Miyan-e Mahdoudiat-ha ya Marz-ha? , Contested Agency in Contemporary Iranian Art (1)
Staci Gem Scheiwiller
In the photograph Betwixt (2012) by Iranian artists Shahram Entekhabi and Behrang Samadzadegan, the two artists stand in adjacent telephone booths, each making a phone call. It is unclear to whom they are speaking, but the compressed space of the photograph implies that they are talking to each other. Back-to-back and each isolated within their own booths, it seems that although both parties are speaking, neither is fully listening nor understanding what the other is saying. This frustration in attempting to have a conversation emerges through their body language: Entekhabi on the left holds his hand over his ear as if he cannot hear through the mouthpiece, his face somewhat perplexed. Samadzadegan on the right is bent over in exasperation, gripping the booth’s tray, as if he has been repeating the same words continuously to no avail.
This image is a comment on the current state of Contemporary Iranian Art, illuminated by the fact that Entekhabi is an Iranian artist based primarily in Berlin, while Samadzadegan is an Iranian artist based primarily in Tehran. Technology often connects Iranians on both sides of the Iranian border, and in this case, the telephone metaphorically joins the two artists into one space. The voice itself can travel between transnational spaces—when one calls Iran or someone in Iran calls out, the voice carries, arriving and existing in each other’s spaces. Yet, the sad but humorous irony in Entekhabi and Samadzadegan’s photograph is that despite communication, there is no communication between them, thus pointing to a larger problem that exists between Iranian artists outside Iran and those inside.
In Contemporary Iranian Art discourses, a tension is growing that involves the agency of speaking—who can speak for whom? Who is an Iranian artist? And most of all, what is Contemporary Iranian Art? (2) If one is discussing Iranian identity in his or her artwork or is Iranian but creating art outside Iran, then could not those artworks also comprise the discourse? Several artists and art historians in Iran have made claims that only Iranian artists living and working in Iran can make “Contemporary Iranian Art”—anyone working outside Iran is eliminated from that dialogue. As early as 1999, Ru’in Pakbaz, an art historian in Iran, writes in “Contemporary Art of Iran”: “[I]n this article, no mention has been made of Iranian artists who live in other countries and have not directly affected the evolution of contemporary Iranian art.” (3) This particular view on art in Iran assumes nonporous borders, which allow a national art to flourish without any dialogue with the outside world, a notion that is generally false. But it is not only Pakbaz who holds this position, and it is gaining popularity throughout the years, creating a striking blow to those Iranian artists working outside Iran. (4) And not only do these battles over representation ensue, but also, there are pointless accusations that denounce certain artists as self-exoticizing or neo-Orientalizing to gain fame in the international art world.
It could also be perceived, however, that the global art world itself has been complicit in this tumultuous divide. It is partially the global art world’s fault for being racist and insensitive by showing Iranian artists together without contingence, just because they are Iranian in origin. (5) As far back as 1987, a show at the Baltimore Convention Center called Contemporary Iranian Art: Four Women featured only one artist who was actually working in Iran, Parvaneh Etemadi (b.1948). In the exhibition Contemporary Iranian Art (2001) at the Curve Gallery in London, curator Rose Issa dedicated only a small portion of her catalogue essay “Borrowed Wares” to differentiating artists in Iran from those in Diaspora, but her discussion was not pronounced. Later, Iran Inside Out (2009) at the Chelsea Museum in New York attempted to nuance the situation by specifically showing Iranian artists who work inside Iran in relation to those outside. Although the show was praised for its wide representation of women artists and its potential to elucidate stereotypes about Iran, (6) especially when its opening coincided with the Green Revolution, some critics thought that the show only compounded monolithic thinking. Melik Kalyan, who writes for Forbes Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, commented: “What the show doesn’t do is change our perceptions, for this is exactly what we thought. Iranians on the whole, especially young Iranians—and most of the home-based artists are young—despise the regime. If that is a stereotyped perception, the show merely confirms it.” (7) Yet strikingly, in an exhibition in Iran, Gardens of Iran: Ancient Wisdom, New Visions (2004) at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, curator Faryar Javaherian included among other artworks by Iranian artists without contest the video Mahdokht (2004) by the Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat (b.1957) whose enormous presence on the international art scene has caused angst about who can and cannot represent Contemporary Iranian Art. Overall, these scenarios suggest that Contemporary Iranian Art from within Iran is a growing commodity on the art market, bringing in millions at auction houses, (8) and those artists inside are competing heavily with those on the outside for patronage, representation, and exposure, thus producing nationalist tendencies that exclude others.
In Entekhabi and Samadzadegan’s video artwork Limbo (2012), the message becomes clearer. The two artists start from the same position in a small gallery space. They pace the room back and forth but eventually fall out of rhythm with each other, pacing the room at different intervals, partially because they are oblivious to each other. Yet the joke remains the same: they are in a cramped space together—are they really invisible to each other, or it is just another case of actively ignoring what the other is doing? What separates the two artists from each other is nothing but air, yet the boundary between them is fraught with psychological tension that bars one from entering the space of the other. In this monotonous pacing, nothing is really accomplished but isolation, ignorance, and misunderstanding. Yet, since only air separates them in this self-imposed limbo, there is still much fluidity and movement between the two—the barrier between them is only a malleable limitation, not an inviolable border.
Staci Gem Scheiwiller
California State University, Stanislaus
* We Are Standing Outside Time, published on the occasion of the exhibition: THE STATE OF ‘IN-BETWEEN’ IN CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN ART, curated by Julia Allerstorfer, Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, Austria 2012
1)- I would like to thank sincerely Shahram Entekhabi, Behrang Samadzadegan, and Julia Allerstorfer for their invitation to write this essay.
2)- Hamid Keshmirshekan has attempted to define Contemporary Iranian Art in “A New Wave of Iranian Art,” Journal #3 1, no.3 (2011): 9. Although he describes the heterogeneous nature of the artwork, he does not address the divide between Iranian artists inside and outside Iran. 15
3)- Ru’in Pakbaz, “Contemporary Art of Iran,” Tavoos Quarterly 1 (1999): 173.
4)- Question and answer discussion, “The Body as a Site of Political Intervention in Contemporary Middle Eastern Art,” College Art Association Annual Conference, Los Angeles, CA, February 2012; Julia Allerstorfer, “Im Spannungsfeld zwischen Tradition und Modernismus (Interview),” Kunst und Kirche 4 (2004): 252; discussion with Shahram Entekhabi, e-mail message, May 24, 2012.
5)- Hamid Severi, an art historian in Iran, explains that international exhibitions on Contemporary Iranian Art tend to focus on Iranian identity and culture at the expense of other artistic factors and interpretations. Hamid Keshmirshekan, “Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, no.4 (2011):52-3.
6)- Holland Cotter, “Iran Inside Out,” New York Times, July 23, 2009, Art in Review, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/24/arts/design/24galleries.html?pagewanted=all.
7)- Melik Kaylan, “The View from Here,” The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2009, Life and Culture, accessed May 30, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203547904574280051845780902.html#articleTabs%3Darticle.
8)- Artist Barbad Golshiri gives several figures in his article “For They Know What They Do,” E-Flux Journal, no. 8 (September 2009): 1, 3, accessed May 30, 2012, http://