Tehran Gallery Round-up
Shortly after the Bam earthquake in 2003, the JICA (Japan International Co-operation Agency) offered its expert assistance to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development of Iran. The organization prepared a consultative report on the potential consequences of a major earthquake event in Tehran, and lay out some strategies for Disaster Management. The report (which some say is fictional) presumed that around 10% of the population of the city of Tehran would be immediately killed in a major quake. However the chief threat to life would come after, with the epidemics that would spread as more than a million cadavers began to rot within the ruins of the city. The sole prophylactic solution that JICA proposed was the building of enormous crematoria to dispose of the dead as quickly as possible. In the open call that the Tehran Municipality allegedly made for architectural proposals for the crematoria, the importance of not disturbing contemporary residents, or unduly affecting their view of the city skyline, was explicitly stressed.
A 2008 work by the artist Shahab Fotouhi and architect Arash Mozafari, responded to this call for submissions with a model of a giant crematorium in the form of a ziggurat. On top, two large Dutch windmills decorated with Persian floral motifs gently rotated their burnished steel blades, powered by some unseen source. The work, sharply critical as it is, was not exhibited at any global biennale, but in downtown Tehran, at a gallery called Ab Anbar, and its open satire of the absurdities of state decrees says much about the Iranian contemporary art world. Like Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “A Modest Proposal”, that argued in the midst of an Irish famine that the most effective solution would be if the Irish would consent to eat their children—“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...”—Fotouhi and Mozafari’s proposal for a crematorium took the administrative logic of “Disaster Management” to its logical conclusion. “Disaster Management,” like “Human Resources” is one of those obscene oxymorons that provide cover for entire industries. Their putatively “helpful” suggestion reveals the curious tendency of all forms of bureaucratic management to evolve into cannibalism, when left unchecked.
Fotouhi and Mozafari’s own modest proposal is currently on display at an exhibition at Ab Anbar gallery, a contemporary space in downtown Tehran. Both the gallery and the exhibition are characteristic of the new Tehran; frankly sophisticated, and at the same time intellectually aggressive, as if the totalitarian government lingering in the background only whetted people’s appetite for political art. The show Mass Individualism confirms the suspicion that censorship might sometimes prove healthy for the arts. This apparent surprise—the presence of politically critical contemporary art in downtown Tehran—reveals one of the paradoxical effects of repression. By propelling a large part of the Iranian elite into exile, the regime created a diaspora more internationally connected than before. The artists themselves are typically cosmopolitan. Fotouhi studied at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany. Mozafari’s architecture practice has performed major national commissions. The curator, Azadeh Zaferani, also has an architectural practice, and divides her time between Tehran and Toronto. Furthermore, by clumsily censoring half the internet (random news and culture sites are blocked—some newspaper images get through, some do not), the regime has fostered a generation with a robust skepticism about the intelligence of the regime, and an extraordinary interest in contemporary philosophy: an interest that suggests a belief that there might be something at stake in the questions that it handles.
Correspondingly, there is a great interest in contemporary philosophy in Iran. According to locals, the current wave of translations began with the philosopher Morad Farhadpour’s publication of “Depressed Reason,” a critique of reason in isolation. Farhadpour’s Farsi translations of Adorno, Agamben, Badiou, Benjamin, Nietzsche and Tillich provided the impetus for a circle of translators who published under the name of “Rokhdad” until they were suppressed after the 2009 uprising. Even now, philosophical texts are printed in larger editions than fiction, and specific figures such as Alain Badiou, in particular, are translated into Farsi faster than they are translated into English.
Curators and translators both enjoy a particular prestige in contemporary Iran, and this is because they share access to the most envied capability in the possession of the Persian diaspora: freedom to fluidly cross borders. This is an ability denied to the mullahs, and the conservatives, who cannot shed their identities without losing their privileges. Simply referring to the capacity to cross borders can therefore be understood as a kind of positive content, a reference to something gained in defeat. The capacity of cosmopolitan nihilism to present a positive choice, when compared to either fundamentalism or militant nationalism, does much to explain the ongoing importance of Parviz Tanavoli, whose pop derivatives are the flipside of the astonishing kitsch made by the Supreme Leader’s favorite illustrator, Mahmoud Farshchian.
For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the most discussed galleries and museums at present in Tehran. It’s not a complete list (there are over a hundred active galleries in the city). The criteria for inclusion is only that they were recommended by more than one observer. All the websites also feature contact details; it is advisable to contact smaller galleries before visiting to ensure that they are open.
No.2 Roshanmanesh alley, Khaghani St, Enghelab St, Darvazeh Dolat
Platform 28 for Art and Architecture
No. 28 Khaghani St, Boor Boor St, Dr. Mofateh St, S |Haft-e-Tir Square
No. 12 Dey St, North Kheradmand Ave.
No. 3 Pesyan St, Valiasr St
No. 40 Seoul St, Vanak
Azad Art Gallery
No5, Salmas Sq, Golha Sq, Fatemi Sq
Ground floor, Building No. 32, No. 20 Sepand St, Villa St, Karim Khan
46 Khosrow Alley, Villa (Nejat-ol Lahi) St.
No. 42 Mina Blvd., Nurbakhsh St, Farzan Alley, Naji Alley, Zafar Ave., Modarres Exp.
Dastan Art Gallery (Dastan’s Basement)
No. 6 Beedar St, Fereshte St
Assar Art Gallery
16 Barforushan Alley, Iranshahr St, Karimkhan Zand St
Tehran Contemporary Art Museum
N Kargar St
Bagh-e Ferdows, Valiasr St
Shahab Fotouhi/Arash Mzafari, no title, 2008
photo credit: Mahan Moalemi