Looking For Iran in its Art

08/05/2009 4:00 AM |

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.