TEHRAN — My first impression of the Iranian capital is one of vagueness in a difficult topography, as the city sprawls in all directions and stands at different elevations surrounded by mountains. This panorama emphasizes the visual ambiguities of the palimpsest-city, an assemblage of varied architectural styles and periods. In the absence of a uniform visual code, different versions of the city exist in parallel and at times merge into porous surfaces. To come to Tehran to look for art is a half-chaotic experience, as you navigate a complex network of streets and alleys showcasing extensive graffiti and wall paintings, often state-sanctioned and with themes that riff on the Islamic revolution and resistance — the topic of martyrdom is widespread, particularly in central and southern districts of Tehran, areas that were neglected as affluent families moved north. Like in other places around the world, these overlooked areas are now being reclaimed by a young creative class. You might use the word gentrification, but that process is more complex than what is at stake in Tehran, because in the face of economic sanctions and the precarious position of the city in the bigger global picture, that term may not be quite right.
Yet you still encounter a dynamic city where gallery visitors during the weekend seem abundant and energetic — something which is lacking in many other places with much better arts infrastructures. Still, things are, to a great extent, local, as few artists exhibit outside of Iran. In the words of local artists, the noise about the Tehran art scene that bubbles up in the global circuit seems based on the assumption that no art scene exists in Iran at all. Artists have often remarked to me that while they are not accurately represented overseas, they remain critical of the possibilities afforded by the current scene in the country. Looking at the art shown in galleries, of course, doesn’t reveal everything that you need to know about a place, especially as particularly a hermetic one as Tehran, but you can get an idea of some general currents: a troubled modernism examining the visual and historical past of the region as both source and challenge, and a search for the kind of heterogeneity that could merge contemporary ideas and means of production with local narratives.
The work of Mohammed Hossein Emad, on show at Assar Art Gallery, is a perfect example of this process: a twofold perspective in which the principles of Western modernism and the canon of the East convene in the same object. The exhibition, Acceptance, consists of four new wooden sculptures by the Iranian artist, in which the central force of the work is not mass or volume but pure space, emptiness, a void. The smooth geometrical shapes are contradictory empty structures — they are massive in essence, but have been emptied out by the hand of the artist. The void, however, remains inaccessible to the viewer, and it is only possible to see through tiny openings that reveal a serene darkness. Mehdi Hosseini explains in the catalogue of the exhibition, “Up to now, sculptors have neglected or paid little attention to ‘space’ which is an important component of mass as space,” and then goes on to pick up an idea borrowed from Naum Gabo’s “Realist Manifesto” (1920) of Constructivism, about space itself as a final form. The works have a certain feeling of sculptor Richard Serra’s metal pieces in terms of their shape and volume, however, on closer inspection the sculpted wood reveals a warm surface that almost melts under its own deceiving weightlessness — the empty space is still a heavy solid.
The painter Ali Nassir, on the other hand, from the same generation as Emad (they were both born in the 1950s), is on show at O Gallery, and his work functions in a different way. Nassir resorts to the grammar of European expressionism as a basic structure — he studied painting at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin and has lived in Germany since the 1970s, but resorts to the soft colors of the Iranian palette and different storytelling mechanisms borrowed from Persian literature in order to present human relationships and casual moments from the everyday as imaginative folktales. Mute Theater is a large exhibition of recent works spread across the three floors of the gallery, including many drawings that reference traditional illumination but are freed from the rigid system of classical Persian painting to flow almost seamlessly as a cinematic sequence.
Nassir is one of those celebrated Iranian painters from a generation that stands at the transitional moment between the strictures of modern art and the precariousness of the contemporary moment, probably indulging in both. Life or theater? There is a certain inflection of surrealism in the work which is particularly well suited for the folktale, but the painterly language is formal and precise.
Across the street from Assar Gallery, there is a park with a complex of buildings transformed in the ’00s from military barracks to cultural institutions, including the Iranian Artists Forum, which is a government institution with several exhibition halls. The spaces here host all manner of events and exhibitions, mostly dealing with 20th-century Iranian modernists. At present there is a large exhibition of the works of Nima Petgar, a celebrated Iranian artist who passed away in 2005 and who is himself the son of legendary painter Ali-Asghar Petgar. The exhibition is installed in different halls, arranging his paintings in a retrospective manner but without much sense of orientation or concept. Since state art institutions in Iran are something of a rarity, it is possible to see in the forum a learning curve about exhibition making and the still premature codification of modern art in a country with a long tradition of craftsmanship and where the boundaries between artisan and the artist have always been somewhat porous. Petgat’s exhibition has some gems, including expressionistic and abstract expressionist works, which are done in a very lively palette emphasizing soft pastel tones.
This is still a very partial view of what happens in Tehran, since a number of local artists are represented by galleries outside the country and produce work that resonates with more than one audience, not to mention the fact that a generation of younger artists is not yet being exhibited in galleries, and then, of course, there are the always shifting dynamics of Iranian society. Most exhibition spaces in the city were not designed as galleries, but rather are repurposed former residential buildings that blend architecturally into their neighborhoods.
Elsewhere in the city center, the traditional bazaar remains the financial and commercial heart of Tehran, and though there is little contemporary art to see there, artisanship is very much alive. With its lavish mirror mosaics, the nearby Golestan Palace, built between the 16th and the 19th centuries, gives the visitor a lot of visual information about the multilayered history of art and architecture in the country and its relation to the ages of empire and colonialism. Here, it is easy to see the the traditional aesthetic heritage behind the reflective work of prominent contemporary Iranian artists like Monir Farmanfarmaian.
The gallery scene is not very different from what you would see in other cities in the region — the target market is exclusively local, focused on an upper-middle-class audience, and the very limited roster of artists often overlaps between various galleries, though the history of contemporary exhibition making is somewhat undeveloped. Art galleries regularly open new shows every two weeks or so, repeating artists constantly. The prices for artwork start at a few hundred dollars but can shoot up to the five-digit numbers we’ve come to expect elsewhere. This range of pricing shows is how some galleries have managed to create discrete markets for a small circle of influential artists.
A public art program initiated by the city and titled A Gallery as Wide as the City has gathered a lot of attention in the past. The annual project replaces a wide network of billboards and street advertisements with art. The monthlong swap not only displays more traditional Islamic art but includes well-known works of modern and contemporary art, including those by de Chirico, Picasso, and Pollock. The intention is to introduce the public to the breadth of art. Neither Tehran nor its art scene feel small, but that’s not obvious at the street level, and the visitor needs a lot to help to navigate the nuance.