How is it possible to bring an exhibition of 20th-Century art whose fundamental objective predominantly has been to challenge if not undermine authority to a country with one of the most restrictive and inhibitive societal systems in the world? Two days into Muharram—the Islamic month of mourning—and four days following the hugely controversial Iranian elections, on February 24th, “Turning Points: 20th-Century British Sculpture” opened at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA). The much-anticipated exhibition was inaugurated in the presence of the British Ambassador to Iran as well as British Council’s delegates including celebrated sculptors Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon. The Council’s Visual Arts director, Andrea Rose, and the TMCA director, Dr. Sami Azar, have been the driving forces behind the show’s materialization. Following the closure of their office in Tehran, during the 1979 Revolution, BC resumed its activities in Iran, only two years ago. The organizers’ decision to bring Western sculpture to a place where the international media has labeled as a backward flowing country carries myriad significances. In “Turning Points,” these crucial factors resulted in some successes, as well as certain disconcertingly unmet challenges.
Sixty sculptures represented 15 artists, 13 of whom—with the exception of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth—continue to update the medium’s contemporary aesthetic language. Despite the inclusion of pieces by Asian-born artists, including Anish Kapoor (India), Mona Hatoum (Lebanon), and Shirazeh Houshiary (Iran), to the majority of Iranian viewers, the works in the exhibition appeared to preach an exotic private language. This is mainly because, like theater and museum, sculpture has a distinctly European origin. However, unlike the theater, whose foreign form Persian audiences warmly received and adopted from the onset of its introduction toward the end of the 19th-Century, sculpture and museum are still struggling to find their indigenous public. To quote Iran’s most celebrated sculptor, Parviz Tanavoli, “How can one compare modern sculpture in Iran, which has only a 40 year history and only had six sculptors participate in its first [Sculpture] Biennale, in 1985, with that of the West which boasts a Venice Biennale that is more than a century old?” Tanavoli adds that this sustained European tradition dates back a further 3000 incompatible years. Here, the native artist articulates the primary challenge which TMCA and the British Council had faced yet seemed to have either completely missed, or simply dismissed. This is to say that sculpture has not been an integral aspect of Iranians’ visual history and therefore their cultural memory since the time of Achamenids and Sassanids, for two and a half thousand years. Accordingly, we may liken the challenge of bringing such an exhibition to Iran to an attempt in making a crucial point in an incompatible, or forgotten, aesthetic language that required simultaneous translation but which was not provided. Instead, perhaps from fear of appearing to ignite precariously probing or critically interpretive schemes in the face of Iran’s conservative clerics, the organizers firmly held on to the works’ chronology as the show’s sole interpretive device.
From Modernism’s seemingly commanding and puritanical tradition to the allegedly democratic direction of Postmodernist art, the show had many opportunities to confront some of the liveliest artistic debates that took place throughout the past century, and which continue to this day. In purely curatorial terms, this allegiance to sequentiality went so far as, for example, to place Bill Woodrow’s more recent work Sting I (1997-98) some two galleries away from his work of the 1980s, including Car Door, Ironing Board, and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head Dress (1981). Notwithstanding the exhibition’s predictable chronological arrangement, the museum did not provide any other interpretative alternatives such as descriptive labels, visitor guides, docents, or audio tours to the visitors. The exhibition catalogue, like others of its kind, was too generously priced for most people to be able to afford it. However, that the exhibition took place in Iran’s capital bore great sensual and cultural significance. Tehran as sculpture may be classified as a colossal kinetic monument. Like London’s South End, the landscape of Iran’s capital is spinning out of control under its booming construction market. Mona Hatoum’s +And (1994) can be regarded as a microcosmic representation of this macrocosmic reality. Fittingly, in Hatoum’s work, one wing of a rotating apparatus evens out its surrounding environment that is covered with shifting sand whilst preparing it for its rhythmically parallel and tediously predictable re-construction, in relentless cycles. At this point, I must insist that my criticisms are not intended to undermine either Modernist singularity or the Postmodernist expanded condition of sculpture in future manifestations of Iranian consciousness and intelligence. On the contrary, they are directly aimed at the urgent demand for cultivating contemporary Iranian artist’s proclivity for sculpture’s soaring take off in that country. This inclination may concretely be measured following a comparative examination of the number of submissions to Tehran’s Sculpture Biennale which had multiplied by 66% (from 6 to 400) in about a decade and a half. From the total number of applicants, 100 artists’ works were selected and exhibited at the TMCA, in 2002. Undoubtedly, since the introduction of Modernist architecture and mass production in Iran, early in the 20th-Century, aesthetic production has been guided to search for presentation in the artificiality of museums’ Westernized spaces. As a matter of fact, it was in Tehran—Iran’s capital since 1789—that the country’s first public museum, The National Museum, was created, in the 1930’s. In fact, Iran Bastan (the museum’s name in Persian), with its rich and diverse collection of Persian architectural elements and sculptural remnants, would have made an exquisite setting for “Turning Points.” In the age of Globalization, by adopting an aesthetically inspired approach, the otherwise currently impervious spaces of East and West can be forced to collapse into one another within the museum’s boundaries. Moreover, sculpture’s generously gregarious condition has the ability to expand the reciprocity of high-low aesthetic exchanges to include high-low inter-cultural curative dialogues. Perchance it is too idealistic to put the negotiating responsibility of these borders’ future collapse-ation onto artists’ shoulders. Although not if it may, someday, allow the sound of Iran’s youth to reverberate in the impaired ears of their Western allies and that of the West in the equally weakened ears of their Iranian counterparts.