“All The World’s Futures” might be the overarching leitmotif of the 56th , but Iran’s national pavilion, its largest ever at the prestigious contemporary art event, has chosen to frame its future through its past.
The first exhibition, entitled The Great Game, takes its inspiration from a 19th century tug-o-war over the lands of Central Asia. The second, entitled Iranian Highlights, offers a select mix of four Iranian contemporary artists who have forged very varied careers on the international stage over the past 50 years.
The two are intended to work in harmony, creating a substantial whole united under Iran’s roof. They meld together to an extent that it is difficult to notice where one ends and the other begins.
This is all part of the plan, says Tandis Tanavoli, project manager for the Faiznia Family Foundation, a non-profit organization that is organizing the pavilion along with the . “The beauty of this exhibit is that the works chosen create a story – one story,” she says.
The pavilion stands sentinel in a former ship-building factory between two canals at the very northernmost tip of the city, along the Calle San Giovanni deep in Venice’s Cannaregio district. The atmosphere is industrial, with paintings mounted on makeshift walls erected from sheets of white canvas and sculptures perched on the bare concrete floor.
The pavilion’s open interior creates a seamless transition as visitors move between the two displays. Here, Iran has showcased 40 artists. Many are part of the larger of the shows, The Great Game, which brings together the work of artists from Iran and her neighboring Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, , Azerbaijan, Iraq and Kurdistan.
Curators Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia developed the concept behind The Great Game. The pair explained that it thrusts the contested and still pertinent geographies of the 19th century into the language of contemporary art. The theme might be more familiar to international audiences through Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, or Peter Hopkirk’s eponymous study of the geo-political tussle between the British and Russians for the lands of Central Asia from 1813 to 1907. Iran was portrayed as the playfellow in satirical magazine prints of the time: the diminutive Persian cat to the burly British lion and Russian bear.
In keeping with festival director Okwui Ewenzor’s desire to articulate and heal the ruptures of history by focusing on the “current state of things”, The Great Game serves to underpin the common historical, geographical and artistic ties between Iranian artists and those from guest countries. Ever aware of the unfavourable media presentation of this part of the world into the 21st century, the curators have tried to create a dialogue between viewers and works, enabling Biennale visitors to experience these regions through the eyes of the artists assembled instead of the rolling news. Introducing the public to new artists in order to challenge preconceptions about Iran and its neighbours is the overall prerogative.
Iran’s curatorial strategy this year allows a forum for those countries swallowed up during the events of the past in which to not only articulate their enduring connections, but also their burgeoning artistic autonomy and national traumas. Visitors have been feverishly Instagramming the Iraqi-born, Helsinki-based artist Abdel Abidin’s phosphorescent I’m Sorry (2008). As appealing as the light-box signage is, framed by red, white and blue light bulbs like a starlet’s dressing room mirror, the phrase is the apologetic response that the artist received when he revealed his nationality in conversation to the US citizens he encountered on his travels around America.
There has also been buzz surrounding the inclusion of the late Iranian painter and video artist Farideh Lashai. Her multimedia works, many of which were her last before her death in 2013, are compellingly dark and ethereal. Lashai’s video painting Rabbit in Wonderland based on the aftermath of the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh melds the uncertain reality of political events with the phantasmagoria of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A figure, perhaps Mossadegh himself, appears spectral, swathed in mournful robes of black and grey. Beside him hops an animated white rabbit, accompanying him down the rabbit hole of Iranian history.
The Great Game also presents an opportunity to see the collective works of some of the most celebrated Iranian contemporary artists. ’s mirror mosaics and the for which is best known share floor space with each other. Around labyrinthine rooms within rooms, visitors stumble upon the monumental sliced columns of Nazgol Ansarinia beside works of photomontage by the late Sadegh Tirafkan, which unflinchingly explored issues of gender in modern Iran. Turning a corner, Ahmadi Shahriar’s potent mix of weaponry and calligraphy see swords dangle as pendulous reminders of Iranian martyrdom.
The installation work of Ahovan Parastoo takes the pavilion to yet a darker place, laying out a history book dated 6000 BC to the present day, only to puncture the golden lettering of its title with a bullet hole. Perhaps with a shared black humour, the pioneering Iraqi multimedia artist Wafaa Bilal is paired well with the Iranian sculptor Ghodratollah Agheli, both of whom present disconcerting golden busts within The Great Game. Bilal’s Canto III and Space Junk were part of a 2015 crowd-funded project, which saw the artist send Saddam Hussein’s metallic likeness into space. Agheli’s Venus in a Tragic Land (2012) splices the human with the robotic in a modern chimera, inserting video screens into monitors with female hands and faces. Drawing on shared artistic heritage, Indian sculptor Riyas Komu’s Fragrance of a Funeral (2010) and the Afghan painter Mohsen Taasha Wahidi with In the Seventh Sky (2012) take figures from the traditions of Persianate painting and position them within deconstructed landscapes.
Although boundaries between the two are porous, The Great Game is followed by the Iranian Highlights exhibit – the traditional showcase of national artists at the Biennale – a choice selection of four Iranian painters, photographers and conceptual artists from across three generations. Iran divides the trajectory of its contemporary artists into three parts. Typifying the ‘Masters’, Mohammad Ehsai presents his famed canvases of calligraphy, which are here limited to a bold and regal palate of red, black and white strokes, which swirl across shimmering golden backgrounds. Samira Alikhanzadeh is next, demonstrating the ‘second generation’ of artists born in the 1960s. Toying with ‘past’ and ‘present’, Alikhanzadeh infuses vintage photographs of women in 1940s-60s Iran with elements of collage, obscuring their pre-veiled faces with dappling mirror reflections, neon backlights and the faded patterns of antique Persian carpets. Also representing Iran’s ‘second generation’ is the photographer Jamshid Bayrami. A controversial figure, Bayrami shot to fame with his 1999 image of student protestor Ahmad Batebi, which became the notorious cover image of The Economist regarding its feature on the unrest. His photographs on display at the Iran pavilion mix clustered repetition with stark isolation: a crowded build up of shoes surround the edges of a prayer mat, the silhouette of a lone man walks a black ribbon of tightrope. Lastly, Mahmoud Bakshiri Moakhar exemplifies the ‘third generation’ of artists born to a post-revolution Iran. A conceptual artist perhaps familiar to British audiences via the dirtied national flags of Air Pollution of Iran (2004-6) acquired by the Tate, Moakhar presents Talk Cloud (2013) at Venice. The weighty iron thought-bubble is seared with a fragment of Persian speech, which describes the practice of art making as a commitment of the human spirit that is as necessary as breathing. Space for the fourth generation is left open, a mantle to be taken up by the next era of young Iranian artists.
The hazy sun-lit oil paintings by Iranian artist Mehrdad Mohebali of a queuing crowd craning their necks for a view behind a velvet rope could be a snapshot of the biennale atmosphere itself. With within a floating city of micro-galleries, the event is the most global of the arts calendar. Throughout the history of the Biennale, Iran possesses a unique status along with the Vatican as the only religious republic states in attendance.
The commissioner of the 2015 Iran pavilion, Majid Mollanooruzi, is the head of The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. He hopes that the vast selection of artists will show “an almost complete picture of Iranian contemporary art”. To meet that formidable task, Iran’s eighth showing at the Venice biennale is certainly a feast – and constructs an important narrative. “If you remove one piece, this story will not be the same. It will miss something. It will be incomplete,” reiterates Tanavoli. There may be two shows on the roster for Iran this year, but with these exhibits there are no half measures in what proves to be a standout offering.