Having recently traveled to Iran at the invitation of the cultural commission appointed by the municipality of Tehran to jury an “international” sculpture symposium, it was difficult to match what I saw and felt with the kinds of reports being generated by the corporate “entertainment” media back home. On the other hand, I was not going as a political journalist sponsored by a major broadcasting corporation or newspaper syndicate. Rather, I was invited as an independent art critic—perhaps, willfully naïve–to work with a jury of five delegates (two of whom were Iranian, one French, one Chinese, and one American) for the purpose of selecting quality work and giving awards to these sculptors. In my various meetings and dealings with professional and governmental officials, not once did I feel vulnerable as a target of anti-Americanism, nor did I sense any form of religious discrimination. During the week of proceedings, the level of organization that took place in the discussions, which included much translation, impressed me greatly, as did the focus and generosity of the Iranian people who were openly committed to making the itinerary function according to plan. The awards ceremony at the conclusion of the jury proved an extraordinary event. The speakers included various cultural representatives, organizers, and the mayor of Tehran. They offered clear and concise arguments in their support of public art and in support of those who had been invited to participate in the symposium. The audience was enthusiastic and gracious in their applause as artists from Peru, the Netherlands, Turkey, Iraq, China, Italy, and Iran were being honored. The atmosphere was exhilarating in terms of the questions and dialogue that followed the event. Recognizing that Iran is in fact the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is important to note that within this theocracy, there is also a sense of growing liberalization. This suggests a need for balance between the religious values installed at the outset of the eighties and the ongoing legacy of modernization. The struggle of these factions is evident, especially within the community of artists. While there were one or two minor exceptions, the majority of the artists I met in Iran were eager to have greater communication and access with the Western world, and with other countries in the Middle East. Persian art historians are seeking opportunities to study abroad to gain knowledge of international art and to acquire fresh theoretical perspectives on their own research. In spite of the resistance to this liberal momentum by members of the governmental theocracy, younger artists are seeking opportunities to participate in a global exchange with experimental artists from sectors outside of Iran. As a result, some have moved to Europe, particularly to Germany and the United Kingdom, in hopes of finding a better working environment with fewer social inhibitions and political restrictions. In essence, Iranian artists are looking for art-related careers within a broader, more open and diverse community. Concomitantly, there is eagerness among artists still living in Tehran to open the threshold to challenging new prospects, to encounter new ideas and expanded forms of expression, and to locate their work in the global circuit. Like younger artists working today, they are interested in connecting with current tendencies in art, especially those emanating from China and the West. Young women artists, in particular, are searching for possibilities in which they can express new ideas within their own political terms, and thereby transmit their message to the international community.
My trip to Iran began with an email from Tehran by the organizer of something called the First International Sculpture Symposium, asking if I would consider being their honored guest and come to Iran as a juror to participate in this event. The communication was carefully worded, not overstated. It had a humble, gracious, and positive assertiveness. The language felt sincere. Even so, I set it aside on my desktop in order to reflect on whether or not this was something I wanted to do. Three days later, in the middle of the night, the phone rang, waking me out of a deep sleep. It was a young woman’s voice, (who spoke excellent English); the assistant to the symposium organizer was asking if I had received their email. I said that I had. She asked, ‘would I be willing to come to Iran?’ I paused, and then asked if she could call back in eight hours. She apologized for waking me, saying that she was unclear about the time difference. I told her not to worry, that these things happen frequently. She laughed politely, thanked me, and hung up.
Exactly eight hours later, the phone rang again. It was eleven o’clock in the morning. The same charming voice was speaking to me as if nothing had intervened, saying that the municipality of Tehran would be honored if I would come. (Was this a dream?) I told her I would come, but there were many questions. She asked if I could send them by email and she would do her best to answer them. Being that the symposium was scheduled a month and a half away, I felt there was still plenty of time to think about it. Over the next few weeks, I received e-mails every other day giving me information on the details of the trip and on the purpose of the symposium. I finally discovered that the people who recommended me for the jury were two Iranian artists I had met at the Venice Biennial four years ago, and whose work I had reviewed. There were further emails, checking last minute details, particularly in relation to the visa, which, for some reason, had been delayed. Because of other complications, the flight arrangements were changed three times. No American carriers go to Tehran, so one has to find alternatives. The organizing committee took care of all of the arrangements, including arranging the visa (which could not be done without contacts in Iran). The United States does not have an Iranian Embassy, so one has to go through a department in Washington called “Special Interests.” Eventually, the visa arrived embossed onto my passport in a FedEx envelope at 9 o’clock in the morning the same day as my flight.
