Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Art Doc of the Week: Fifi Howls from Happiness

The late Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess didn’t care about offering succor or touchy-feely platitudes to anyone. That was part of his greatness.

Bahman Mohassess, Requiem Omnibus (Death of Martin Luther King) Piper, 1968, Mixed Media on Canvas, 100×150 cm. Courtesy CraveOnline.
by Ernest Hardy, CraveOnline

We’ve become so inundated with insipid TED-talk presentations (and by speakers who’ve taken their presentation cues from that template even when not speaking at actual TED events) that conversations on art and politics, particularly where the two intersect, have become exercises in facile uplift and affirmation. Artists who traffic in grittier, darker, more nuanced work or perspectives, those who don’t think the role of art is to be sure the consumer (because that’s what we’re reduced to in those settings) leaves the experience feeling good about themselves are hamstrung by current dictates on the roles and responsibilities of the artist.

What makes Mitra Farahani’s documentary Fifi Howls from Happiness so refreshing (on top of being simply a fantastic documentary) is that the film’s subject, the great, under-recognized Iranian visual artist Bahman Mohasses, truly does not give a fuck about offering succor or touchy-feely platitudes to anyone. He’s gruff, biting, cynical and utterly without faith in humanity. He’s also wickedly funny in his raspy garrulousness. His work – paintings, sculptures, theater design – was tough-minded, beautiful, and confrontational. It challenged those in power, but also took citizenry to task for their complacency, their “boot-licking” when resistance is what is called for.

Having fled Iran after the American-backed coup of 1953 overthrew the democratically elected government, the openly gay Mohasses settled in Italy. (His comments on contemporary gay culture are absolutely withering.) He’d return home some years later and start to divide his time between his birthplace and his second home. Eventually, disgusted by what has become of Iran, he returned to Italy permanently. By the time Farahani finds and films him in 2010, when he’s nearly eighty, few people outside art students and the most well-versed art collectors even know his name anymore, and most of them assume he is dead.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Staging Shakespeare's Tragedies in Tehran

An Interview with Iranian Director Mohammad Aghebati

Courtesy VICE.

by Jessica Rizzo, VICE

Most young Americans would be hard-pressed to name a major artist or performer working in the Middle East today. In fact, the most visible recent "performances" staged in the Middle East have beenthe gruesome beheadings captured on video by ISIS. Individuals in the region who lack the megalomaniacal tendencies of the Islamic State are rarely heard by the Western press. Meanwhile, true cultural exchange is increasingly difficult; art and artists, already low on the US government's list of priorities, seem to be considered trinkets we can't afford to trifle with when faced with the kind of brutality we now see in the region.

Iranian theater director Mohammad Aghebati feels differently. Born in 1975, his childhood coincided with the Islamic Revolution and the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War that followed. He now splits his time between Tehran and New York, making theater in an attempt to work through the traumas of the Middle East's particularly grisly recent history. International touring is a standard part of most major theater artists' careers, but it's not so easy for those from countries formerly designated as part of the so-called "axis of evil." For Aghebati to share his work with the US, the country that perhaps needs to see it most given our ongoing deleterious involvement in the region, he faces a set of obstacles many artists would find insurmountable. VICE spoke with Aghebati recently to talk sanctions, censorship, and what it means for an artist to be a "rescue dog."

VICE: What can you tell me about the new project you're working on in Tehran?

Mohammad Aghebati: I'm working on a production of Richard II in collaboration with Mohammad Charmshir and Afshin Hashemi. It's a free adaptation of Shakespeare's play in the form of a monologue, and it's inspired by current events in the Middle East. The Middle East today conjures up images of inadequate leaders, bloody power struggles, sectarianism, extremism, and the destruction of countries in the flame of war. These are the images we are working with as we reinterpret Shakespeare's tragedy. This is a different and very difficult project for our group, but we hope that by the end of this year we'll be able to take it to New York.

Monday, 8 June 2015


Yari Ostovany at Stanford Art Spaces
Chelleneshin #21, oil on canvas, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy The Huffington Post.
Interview by John SeedThe Huffington Post

The paintings of Yari Ostovany, now on view at Stanford University's Paul G. Allen building, are stylistically related to works by second-generation American Abstract Expressionists -- for example Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski -- but as curator DeWitt Cheng notes, they also are inspired by and refer to the artist's Iranian cultural background. For example, the title of Ostovany's painting Chelleneshin refers to a period of solitude:
Chelleneshin is a compound word in Persian consisting of the words Chelleh; which describes a period of forty days; and Neshin, which literally means sitting. It refers to a seeker going into solitude for a period of forty days and forty nights to pray and meditate. In several mystical traditions, The Cycle of Forty is a common duration needed for spiritual metamorphosis and transitions to another, transcendent dimension.

