Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Balancing humour and gravity

A small woman with a brilliant smile, photographer Gohar Dashti is among Iran’s established talents, conjuring art from a culture run ragged by years of war, internal tensions and conflict between traditional beliefs and the modern world.

Untitled work from Gohar Dashti’s series Today’s Life and War (2008), part of the exhibition Iran at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney. © Gohar Dashti. Courtesy the artist and ACP.
by Rosalie Higson, The Australian

During the past decade Dashti’s surrealist photo-fictions have been shown in solo exhibitions in Tehran, the US, France, Italy and Britain, and in many group shows from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro.

In Sydney at the Australian Centre for Photography selections from two of Dashti’s series, Today’s Life and War and Iran, ­Untitled, are on show under the title Iran, part of the centre’s examination of dialogue between East and West in the year of the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign during World War I.

Dashti was never interested in straight documentary photography. Instead, she makes a kind of absurdist theatre, set against a dreary yet threatening desert landscape, balancing humour and gravity. “My work is about social issues and also about historical social issues, and also about myself and my experience of the world,” Dashti says. “My work reflects my face, what I feel about life, what’s my experience. I think all artists trust themselves so they can express something. Not particularly as a woman — it doesn’t matter. Just as an artist.”

War was constantly in the background for the first eight years of Dashti’s life. She was born in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution, just when Iran and Iraq went to war. She grew up with three brothers in Ahvaz, a small city on the border between Iran and Iraq: “And that’s exactly where the war happened. My father was from there, and so we stayed there, and we grew up in the wartime.

“It was just part of life. We had good and bad memories — the birthday parties, shopping, going to school — everything like normal. And we grew up in this kind of life. One of the normal games for us, after the red alarm (all clear siren) we went to the roof and took the bullets and ‘Who has more?’ At the time I really enjoyed it, but now thinking about it — oh. But it was a game for children.”

At high school Dashti became interested in photography and was lucky to have an inspiring teacher who showed her students “how we can be photographer as an artist”.

After Dashti graduated from the Fine Art University in Tehran in 2005, her first series was Family Albums, an exploration of old photos and texts. By 2008 she had moved into more dramatic territory. “I wanted to make a project about the war, about my memories from that time,” she says. “My generation grew up in this situation, so I thought that maybe the best way that I can show it is in a surrealistic way.” Today’s Life and War is a series of 10 photographs, of an unsmiling couple going about their daily life among bunkers, barbed wire and tanks.

“The location is a film studio near Tehran, and so I rented the place and did the project there,” Dashti says. “For the model, I wanted to find a normal face, no reaction. The models are brother and sister. They do not display emotion but show determination, perseverance and survival.”

Iran, Untitled (2013) was inspired by her journeys each month from university in Tehran to visit her parents, 1000km through the desert. “I went by train and I looked outside to the nature of Iran,” she says. “There was nothing there, no trees, no plants, and I was thinking about the connection between two elements, Iranian society and Iranian nature.

“It’s a huge country, but I feel I don’t have enough space. It’s a feeling about life, and maybe the reason so many people emigrate from the country. Some social issues, political issues, economic problems … it could be full of opportunity, but …”

Dashti sets up this claustrophobic tension by arranging a crowd of people closely together in the desert: on a slippery dip, dancing at a wedding, on a sofa, in a bath. “I like to play with reality and fiction, something between,” she says. “When you see a picture, a sad picture, you cannot look at it for a long time. But in my pictures the audience look for a long time. The first reaction is laughter, it’s nice. Then they find different layers, and they spend more time, and have more understanding about my ideas.”

Dashti moved from Tehran to the island of Kish with her husband. Kish is a sophisticated enclave in the Persian Gulf, far from the more restricted environments of Iran’s mainland.

“As an artist I don’t have any problems,” she says. “I show my work in Tehran and also outside, but we know where is the border. We know where is the rule of the country; when you know something we know how we should be acting. Just like here, you know you cannot drink and drive, that’s the rule.”

Iranian cinema is justly celebrated. Dashti, with her large-format narrative images, use of film sets and carefully directed crowds of models, seems well on her way to becoming a filmmaker. “If you ask me what’s your plan for 10 years? I will tell you I want to make a movie,” she says with a smile. And no doubt it will be set in the Persian desert: “Empty nature, it’s very beautiful.”

Gohar Dashti, Untitled from the series Today’s life and war, 2008. Courtesy and © the artist. Courtesy Azita Bina, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston and ACP.

Gohar Dashti, Untitled from the series Today’s life and war, 2008. Courtesy and © the artist. Courtesy Azita Bina, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston and ACP.

Gohar Dashti, Untitled from the series Today’s life and war, 2008. Courtesy and © the artist. Courtesy Azita Bina, Robert Klein Gallery, Boston and ACP. 

Iran is at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, until June 7.

Via The Australian

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