The visibility of artistic expression in a limited
Since the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran took office, reports about his provocative public appearances have been piling up. And while his statements indeed pose a global threat, they also strengthen the selective, merely geopolitical view on Iran predominant in Western media.
This situation resembles an absurd theatre play, with Ahmadinejad as the only actor while the Iranian people are presented as the audience, making themselves heard only in short comments taped in the streets of Teheran.
However, the fact is that Iranians have been trying for years to escape the role of bystander and victim. This development does not take place on the political stage and is thus hardly recognized by foreign media, which are distracted and channeled by the political furor time and time again. This is why I want to focus on a field of artistic experience where “escape attempts” happen frequently.
The many years I have lived and worked in a European context have altered the way I see my home country. The view alternates between closeness and detachment, opens up variable gaps and perspectives. This detached view makes Iran appear like a strange planet whose surface is covered by firm grid structures.
In some places, this grid appears to be deeply rooted in the planet, but at others it has simply pressed itself down. Even from the distance I have as an observer, I can still feel the pressure of this grid imposed by the Islamic Republic.
Life on the planet Iran grows beneath this grid, needs new habitats, seeps out of many small openings, and spreads out slowly to form glowing patches on the surface. It is suppressed and grows again – time after time. It is a sight which produces hope and joy as well as disappointment and anger, and it is also exhausting. The accompanying tiredness and lethargy in particular have become an attitude towards life which is also palpable for many non-Iranians.
The picture of repression in Iran in the 1980s and the early 1990s
One of the first repressive steps the Islamic rulers undertook was to fix bars onto public space, the planet’s outermost skin, by imposing religious and political regulations. Dark colors and camouflage patterns, serious and lamenting tones, aggressive slogans covered the entire surface. In the media, this grid structure grew so dense as to be impermeable. All actions that did not conform with the regime were punished; to underline the fact there were public announcements of daily executions in the media. Many people retreated into inward exile.
At first, these inward-directed energies were manifested in a wait-and-see attitude, until they finally discovered art and literature as a stepping stone to a fictional realm, and in the process typically focused on the products of Western culture. Below the grid, the black market for uncensored films and books grew.
Artists who did not conform with the regime initially sought images with which they could express – in highly coded and often pathetic forms – the prevailing standstill and their suppressed longings. Painting opened up a suitable framework between abstraction and the formation of metaphors. In the paintings produced during this phase, the lethargy of the moment was mitigated by poetic approaches so as to render the paralyzing state more tolerable.
Since galleries remained closed for a long time such works were presented in private circles. These circles compensated in part for the cautious and conserved state of public life, providing a place for the continuation of cultural life. There were many small circles in which people got together to watch films, read, paint and draw in secret. Little by little, speaking and laughing penetrated the forbidden and a society that – for fear of death – was frozen in silence. Iranian literature professor Azar Nafisi’s book, “Reading Lolita in Teheran”, is a telling example of this development.
In the late 1980s, as a student at the Teheran Art Academy, I also ran weekly nude drawing sessions with three of my fellow students in our private rooms. We experienced and studied nakedness. And gradually we forgot that the vice squad were patrolling outside. The simultaneous existence of such conditions produced schizophrenic behavior and removed us from the actual circumstances in which we lived.
Individual forms of expression in the grid structure of the Iranian public
More than 15 years have passed since then, and there is no longer any stopping the cultural growth below the grid imposed by Islamic laws. Ever more frequently, it has laid claim to virtual space. For some time, the internet has offered a parallel public space. Weblogs are used in Iran as individual forums for exchanging ideas and presenting oneself. Precisely such individual forms of expression are devouring the roots of the grid structure millimeter by millimeter.
Film and photography, which are very close to actual reality, offer considerable means of visualizing a person’s perspective and thus of establishing an own, individual reality. Photographs and clips posted anonymously on the web stimulate the critical discussion on both social and political conditions. This procedure repeatedly breaks out of virtual space.
In summer 2005, I visited a large photography exhibition in Teheran organized by the magazine “Iran Image“ for its annual “best photograph” competition. Appropriately enough, one room was devoted to the presidential election. No analysis could have revealed the carnevalesque setting of hysteria and the candidates’ theatrical behavior any better than these images. As a result, many of the visitors who had been carried away by the hysteria and had voted in the election found the exhibition sobering and alienating.
