On ViewParasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art
May 22 – September 8, 2019
Channelling the influence of Iranian culture through an eclectic array of artistic approaches, curator Ziba Ardalan unites nine early to mid-career artists born in Iran but in several cases, living across the globe. Their work in THE SPARK IS YOU in London shares, according to the press release, an “affinity with openness, respect and human interconnectedness.” Notions such as absence and presence, silence and expression, and cultural exchange emerge in dialectical tension, engendering enigmatic and ambiguous installations. But while Ardalan stresses the traditions of Persian poetry, its specificity is difficult to perceive beyond the works’ generally figurative nature.
Nazgol Ansarinia’s floor-level cluster of asymmetrical palettes occupy the gallery’s first room. Freighted with monochrome plaster bricks, The Mechanism of Growth, Demolishing Buildings, Buying Waste (2017) is both spatially imposing and minimalistic. Invoking the ongoing redevelopment of Tehran, these evenly spaced pallets imitate a topographical perspective, with their homogeneity reflecting the erasure of the Persian architectural character by more Western styles of housing. In an adjacent space, her films Fragment 1 and Fragment 2 alternately play to show the steady, dispassionate demolition of the city’s homes.
In the next room, architectural principles fuse with themes of absence and presence in Hadi Tabatabai’s Transitional Spaces (2017). Standing in a row, with a black divider in the center, are six rectangular, aluminum frames; 800 strands of thread are stretched in between each to create a permeable surface, onto which a black rectangle is painted. Creating perceptual confusion, the installation’s depth of field oscillates as you circle its perimeter. Its planes seem solid like Perspex sheets faced head-on, its intermediary spaces occupied; when viewed sideways, however, its negative spaces are exposed. At any other angle, its material status remains uncertain.
The reticent nature of these exhibits seemingly results from their embodiment of dualisms. Ghazaleh Hedayat explores the tension between representational absence and authorial presence in both (un)threading (2018) and “The Strand and the String” series (2008 – 2018). Four medium-sized photographs comprise the former, with the artists’ back to the camera, her hair up in a bun to expose her back. Fastidious, horizontal lines score the first image from top to bottom, although Hedayat remains discernible. The second is unaltered, while in the third she is diffused by a storm of multidirectional lines, transforming it into something dreamily expressionistic. The final image is a rectangle of white, spotted with only the faintest trace of photographic matter. While the artist’s visual identity is concealed, her presence is asserted in the act of effacement. Similarly minimal and ingenious is her series of five canvases, each stitched with grids along whose ordered lines her own hair is threaded. Implying political dissent—given that under Iran’s theocratic government displaying one’s hair and neck in public transgresses “modesty laws”—her work illustrates how women find ways to express themselves within such social paradigms.
Whereas Hedayat quietly vocalizes individual agency, Koushna Navabi’s Untitled (Tree Trunk) (2017), conveys the paralyzing horror of being objectified as a cultural “other.” Punctuating the orderly, monochromatic aesthetic downstairs, a carved female form hangs from the ceiling. Her dismembered upper body is swaddled in kilim, a traditional Persian fabric, while the lower portion remains as unmolested raw material. The leopard-like pattern of the textile that covers her head and torso obscures her facial features and lines her gaping mouth. Oppressed by signifiers of nationality that render one exotic when viewed from an outsider’s perspective, the suspended sculpture evokes the mortifying objectification of alienation.
Much of the work here offers a figurative expression of states of being, although few pieces make any direct claim to a literary tradition. Sam Samiee’s sprawling installations however—The Fabulous Theology of Koh-i-noor (Theologia Theatrica de Koh-i-noor) and The Fabulous Theology of Darya-i-noor (Theologia Theatrica de Darya-i-noor) (both 2019)—tentatively reference the Middle Eastern tales from the One Thousand and One Nights (1704). Here he deconstructs the titular diamonds’ symbolism and associated history of conflict using the logic of the character Shahrzad, who enchanted the tyrannical ruler Shahryar with her storytelling. The names of these priceless diamonds—the “Mountain of Light” and “Sea of Light,” respectively—manifest in these multidimensional, multimedia displays: ceramic forms, small painted tableaus, and a spectrum of colored canvases spilling over and around two plinths.
These diamonds—spoils of war since the 13th century—intersect Eastern and Western worlds, with the Koh-i-noor taken from India by the British in 1849, and now residing in the Tower of London. Throughout the exhibition a dialogue between Occident and Orient is evident, though often oblique. Hossein Valamanesh depicts this hybridity through the hypnotic design of Lotus Vault #2 (2013). Using leaves from the plant, native to his adoptive country of Australia, he recreates the geometric patterns of Isfahan’s Masjed-e Jāmé (Friday mosque), with their light-and-dark brown coloring echoing the brickwork of its Oljeitu Chamber. Going beyond the East/West dualism, Morteza Ahmadvand’s metallic sculpture invokes Newton’s cradle with its three interrelated spheres topped with Abrahamic symbols, while Navid Nuur’s colourful, vibrant canvases—the largest being concurrently presented at the gallery’s Venice show of the same name—celebrate the uniformity of human mark-making across the globe.
Nine Iranian Artists in London: THE SPARK IS YOU imaginatively presents work informed by a shared sense of Iranian identity, with Hedayat and Navabi’s output particularly evocative. A stronger unifying rationale for the exhibition, beyond the admittedly pervasive but largely imperceptible influence of classical Persian poetry, would strengthen the communicability of the art displayed. But in spite of this, it remains an absorbing exhibition: speaking eloquently—though in hushed tones—of contemporary Iranian experience.