When I arrived in at the international airport in Tehran, after passing through security at 2am, I was greeted with night-blooming perfumed flowers and embraces by selected members of the committee, and I was driven to the hotel. The city of Tehran is a teeming and bustling metropolis, with some areas that are rundown. While there is considerable building and construction going on, there are still buildings half-finished, the way they were left after the Revolution nearly three decades ago. Although there are close to 14 million inhabitants in the capital, there is no public transit system. Therefore, the traffic is intense, perpetually congested, to put it mildly. While the snow-capped mountains that border the city on the northern side are breathtaking, the air pollution is a huge problem, similar to Bangkok and Los Angeles. The diversity of dress among the populace is fascinating to observe. All women, beyond early adolescence wear head coverings, but not all are covered in black. Many of the younger women, who do not consider themselves devout, wear Bulgari scarves, sweaters, and jeans. This appears acceptable unless too much of the hair is revealed in front of the scarf. The difference between younger and older Islamic men is less a generational issue than an ideological one. It is more about those who think outside the tradition, and those who are ensconced within it. In the outdoor studios on the grounds of the exhibition, I saw a young Islamic women donned in traditional garb, covered with dust, as she intently carved marble with a pneumatic tool. The artist, whose name is Parastoo Ahovan, worked in marble and steel using suspended linear abstract forms. She was awarded a prize, and her entire family showed up at the ceremony to see her receive it. The mother, who had worn a head covering for most of her life, appeared so elegant as she proudly watched her daughter receive the award. Later I discovered that it was quite unusual for younger women to be admitted into such a competition, and still more unusual to win a prize. There was a point at which Parastoo was going to be eliminated from the competition, but the jury fought to keep her in the running, given that her work was one of the best among the contenders.
The top prize went to an Iraqi sculptor, now residing in Copenhagen, named Ali Jabbar Hussein. Ali’s work was a beacon of light. His installation—half sculpture, half architecture, was entirely carved in white and black marble. This was accomplished over the space of three weeks. Little known in the West, Iran has one of the largest deposits of first-rate marble to be found anywhere in the world. The quality of the stone is as good as anything found in Italy, except there is more of it. Hussein’s remarkable piece was an abstract temple, mosque, and house all in one. It had an arch at one end with a ladder, and a passageway at the other with a bifurcated mandolin in which a large bullet-like form was placed. The overall effect of Hussein’s piece suggested a projection of a tranquility transformed in the realm of a dream, a classical moment outside the fray, an interstice where solace and solitude held within the premise of architecture and lyric form. The young Peruvian sculptor Marcelo Wong also worked in steel and stone, binding two monoliths or dolmens into a uniform space with encircling metal strands. And Marovino Luca, from Italy, another prizewinner, did a diagonally poised large-scale cube carved entirely in white marble. Varol Topac from Turkey carved a magnificent bursting sun from marble, and two other Iranian artists, Mohammad Reza and Sahand Hesamian, welded large dynamic abstract forms in steel. It was curious to discover, in a later discussion, that Hesamian was particularly interested in the work of Sol LeWitt.
What struck me about these artists’ works is that they were all destined for some kind of relative permanence. They would be sited in various spaces in the city of Tehran. It was, in fact, a symposium of international sculptors, working with Iranians, in order to beautify the premises of the city. Later I would speak in one of the museums on the siting of public art, on the necessity of having art that visually functions within the open spaces of the urban metropolis without impeding movement or interrupting the flow of how people move in their diurnal passages through the time and spaces of the city. There is much to be said about placing sculpture in a city like Tehran, a metropolis that is attempting to revive itself, to come back into the modern world, and to restore a sense of its dignity and culture for the rest of the world to know and to see.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.