Iran Modern? Sure, What About It?: A Conversation about the Curation and Preservation of Memory, Modernity and Nationalism

Ajam will be hosting two conversations with Mohammad Salemy in the coming week, and this article is the first in the series. Salemy is the organizer of Incredible Machines, an academic conference being held in Vancouver this week which examines different aspects of the relationship between technology and the production of knowledge.

In both of Salemy’s conversations, first with Gelare Khoshgozaran regarding the Iran Modern exhibition at the Asia Society and second with Naveed Mansoori about Salemy’s own curatorial debut Encyclonospace Iranica, the problem of identity emerges as the frontline of this contentious debate. This is even more true within the Iranian diaspora which is striving to articulate its apparently fixated and indeed fluid relation within the shifting local and global forces.

The recent popularity of Iranian art has set in motion a proliferation of Iran-related art practices, exhibitions, and discourses. However the missing debate remains as the one that links the genealogy of the term “modern” with the existing cultural policies and campaigns by philanthropic foundations in the United States like the Asia Society and the Iran Modern exhibition. These programs usually serve a number of geopolitical and pedagogical functions mostly by showcasing the democratizing labor of Iranian arts outside of their index of politically threatening nation-state, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran, as they circulate culture between the local Iran and the global West. While the theoretical problem of the local and global has been long exhausted by the globalization of Iranian cultural capital, the radical treatment of this binary in Mohammad Salemy’s curatorial practice through his engagement with Reza Negarestani’s brand of universal and rationalist philosophy is reenergizing the debate about the complex symmetry of the binary’s components.

In these two conversations between Salemy and his counterparts, fashionable concerns about locality, identity and culture are boldly forged out of their comfort zones to face potentialities of the global, universal or general truth via ruminations of Iranianness in art discourse. Curating Iranian art, an indistinguishable discourse from the overall knowledge production about target societies, becomes an occasion to debate the ramifications of global/local binary anew as a form of philosophical concern as an existentially entangled with geopolitical history and aesthetic heritage. Can a diasporic conceptualization of local existence be salvaged through its global pursuit of truth without having to resort to ready-made methodological channels of identity, culture, and history all of which are well burdened with troubling traditions of post-WWII area studies and their orientalist genealogies? If it is possible to raise such a question, it has to be within the bounds of critical art and curatorial discourses and practices. What territory may suit this task better than a continually fetishized endangered specie of the revolutionary and imaginary geography, Iran? – Hadi Gharabaghi

Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), Musical Notations, 1967 gouache and mixed media on composition board 27 3/4 x 35 1/4 inches (70.5 x 89.5 cm) Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.103
Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), Musical Notations, 1967
gouache and mixed media on composition board
27 3/4 x 35 1/4 inches (70.5 x 89.5 cm)
Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.103

Gelare Khoshgozaran: You and I have been talking casually about the Iran Modern Exhibition held at the Asia Society in New York for some time. We have each visited the exhibition separately and had our own experiences of it. The first question that I had when visiting the show was about belonging. Where does Iran Modern belong in the world of contemporary exhibitions and curatorial practice? In what other modern art exhibition curated today, if any, can one imagine the works of Iran Modern?

Mohammad Salemy: My question was similar but perhaps a bit more general; Where should we place this exhibition in the context of the social and aesthetic history of Iranian art? What do you think about going one step back and asking a similar question about a different entity other than the art? I’d like to rephrase your question and ask, “where does Asia Society belong in the world of exhibitions and curatorial practices of large scale museum shows?”

Looking at the Museum’s past several years of exhibitions, I am at ease to say that this space is like a jack of all shows, following no set of curatorial mandates. They have been exhibiting everything from craft and traditional Indian and Chinese art, all the way to works by Vancouver-based postconceptual photographer Tim Lee. So when I came across their list of shows I asked a similar question; where on earth is the Asia Society?