Almost at the same time, the performance of a play by Bahram Beyzaie proved to be another, rather confrontational, means of providing visibility. The play’s topic is the politically motivated murder of intellectuals in Iran which the government has done its utmost to hush up. The story is told from the perspective of an Iranian couple critical of the regime, which has to repeatedly re-live its fate in a joint nightmare. The play was banned after having been performed just a few times, nevertheless creating a public platform for an issue that mars Iranian society like an open wound.
Changes in the grid structure
Meanwhile, subtle changes in the grid structure itself are beginning to emerge. One such example: the religious banners. Used on numerous occasions – the birthdays of the prophets, the twelve imams and the two most important women in the Shiite world as well as the anniversaries of their deaths – they serve as a strong reminder of the presence of the country’s rulers. During the holy months of Ramadan and Moharram, these banners are also hung on every available streetlamp and house front.
In the early phase of the rule of the Islamic regime black, the color of mourning, was used for these banners; they often had white writing or other things printed on them in the symbolic colors of red and dark green. Now the banners look totally different.
In Naserkhosro Street, close to the Teheran Bazaar, banners and other religious utensils are sold in a number of small stores that almost vanish behind the vast amount of overlapping banners. From year to year, they look more colorful, friendlier: Today the banners that dance lightly in the wind are yellow, orange, pink and blue, printed in neon colors on soft and sometimes transparent fabric. Inspired by Western carnival tradition, you now also find pennants sold by the meter in all the colors of the rainbow. Naturally the pennants are printed with the names of the holy figures or with short verses and the like. But you no longer see the dominant black of the revolution era.
Moreover the depictions of the Shiite holy family have also undergone various changes. They lead the observer into a world of idealized, cliché male beauty: The holy men look out from under perfect eyebrows with soft, seductive eyes. They have elegantly shaped noses and voluptuous, soft lips. Their luxurious, soft hair peeks out from under silky turbans. Flowers and ornaments frame their portraits.
But the banners sold in Naserkhosro Street are not the only items to draw on the appeal of pop culture; religious songs have also been inspired by Persian pop music and now have a stimulating effect even on the impartial listener. In other words, the regime attempts to use the pull of pop for its own mass mobilizations. The last campaign for the presidential election clearly demonstrated this trend.
Some artists are addressing this phenomenon. In a work that was part of the Berlin exhibition “Entfernte Nähe“ (Far Near Distance), artist Mehran Mohajer presented pictures from the photo studios in the holy town Mashhad, in which pilgrims have their souvenir photos taken. The backdrops show the glowing holy shrine of the Imam against the background of a sunset or depict branches with blossoms, swans on a pond and flying doves.
This kitschifying and trivializing of religious life sets in motion a process of trivialization which is absolutely ambivalent: The repressive side of the religious rule is increasingly disguised.
The ornamental order
However, the repressive nature in the Islamic Republic is not the only grid that presses onto the culture of the planet Iran. Government regulations, which have regulated artistic activity in Iran for centuries, are deeply rooted in the interior of the planet. This grid is difficult to recognize as such since it is very delicate, finely wrought and aesthetically attractive.
I would like to describe this as the “ornamental order“. Within this order, the value of every single person is predetermined: His or her presence merely serves to express a certain overall message. Any old Persian miniature claims to be a small, idealized mirror of the world. Our eyes are guided from the curved lines used in the representations of human bodies to the curved pine trees, to soft clouds, domes and hills. All surfaces are covered with the oscillations of these patterns. It is a harmonious portrayal of the world, symbolizing the omnipotence of the creator.
But this unimpeachable harmony conceals an enormous potential of brutality. What does not subject itself to this ornamental order cannot be portrayed – and as such does not exist.
The parallels between this ornamental order and the one-dimensional, simplistic and popular religious dogmas of the fundamentalists are not to be overlooked.
With its potential of rhythm and poetry the Persian miniature captivates us, gives us beautiful surfaces which cloud a structural analysis of the artistic forms of expression. And perhaps Iranian artists’ liking for and obsession with surfaces partly define their response to Western art, evidenced at first by an Iranian production of art often merely imitating Western techniques.
Frequently, impressionist, expressionist and very often cubist styles were simply complemented by a portion of oriental sensitivity for color, line and composition – but the elementary motives that had originally led to these techniques were ignored. In response to the criticism of being too Westernized the oriental aspect was gradually increased.
