The multifaceted artistic life of Iran

BEIRUT: When Abbas Kiarostami’s feature-length film “Shirin” premiered at the Venice film festival in 2008, critics praised the veteran Iranian director’s visual eloquence but complained that his work had veered so far from narrative cinema that it seemed more suitable to exhibition galleries than movie theaters.

“Shirin” revisits a 12th- century Persian epic about an artist and a king vying for the love of an Armenian princess. In Kiarostami’s film, the action plays out entirely off screen. All we see, as viewers in an audience, is a languid sequence of static shots showing another audience staring back at us.

That audience, it turns out, is watching a cinematic adaptation of “Khosrow and Shirin,” imagined by Kiarostami but never made. We see faces illuminated by the glow of an unseen screen. We hear lines of dialogue, sound effects and swells of sentimental music conveying a rollercoaster ride of adventure and romance. We see close-ups of one woman’s face after another, tears flowing every so often from their eyes.

The film is a mesmerizing rumination on femininity. It is also a love letter to the 112 Iranian actresses whose faces appear on screen (with the French film star Juliette Binoche making a fleeting cameo in the crowd). More than that, “Shirin” tests a radical experiment in telling stories without images while honoring the space, time and ritual of cinema. Kiarostami reflects one audience in the image of another, leaving the film alluded to in both the title and the soundtrack to be conjured in the minds of viewers on both sides of the screen.

“Kiarostami’s women cast a genuine spell,” wrote The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver. “But as the fixed shot grinds on, it ends up exerting a strain on the viewer. The truth is that Kiarostami’s filmmaking has become more and more pared down over the years, and he has in recent times acted more like an installation artist than a feature filmmaker. ‘Shirin’ might be happier sitting on a video monitor in the Pompidou center on 24-hour loop.”

The Beirut Exhibition Center – located just inside the entrance to the city’s newly minted waterfront district, on a patch of reclaimed land that was once a monstrous Civil War-era garbage dump – is a far, far cry from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The organizers of the most recent exhibition to fill the space, however, certainly got one thing right: Kiarostami’s “Shirin” is looping all day, every day in a black-curtained room of it own.

In many ways the centerpiece of “Zendegi,” a show featuring a torrent of works by 12 very different artists from Iran, the piece is installed as a video work and supported by a series of the auteur’s gorgeously austere photographs of trees in a wintery landscape.

“Zendegi” (“life” in Farsi), is the second exhibition at the Beirut Exhibition Center assembled by Rose Issa Projects in London. (With the exception of the Musée Sursock’s Salon d’Automne, all of the programming in the space so far has been tied to a commercial gallery.)

The first, titled “Arabicity,” opened last September with a bold sampling of contemporary artworks from the Arab world by nine artists with a penchant for pattern and decoration. “Zendegi” is the Iranian rejoinder to that show.

While “Arabicity” was an already existing exhibition that had been curated for an arts festival in Liverpool, the current show is new, and a number of works have been commissioned specially for it. The result is a fresh take on an art scene so vast, vexed and scattered that one appreciates all the more the curatorial choices, aesthetic preferences and long years of experience that Rose Issa brings to Beirut.

Like “Arabicity” before it, “Zendegi” skips around among styles, genres and generations. Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was born in Iran in the 1920s, and makes dazzlingly complex mosaics from shards of reverse painted glass and mirrors.

Maliheh Afnan was born in the 1930s, to Persian parents in Haifa, and produced “A House Divided,” a mysterious work of frazzled gauze over illegible script, for Beirut, where she lived during two key periods of her life in the 1950s and the 1970s. The piece hangs in a room with several other works that give an enigmatic twist to the concept of veiling, the most moving of which is “Contained Thoughts,” an arrangement of glass jars holding cryptic scrolls like secrets, talismans or messages in proverbial bottles.

On the other side of the spectrum is Najaf Shokri, born in 1980, who mines archival territory with a wall of portrait photographs the artist found in a file of identity cards discarded outside an administrative building in Tehran. The portraits, edged by bureaucratic stamps and scrawls, echo Kiarostami’s film in their sequencing of 50 women’s faces, all born in the 1940s. They also bear witness to an era in Iran’s history that was more generous toward different ethnicities, styles and feminist attitudes.

One of the most striking things about “Zendegi” is the consistency with which Iranian artists experiment with heritage, craft and sardonic humor. Bita Ghezelayagh’s “Three Drops of Blood” blends felt, embroidery and silkscreen techniques in a series of floor pieces inspired by a short story – a prison narrative – by Sadegh Hedayat.

Taraneh Hemami works in ceramics, wax and decorative beads to create pop-inflected pieces about martyrdom, emigration and the passage of time that hover somewhere between melancholy and sarcasm.

The show sounds a few false notes with Farhad Moshiri’s paintings of pots, Mohamed Ehsai’s calligraphic paintings and Shadi Ghadirian’s portraits of veiled broads with kitchen tools instead of faces. All of these works are overexposed.

Farhad Ahrarnia, however, is a find. Representing him here are four dramatically different but consistently intriguing bodies of work, the best of which consists of digital photographs of T-shirts reading “I Love Palestine,” “Palestine Is Mine” and “Free Palestine.”

Ahrarnia had printed the pictures on canvas first, and then overlaid the images with embroidery grids. Then he began stitching some of the squares, but only sparingly. A few bits of red appear, like scars. Bits of green slowly creep in, like moss, taking over an edifice of ideas, slogans and sentiments that has been sitting around, static and trod upon, for too long.

“Zendegi,” curated by Rose Issa Projects, remains on view at the Beirut Exhibition Center, inside the entrance to BIEL, through May 30. For more information, please see or

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 27, 2011, on page 16.




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