The nine artists featured in ‘Iran without Borders’ share little more than a national affiliation. Even that identity is tempered – as the exhibition title suggests – by the wide-ranging residences of its participants (England, Germany, Sweden and the US, in addition to Iran itself). The glue binding the show’s premise was not, then, a specific geography, but rather the persistence of the country’s influence or sensibility – even for those who have left its borders.
Like the art being produced in other politically ‘vexed’ nations, Iranian art risks – for both better and worse – becoming the next hot commodity on the international art market. Often generated by geopolitical polemics and speculation as much as aesthetic merit, that proverbial heat can leave an uneven field when it cools. If ‘Iran without Borders’ was any gauge – whether arbitrary or tendentious – of the country’s current talent, it augurs quite well. Its concurrence, this summer, with Iran’s political upheaval (and summary clampdown) inevitably informed the reception of the works, though the show was conceived well in advance of the recent turmoil.
Rather than forcing some tenuous relation between generations and media, the curators simply included works that stand solidly on their own feet. There was, in fact, hardly a weak piece in the lot. Morteza Ahmadvand’s still photographs and nine-channel video panel Flight (2008), for instance, offers a fresh, lyrical evocation of an otherwise hackneyed theme. As the work’s singular subject, a lone bird appears enclosed within a shallow space. As the bird repeatedly attempts to escape its confinement, the camera records the spectral traces of the animal’s flutterings. Over the course of three minutes, the piece accumulates a palimpsest of blurred, white wings, at once ghostly abstractions and a miniature history of the bird’s fruitless outbursts. Though the installation could serve as a metaphor for Ahmadvand’s predicament as an artist working under the constraints of an Islamic theocracy, the piece appears unfreighted by the banality of the very clichés it invokes.
More direct in her reference to (specifically female) oppression – perhaps afforded in part by her exile in Gothenburg – Mandana Moghadam’s installations Chelgis II (2005) and Chelgis IV (2007) feature long braids of hair: whether suspended from the ceiling and supporting a concrete block or amassed on the inside walls of an upright polyhedron. Moghadam’s pieces distil social themes into irreducible, poetic configurations, at once strikingly physical and obliquely literary. (The subject of an Iranian folk tale, Chelgis is ‘the girl with 40 braids’.) Also engaging with literary and art historical precedent were Reza Derakshani’s series of large canvases, which integrate barely discernible likenesses adapted from motifs from Persian miniatures. Sizzling and crackling with wild reds, his sprawling work A page of Shanameh (2009) evokes the epic written by the tenth-century poet Ferdowsi, rendering this national creation myth a patchwork of controlled and interlocking calligraphic scribbles.
Eschewing literary residue in favour of pure abstraction, Mojé Assefjah’s egg tempera paintings are no less striking. There appears something tacitly, though fundamentally, feminine about Assefjah’s painting – a quality divorced, in this instance, from subject matter. Looping in ribbon-like billows set against vaguely spatial layerings, her brushstrokes are arresting in their elegant facility. The abstraction of Amir Mobed’s constructions in wood, iron and human hair exchange elegance for a more embodied punch: erotic, bawdy, cheeky, bizarre. A Way Inward (2008) resembles the curling of some pointed member into an orifice of the same body, all the while suggesting the rough-hewn, workaday banality of a lamp or a shoe. As a showcase of disparate talents, the borders transcended here were more than geographic – they were also material, affective and semantic.