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Urban Askance: One Day in Tehran

by MAJID JAHAN in San Francisco

19 Jan 2010 13:58No Comments


[ exhibit ] Through January 23, San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts provides a glimpse inside Tehran. One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran features work by Tehran's urban artists Nima Alizadeh, Saba Alizadeh, Mohammad Ghazali, Ghazaleh Hedayat, Abbas Kowsari, Mehran Mohajer, Neda Razavipour, Homayoun Sirizi and San Francisco-based artist Taraneh Hemami. Initiated in 2007, the project aimed to engage artists with "the mundane and the ordinary through observations of people, objects, and rituals." The resulting photographs, videos, drawings and audio form layers that simulate a complex gaze into Tehran for the viewer.

Arranging the pieces against white walls, Hemami binds the artists' installations of human inspiration, breath, and the staccato of state-run radio. The group had not foreseen this summer's controversial Iranian presidential election that would radically alter the project's direction and perception. Largely completed before the current tumult, however, the work remains worthy on its own merits. After all, the mundane has always revealed the political in Tehran, as it does in any teeming polis.

We begin our tour from the air. In Abbas Kowsari's panoramic, the first in his photo triptych, the city struggles to be visible through the smog. We view Tehran in its perpetual construction, forever strewn with building cranes and scaffolding. Below the skyline, a second image shows a time lapse of chador-clad woman repelling Rambo style down a military building; raptors come to mind. From one side of the flying fighters comes a cheery announcement for the upcoming cadet graduation ceremony. In the third panel, pictures taken at intervals from the same perspective reveal a new cast of pedestrians with each shot: the majority of women in traditional chador, a man with a package of sweets, men checking cell phones and fingering prayer beads, youth in high-tops and cuffed jeans making their way from point A to B. The artist layers the banal and surreal, bound inextricably together in Tehran.


In "Find the Lost One," Neda Razavipour asks us to seek the disappeared. A split-screen video shows commuters leaving the mouth of a metro stop. The thrum of walking bodies accompanies this most ordinary of scenes. We see the humdrum similarity of life in Tehran and any other urban center. But Razavipour injects the uncertainty that pervades daily Tehran living by directing the viewer to locate the person missing from the second screen. Dualities emerge. While I studiously search, a second audio installation by Nima Alizadeh broadcasts President Ahmadinejad's voice. He asserts that the day commemorating freedom for Palestinians is a day of unity for all Iranians. Freedom and unity, two themes propagandists have paired with the workers' commute are torn apart under the threat of disappearance. The collision of the two works represents the power of uncertainty in this faceted exhibit.

Another religious epithet is pronounced overhead. Something about prayer and well-being. I hear sounds of breathing.

Spread on the floor, Hemami's laser-cut green turf replicates a map of Tehran. She added "Turning Green" post-election, a reflection of the Green civil rights movement that filled the streets in the days following the June election and which continues to erupt in Tehran and elsewhere. Hemami explained how the smell of burning turf filled the exhibit space for days. Appropriate, she said, as Tehran smells of burning -- the wind carrying smoke all across the city -- buses and motorbikes on fire, smoking garbage bins protecting eyes from the assault of tear gas.

Another announcement is read from state radio, clearly recorded before the elections: "We can have a green, breathing and settled city." With the rise of the Green Movement, the propaganda backfires. A Green city, yes.

Settled, hardly. Breathing when they can, until they don't.


Above Green Tehran, Ghazaleh Hedayat's Taxiography takes another cut at cartography. Each of the 77 pages of 6" x 4" grid notebook reveals an outtake of the map. Hedayat explains that while she sat in countless taxis she marked her notebook with an ink pen and let it slide with the movement, bouncing and skidding across the page as the cars careened through the streets. The resulting collection of taxi maps shows a grid on grid, the passing of time and space. From a distance each page appears as a Persian (Arabic) letter. The names of streets (Palestine, Municipality, the names of martyrs and the names of flowers) signify the elegiac and everyday. How one circumvents obstacles. How one circumvents an established path to find a workable route. The probability of a path and the logic of taking the long road. (Through the eyes of the post-election upheaval, one sees the path of protests, the crossroads of Revolution Street and Freedom Square).


City dwellers like me believe that in the hours before the push of machines and humanity, nothing is more elegant than the concrete. I've introduced my love of béton brut to others who are not as convinced. The pinhole photographs of Mehran Mohajer show concrete's potential but add a sinister note. The pinhole's slow exposure and complete erasure of depth of field softens right angles, leaving curved concrete and steel bathed in silence. He imagines these streets as the scene of the "day after" the current chaos. But instead of apocalypse, I see the dreamlike serenity of it.

(Below the photographs of streets emptied of citizens, another of Alizadeh's radio excerpts adhered to the wall in silver script: America has spread enemies throughout Iran. Then, spliced in, a mundane traffic report. I hear breathing now to my right.)

Who is breathing? The seventy-two dead at the start of the uprising. Saba Alizadeh has drilled seventy-two holes at mouth level of a 5' 6" pillar. Inside, a recorded breath endlessly looped. I stand nose to nose with the pillar. Breathing. We all breathe until we don't -- it's human rhythm at its most elemental, withholding life from death. There would be more breathless bodies to count in the following days and months.

The music overhead is lively now. It's southern, from the Persian Gulf region of Iran, echoing its African roots and beats.


Decades have passed since the war with Iraq wrought the rhythm of mourning. Yet memories of martyrs still hover over the city. Mohammad Ghazali calls it endless bleeding. His photographs of empty niches in the city are framed in white. Common to all are the ornamental martyr murals. Ghazali has swiped a vertical red streak down each, obscuring their faces. Young romantic renderings of boy soldiers in the midst of urban days; forgotten glory amongst the iron and struts, electric power lines, and the cyclone fences by the overpass. Martyrs paired with a billboard for Nokia phones. Another martyr obscured by overgrowth, forgotten. If the boys were not shot in black and white, if they hadn't been covered by a blood-red streak, we would see their rosy-cheeked innocence.


Finally, we arrive at a simple video installation of a bird in a cage. Yes, a cliché. But our bird is both urban and Tehrani. Homayoun Askari Sirizi invokes the mythical Homa bird who in Persian myth chooses the future ruler. In this urban version, the caged bird is taken out every four years to make a "choice" from a stack of folded colorful cards. On each card, a line of poetry by Hafiz, a kind of fortune telling. With use of a narrow camera angle, the bars on the cage appear to encompass the entire frame. Bars on the city, its cars, its citizens, its spring daffodils. The bird has disappeared in a city whose destiny is anyone's guess.

(Over the radio: Iran is in your hands. The future is in your hands.)

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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