Using art to understand the culture of an artist’s home country is a risky route, something akin to navigating a road trip with an unmarked map, or writing horoscopes without consulting an astrological chart. When the destination is as hazily defined as the trajectory we expect will lead us there, we’re just as liable to get lost as we are likely to make unexpected and fortuitous discoveries. If the country in question is already starkly defined in thick strokes of black and white – as is the case with Iran, the subject of a dense and, on balance, rich exhibition at the Chelsea Art Museum (CAM) – near-insurmountable pre-conceived notions often become an additional danger on the way to genuine insights.
Appropriately, then, Iran Inside Out (which continues through September 5) begins by picking apart some of the greatest hindrances to our understanding of Iranian society and identity. Despite the exhibition’s title, its curatorial narrative moves from the outside inward. The first two sections (“In Search of the Axis of Evil” and “From Iran to Queeran and Everything in Between”) take great care to undermine notions about the country that have been disseminated beyond its borders.
Between the crudely sci-fi Bush-ism and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s infamous statement during a lecture at Columbia University that in Iran they “don’t have homosexuals,” artists in these opening sections are framed by very specific themes. Many offer spectacular, targeted responses: Sara Rahbar’s Jasper Johns-ian re-interpretation of the American flag superimposed with a map of the Middle East; Behrang Samadzadegan’s portrait of two American soldiers posing against a charred desert backdrop; the sex worker calling cards to which Shahram Entekhabi has added full-body veils. Such works lose their appeal quickly, eliciting the equivalent of “Oh yeah, good point,” then fading rapidly from memory. These sections’ more ambiguous works – like Saghar Daeeri’s lush, semi-pornographic shopping mall paintings; Abbas Kowsari’s exquisite photographs of preening male bodybuilders and veiled trainees at an all-female police camp; or Behdad Lahooti’s update of Duchamp’s urinal, titled “A Cliché for the Mass Media” – prove much more satisfying.
The most interesting pieces featured in Iran Inside Out target several issues at once (or none explicitly at all), rather than offering a response to some fleeting event or debate. No artist in the opening sections does this with more humor and blissful disregard than Vahid Sharifian, whose absurd and intentionally bad photocollages have him breathing fire at a swooping bald eagle in a homely kitchen, leading a herd of deer through a gleaming loft, or fighting a black stallion in the desert, and always, always in his underwear (or, as in the image of him sodomizing a lion, nothing). The result evokes Cindy Sherman, Martha Rosler and Borat all at once.