Between control and freedom

Kareem Estefan on Iran Modern at the Asia Society, New York (until 5 January 2014)

Ghasem Hajizadeh, Yesterday Today, 1970. Courtesy Asia Society

Now and then, geopolitics moves at lightning speed, making one wonder which tempo is more manufactured: the suddenly effective drive of high-level diplomacy or the customary standstill in efforts toward rapprochement. In the weeks leading up to and including the United Nations General Assembly, official relations between the US and Iran appeared to take a sharp turn. Seeking to mend ties his predecessor severed, the newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, sent Rosh Hashanah blessings to Jews around the world, freed a number of prominent political prisoners, published a conciliatory op-ed in The Washington Post, and made known his optimism about a private epistolary dialogue with President Obama. The latter personally called Rouhani on his last day in New York, initiating the first direct conversation between leaders from the two countries since 1979.

These same weeks saw the opening of “Iran Modern”, the first major international exhibition to feature Iranian art from the 1950s to the 1970s, at New York's Asia Society. Resulting from a five-year research project undertaken by curators Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba, “Iran Modern” presents more than 100 works by 26 artists from the period of restored monarchy under Shah Pahlavi. That this long-planned exhibition draws cultural artefacts from the 25-year period of repressive rule between the CIA-led overthrow of Mohammed Mosaddegh and the 1979 Revolution, and that none of these artefacts could come directly from Iranian institutions due to US sanctions, render today's promising headlines a poignant blip in an ongoing history of imperial domination and internal despotism.

The grim politics of the period is both at the forefront of “Iran Modern”, which features several pieces made in tribute to dissidents and workers, and, no less striking, in the background—as a wide swathe of abstract works highlights the era’s cosmopolitanism through their locally rooted interpretations and transformations of international modernisms.

The exhibition opens with a stunning selection of paintings, prints and sculptures grouped under the label Saqqakhaneh—the Farsi word for public fountains raised in memory of seventh-century Shi’ite martyrs who were denied water in the Battle of Karbala—that critic and translator Karim Emami applied to a movement combining local popular culture and pre-Islamic art into modern, uniquely Iranian creations. Among Saqqakhaneh’s prominent figures was the mystical artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, who mixed numerology with calligraphy, Symbolism with Expressionism, and abstract geometry with Shi’ite history, in his otherworldly compositions. Zenderoudi depicts vivid, sometimes agonising scenes from the Battle of Karbala in a monumental linocut print playfully titled Who Is This Hossein the World is Crazy About?,1958, and elegantly combines emblems of Islam, Judaism and Christianity in a calligraphy-adorned collage, The Hand, 1960.

Also central to Saqqakhaneh was the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, whose clever constructions include the robotic Pop sculpture The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers), 1964, two boxy Space Age figures rendered in primary colours. That same year, Tanavoli gave a sly nod to Fontana’s slashed paintings and Rauschenberg’s "Combines" as he covered a canvas with a Persian carpet and sliced it open to embed a water pot and pumpkin seeds in the center, cheekily titling the piece Innovation in Art

Among the more famous exchanges with Western artists was Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s friendship with Andy Warhol. Farmanfarmaian’s reverse-glass and mirror paintings, undertaken in the mid-1970s, certainly carry the disco sheen of the Pop Art star’s environs. They also innovatively convey the rise of electronic information, as in Heart Beat, 1975, with its three bright orange waves evoking an electrocardiograph signal amid the noise of the canvas’s reflections. Siah Armajani’s steel column stack of thousands of papers, A Number Between Zero and One, 1970, one of the more well known works included here, in fact appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition “Information”. Armajani, who relocated to Minnesota in 1960, is represented with several pieces, including the early Prayer, 1960, in which religious calligraphy can be seen as intimately linked to both concrete poetry and text-heavy Conceptual Art.

If the works on the Asia Society’s second floor are mostly abstract and trans-historical, those on the third floor are inescapably tied to an authoritarian government and its tumultuous dissolution. Nicky Nodjoumi’s painting Untitled 1976, portrays a blood-soaked operation by SAVAK, the secret police force whose revolutionary disintegration is movingly depicted in Rana Javadi’s Breaking into the Police Station. 23 Bahman 1357, 1979, a photograph that shows a throng of people examining papers liberated into a public street.

One of “Iran Modern”’s more poignant aspects is the juxtaposition of Romantic reverie and Realist nightmare seen in two adjacent aquatints by Nahid Hagigat. Escape, 1975, presents a nude female figure dancing alone in the sky above a mountain range, while Surveillance, 1977, portrays two men speaking by a gate at night as another looks on from behind a nearby lamppost. The pairing of an image of impossible freedom and all-too-real control is an apt microcosm of the exhibition, which reveals an astounding range of inventive Modernist art that responded, in alternately confrontational and elusive manners, to the simultaneous experience of political confinement and cultural interconnection.

Published Wed, 02 Oct 2013 09:31:00 GMT

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