ART AND THE INSPIRATION OF DUST, GRAVES & ROOFTOPS
By: Marjan Vayghan
These days, I feel disconnected.
Disconnected from my mom, whom I have sent to Iran with two suitcases and a carryon full of art, books and tech materials for the latest Building Bridges Rooftop Reflection Tehran Series. Disconnected from an art world that seems to continue on, even though my world has been stuck spiraling in a quagmire of repetitive rituals.
The world and all the people in it continue as I replay the footage from Tehran’s post 2009 election protests over and over in my mind. My computer screen lights up the hallway of storage units, where I am experimenting with the creation of an experiential art-form, using crates and audio visuals from that day at the cemetery. It is showing footage I took at a protest my mother and I attended on July 30th, 2009. The protest was held on top of open graves at Behesht-e Zahra, during Neda Agha-Soltan’s 40th day from death, funeral procession. Neda’s mom was not granted permission to attend her daughter’s funeral.
In 2009, after the arrests and the funerals, one of which was for my first childhood friend Mostafa, the only thing that seemed important was opening Masami Teraoka’s Solo at the MOCA in Tehran. Everything I had to say about the taboo topics of globalization, westernization, sanctions, fundamentalism, HIV, prostitution, young girls trafficked as Iran’s highest export, could be found in Masami’s controversially bold watercolor paintings.1 The paintings were done in the 1970’s with traditional Japanese brush marks, but they were perfect for a “Jumong” obsessed Tehran of 2009.2 The 2009 uprising was more influenced by “Jumong” an extremely popular South Korean soap opera among Iranian youth, than by Mir Hossein Mousavi. Masami’s watercolor paintings embraced and visualized the esthetics of the green movement, in ways that the Islamic Republic could never wrap their heads around.
After the reality of the arrests and Mostafa’s funeral set-in, I took our Building Bridges message from the streets of Tehran onto the rooftops. In a series of super secretive rooftop reflections, I started disseminating info, art and news across the rooftops of Iran and India. The last one took place throughout the month of January. The next one was to start on April 10th and go on through the summer of 2011.
Last night, while isolated in my artist corner, I thought to cut back on the rooftop screenings (due to funding), but the light of day reminded me of why I started the rooftop reflections in the first place, during those tumultuous days of 2009. We have enough little projectors and I’ll try to get more of the little $150 netbooks with Skype and wireless capabilities. I think it’s important for people in the diaspora to see, hear and feel the sense of isolation the young people stuck in Iran feel. Most Iranians in Iran wish, and think, things would be much better if they were standing on the streets of Los Angeles; where most Iranians in LA would give up everything for an opportunity to visit the blood soaked streets of their homeland.
On July 30th, 2009, my mother and I got out of an air conditioned cab and stepped into a dust filled, field of countless open graves. The heat emanating from the summer khak, sizzled through thin wearing soles of my Kafsh-e-Meli shoes. Fear quickly took over any musings I may have had of adventure and excitement of attending a green protest – with no green in site, among the open graves of Behesht-e Zahra on that hot July day.
My mother, before leaving me to join the protesters screaming “Velesh-kon Velesh-kon”, looked back and persisted with her eyes “don’t you eat anything, drink anything or touch anything anyone hands you!”
I sat down near a group of mourners and watched my mother revert to who she was before the régime change of ‘79, the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988, and my birth in 1984. She pumped her fists into the air, flayed her body and will towards those detaining the young people in protest, and rallied at a group of young boys taking prisoners back, before they could shove and drag their prey into waiting vans. My mom was legit, had street cred. Sure of her every step, she seemed to know things, like she had been there before.
Here I am again sitting in a place where people store all the things they don’t have room for in their lives, collecting scraps of material, dirt and making art, while my mother, aunt and grandmother are on the front lines of change in Tehran. I feel disconnected from the world (and the women of my family/Iran). While I’m instinctively dedicated to a creative process I haven’t yet fully understood, I remember this is not the time to slow down or limit the creative exploration of change and revolution.