G: It does sound like the jack of all shows kind of a space. I liked the idea of Iran Modern being held at The Asia Society since in the U.S. Asia has more racial than geographical implications. So their curation of a show of Iranian art, I imagine is supposed to also carry this twist.

M: Let’s begin by addressing the physical exhibition space of the Museum, which feels like it wasn’t even originally intended for exhibitions, as if the exhibit halls have been repurposed for showing art after being used for banquets or offices. Simply put, the space does not come close to measuring up to the cultural and political capital of the Asia Society, as the institution that acts as the official interface between the continent and the American understanding of the continent’s past present and future.

So to me, this is where the Iran Modern exhibition sadly belongs, to an institutional space that cannot even pretend to offer a phenomenologically neutral atmosphere for the contemplation of cultural or artistic artifacts. Overall, I felt like the space was twice enveloped in institutionalism, once by the awkward spatial designation and another time by the overt presence of institutional exhibition design and accessories including the security staff which, let me tell you honestly, overwhelmed me with their presence.

Also regarding the exhibition’s visible surface, meaning the walls, the lighting, the juxtaposition of paintings and other works, I’d like to add that I wasn’t at all impressed. The walls and lighting were too warm for the artworks from a period in which Iranian artists were using a lot of earth tones and warmer colors in their works. The whole space glowed in a yellow fog that didn’t help the artworks stand out. I could understand the challenge of replacing the museum’s light system for one exhibition. However, when I asked about the wall color, the staff at the museum told me that the space was painted in this hue specifically for this exhibition. It made me wonder why on earth the curators had decided to submerge this show in such a monotonous visual ambience.

G: The exhibition felt overhung to me in a way that a certain number or specific works had to be included to fulfill the obligations of the curators or the institution. There was no playfulness, no room to breathe, a free white wall, a space of contemplation or a question mark. But one exciting moment in the entire show for me was to see the aftabeh piece by Parviz Tanavoli. It is a mixed media painting from 1964 ironically titled, “Innovation in Art.”

There is a three dimensional aftabeh (a restroom watering can) in the middle on a squat toilet. The same shape of aftabeh is stylized and repeated in different colors in a pattern that creates a frame within the frame of the canvas. These elements together make what looks like a sadjade, a prayer rug. There are so many fascinating plays within this piece and a brilliant use of local vs. global references. But this was only one example; overall it felt like an exhausting show.

left): Parviz Tanavoli. Innovation in Art, 1964, Mixed media. 60 5/8 x 7 7/. (154 x 115 x 20 cm). Collection of the artist 01 (right) Parviz Tanavoli, Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers), 1964, Wood, tin plate, copper, steel, fluorescent light, perspex, and oil paint 761/4 x  403/16 x 435/16 in (194 x 102 x 110)
(left): Parviz Tanavoli. Innovation in Art, 1964, Mixed media. 60 5/8 x 7 7/. (154 x 115 x 20 cm). Collection of the artist
(right) Parviz Tanavoli, Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers), 1964, Wood, tin plate, copper, steel, fluorescent light, perspex, and oil paint 761/4 x 403/16 x 435/16 in (194 x 102 x 110)

M: I’m sure you are planning to address this yourself, but I’m going to jump right in and suggest that we should talk about whether it was possible to produce a better show given the above restrictions, and regardless of the answer to this question, why is this show exhausting? what are the elements or trajectories, other than what you mentioned that contribute to it being boring.

The main problem in the exhibition relates to the lack of a clear argument or an introduction of a particular problem or enigma in relationship to the subject. Exhibitions must have an argument however trite or self indulging. What I am saying is like, OK, Iran Modern? Sure! What about it? Unfortunately, the exhibition lacks a clear criteria for large concepts such as modern art and modernity. Given the actual historical themes and aesthetic legacies pursued in so many of the artworks featured in the show, I really think “Iran Post Modern” would have been a much better title.