Ostovany's interest in and ability to reference culture strikes DeWitt Cheng, who organized the exhibition, as admirable:

"I find his seriousness about spirituality and his cultural heritage interesting and inspiring. I wish that more artists today took it upon themselves to attain a modicum of cultural literacy both inside and outside of their disciplines/professions. And Yari makes beautiful, gutsy paintings too."

I recently interviewed Yari Ostovany and asked him both about his background and his art.

What can you tell me about growing up in Iran? Were you always artistic?

My father's love of music (both western classical and Persian classical music) meant that music was always filing the air in our house when I was growing up.

My first love was poetry, modern Persian poetry to be precise. When I was 14 a friend of mine who had started taking painting classes encouraged me to do so as well saying that she thought it wold suit my temperament perfectly.

My first art class was a Tehran University extension class while I was still in high school (my sophomore year). I was hooked. Gallery hoping in Tehran became my favorite pastime and the newly built Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art my hangout.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Art and Protest

Sheida Soleimani, “Lachrymatory Agent” (2014). Archival Pigment Print, 24 × 17 ̋.  Courtesy The Brooklyn Rail.
by Matthew Biro, The Brooklyn Rail

Can art today be a form of protest? And, if so, what subjects, what issues, what transgressions or injustices, does it most vitally and persuasively critique? In many ways, the obvious answer to this question is “yes.” As critics and historians remind us, many of the founding acts of modern art were based in the criticism and negation of the status quo, as artists and writers attacked conventional ways of seeing, doing, being, and understanding the world. And even after the rise of postmodernism, with its rejection of so many of high modernism’s primary ideals or values, modern art’s foundation in negation remained a bedrock for the continuing production and understanding of contemporary art.

At the same time, in today’s art world, many forms of critique seem worn out and hollow. Mega-artists like Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons appear to criticize the commodification of experience, the ways in which we as individuals begin to think, feel, and dream in stereotypes. Their works, according to their proponents, can easily be read as protests against the growth of hierarchy, inequality, commodification, and the spectacle. Despite this, however, their irony and attacks on artistic subjectivity create ambiguity and distance the spectator in ways that equally affirm both left- and right-wing ideals. At their core, the artworks of Koons and Wool suggest that all values are relative, and they support even the most extreme capitalist, free-market ideologies. Protest can perhaps still be genuine and viable in art today, but it can also clearly function as an attitude or pose, just another way of doing business.

For this reason, the question that I directed at different writers and artists in mid-April was, “Can art still be critical?” Their generous responses prove that it can be; although, to be sure, criticism can also be a clichéd attitude, espoused by even the most conservative artists. The separation of critique from affirmation, we are shown, always lies in the details, in the presence—or lack—of a significant crossing of content with form. Protest, we discover, arises from the tensed interaction of a certain imagination with a specific here and now, or in the unconventional conjunction of real historical events with particular techniques and strategies. And although it takes a variety of forms in art today, the presence of protest needs to be noted; for if art eschews criticism, it runs the danger of becoming mere entertainment, just another commodity that supports the status quo.

There are many ways to keep protest alive in art today. Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of following a number of artists under 30, whose works powerfully and convincingly embrace the task of critique. Their examples provide me with a sense that art can still be critical; and furthermore they suggest that dissent is once again changing, that it is becoming less cool and didactic. Instead, as these newcomers demonstrate, critique and social activism in art today are messier, more material and ambiguous, and increasingly imaginary and fantastic. A different sensibility, a kind of “libidinal politics,” seems to be growing, an attitude that blends political critique with reflection on the media and the body.

American born Sheida Soleimani makes photographs of an Iran she has never visited in person. The child of refugees who fled persecution in the Islamic Republic, she updates the strategy of photomontage, creating broken representations of a country where violence intermixes with desire. To make her photographs, Soleimani prints out images sourced from the Internet—politicians, religious figures, soldiers, prisoners, executioners, and ordinary people, as well as oriental rugs and other patterned forms—that she then combines with three-dimensional objects. The resulting dioramas, in which appropriated images are mixed with raw and processed foods, toys, pebbles, plants, hair, leaves, wigs, sugar cubes, and fabrics, are carefully lit and then re-photographed with a high resolution medium format digital camera. And the images that result, whose constituent parts signify Iran in a variety of different ways, suggest twisted propaganda posters or surreal product displays.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Street Fighting Man

Ali Ettehad on performance art in Iran and his struggle to bring it to the public
Ali Ettehad – Purdahs of Silence II. Courtesy REORIENT.
by Joobin BekhradREORIENT 

When it comes to contemporary art in Iran, one often hears about the country’s bustling gallery scene, its innumerable painters, photographers, and sculptors, and the prices set by local artists in auctions both at home and abroad. What one rarely hears about, however, is performance art, a medium with a relatively shorter history in Iran, and one that has been given far less attention by artists and audiences alike. While it is difficult to talk in terms of a proper ‘scene’ in the country, there are, nonetheless, artists who are devoting themselves to their performances, and fighting against the odds to perform and introduce everyday audiences on the city’s streets to the medium. Nobody said it would be easy; but then again, nobody said it would be impossible, either.