The cover photograph is a reminder that the struggle continues even after those of us who can, fly back to safety. The image is a montage of two pictures I took: one on that day at Neda Agha Soltans grave in Behesht-e-Zahra, during protests held on top of open (pre-dug) graves; and the other during my post-arrest travels throughout Azerbaijan (Ardebil, Iran, 2009).
Marjan Vayghan is a 26-year-old humanitarian who turned her a harrowing experience in Tehran into a cathartic work of experiential art (see what Michael Welton wrote on Huffpost). She is a graduate of Otis College of Art and Design, with a master’s degree from UCLA. Her shipping crates with printed, back-lit panels of canvas, coupled with funeral audio tracks are an art experience not to be missed. **
LAUTREC IN TEHRAN
By: Negin Fazeli
I walked in to this concretely concrete building. Right off, I was impressed by the large circular entrance foyer encasing a very modern, wide, downward spiral walkway leading to the lower levels of the structure. I was at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tehran.
The architectural aspect was reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York. Although, in New York, all is white and the spiral pathway swings upward; in Tehran, all is grey concrete and the spiral pathway leads down. I found that somewhat symbolic! The building was suitably appropriate for a modern art museum, minimal yet well defined design; simple. It taught me that in the days past, unlike what is seen in Tehran these days, architecture was actually a thought-out process.
Huge photographic black and white portraits of various contemporary artists adorned the curved wall of the entrance level. Dali was showcased smack in the middle of the wall, pushing up a cane against the bottom of his chin , his hair — mad, and his expression, well… it is Dali, you know that crazed look that speaks of insanity or genius or in fact both! Right above, two ubiquitous portraits of our past and present supreme leaders dangled from the roof, keeping an ever watchful eye over Dali and company.
I looked down from the top of the spiral walkway and my eyes inevitably followed the line of four massive columns down to the bottom level. There, sat a large, metal rectangular pool filled with oil. I was told this is a very famous piece by a Japanese artist. I wondered if the little Japanese man knew that in the years following his creation, just about everything would come down, as the columns did, to a pool of oil. Much like this pool, our nation’s pool of oil has a finite limit and we can only cross our fingers for what will ensue.
I began my descent down the circular path. The first exit of the passageway guided me to separate prayer rooms for women and men, some offices and a PR room. I wondered what this large space could have been used for previously – that is before there was a dire need for sex-segregated prayer rooms and ‘herasat/morality police’ offices. Perhaps it used to display temporary exhibitions of the museum. There doesn’t seem to be temporary anything here now. No one gets in – No one gets out.
At the very bottom, where the pool was, a hallway took me to where the art finally began… It started from ultra modern sculptures, worked itself into minimalist abstract works, and finally wound back upstairs into rooms showcasing a collection of paintings by truly world renowned artists. In the midst of thinking what I thought of the museum and whether the serious lack of ventilation was something someone should be looking at, I was asked by a girl for an inter8view on the ‘merits’ of art and its exhibition. I had been deep into an emotional/philosophical argument in my head over what was then and what has now become the priorities of our society, the value of art and culture, its preservation and yes, ventilation! I think my thoughts were floating out above my head for all to see! It must be why this girl in her very cool red head scarf approached me to almost say ‘do tell us, what do you really think?!’ I was never so short on my Farsi vocabulary. In an emotionally charged state, somewhat flustered, I ended up saying ‘elzaamist’, “it is vital”. Art is mandatory!
The collection was sparse, but all were present, Dali, Kandinsky, Pollock, Picasso, Pissaro, Magritte, Manet, Monet, Warhol… and Toulouse Lautrec. I was pleasantly surprised. It was eerie and unsettling to go through the rooms featuring the painters. I am still not sure why, but it was.
There was exactly one piece by each artist. Another oddity was, barring for the artists already dead in the 60s and 70s, every single piece was dated somewhere between 1963 and 1975. And then complete stalemate! It was as if for this museum, where no one new enters and no one leaves, time had stopped in 1975. The irony was that this was a museum of contemporary arts, the key word being contemporary! We, as a nation, stopped being contemporary somewhere in the 70s. The sense of confinement and detention in time overwhelmed me.