G: “Iran Post Modern?” I would like to hear more about that. I was thinking “Iran, Once Modern” or “Once Upon a Modern Time in Iran”. One of the most curious things about this exhibition was in fact its title. Does “Iran Modern” as a title have the same connotations as an “untitled exhibition of modern art from Iran?” Ironically another exhibition, Iranian Modern Art on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery coincided with Iran Modern.

There was one thing that everybody who recommended that show to me did not miss to mention: There were two works in that exhibition by Mirhossein Mousavi, the currently house-arrested Iranian 2009 presidential candidate. Not surprisingly, both of those works were abstract paintings. Apparently between the titles of these two exhibits, the works they included and the related conversations there is so much emphasis on two adjectives: modern and abstract. Given that the works of these two exhibitions were mostly made during the three decades of the 1950’s, 60’s and the 70’s, what does this modernism or abstraction imply historically, art historically and notionally?

 05 Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), The Queen's Park, 1972 oil and plastic on plaster board 28 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches (73.0 x 73.0 cm) Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.531
Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Khameneh), The Queen’s Park, 1972
oil and plastic on plaster board
28 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches (73.0 x 73.0 cm)
Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.531

M: Hahaha. Totally! Regarding Postmodern Iran, a little note here about “Western art history” can be useful. Historically, both the European and American Modernisms had to return to a distanced past, in the case of Europe to Africa and in the case of the USA, the indigenous culture and more specifically the Mexican, Mayan and Aztec legacies in order to find abstract and universal forms suitable for igniting genuine Modern aesthetics. This is what we get with Cubism and fauvism in Europe and Abstract Expressionism In America.

The return to Islamic motifs and calligraphy by Iranian artists, while, at first can be considered an example of this methodology, and therefore modernist, is essentially problematic once we realize that the traditions to which the 20th century Iranian art had returned were not that far back to constitute a myth of origin; these forms were only a few hundred years old and in some cases belonged to the very early 20th century. In effect, they had never gone away in the first place to then return. This type of blending of tradition and modernity is actually what we see later on in architecture and art of America and Europe, something we know and identify today as postmodernism.

Two artworks in the show highlight this about-face so vividly, both of them works by Parviz Tanavoli. The first piece is titled The Poet and the Beloved King (Lovers) 1966. It depicts a pair of robots/automatons painted in bright colors displaying their implicit homoerotic relationship. Like much of western pop art from the same decade, the work includes a piece of text in the form of a question that reads: “Is anyone opening anybody’s gate?” Now let’s compare this to the other sculpture by the same artist in the show titled, Heech (Nothing), 1972.

The radical shift in aesthetics is indisputable. The two works seem to belong to two different periods or, at least, two different artists.I can still consider the first piece a work of modern pop art, but the second work, with its use of calligraphy as a hermeneutic vehicle clearly for nihilism, clearly identifies the shift from modernism to postmodernism. There are a few other examples of this kind of about-faces in the show. Actually the overall exhibition showcases more of the second type of art, whether they are abstract or not. This is why I think “Iran Postmodern” would have constituted a more appropriate title for the show.

Parviz Tanavoli, Heech (Nothing), 1972 bronze on wood base 22 1/4 x 12 x 8 inches (56.5 x 30.5 x 20.3 cm) base:  5 x 5 x 5 inches (12.7 x 12.7 x 12.7 cm) Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.54
Parviz Tanavoli, Heech (Nothing), 1972
bronze on wood base
22 1/4 x 12 x 8 inches (56.5 x 30.5 x 20.3 cm)
base: 5 x 5 x 5 inches (12.7 x 12.7 x 12.7 cm)
Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.54

G: It seems like the show tries to remember and revive a “modern Iran” through its “modern art.” As a post-9/11 exhibition in NYC, the message that the Iran Modern exhibit yells into my ears and eyes is that a predominantly Muslim country, once upon a modern time, was capable of making “modern art” in the forms similar to the western abstract tradition. The exhibition’s title works in tandem with its public programming, interviews, publications, etc. Abstract art is framed as a “more international” language posited obviously in contrast to the folk and local elements and motifs that are abstractions in and of themselves.

