“Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians–The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” at the Asia Society


Even in so international an art scene as New York displays, the Asia Society stands out. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, located on the Upper East Side, one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, for years the Society had a reputation for being aristocratic. It brought out mostly historical shows that were exquisite to see but did not address the complexities of art being made now. Recently, the Asia Society, like most museums in New York (if not all over the world), has been devoting time and space to the work of contemporary artists. This is now being done so regularly–for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently showing the art of Los Angeles sculptor Charles Ray–that the practice is fully accepted. It is not the place of this article to discuss the contemporization of the museum, which of course until fairly recently was devoted to historical shows alone. But it can be commented that showing work recently made not only extends the reach of the museum in general, it is a strategy intended to bring in a larger audience, one whose interests do not necessarily include art of the past. The Asia Society has followed this trend with shows that present new art from all parts of Asia–not only the Far East, but also South Asia, as well as the Middle East: a wonderful show now up, “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet,” curated by Dr. Fereshteh Daftari, concerns a major collection of Persian art spanning from 1998 to the present.

The internationalization of art is not only occurring in New York, whose long history of immigrant artists would have us expecting such a change; it is also occurring all over. National differences have mostly been erased, leaving audiences with the disconcerting feeling that all art being made now comes from one place. This is transparently incorrect, but it is true that visual difference, on a national level, is hard to find. Wonderfully, for this exhibition, the Asia Society audience can in fact detect both stylistic allusions, in the form of calligraphy and carpet patterns, to the past, as well as art that references the tragically violent recent history of Iran. There are even images that belong to feminist rebellion: in a black-and-white photograph, Untitled #10 (1998) by Shadi Ghardirian, we see two young women, neither of whom wears the chador, staring boldly back at the viewer. One sits on the floor, while the other strides a motorcycle, wearing a helmet and clearly enjoying this moment of recorded transgression. It is evident we are living in a world culture, driven often by the intensities of youth, but there is something else to recognize: the understanding that cultural conflict everywhere is occurring between believers in a historical tradition of social mores and protagonists of worldwide, pleasure-seeking present tense. So archival memory, and its conservative outlook, exists in opposition to contemporary gratification based in the moment.

It is interesting that the title of the show uses the adjective “Persian” instead of “Iranian,” For most, the word “Persian” more directly alludes to Iran’s ancient civilization, its remarkable achievements in poetry, art, and architecture, not to mention skills in such activities as the weaving of carpets. In “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet,” threads of a great classical past do appear, although in terms that transform old ideas and creations into a new comprehension of art. In the West, the terms of these transformations are established, more or less since Warhol and the triumph of Pop art in the Sixties. That particularly American outlook, spread by the swift travel of images on the Internet, has been taken up most everywhere. But often the contemporaneity of the image is made more complex by tacit allusions to the past culture of the artist making the work. This is particularly true of this show. The works often make suggestions to the past–rugs, calligraphy, and sculpture connect not only with present advances, often abstract and conceptual, in art; they also infer the millenia-long, great history of their culture in ways that ensure its legacy is kept alive. Thus, visiting this exhibition in America results in a quandary, given that we live in a perpetual present without paying attention to anything preceding us. It is likely that the Persian artists’ historical references will be lost on many who visit the show in New York. But it is also true that allusions to Andy Warhol and Pop art occur: American art that has taken on currency worldwide. So the exhibition remains true to its culture’s origins, even as it opens windows to influences that are extremely recent.

Perhaps the real difficulty facing contemporary art anywhere is the audience–its size, its sophistication. Cultural populism now holds sway, with entertainment having supplanted edification. Trends occur with startling speed in America; one remembers the early Nineties, when a remarkable amount of interest was focused on the Mainland Chinese artists who had moved to New York to escape the government crackdown after the country’s democracy movement had been crushed. Now we have entered a period of intensely political art based on the personal characteristics of the artist. For the most part, the show at the Asia Society doesn’t reflect such a personalization of cultural biases, but it does take as a given a certain seamlessness of culture, which cannot occur today in America, where the number of cultures occurring there is almost too numerous to count. This is not to say that the show is homogeneous, either in form or in intention; the age span of the artists, spanning roughly from forty to eighty years, inevitably results in a difference in attitude. There is a remarkable photograph, Miss Hybrid 3 (2008), by Shirin Aliqbadi, of a teenage girl with her face obscured by a huge pink bubble of gum. She wears a head covering, but her hair, peeking out from under the scarf, is dyed a bright blond.. There is also a small bandage covering the bridge of her nose; according to the wall text, this is a consequence of a nose job. The girl stares directly at her viewer; her gaze is confident, to the point of insolence. What a mix of the old and the new! Surely there is the necessity of greater freedom for women in Iran; Miss Hybrid 3 makes it clear that even if such audacity cannot occur in public easily (or at all), the wish to express oneself the way one wants dies hard among the young from any culture.