The only one who knew what is to come was Toulouse Lautrec. The world underestimates the foresight of this artist who was the reigning king in depicting decadence, excess, debauchery and sin! All I knew from Lautrec was his vivid images of the nights of folly in Paris, of brothels, loose men and women and looser ‘morals’. He was all about portrayal of all the ways men can sin! And here was Lautrec, and his one piece displayed in the Tehran Contemporary Museum of Art. Anyone familiar with Lautrec would be shocked to learn that this painting was one of his. Can anything be further from the signature Lautrec painting? A stern girl, hair in a tight bun, wearing an austere dark dress! She had the makings of a Catholic school headmistress. How did Toulouse know? How did we miss all the signs and he didn’t? His painting is in such conformity with the ‘moral code of conduct’, it makes you take a step back. Foresight! He gave us a painting which is ironically contradictory to his signature style.
I sat, gazing at Lautrec’s painting, and thinking of the contradictions and everyday inconsistencies that we have come to call reality in our homeland. Sitting all around me, were students of ‘Art’ who found their quiet safety zones to discuss art, or more likely, whisper sweet nothings to each other. These couples and their interaction represented one of the daily contradictions that I was confronted with. Oh, the plight of the non-dating, dating youth!!!
I felt frustrated to be somewhere with the word ‘contemporary’ in its title, yet having a nagging feeling that I had traveled back in time. I was pleased that this museum had survived, yet saddened by the lack of breadth in its collection. I looked at Toulouse’s girl and thought if an art student visits and tries to understand Toulouse through this painting, he will have understood nothing. I wondered what Dali would have thought of hanging below a supreme leader and who was really having the last say here.
Filled with emotion, I finally got up to leave. This is typical of me when I am in my homeland, and yes, after all these years, Iran is still home. The land of paradox, irony and contradiction is still where my heart beats for the quality of a museum exhibit. It is still where everything matters. Everything there is mine. Outside that land, where I reside, nothing is mine. I am forever, a voyeur. Outside Iran, a museum exhibition is just that, good or bad, I comment and I walk out. In Iran, I walk out, but the museum doesn’t walk out of me.
I said goodbye to the morality police in a daze and with a head full of questions, I got to the street. There was a wrought iron fence marking the museum periphery. Another young ‘non-dating dating’ couple was standing at the fence, biding their time to go in. The handsome guy was leaning into the fence, with a Romeo-like pose, looking at the girl… He had a book in hand, which he read from and every few seconds he turned his gaze up toward her. It seemed that despite her very best effort to hold on to her ‘non-dating dating’ posture, she was melting ever so slowly and deconstructing through what filled her ears.
Before I could get myself around to mourning about how they were being deprived of a more depictive collection inside, I realized….he is reciting some serious poetry and she is coming apart piece by piece in admiration. I got goose bumps and somehow my western frustration began to subside and slowly replaced by that internal smile (made in Iran and not available abroad).
To me, the experience of Iran is a constant swing between heart warming internal smiles and episodes of anguish and desperation. It is the internal smiles that keep me going back for more.
In the end, perhaps all is not lost in a land where twenty-year-olds use poetry for seduction. Perhaps things can eventually work out in a city where art galleries pop up almost as fast as mini markets and fast food restaurants serving our very demanding fast lives. Maybe we don’t need a massive collection of every contemporary artist to be relevant in the world of global contemporary art. Maybe the contemporary work produced in Iran today will speak for itself.
I think the lovers at the gate had it right. Maybe we just need to keep the poetic spirit of our forefathers alive and cultivate our artistic inclinations. In all honesty, there is nowhere I have traveled, where cabbies from the wrong side of town, boasting not even a middle school education, crack open their dashboard compartments to show off their cherished books of literary passages and poetry. There is something magical in this enchanted land. Maybe some of that magic will eventually usher us into more liberal and globally relevant pastures.
Is it too naïve to hope that it may all come down to magic rather than a pool of oil?
Negin Fazeli is a an avid reader, art enthusiast and an Iranian American mother with global experience formerly at the UN. She holds an MBA and travels frequently. **