M: Interesting, because even though I agree with you, I’d like to switch your idea and propose that the exhibition is rather collapsing the visual practice of modernism in Iran into the broader concept of modernity. I believe that Iran entered into early modernity with the Safavid dynasty and therefore by the time of Qajar dynasty in the 19th century, Iran was already modern, even though we can argue that it perhaps lacked proper modern visual arts. My argument has always been that artistic modernism in Iran was first experienced exclusively in the realm of poetry and literature, i.e. the modern novel with Jamalzadeh and modern poetry with Nima. Even prior to that, if Europe had Manet, we had Aref Ghazvini and Iraj Mirza. It is interesting to note that Ghazvini is born a year before Manet dies. This, of course, can be the subject of another conversation and it actually comes up in the review I am writing on the exhibition with Hadi Gharabaghi.

What happens with the visual arts in Iran in the late 1950s and the early 1960s is very similar to a development a decade prior to this in USA. The power elite who are afraid of the real impact of European avant-garde on American artistic culture decide to get involved in the business of art and begin a program of importation and localization of the idea of non-figurative abstraction from Europe with the aim of depoliticizing American, and subsequently, global art. The consequence of this new-found love for avant-garde by the American cultural elite, meaning the Rockefellers, Carnegie Foundation and the rest, is the splitting of the leftist intellectual movement in Europe and USA.

This process is pursued through handing out grants, purchasing art and creating a receptive atmosphere for the proliferation of a form of high culture that formally denies sociopolitical reality to negate its criticism. The history I briefly mention here is more or less successfully repeated in Iran by the cultural establishment apparatus set up by the Pahlavi dynasty and the former Queen of Iran Farah Diba.

There is another political dimension to this exhibition that also relates to the question of modernism vs. postmodernism. Unfortunately, this  question is not at all addressed in the exhibition or its related catalogue. I believe that the aesthetic shift towards Islamic motifs and themes in Iranian modern art, and the notion of a “return to one’s own self” exercised by the artists from this period is parallel to the production of the discourse of westoxification (Gharbzadegi) by Ahmad Fardid and Ali Shariati which actually contributed in about ten years to the emergence of powerful Islamist forces in the social sphere and led to the Islamic revolution. So in a way, the postmodern shift which is obvious in the works in the exhibition is foreshadowing a major political realignment in the country. In other words, one can almost trace the origins of a nationalist form of Islamism in the kind of aesthetics that the curators try to sell to the public as modern and diverse art from that period. This social history constitutes the real political kernel of the exhibition which unfortunately the exhibition ignores by purposefully looking the other way and concentrating instead on unimportant aesthetic or obvious cultural themes. In other words, by remembering Iranian modern art, the exhibition ends up forgetting this history.

Siah Armajani, Sealed Letter, 1964 acrylic, ink, string and sealing wax 10 1/4 x 13 inches (26.0 x 33.0 cm) frame:  13 3/4 x 16 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches (34.9 x 42.5 x 3.8 cm) Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.1
Siah Armajani, Sealed Letter, 1964
acrylic, ink, string and sealing wax
10 1/4 x 13 inches (26.0 x 33.0 cm)
frame: 13 3/4 x 16 3/4 x 1 1/2 inches (34.9 x 42.5 x 3.8 cm)
Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection
Gift of Abby Weed Grey, G1975.1

G: In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Orbist at Serpentine Gallery, Siah Armajani brings up an interesting point about calligraphy in relation to the painting practices of his generation. He says the majority of his generation (he gives it 99%, which sounds a bit exaggerated to me) were not able to understand the Arabic language used in the form of calligraphy in vernacular Islamic architecture and art, although they may have been able to read it. According to Armajani, in my opinion, to many of the pre-revolutionary Iranian artists whose education did not require them to learn Arabic, the Arabic manuscript and calligraphy shaped an interesting relationship to abstraction in something so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

This in addition to the geometrical forms in the Islamic architecture have been the two most prominent forms of abstraction that have influenced Iranian artists even up to this day. It seems like this form of familiar abstraction needed a transformation, a pinch of salt to get elevated to the form of modern abstraction. Blending these with western abstract painting as the “universal” element allowed for the validation of the “local” to exist on the canvas of a work of modern painting. As we hear in the commentaries about the Iran Modern exhibition, these paintings were part of a bigger project to make the regional and traditional “global.”

