Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tehran artists in San Francisco

One day, strolling down the streets of Tehran, I noticed that somethings are near and somethings are far. Big deal, I said to myself. Everybody knows there is a here and a there. But why did this thought feel like a find? Why was I inspired by it as though I had just heard a Hafez verse? For some reason, I felt compelled to give life to the sensation so that it can trot out on its own and share itself with other people?

Fortunately, I am a Hafez of sorts myself. I work in a different medium, photographs that hang in a gallery instead of verses written in a book. The poet inside me said I should grab a camera and take a picture of this…this whatever it is. But an ordinary camera wouldn’t do; it had to be a pinhole camera. Why?

I don’t know if this is what went through the mind of Tehran artist Mehran Mohajer as he created the work that had pinned me in front of it for so long. Just guessing! I moved on, promising to come back to Mohajer later. Attracted by the red paint defacing a set of photographs on another wall, I made my way through the crowd to see what that was all about. Nothing at first. Just pictures of busy Tehran streets, each with a red ribbon painted over it. What was the red paint masking in Mohammad Ghazali’s photo art? Musician Arash Sobhani, had no trouble spotting it. When we ran into each other at the gallery opening, I thought here’s someone who likely connects with Ghazali’s The Red Ribbon. Sobhani’s widely admired social criticism in song leaves little unsaid.

“Damned if we focus on it, and damned if we don’t,” Sobhani reacted in Farsi. He was talking about the large shaheed street-posters that would burden Ghazali’s photos with grief, guilt, anger and deceit if it weren’t for the red paint obscuring them. But forgetting or ignoring what is there, leaves scars as noticeable as the wounds, the artwork seemed to argue. “This is Iran’s paradox,” Sobhani said, voicing the sentence with his signature gentle fury. His hand was clenched as though pressing a chord into a guitar neck. The two artists had understood each other well!

Leaving Sobhani to his new artist friend, I ambled back to revisit Mohajer’s pinhole camera photo. A classic pinhole camera doesn’t have a lens, so there’s nothing to focus. As a result everything, both far and near is in focus (see above photo). If our minds worked like pinhole cameras, Iran would have no paradox of focus. It is all just there! There’s one problem with this device though, things that move show up very blurry. Living things going about their business can’t be imaged properly. So Mohajer’s photos have an empty apocalyptic feeling. Ghosts roam here and there, but there’s no stir of life. The Supreme Leader’s face appears clear enough in the distance, but he stares at us immobile from a poster. Splitting the worlds of near and far with color instead of focus, the outer realm is gray, wintry, and silent, while the inner realm is sunlit and talkative.

Promising again to come back to Mohajer, I was attracted by a double-image black and white video on the opposite wall. The left and right videos seemed identical, and at first I thought this must be one of those contraptions where the image becomes 3D if you stare at it the right way. The game was far subtler, however. Among the crowd entering and leaving a busy Tehran subway station, there was one passenger present in the left video that had been digitally erased in the right one. Finding this person takes patience and a strong will to know. The blurb next to the photo said the absent person represents arrested protesters who have disappeared in the recent uprising. Maybe so, but there was also something personal about Neda Razavipour’s work. Had she recently lost someone close to her? Did her work also reflect the shocking realization that the outside world shrugs obliviously at the emotional hole inside of us when we lose someone dear? Again, a young Iranian artist was contemplating the inner versus the outer. In this case Razavipour had connected the two realms. Her nation too had a part of its heart torn out. On the inside there was emptiness where there used to be love, on the outside the missing chunk was in the shape of freedom.

Working the walls one by one, I found equally relevant, emotional and insightful contemporary art by Saba Alizadeh , Homayoun Askari Sirizi, Abbas Kowsari, and Ghazaleh Hedayaat.. Nima Alizadeh’s works had broken out of the frame and spilled out subtly onto the wall paint. Even on the floor of this small gallery there was a work of art where a traditional medium debated modern design. Turning Green is a laser cut wool carpet by the organizer of the show, Bay Area artist Taraneh Hemami. It is in the shape of Tehran’s street map. To go into more detail would impose too much of this writer’s interpretations. Forget what you have read here and go see the works through your own eyes.

As promised I made one last visit to Mohajer to say goodbye to the show. On the way home I thought it would be nice if there were a pinhole “camera” that worked on Time, bringing the same focus to the future as our minds give to the present. Maybe someone could turn the idea into a piece of writing. Then I wondered if Arash Sobhani was thinking what part of the show he could turn into a piece of music. On the inside art is a feeling, on the outside it is a language.

Here’s where-and-when to see the show:

One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran
Wed, Nov 4 - Sat, Jan 23, 2010


Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Gallery hours are Wednesdays - Saturdays, noon-5pm, FREE

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