellite dish for some time now.

Critical reflections on the west's image of the Orient

'A Few Centimeters above Sealevel' by Neda Razavipour
Neda Razavipour's video shows a trapped goldfish – the traditional Iranian symbol of happiness – whose glass container is gradually blackened by ink

​​All the same, the young artists' freedom is restricted in a double sense: through the familiar and recently reactivated system of censorship, but also through the expectations of the international art market, which is now looking for talents from the periphery, the Third World, yet with an eye to certain clichés and stereotypes.

In "Treibsand" Iman Afsarian, painter and editor of a Teheran art magazine, describes the actions of the dominant western culture as a neocolonialist hunt for loot that causes Iranian artists to react with the according cynicism: these artists pick up popular western issues – be it freedom, human rights or the headscarf – and load them with ambiguities and symbolism as fodder for hungry curators.

This market functions as long as the fashionably exotic artists practice self-examination or scrutinize the narcissistic west and its view of the "Orient".

The view from inside the well

And it becomes ticklish when they themselves seek to be perceived as subjects… A fitting symbol of the Iran's situation can be found in a video work by Simin Keramati: "The upper edge of the well" is filmed from the perspective of a person who has fallen into a well. On the upper edge of the well the viewer sees a passer-by who calls out for a while in English: "Why don't you jump, jump already". After a while, she moves on – embarrassed, bored or annoyed…

​​"Treibsand" offers many more discoveries. The new Iranian art presented by Parastou Forouhar and Susann Wintsch reveals a diversity of voices, a taste for controversy and an approach to social complexities that is rarely found in other places.

It is neither found in Teheran's official state campaigns, nor in western reporting, with its poverty of social details and context. It is difficult to establish new, vital images in the face of old stereotypes – especially when dealing with Iran.

Amin Farzanefar

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

TREIBSAND [VOLUME 01]: "Analysing while Waiting (For Time To Pass)", ISSN 1662-0577

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