Iman Afsarian, a young artist and art critic, published an article in “Herfeh Honarmand” accusing modern Iranian art of mannerism. He claims that even contemporary art in Iran hardly ever reflects authentic experiences. As an alternative, he is not the only one who tries to achieve directness in his artistic creations through isolation, drawing on his subjective visual memory. “This is not hermetic escapism, but the necessary retreat to a place where one can concentrate on the essential.”
Metaphors form another aspect of this ornamental order. Initially, they opened up space for the poetic and the inexpressible. In the mechanical repetition, though, they were often reduced in their symbolism to a representative function and thus marginalized. During the era of political and religious suppression, metaphors became an expression of the forbidden. But in the course of time they gained a rigidity and unbearable superficiality undermining their original significance of creating scope for development. As a reaction to the ban on depicting female eroticism in images, lemons and pieces of pomegranates or watermelons were employed to represent this femininity. Gradually the lemon became so erotically charged it was no longer seen as a sour fruit.
Even though there is still a strong use of metaphors in contemporary art in Iran, some artists have permitted themselves to break free of the old vocabulary in search of a more individual symbolism. The striving for individuality, which currently shapes cultural activities in Iran, results in artists making concerted efforts to position themselves and attain authenticity, which is connected with particular expectations of the West and consequently attracts the latter’s interest in this development.
The mutual position, which is more observation than observance, results in those producing art in Iran walking a thin line between projection and reality. Very often stereotyped Western views of Iran are confirmed by local artists assuming that it might be easier to market this kind of aesthetics in the West. But this phenomenon is also critically reflected in Iran and generates counter-positions.
Khosrow Hassanzadeh addresses this stereotype trap of a Western perspective in his “Terrorist“ series: large-format self-portraits in which he adopts a typically oriental pose in front of his traditionally arranged extended family.
Modern art in Teheran in the age of the controlled space
In recent years, contemporary approaches by young artists outside the ornamental order have developed in the Iranian society. Drawing on creative forms of expression such as installations, performances and actions, public space is appropriated. One example: In 2001, artist Jinoos Taghizadeh produced numerous photocopies of her own palm and glued them on house fronts in a central street in Teheran. She was repeatedly arrested by patrolling security forces and then released again, as no violation of a law could be ascertained. But ultimately, the repetition of her action was seen as an unacceptable provocation and led to a ban.
In another instance in 2000, Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi created an installation by sticking the portraits of young, unknown Teheran citizens onto the window panes of a high-rise on the edge of a busy highway in Teheran. The portraits were illuminated in a rhythm matching the pace of breathing. Previously, the public space had been reserved for the portraits of martyrs and Grand Ayatollahs. Now it was occupied by the “breath“ of anonymous individuals.
Active since 2004, the artist group Movazi (Parallel) works exclusively in public spaces. It conducts unannounced actions in the city of Teheran which exceed the limits of accustomed structures. Afterwards, the group discusses the responses gathered from a random audience. The politically charged nature of public space in present-day Iran is investigated and explored.
Since the time of the so-called “reformers“ the Islamic regime has adopted a shrewd policy towards those involved in the arts: Professional associations of various artists are allowed, government budgets and grants are no longer awarded solely to members of the regime, and there is less control of galleries and smaller art schools. Yet people still move in a controlled space in which the regulations are determined by those in power. This creates a general dependence and uncertainty, which has increased enormously since the new President assumed office.
An example of this can be seen in the story of the artist Sogra Zare: Three years ago, she established her new studio in a former midwife’s office that had been vacant for a long time. Besides medical equipment, she also came across numerous birth and medical records on babies born in the 1960s, a generation whose youth coincided with the turbulent era of the revolution and the war.
Having tracked down a number of them, the artist conducted interviews with some of these persons at the place of their birth. The result: pluralistic recollections of an ideologically shaped era which contradict the official version.
A few weeks prior to the opening of the exhibition, the curator of the Teheran Art Center suggested the artist should rethink her concept and omit the documentary part of her work, namely the interviews, as they crossed the “red line“.
The term “red line“ refers to the censorship line in the political discussion in Iran. It was the topic of an installation by young artist Behrang Samadzadegan, a work whose symbolic approach can be interpreted as a call for action. He hung two paintings on opposite walls in a narrow room. These paintings show a man and a woman, looking at each other with interest. A red line on the ground separates the paintings from each other. On entering the room, the viewer is automatically drawn by the gazes of the two persons and moves to the middle of the room, where he has to cross the red line in order to be able to see the installation properly. In doing so he forms a link between the two portraits, which are separated from each other.
