by amirali ghazemi
introduction by michel dewilde from the catalogue of the exhibition
In autumn 2010, the Cultural Centre in Bruges presenten Horizon 1, its new art platform. The aim is to allow young curators from abroad to generate new projects within this platform, both in and outside Bruges. The focus is on the curator’s personal and local views on certain aspects of the art world. The first session started with the high-profile three-part Iran & Co exhibition project by the Iranian curator and artist Amirali Ghasemi. The first part consists of an exhibition in which the curator officially presents the latest wave of Iranian artists who live mainly in Iran. The second part consists of an archive that gives a broad view of the major exhibitions, art projects and publications in Iranian contemporary art. All these events from the archive took place in the first decade of the 21st century. They were usually created and shown by Western actors and organisations, or at least with a Western visitor and his expectations in mind. These organisations are mainly active in the Emirates, London, Paris, Berlin and New York. In part three, Amirali Ghasemi’s team charts exhibitions of Iranian art using exclusive documentation material. They also highlight certain economic and cultural interests and representations. The final part consists of the comprehensive documentary video installation with the working title: Iran Beyond Borders (1960-2010). The three parts were shown simultaneously and in the same room. The underlying idea of Iran & Co is that no Iranian artist would be represented, or at least no work of art in the exhibition would be conceived, produced and presented by an Iranian artist. Iran & Co was announced as an art project with work by the latest generation of Iranian artists. This turned out to be an orchestrated falsehood. There was no original Iranian artwork in the exhibition. However, the archive and video documentary do talk about Iranian art and its representations. What was especially interesting in the design of Iran & Co was the interweaving of a number of recent phenomena into international art practice. There is not only the sharp socio-historical analysis, but parallel to this the phenomenon of post-production that puts Iran & Co perfectly in the spotlight. The term postproduction refers to artists who, in their own artistic practice, reinterpret, repeat, imitate, or recycle works of art conceived by others. In Iran & Co Iranian artists appropriate works of art designed and executed by others whom we call makers. They present it as their own work, without revealing the identity of the original authors. What is so interesting here is the high number of inversions within the project.
In the post-production era, artists from wealthier countries regularly work with craftsmen or technicians from third world countries. It is precisely the other way round in Bruges, Antwerp and London. Iran & Co presents technicians and artists from economically strong countries who create and produce work for Iranian artists. Iran & Co showcases the excesses of what is known as the post-studio era. Artist and curator Amirali Ghasemi works from his laptop in Tehran, Dubai, Berlin and London. The traditional artist’s studio no longer played any part. On the contrary, Ghasemi’s artistic work is literally spread across global networks. He directs and orchestrates and orders works from other studios using his laptop. Ultimately, one can even speak of a post-artist project: indeed, what has happened to the real artist? Who it is that creates a particular work of art or what nationality we link it to is essentially of little relevance. Names and works of art are interchangeable and ultimately of secondary importance. Nevertheless, this interchangeability very pointedly makes the condition of Iranian culture explicit, while at the same time in this project we are faced with a post-Fordist vision of art and economics. Both the title Iran & Co and the entire production of the actual works of art refer to a neo-liberal corporate culture in which immaterial labour, demand and supply, outsourcing and other concepts play a significant role. Iran & Co operates as a business, a company that continuously orders Iranian art abroad and has it produced there. Iranian artists are not mentioned in this story. It is a post-industrial neo-liberal construction. However, part of Iran & Co is the paradox that no manual work is outsourced to low-wage countries. Though this is fairly characteristic of a global economy. The project focuses on the younger generation of Iranian artists. In reality they are merely hired performers. They operate within an economy of services and knowledge. Who and what do they serve? Who ultimately is the Iranian artist? What forces manipulate and determine his role? Is the Iranian artist not simply a performative element? If so, would the real Iranian artist then appear when he and his ethnic-cultural reference are named and given substance?
Iran & Co is an ironic metaphor for absence, loss and amnesia, patterns that follow the contours of current Iranian cultural signals. A culture that is partly determined by an institutional scarcity and absence. A shortcoming that is largely filled by foreign and economic interests and desires. Part of Iranian art is created and intended for export. This art production does not appear to grow from an internal need.
