Looking For Iran in its Art 

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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.

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Sharifian’s parody of patriarchal and national myths, the coded tastes of art history and what we think of as good art practice says as much about the conflicted identity politics of the young Iranian as it does about the hyper-self-conscious and irony-obsessed art world he also moves through. His brash, derisive sense of humor suggests a culture whose capacity for laughter is paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Indeed, given how shrouded in current events-related seriousness the nation has been of late, such flashes of humor often afford Iran Inside Out’s best moments.

As the exhibition moves further into Iran – subsequent sections address the deployment of stereotypical Middle Eastern motifs, the push to integrate the globalizing marketplace and portrayals of daily urban life – the level of the work remains uneven and the awkward second floor of the CAM jeopardizes certain pieces. Shiva Ahmadi’s ornately decorated oil drums, for instance, are tucked against the railing on a narrow walkway, and are sadly easy to miss. Arash Sedaghatkish’s life-size, hyper-realist watercolors of people on the street are lost behind a whole gang of Bita Fayyazi’s less interesting sculptures.

Still, some deserving works get the necessary room to breath. Iranian-American Shoja Azari’s devastating videos – all five installed in separate boxes in the wall that allow one viewer at a time to become completely engrossed – tell moral tales with the kind of cut-throat violence you’d expect from a Michael Haneke movie. Shot in beautiful, crisp video with stunning colors and smooth long-take cinematography, they speak less to a specifically Iranian experience than many other pieces. Nonetheless, there’s something in the way viewers become attuned to the casual outbursts of violence in Azari’s videos that reflects an experience of lives mired by fundamental terror.

So what, in the end, do these 56 artists (35 living in Iran, 21 who’ve moved elsewhere) show us on the CAM’s tour of their country? Well, predictably, that there is more dissonance than consensus among the nation’s artists. These contrasting, contradictory voices reflect a national culture in crisis, and a society at a fundamental crossroads: between Western consumerism, religious fundamentalism, nationalist isolationism, sexual liberation, conservatism and revolution. Most interestingly, though, Iran Inside Out proves that this supposed rogue state is actually more similar to Western nations than it is different. Many of these artists’ ideological crises and aesthetic investigations are analogous to those being pursued on gallery walls in Berlin, Barcelona, Brooklyn and Beijing. Despite how Iran is portrayed on the outside, these insiders reveal a culture and consciousness replete with funny and scary parallels to our own.

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