Of all the countries it would be useful for Americans to know more about, there is surely no stronger candidate than Iran. We don’t get much help from the news media, where the same tired tropes have been replaying ad nauseam since the trauma of the 1978-79 revolution. So can art help?
I went to Los Angeles to find out. An exhibition of Iranian art, titled In the Fields of Empty Days, should have been one of the most important shows in the United States this year.
Perfect, too, that the exhibition should open in Los Angeles. The city is home to the largest Iranian population outside Iran (somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000). With President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal dominating the news as the show opened, the timing couldn’t have been better.
The contradictions at play in so many aspects of US-Iranian relations suggest there is more here — much more — to know. Iran has more than 80 million people and a tangled history — one that has not been innocent of American intervention.
In other ways, In the Fields of Empty Days is compelling. It combines old and new art from Iran. Its argument — an excellent one — is that Iranian artists like to address the present by re-contextualising the past. Again and again, Iranian artists use heroes and legendary figures from distant eras to make statements about power, love and tragedy in the present.
Nor is this just a recent ploy — a response, say, to limits on free expression. It is a fertile, time-honoured practice. (Of course, from another angle, it begins to look like a repetition compulsion — an involuntary response to trauma). The Mongol rulers who controlled Iran in the 13th and 14th centuries, for instance, commissioned illustrated versions of the Shahnama, the 11th-century epic that is at the core of Persian identity that pictured ancient Persian kings as contemporary Islamic rulers.
Similarly, when Iran embraced Shiite Islam in the early 16th century, its people bought into a cycle of remembrance and grief that went back to the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson Imam Hussain in the seventh century.
Right up to the present, artists have returned to these and many more subtle (but no less urgently felt) tropes in ways that outsiders need to know about to make any sense of the images.
The show includes several precious paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries, commissioned to illustrate the Shahnama, as well as absorbing photographs from the end of the Qajar dynasty in the 19th century.
There are also modernist paintings and wall hangings from the 1960s and ’70s by the Saqqakhana School, and riveting photographs from the period around the revolution. Still, the majority of the works are contemporary.
The allusions can be densely layered. In a collage called ‘Pillars — Iran’, Asad Faulwell keeps it simple. In a decorative ensemble that seems to be toppling over, he combines images of three critical figures in recent Iranian history: Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah; Mohammad Mosaddegh, the prime minister ousted by a CIA-backed coup in 1953 after he nationalised the country’s oil industry; and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the 1978-79 revolution.
The photographs of Shadi Ghadirian, meanwhile, distil the almost schizophrenic tension between modernity and tradition felt by Iranian women.
Shoja Azari’s hypnotic video ‘Idyllic Life’ projects on to the gallery wall a 16th century Persian manuscript page depicting a palace in a busy city. The image, like many such paintings, resembles a vertical stack of gorgeously coloured rectangles. Gradually, as you look, one rectangle after another loses its colour and begins to move. At first, it’s footage of a trapped bird banging against a window. Subsequent transformations reveal bombed-out buildings, raging fires and blasted trees.
Certain events — the arrival of Shiite Islam, the long reign of Shah Nasir al-Din, Pahlavi’s fatal courtship of Hitler during World War II, the overthrow of Mosaddegh and so on — are built into the works like DNA. It’s all the more baffling, then, that the organisers didn’t make a greater effort to explain them.
Although, as a whole, the show communicates some of the vitality of Iranian art today, it has a problem that goes beyond the lack of explanatory wall labels. There are just too many ideas at play. Fuzzy and indistinct, they float in the galleries like clouds of pollen on a gusty day. Your eyes begin to itch. You can’t see straight. You come away as if from a thronging party where the hosts haven’t bothered to greet you.
“In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art” is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles from May 6 to September 9, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 2nd, 2018