From left to right, top to bottom: Amirali Ghasemi, Ali Ettehad, Ehsan Behmanesh, Azar Mahmoudian, Arash Salehi, Golrokh Broumandi, Mojtaba Amini, Setareh Jabbari, Milad Houshmandzdeh, Nazanin Aharipour, Farid Jafari Samargandhi
An Iranian curator diaries
It all began with an invitation. Michel Dewilde, curator and art historian, came to visit to me in the same place in which I am now writing this statement: the headquarters of Parkingallery Projects in Tehran. We started the space twelve years ago and have been developing it ever since. It is everything from an art studio to a graphic design atelier, a magazine office to a non-official gallery and performance location, to a shop with books and second hand clothes.
The offer was not very complicated. It was an invitation to curate an exhibition of contemporary art in Bruges. However, it raised an enormous number of essential questions. Why me? What are my responsibilities? What is my duty? The flood of meaningless exhibitions about Iranian art, and the rareness of meaningful ones, made me wonder if there is any chance of breaking free from the pitfalls associated with the representation of a nation. What brings these so-called artworks together? Is it just because they are salable or, even worse, because of the connections between the creators and the decision makers? What have we have learned from our participation in all those exhibitions that so often bore the tag line made in Iran? Did we just stand in a corner and watch? Are there only two options – passivity or compliance with everything put before us? Is this really what is expected of us? Is it possible to step away from the clichés, bypass the stereotypes, and escape the fever of selfexoticism? It was not a good feeling. Why didn’t I have easy answers for all these questions? I felt that I needed to organize my thoughts.
This was not the first time that I had been asked to be a guest curator, but the scale and historical scope of the exhibition exceeded those of my previous projects. Furthermore, Belgium had never before hosted such a large exhibition of Iranian art. It therefore felt like a great field in which to experiment, without fear that the project would be compared to other typical exhibitions.
My first thought was that I needed to look beyond the written sources. A lack of documentation in Iran means that there are issues, topics and events that not recorded or published. This also stems from something that we all suffer from in Iran – a type of soft censorship that is not perpetrated by the government, but by different artistic circles. You do not exist, so they ignore you. They don’t take any of your efforts into account unless you gain international recognition. Then, once you do have it, you have to re-enter from the outside, from abroad, and regain your values and your position. You have to become the person that everyone is talking about. What is the attraction of going abroad? What is this alchemy – this philosopher’s stone – that is said to exist there? The people over here, on this side, are ready to risk their lives and even sacrifice themselves for it. They will do anything, or as we say: dance with every instrument. The statistics and numbers recorded in the cultural and artistic domain In Iran are often false. The people in charge compile them only out of officiousness. The newspapers and magazines are busy with friends, acquaintances and, occasionally, new film stars. Only rarely do you come across a readable article that touches upon critical issues that are relevant to the local context.
In this disarray, is there any way to seriously document and consider Iranian art? Aware of the fact that whatever is shown abroad must have a rational relationship with whatever is made in Iran, regardless of whether or not it has been shown inside the country, we wanted to know if we could generalize about what is exported and make it representative of the Iranian art scene as a whole. And, of course, it is important not to forget that Iran isn’t only about Tehran …
One solution to the problem of understanding the dynamics that shape the representation of Iranian art abroad is to research and record the exhibitions. The other method is to try to reflect upon, and illuminate, the private and group activities inside and outside of the borders. Perhaps a solution, and some of the truths about the actual situation, could be revealed through these efforts?
It was in these circumstances that, during my artist’s residency in Berlin, I paid a visit to two of my European friends: Matteo, from Rome, and Gisa, from Berlin. We had rolled Matteo’s ten-meter long painting, and we were trying to install another painting on the wall of the yard, when the following exchange took place:
− Amirali! What do you do these days?
− Nothing special. I’ve been invited to curate an exhibition in Bruges, in Belgium…
− Can I participate? I’d love to make a very large work in a decent space…
− Why not? But I’m not sure why they chose me. They must want Iranian art, or at most, Middle Eastern art! Don’t you think that must be it?
− I can be Iranian – if they cover the expenses!
Time passed and I called Michel Dewilde. Besides the idea for the archive, which we had talked about before, I tried to explain a crazy idea that I had in mind. Matteo, my Italian friend, had helped me come up with it. And so the performance was born …
First of all, I contacted some of the international artists whose works, over the years, have been a constant source of inspiration. Some of the contacts were made face to face, others via Skype. Matteo Rovesciato, Gisa S., Cem Kaya, Cedric Bomford, Emanuele Rodo, Jeanno Gaussi, Youmna Chlala, Anke Schuettler and Junichiro Ishii all agreed to join the project. They accepted that they would participate in the design and staging of a performance and that they would contribute their ideas to the proposal. It was agreed that their names would not be mentioned until the right moment.