Based in Tehran, Ali Ettehad is an artist and curator. Along with his wife, Nikoo Tarkhani (an artist as well), he has been at the forefront of performance art in Iran, and is also one of the better-known names in the country’s contemporary art scene in general. Together, this artist power-couple performs in Tehran, curates exhibitions and performance art series, hosts seminars, and produces films, among other things. I recently spoke with Ali – one half of his and Nikoo’s Anahita Art Studio – to find out about what he’s been up to since I caught up with him last in Tehran in 2013, as well as the current state of performance art there. Although he does like to keep secrets, Ali was generous enough to share a few of his with me.

Unlike other forms of art in Iran – e.g. visual art, cinema, music, etc. – performance art has a relatively shorter history. What were the origins of performance art in Iran, and why do you think it has received little attention in comparison to other art forms?

You of course have to remember that performance art, vis-à-vis other artistic mediums, is new all around the world in general; that’s why it’s taken much longer for it to be recognised in Iran, and for Iranian performance art to receive outside attention. The short history and newness of performance art aside, however, I do agree with you. As a medium, it has often been neglected, and has not received due attention. Performance art was seen for the first time in Iran in the 70s, and took shape on the fringes of the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts (earlier performances may have existed, but there are no known historical records of them), although following the Revolution in 1979, it became largely forgotten. Activity picked up again after 2000, however, and in the early years of the 21st century, much interest was shown in contemporary artistic mediums. Beginning in 2005, there was a surge of investment in the domestic art market (particularly from abroad), and Iranian art began to perform particularly well in Middle Eastern art auctions.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Tehran auction shifts millions of pounds worth of art in spite of sanctions

Sale of Iranian art generates nearly double what was predicted, taking in more than £4m and setting the record for most expensive painting sold in Iran
Piece by Iranian painter Aydin Aghdashloo on display at the auction in Tehran’s Grand Azadi hotel. Photograph: Hemmat Khahi, courtesy the Guardian
by Saeed Kamali Dehghan,  Iran correspondent, The Guardian

In Tehran’s luxurious Grand Azadi hotel, a row of women dressed in black with red headscarves hold the lines open to bidders as the auctioneer tries to conjure up increasingly large sums with his hammer. As artworks are displayed, prices in the tens of billions of Iranian rials – hundreds of thousands of pounds – light up the large Samsung screen on the wall. In the crowd are some familiar faces including actors, politicians and the retired Iranian football star Ali Daei.

The auction of modern and contemporary Iranian art, which is jockeying to be among the big auctions in the Middle East, is an annual event and was being held for the fourth time. But this year was different: the prices that were bid were astonishing for a country still struggling with international sanctions. And the auction, held on Friday, made nearly double what had been predicted, totalling £4.3m.

A tree trunk painting by celebrated Iranian poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri sold for around 28bn rials (£560,000), becoming the most expensive painting ever sold in Iran. Other works that attracted large sums include those of the New York-based artist Manoucher Yektai and sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, as well as pieces by Bahman Mohassess and Aydin Aghdashloo.

“It exceeded our expectations,” a Tehran auction spokeswoman told the Guardian. “We sold almost 180% ... [of] what we had estimated. We had buyers both from inside and outside Iran. Out of 126 works that had been presented, 125 of them were sold.”

Due to sanctions, Iran’s banking system is cut off from the outside world but that did not stop international bidders participating in the auction. “Foreigners had an intermediary paying on their behalf in Tehran,” the spokeswoman said. The event was sponsored by Samsung’s Iran branch, among other companies.

Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian of the Middle East at Brown University, said the auction showed art purchases were increasing in Iran. “The growing art market in Iran is significant and is sustained by a new generation of local collectors,” she said. “The recent Tehran auctions have been showing consistently strong prices. There has been notable interest in Iranian modern masters like Sohrab Sepehri, Marcos Grigorian and Parviz Tanavoli.”

Interest in Iranian art from the 1950s through the 1970s is also strong on the international front among private collectors and museums, Balaghi said. “Though prices for these works are rising, they are still fairly modest compared to their western counterparts,” she said. “For relatively smaller sums, one can build a significant collection of modern and contemporary Iranian art. So for Iranians, art is a smart financial investment as well as a way to tap into one’s cultural heritage.”