Therefore incorporating the folk art while purging it of any figurative, crafty, religious, applied and decorative aspect was the only way for these paintings to gain legitimation as modern art. The reason why I am so fixated on calligraphy and abstraction is that as the “local element” calligraphy in the eyes of the western audience — or anybody to whom it functions as pure form versus language — functions as the kind of modernist abstraction that the Iranian painters of the time were seeking to incorporate into their work.

M: Arabic script was never completely meaningless to Iranian artists of that period, since they all grew up in an atmosphere which was more or less religious and involved Arabic script as part of its surface. At least Arabic calligraphy must have been meaningful to them in association with various Islamic phenomena such as the Quran, the mosque and public traditions in which the crowds literally wore the script on their sleeves. I also think Aramajani forgets that in fact Farsi shares its script with Arabic. He also underestimates the influence of Iranian calligraphy, particularly Nasta’ligh script, on the artists of the 1960s. What is valid in his argument however is how artists were able to slightly change this medium and dress it up for its consumption by the western art audience as a form of pure abstraction.

G: This makes me think of a historical precedent, the Westernization (farangi-sazi) of Iranian painting in the 17th century by the likes of Hossein Zaman and Jobbeh Dar who tried to apply what they understood as western perspective to traditional Safavid paintings and created an aesthetic chimera.

Ali Gholi Jobbe-dar. Shah Soleyman’scourt, 1670, Hermitage Museum, San Petersburg
Ali Gholi Jobbe-dar. Shah Soleyman’scourt, 1670, Hermitage Museum, San Petersburg

M: For the record, both the idea of perspective and camera obscura were invented by Alhazen. He was an 11th century scientist from Baghdad whose manuscript about optics was imported to Italy and translated and used as the basis for perspectival painting by Brunelleschi during the European renaissance.

G: True. Astonishingly, since these painters could not have been aware of this legacy, they must have imported them from Europe. I wonder if the move towards abstraction under the influences of modernist, cubist and futurist paintings adopted by the new generation of Iranian painters during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s was a similar effort towards legibility and assimilation.

M: I agree. As we have spoken about this before and you have addressed it in your recent piece on The Enemy online journal in relation to the traffic of contemporary art commodities from and about the Middle East in the West, there was a financial and political dimension to this assimilation. In fact, the market hype we are witnessing around the works of certain Middle Eastern artists today was a phenomenon that Iranian artists of this period already had jump-started.

Some of the people in the show were connected to galleries in New York and Europe and their exploration of the aesthetics of the Middle East also involved financial incentives. How artists in the exhibition were pioneering a contemporary art silk road is another theme that can reframe the Iran Modern exhibition.

Gelare Khoshgozaran is an artist, a translator and an independent scholar living in Los Angeles, CA. She has contributed to multiple Persian and English publications and websites including Parkett, The Enemy Reader, WildGender and ZanNegaar Journal of Women Studies. She is the translator of Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction to Persian (2014, Ofoq Publishers, Tehran). 

Mohammad Salemy is an independent Vancouver-based critic and curator from Iran. He has curated exhibitions at the Koerner Gallery and AMS Gallery at the University of British Columbia, as well as the Satellite Gallery and Dadabase. He co-curated Faces exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.

Hadi Gharabaghi is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. Hadi’s dissertation examines the genealogy behind a network of academic, philanthropic, and government investment in fostering film cultures as means of liberal pedagogy within a diplomatic history of applying humanism as an instrument of foreign policy. 


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