For the first showing of Iran & Co, I chose a group of young and talented artists with whom I’d worked previously. I knew that I could trust the team to play the Iranian roles in the performance. The people who agreed to play the parts of the eleven emerging artists were very brave. Despite all the risks, they agreed to come to Bruges in order to represent the artists who had made the exhibits. With a number ideas exchanged by email and the casting finished, we prepared ourselves for the opening. Rehearsals were based on our understanding of the works themselves and what we were able to write about them in a workshop atmosphere. We had to try and imagine the exhibits because we had not yet seen them as finished objects or realized installations. It turned into a huge performance for all the participants of the project, from the artists who came to install the exhibition, to our hardworking and unique team of technicians. The artists who made the works had to pretend that there was nothing wrong with the show and play their parts of regular art lovers who happened to be in town that day. I took the role of a curator, touring around and promoting an exhibition of emerging Iranian art. The researchers and colleagues helping with the documentary and archive were also involved.
In December 2008, I traveled to Bruges for the first time to visit the space – a former power station called La Brugeoise that had once belonged to Bombardier, a Canadian company. At first, the huge dimensions frightened me. Situated near the train station in Bruges, the space was over 3,000 meters square. I then noticed the magnificent early twentieth century details. La Brugeoise is a protected and registered historical monument that is privately owned. I had lots of ideas, including a few extravagant ones that later, for technical or financial reasons, had to be eliminated. Some of these, however, were transformed into alternative and reasonable ideas that benefitted the project.
La Brugeoise, Bruge, Belgium
In autumn 2009, a mutual friend introduced me to Azar Mahmoudian. After a few hours of discussion we realized that we shared many of the same apprehensions about recent developments. Her previous researches (Goldsmiths, London) stresses the special and important points that have to be taken into account when considering the issues raised by the project. We felt that we could push the archive to a more theoretical conclusion and, at the same time, create something meaningful to a broader audience.
Iran & Co: multi-dimensional research & setting
Through our endless correspondence and the thoughts we shared, the exhibition and archive gradually transformed into the multi-layered project Iran & Co. Michel Dewilde and a number of other enthusiastic individuals also participated but, from the outset, we decided not to rush. Instead, we planned to simultaneously follow our multi-dimensional research in different stages and along different paths.
One of the paths is that of the interviews. We began making these at the Dubai Art Fair in March 2010. The related films are, at present, a work in progress. The interviewees were chosen from a large group of curators, collectors, gallery owners, critics and experts and from a broad range of artists, from established and emerging stars, to artists who had been side-lined. We wanted to get to know the creators and contributors within the Iranian contemporary art world and to listen to their unique ideas and thoughts, their future aspirations and the current anxieties caused by the recent market-driven craze for Iranian art.
In search of a structure that could cope with over 110 hours of often-contradictory interviews, the archive’s curatorial team devised the format of a documentary installation instead of a regular, single channel film. So far, five themes have been produced. In Search of the Roots tries to locate past milestones by bringing together some of the key figures from the Iranian art world before the revolution in 1979. Now and Then takes us on a journey that begins with an introduction to the post-revolution war years in the form of a flashback. Although it can be contested, it tries to draw a useful map of the scene in the post-war era until the rise, and fall, of a reformist government. The approach within this particular theme is highly cultural. Whilst Now and Then leaves us almost without a conclusion around 2007-2008, Iran Boom overlaps those years and takes a considerable leap backwards in attempt to reveal the origins of the so-called boom in Iranian art. It even questions whether it did, in fact, actually happen. In Theory lines up a number of prominent, highly prolific thinkers and experts who tackle issues such as national representation, the politics of visibility and art in the age of globalization. It also lends an ear to artists and curators who offer first hand experiences of the same topics. Finally, The Show Must Go On… investigates some of the indisputable blockbuster exhibitions of the past ten years that showcased Iranian and/or Middle Eastern art.
As part of our ongoing survey, the other task that lies before us is the compilation of a register of the exhibitions of Iranian art held outside of Iran. Often, the exhibitions were orchestrated for European and North American audiences and, of course, the influential Iranians in the diaspora. In the absence or malfunction of state institutions, and with a lack of private investment within the country, some people tried to gain power by founding their own institutions and related communities. There were frequent attempts that ended up disintegrating because of factors such as restrictive regulations, customs policies and the soft censorship mentioned earlier. The archive covers the events of the last decade and, when analyzing the material, it is clear that several factors influenced the creation of these exhibitions, including the downfall of the Eastern bloc, the search for an alternative other to blame for every potential future risk or imaginary foe, the shock of September 11th and the subsequent surge in Neo-Orientalism.
