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Iran Inside Out

28 Jun 2009 13:203 Comments

Pooneh Maghazehe, Hell's Puerto Rico Performance Still, DigitalC-print 2008, copyright artist and courtesy Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery.

By LEILA DARABI in New York | 28 June 2009

The line outside the Chelsea Museum on Thursday night spills down the block, a thick stream of stylishly dressed New Yorkers batting at the humid summer air with impromptu fans fashioned from the postcard invitation to the "Iran Inside Out" exhibit. There are Americans in skinny jeans toting Vespa helmets, Europeans in open collared shirts and asymmetrical dresses, and Iranians--hyphenated and non--in cocktail attire, a few sporting green ribbon accessories.

Though not atypical for New York's art gallery district, it is a scene hard to reconcile with the bleak and scattered images coming out of Iran these past few weeks. The link between art and politics may be well established, but what of art openings?

Inside the museum, beautiful people mill about, circling the drawings, paintings, sculpture, sound and video installations of 56 contemporary Iranian artists, the largest exhibition of its kind ever to be shown in New York. Spread over three floors, the show is divided into five sections, each with a provocative title: In Search of the Axis of Evil, From Iran to Queeran and Everything in Between, The Culture Shop: Special Sale on Stereotypes--All Must Go!, Iran Recycled: From Vintage to Vogue, and Where in the World: City Quiz.

It's a lot to process at once.

Sam Bardaouil, the show's curator, was looking for under 15 artists when he approached Leila Heller, longtime Madison Avenue gallery owner and godmother to Iranian artists trying to make it in New York. "Basically, I gave him the number of, like, 100 artists and four galleries in Tehran and Europe," Heller says on the phone the next day. The show quickly ballooned. "The more he researched, the more he realized how much great art there is out there," she says.

Heller put Bardaouil and co-curator Till Fellrath in touch with power couple Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, two of the best known Iranian artists showing on the international circuit today. The pair lives in New York and both quickly signed on to help track down and organize a comprehensive representation of, as the exhibition's subtitle puts it, "Influences of Homeland and Diaspora on the Artistic Language of 56 Contemporary Iranian Artists".

No one involved could have predicted that the opening night gala would coincide with the ongoing post-election turmoil in Iran.

"It's been very hard to paint, lately. It feels like painting doesn't change the world," says Darius Yektai, an artist showing three nude self portraits in the exhibition. "What's happening now [politically in Iran] is going to enter into everyone's studios."

"My fear," says Heller, "is that we worked so hard on this Chelsea Museum show, getting the curator in touch with artists in Tehran and artists living in Europe, we don't want the art to be forgotten."

She calls the show one of the Chelsea Museum's best, Iranian or otherwise, and says part of its strength lies in the diversity of the work shown--well established names mixed with young artists showing for the first time. "Censorship has been so difficult for artists living in Iran since the revolution, but it has been equally hard for those living in the West because they've been so stereotyped because of this 'axis of evil' no one wants to go near them," she says.

Video artist Leila Pazooki, who divides her time between Berlin and Tehran, agrees. "For the past two years, everything was about Iran. Iran, Iran, Iran, 'you're an artist,' 'you're from Iran'."

The goal with Iran Inside out, says Heller, was "not to become another ghettoized 'under the veil' show". Securing artists like Shirin Neshat--whose high profile lends the project credibility and whose photography, cinematography and installation defy categorization--helped to define the professional caliber of the show.

"You cannot do a show in a museum and not have Shirin Neshat, who has really been a role model to all these other artists. It has to be at her level. She's a museum artist. For her to agree to be in this show, it had to have a mission," Heller says.

A centerpiece to the work on exhibit is Neshat's 1998 film installation "Turbulance." Projected onto opposite walls of a dark room, the work depicts a man on a an auditorium stage singing to an audience of all men on one side and a woman singing to the same hall, now empty, on the other. The man faces the camera with his back to his audience during his performance. The woman faces the empty seats, her verse erupting into guttural chants that drop out of sync with her moving lips. The work, one of Neshat's most celebrated, won an international award at the 1999 Venice Biennial and has been shown rarely since.

For those interested in contemporary Iranian art, "Tubulance" alone is incentive enough to visit the Chelsea Museum. And while three floors of art do not provide a simple key to the complexities of Iranian politics or what is happening in Iran today, the collected works aim to offer an international audience a more nuanced understanding of Iranian society--from the inside out.

Iran Inside Out runs through September 5th. A related exhibition "Selseleh/Zelzeleh: Movers & Shakers in Contemporary Iranian Art" is showing at the Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller Gallery through August 20th. Throughout their runs, Tehran Bureau will be covering the artists and art represented in these shows in more depth.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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steph / June 29, 2009 8:16 AM

It is a shame that the organizers of this exhibition did not have any of Delara Darabi's art. As all are certain to recall, she was the young woman illegally executed (read, murdered in prison on May Day) if any tyranny is illegal in the IRI.

Richard Kadas / June 29, 2009 1:05 PM

To see powerful interviews with Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari, including clips of their newest film installations: http://www.flypmedia.com/issues/plus/09/#1/4

DVP / July 2, 2009 4:27 PM