"Philosophers' Beds" – an Exhibition by Gloria Zein

Taking the Bed to Tehran

Over the past two years, the Berlin artist Gloria Zein has been meeting with ten philosophers to discuss the topic of "the bed" – and the issues of waking and sleeping, seduction and love. What emerged was quite enough material for an exhibition, and it is now showing in Tehran. Cordula Echterhoff reports

Gloria Zein (Photo: Cordula Echterhoff)
Gloria Zein presents her "Philosophers' Beds" in Tehran

​​Shortly before the start of the exhibition, the participants experienced a sudden shock. Instead of the edited presentation text, the uncorrected English version was printed. The Berlin concept artist quickly reached for a carpet knife and cut out the undesired words. A gaping rectangular hole was left in the text where the word "orgy" once stood.

It is a form of preemptive self-censorship. Better to take out in advance those passages that could be frowned upon by the authorities than have to face calling off the whole exhibition, explains the artist. The exhibition must undergo a "morality inspection" before the vernissage in the Tehran Artists' House is allowed to go ahead. It is certainly not uncomplicated to present one's work in Tehran.

Concepts to arrange one's life

Bed for Ludwig Schwarte (Photo: www.gloria-zein.com)
Each of the beds represents Gloria Zein's understanding of a philosopher's viewpoint

​​Over the past two years, Gloria Zein has met with ten philosophers from all over the world and spoken with them about the concept of the bed – and on the associated themes of waking and sleeping, consciousness and the loss of consciousness, seduction and love, and the private and the public.

She wanted to know what ideas the philosophers associated with the bed and what concepts it can offer individuals to arrange their lives. She built a bed for every philosopher – approximately 30 by 15 centimeters large, accompanied by a drawing and a short text.

What resulted were extremely differing beds, now lit up on white plinths. For the Iranian philosopher Simon Farid O'Liai she built a cable bed. The mattress is a black mesh into which numerous electric wires are woven.

In a search for contact, the mattress looms out over its pedestal. The bed offers the philosopher the opportunity to seek out common bonds during the night, writes Gloria Zein. This is because everything is linked with everything else and nothing exists alone for itself, says the Heidegger specialist.

Right next to it is a bed made of cement, offering a solidly anchored mast in a world of continuous change. Across from it is the "multiple bed of encounters" – an oversized mattress with room for quite a few people.

Universal validity and cultural differences

A large crowd arrived for the vernissage. Here in the Artists' House, things are considerably more relaxed than what one usually sees on the streets of the Iranian capital. The women wear brightly colored headscarves and the men are more casually dressed. Many who have come here are themselves artist or graphic designers.

Exhibition photos (Photo: www.gloria-zein.com)
There's plenty of interest in the exhibition, and the public is more relaxed in the gallery than they are outside

​​Sleep, explains a lecturer in graphic design, is a part of being human. The theme is universally valid and therefore it is not possible to pass judgment on the various concepts – a remarkably post-modern approach. Nonetheless, even if the theme is universal, its reception is still marked by the cultural context.

One woman visitor remarked that she didn't know what to make of a bed that "welcomed" many people at one time. "It just doesn’t suit Iranian culture," she said. A woman painter ruminated on romanticism and sexuality. Iranians, she explained, do not speak openly about sexuality. It is a taboo rooted in Iranian culture. Even if the government did not exert pressure, Iranians still "would not lift this veil," she said.

The art scene is more complex than one might think

The Iranian philosopher Simon Farid O'Liai stands in front of "his" bed and is enthusiastic. And aside from his philosophical thoughts? The bed certainly provides an opportunity for exploring a whole mesh of issues on relationships, but it also reflects a society in crisis. This is because one doesn't know for certain with whom one is dealing and it also represents the strict division of the public and private spheres.

The art scene and even the people of Iran are far more complex than a simple glance at the outline of a chador might indicate. This has also been Gloria Zein's experience, even when the sight of what's behind the veil can be confusing. "The statements and reactions are increasingly contradictory," she says. Yet, whether in the Orient or the West, a bed always goes down well, sums up the artist. It is the place where a pair can dance through its own private universe.

Cordula Echterhoff

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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