At first, the role of the Iranians in the formation of these exhibitions was neutral. It would not be unfair to call it passive. However, after the regime change in 2005, the power structure inside Iran shifted. These sociopolitical events gave the whole scene a new rhythm and sense of motivation. Why? It’s crucial to know, because it obviously forced artists to think anew. For those who were being spoiled, and to some degree manipulated, by the outstretched hand of the Institute of Visual Arts and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, it was a shock. It thus marked the beginning of certain sorts of survival strategies. On the other hand, there were people who refused to take risks with their careers and who silently continued their practice, often in the margins, back in their studios or in small galleries.
At the beginning of the 21st century, in the first half of the decade, the so-called cultural approach was the driving force behind the organization of most of the exhibitions that took place outside of Iran. Slowly, as the investment in art increased and the expansion of the Internet grew in Iran, catalogs and websites gained more significance in terms of numbers and quality. A swarm of eager individuals and the board members of various institutions flew towards Iran with high hopes and a kind of fidelity. Dealers, agents, intellectuals and critics followed. Nor must we forget the journalists and reporters who tended to base their writing upon a few days spent in Tehran and other big cities. From this they created a patchwork that included a mixture of Iranian contemporary art, women’s rights issues, underground music and homosexuality. Thus a new set of counterstereotypes was incorporated within the existing ones and the claim was made that it represented the other. Iran, the one that you never see or hear about in the news. It’s a new way for someone to make a name for him (or her) self and earn some money.
In the second part of the decade, it is possible to trace the effect of political turmoil and the ups and downs of different economies on both a global and a regional level. In this era, the exhibitions tended to be wrapped in more sophisticated layers of clichés and kitsch. However, despite all the care and the theoretical trappings, the clichés were nearly always exposed.
The research into the representation of Iran beyond its border gave us the opportunity to make a quick sketch, a croquis, which just happened to be based upon the records that came to light and what the witnesses described from their own perspective. It was not meant to judge the entire scene or predict the future. Rather, it was a group attempt to gather evidence from the shattered field. We wanted to try and trace the nature of representation by putting the pieces of the puzzle together, side by side, on a flat surface. We acknowledge that it is still too early to apportion blame and yet too soon to close the files. It’s going to be a long investigation that requires the participation of many researchers, and it will take time to analyze all the random discoveries alongside the systematically filled databases. But the result will be something that is almost totally lacking in Iranian art: documentation.
Iran & Co is produced by Culturcentrum Brugge in collaboration with Parkingallery Projects – Tehran
Iran & Co. Archive:
Amirali Ghasemi / Michel Dewilde / Azar Mahmoudian
Click here for more information about the project Iran&Co and the team
Amirali Ghasemi (b.1980, Iran) is a curator, media artist and a graphic designer. He graduated in 2004 with a BA in graphic design from Central Tehran Azad University, with an emphasis on research in digital art history. In 1998, Ghasemi founded *Parkingallery*, an independent project space in Tehran and in 2002 he set up Parkingallery.com, an online platform for young Iranian artists. Ghasemi has shown his photographs, videos, design works in various festivals and exhibitions internationally. As a curator he has been directing many exhibitions, workshops, and talks for Parkingallery projects, such as *Deep Depression (2004-06), Sideways (2008). He has co-curated The Urban Jealousy,1st International Roaming Biennial of Tehran (2008-09) and four editions of Limited Access Festival for Video and Performance (2007-11), followed by his involvement in a variety of projects for institutions, project spaces and universities in Germany, Netherlands, Serbia, UK, Egypt, Turkey, United States, Brazil, Canada, France, Sweden, and India. He was the guest curator for the CCBRUGGE in 2010 and along his independently curated programs like “The invisible present”( Brazil,USA) he recently guest programmed a video art section for Rotterdam and Goteborg film festivals in Jan- Feb 2013. He is currently working with photography, video, installation and interactive projects, besides writing on the Tehran arts scene and contemporary Iranian art for various magazines and on his own art-log. IRAN&CO is his ongoing curatorial project, an ongoing exhibition and archive of Iranian art representation beyond its border. In summer 2014, Ghasemi co-funded New Media Society, a network base research platform and library.