As I have written, those viewers wishing to find examples of new art with close ties to an archaic vision of culture are not disappointed. This is a wonderful aspect of the show; joining a modern outlook to an age-old one is a brave bid to continue traditions, even if they are so timeworn as to come close to being invisible. We may depend on whatever is next in art now, but what if the art community belongs to an art history that is so venerable as to turn contemporary efforts vulgar? Shirin Neshat, based in New York, presents a silver gelatin print from the “Rapture” series, in which a large group of women, dressed from head to toe in black, walk barefoot toward a quiet sea, with a few ripples turning white as the water hits the shore. The women have their back turned to us as they face the ocean, perhaps a symbol of unregimented freedom that their heavy, dark clothing denies. Brilliant in its use of contrast, the untitled work manages to combine the ancient history of the required dress with the ungovernable movement of a deep body of water. This is a work whose symbolism transcends symbolism, in the sense that the gathering of women, randomly arranged on the beach, tacitly suggest change without openly revealing its presence or need. Many artists who come from other cultures to New York do so in part because of the tradition here allowing people to make what they want, without the stern gaze of the censor. Several artists in “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet” split their time between New York and Teheran, so that they can enjoy America’s cultural liberties and at the same time retain their ties to home.

There are nuances, then, that strike deep chords with a classical Persian background in some of the show’s art. Farhad Moshiri’s Flying Carpet (2007) consists of 32 stacked, machine-made carpets, from which a cutout of a jet fighter plane has been made. The plane image is set close to the carpet it was cut from. Seeing as the narrative of the flying carpet first occurred in a story taken from A Thousand and One Nights, this contemporary version casts a shadow over the historical imagination. One is inevitably reminded of the hostilities Iran has experienced in recent years; moreover, the rugs are made by machine, not by hand, a mechanization of technology that places the image very much in an industrialized, contemporary context. What can be done if the meaning of the piece shifts from an allusion to a literary classic to a visual comment on military aggression Iran has had to endure for some time. Religious feeling offers solace; in Parviz Tanavoli’s sculpture, Blue Heech (2010), we see a three-dimensional version of the Person word “heech,” which means “nothing.” It is a word central to Sufi thought indicating that God made the wor;ld out of nothing. The painted fiberglass sculpture, with its broad but thin slab curving and folding and ending in an oddly angled crown with two hollow spaces, one a circle and the other a crescent shape, is a three-dimensional reading of the term. The fiberglass material infuses the sculpture with Pop art feeling, yet the concept is ancient and profoundly religious. Tanavoli has found a way of taking an idea central to the Sufi religion and making it new. And for most Americans, who probably do not know the language, the sculpture has a marvelous abstract appeal.

The stainless steel sculpture, Parsec #15 (2009), by Timo Nasseri, might easily be regarded as an entirely nonobjective object. It is a stainless steel sphere made of protruding planes of sharply angled metal that cut in and out of the object’s space. Aggressively pointed and more than a little like a spiky bomb, the sculpture brings dark connotations into play, even though the word “parsec” is a term for a specific distance used in astronomy. It is hard to read the work as something celestial; rather, it looks much more like a military mine if we were to associate it with a worldly function. Again and again, we see works made that make use of abstraction in a visual sense only to suggest deeper, more troubling historical connotations. If violence is what artists know in a culture, then their work will tend to describe hostilities. This is a far cry from the expansive expressionism of America, whose problems do not include a past in which it has been invaded. But Iran’s history is otherwise. In stark contrast, we can discuss the bright red calligraphy of Mohammed Ehsai, now over eighty, and for many years a teacher at Teheran University, whose Mohabbat (Kindness) (2006) consists of a collapsed version of the word, made unreadable by its four repetitions of swirling ribbon-like bands falling into a compacted center. Once again, an American audience, distanced by the inability to understand Persian, would tend to view the image in light of New York School abstract practice. But this would be a profound mistake, in that our readings do not match the literary and visual suggestiveness of the calligraphy. One of the best things about New York is its broad representation of art from different cultures; still, it is often hard to disassociate one’s local experience from art whose motives and origins have nothing to do with America.