Visualizing the prevailing censorship and social restrictions is also the topic of a work by Amir Ali Ghasemi. In his interactive animation “Coffeeshop Ladies“ from 2004, the artists presents photographs of Teheran internet and coffee shops, which are popular meeting places amongst young people. In accordance with the censorship tradition of the Islamic regime, the faces of the female visitors are covered with white rectangles. By clicking with the mouse, these blanks transform into the empty, white faces of the women. The scenery is accompanied by a recording of the everyday conversations. As a result, the fine line between presence and invisibility, which defines the public life of Iranian women, becomes tangible.
The approach of the online magazine “Teheran Avenue“, which has reported on the cultural life in Teheran for the last five years, illustrates how censorship is dealt with. One of the magazine’s managers describes the work of his group as “micropolitical“. The major political topics are omitted. This gives the team a certain unobtrusiveness which makes it possible for them to continue their work. It is this continuity which creates the necessary basis for critical discussion.
This attitude has been put to the test by the new political leadership through constant provocation and increasing repression.
The return of radicalism
Even before his election, president Mahmud Ahmadinejad established his strategy based on political and social polarization: the masses against the intellectuals, social justice against democratization, intransigence against dialogue. He became the symbol of Islamic fundamentalism that scared the cultural scene while his opponent, former president Rafsanjani – who for years had been accused of various crimes and corruption – became the knight in shining armor! A majority of intellectuals put their full weight into the scale to prevent the radicals’ coming into power.
Failing to reach this goal has not been their only defeat. With hindsight, the loss of self-respect and credibility overshadows their commitment. A young artist commented on the situation in a rare moment of openness: “We got carried away by the hysteria, discussed, collected signatures and cleared Rafsanjani of his dark past.”
The social situation that has developed is regarded as a dead-end road by many of those engaged in the cultural sector. A general state of uncertainty caused large numbers of people to revert to a wait-and-see attitude characterized by hopelessness and fear. When I visited Lili Golestan, the owner of Teheran’s oldest gallery, in 2006, she cynically remarked that she was planning to turn her gallery into a grocery store as she was forced to sell her artists’ culinary products instead of art.
Farzaneh Taheri, one of the country’s most well-known translators, told me that books on healthy nutrition had become her favorites for translation since the change of government. It had not been possible even before to use open language, but now translation itself was increasingly becoming an instrument of censorship. Passages about prostitution, homosexuality, blasphemy and even the portrayal of a priest’s bad character had to be omitted. In former times, she had been forced to replace terms like sex or coitus by “intercourse”. Now this word was forbidden as well. She also told me that for years the censorship office had been sending her lists of words which she had to translate into nebulous phrases. She felt swamped by the excessive demands of the increasing censorship. Her inner resistance against this type of censorship exhausted and demoralized her.
An interesting view on the current situation of censorship was provided by Abbas Kiarostami at the last Fadjr Film Festival in winter 2006. He claimed that censorship in Iran had become irrelevant as numerous street vendors allowed people easy access to uncensored pirate copies. Even though it might be possible to question the importance of censorship in the area of cultural reception, this statement does not apply to the area of cultural production. The discrepancy between consumption and production that has developed affects the cultural understanding of society.
With the end of the reform era, the traditional balance between control and freedom that had determined artistic production had been unsettled. Many people engaged in the cultural sector are now trying to defend their niche existence. In this position, they are waiting for a change.
In times of waiting
Waiting seems to be the condition that affects the entire Iranian society – with one group waiting for freedom, the revolution, the intervention of the United States or reforms and the other group waiting for religious salvation due to the return of the “Madhi”, the “Imam of the times” – and seems to be characteristic for the art world as well. It is shown in humble longing, in depression and lethargy. But it can also be seen as a time during which – thrown back to the own self – people analyze the present state, come to terms with their own history and its consequences, start to identify potentials. “But possibly, the goal of this is waiting itself, the willingness to stay, to persevere, in order to be present when the opportunity arises to rebuild the city!” Susann Wintsch (1)
(1) Treibsand [Discharging quicksand], DVD Magazine on Contemporary Art, Volume 01, February 2007, ISSN 1662-0577.