The late Monir Farmanfarmaian, an important figure in 20th century Iranian art, is represented by a lifesize mirror mosaic titled The Lady Reappears (2008), which shows the attractive form of a woman wearing a tight dress revealing her shoulder and neck (the head does not occur in the relief). The lines of the dress move vertically and horizontally in semi-curvilinear fashion; although we can’t be sure, it looks like the figure has her back turned toward the viewer. On either side of her, the silver striations, catching light just like the dress, are vertical. This work, made in the beginning of the 21st century, concerns a subtle but genuine eroticism, whose sensuality is that much greater for its semi-concealment. How hard it must be to present an imagery fostering desire in current Iranian culture! Intimation becomes necessary, which in truth intensifies the desire because it is suggested rather than spoken aloud. In a time when a soft revolution involving the expansion of social mores seems to be occurring everywhere, this image, a bil older than a decade, looks prescient in light of current mores. Here, then, so much is said with so little; the body, far from slender, is ample and erotically compelling. Given the ongoing, harshly patriarchal rule the Iranian people continue to experience, it is especially striking, and courageous, for a woman artist to present a picture that is so transparently seductive.

In one short video, three-and-a-half minutes long, Samed Sahihi explores contemporary violence astonishingly well. Sundown (2007) portrays the ending of a day in changing imagery–silhouettes of people moving together, moving apart–who seem to be in a public place enjoying themselves as if they were on holiday. The contented murmur of their voices lulls the viewer into a state of enjoyment himself; the yellow sky is lustrous with indirect light. This comfortable state of affairs goes on for most of the brief video, until its end, when we see the picture of a dead man, looking like he has been hung (there is no rope) and rising into the sky on the upper right of the screen. No direct reference has been made to the government; nothing in the play of the video suggests active repression. Yet clearly the young man has been killed. Sahihi encapsulates, in an image more than a narrative, the dire predicament of those deemed damnable by a authoritarian government. It is likely that the subdued pleasure of the crowd below the rising figure acts as a countercurrent to the desolation of someone whose life has been taken. The crowd’s harmony, and the enjoyment of their unguarded conversation (not decipherable in the piece), acts like a filter through which we experience the violence of no return. Sundown thus enjoins us to balance the content of a free society with the murderous intentions of governmental judgment.

It is appropriate to end the discussion of this excellent exhibition with a painting that might be said to be beautiful, or might be said to be horrific. Ali Banisadr’s oil on linen painting uses de Kooning quip, in response to the moon landing, as the title of his powerful painting: We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet (2012). The composition’s top third is mostly taken up by a luminous blue sky, but beneath the sky there exists an abstract junk heap, mostly blue with spots of mustard yellow, that suggest broken objects unable to come together. It is hard not to see this as a portrayal of the destruction and chaos that follows a bombing. Yet no planes are to be seen, and the myriad pieces, perhaps metal scraps, making up the major part of the painting remain undecipherable despite the aura of violence surrounding them. One can only wonder when the carnage will end, and Persian artists have the opportunity to describe less traumatizing events. This show, the result of the inspired collecting of Mohammed Afkhami, does not align with current trends in New York City’’s art scene. Instead, it does something else, something more valuable. It treats the circumstance of its own greatness as an opportunity to describe and relect on its unhappy recent events. The artists tread a narrow path between a culture active for many centuries and one that is re-forming itself now, in light of social change that not even stringent religious restrictions can prevent. In a civilization that becomes increasingly global by the hour, these artists maintain ties to the past that may be necessary to center a developing culture. Rather than turn only to the new, the Persian artists in this show use tradition to lead their audience to a new comprehension, a difficult but magical understanding, of their lives now.


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