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Arts: Book Smart: The Bidoun Library Project

by DAN GEIST in New York

05 Sep 2010 20:32No Comments
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Museum as Hub: The Bidoun Library Project
New Museum, New York, through September 26

[ exhibit ] The shape of things to come? "The shape of the collection was dictated primarily by search terms on the World Wide Web rather than any intrinsic notion of aptness or excellence." Curation by Google keyword -- could the result be anything other than a travesty? Heartbreakingly, for those loyal to traditional notions of connoisseurship, the answer is yes. Bidoun Library, a 700-item-strong assortment of books, magazines, pamphlets, and ephemera, all relating in some way to the Middle East, makes for an engrossing exhibition, ready to reward hours of attention.

Once the visitor has donned a pair of archival gloves, any of the items may be removed from the many wall-mounted shelves and pedestals and perused at length. While the contents of the exhibition, a project of the arts and culture quarterly Bidoun, were arrived at in a semi-random manner, their arrangement is everywhere thoughtful and thought-provoking, even if disrespectful of Dewey decimal rules. In some areas the relation between the items is unambiguously thematic; in others, more visual. Jordanian political journals sit across from American superhero comic books and a 1981 button celebrating the return of the U.S. Embassy hostages. Just a couple yards separate a shelf of Iranian artists' monographs and 15 years worth of Aramco World Magazine, from back in the days when Aramco still stood for Arabian American Oil Company.

Much of what goes on in Bidoun Library is a silent training in the recognition and deconstruction of stereotypes that can range as widely and as deeply as one desires. On one wall, an array of U.S.-published tomes underscores the weight and utility of the veil in Western perceptions of Middle Eastern life. There's a poetry here that does not conceal the complex of prejudices and conceits, but rather draws one in for a closer examination: Unveiled. Behind the Veil. Voices Behind the Veil. The Face Beyond the Veil. Beyond the Veil of Darkness. Rage Against the Veil. The Veil Unveiled. Unveiled, again. Framed thus, the silliest, most awkward of titles is profligate with meaning: From Veils to Thongs: An Arab Chick's Survival Guide to Balancing One's Ethnic Identity in America. A swarthy (but not too swarthy) bank of Harlequin and Silhouette romances prods us to ponder, Why are sheikhs so much sexier than sultans? (And, no, shahs are not in the game.)

The inside front cover of Iran, a colorful 1963 guidebook produced by the Pahlavi regime's General Department of Publications and Broadcasting, informs us "at a glance" about the country's "race and population": "Twenty millions, Arian. The modern white race originated in Persia." Why go anywhere else?

A monograph devoted to the great Iranian illustrator Farshid Mesghali is alone worth extended scrutiny. Children's books, film festival posters, poetry collections, mythological concordances -- the ambit of his playfully rigorous imagination seems as wide as Bidoun Library itself: this could be its omphalos, the hub of the hub. You don't need to read a word of the book to learn from it, but consider his path: Born in Isfahan, Iran's second largest city, in 1943. To Paris in 1979, the year of the Revolution. In 1986, the United States -- Southern California, of course. In 1998, back to Tehran. Where this book was published two years later. And unaccountably titled In the Name of God.

Mesghali's work, like many others here, demonstrates how trends in international graphic art and design are acknowledged and transmuted through distant, idiosyncratic sensibilities. Self-guided epiphanies of exchange between East and West, between cultural products high, middle, and low are the central pleasures offered by Bidoun Library. Endlessly illuminating, often entertaining, the exhibition includes items with the capacity to infuriate, as well. The Official Iranian Joke Book, published by Pinnacle Books in 1981 and authored by a gentleman claiming credit for similar compendia of Russian- and Ukranian-targeted "humor," is half-filled with lame japes far too generic to conceal their repurposed nature. And half not:

Why won't the Ayatollah let the Peace Corps come to Iran and exterminate the cockroaches?

He has enough domestic problems without a nationwide domestic meat shortage.

A plague of roaches infests the book, accompanied by an outrageous efflorescence of warts and pimples. For instruction in the convergent interests of empty-headed exploitation and the most rancid brand of propaganda, it would be hard to improve on this.

A far more artful and unforgettable example of propaganda sits nearby. A tiny children's book, Home was first published in Beirut in 1974. Charmingly illustrated by Mohieddin Ellabbad, it won first prize at the 1975 Exposition du Livre Arabe. The edition here is entirely in English. It begins, "The hen has a home. The name of the hen's home is the coop." The reader is introduced by turns to the rabbit's burrow, the horse's stable, and so forth. "Everyone has a home. The home is the place that grants all of us peace and happiness." We're now more than halfway through the book. Turn the page.

A barefoot boy stands outside a tent. A single, five-pointed star glows in the darkness overhead. "The Palestinian has no home. The tents and huts he lives in are not his home." A castle burns. "Where is the home of the Palestinian? The home of the Palestinian is in Palestine. The Palestinian does not live in his home now. The enemy of the Palestinian lives in the home of the Palestinian now." A helmeted figure pilots a tank, a six-pointed star on its side. "Who is the enemy of the Palestinian? The enemy of the Palestinian is he who occupied the home of the Palestinian." Beside a sun and crescent moon, a giant rifle stands. "How can the Palestinian regain his home? The Palestinian will regain his home through struggle and sacrifice. The Palestinian shall return home. The home of the Palestinian belongs to the Palestinian." Is the four-year-old who read this a 40-year-old prepared now to compromise on the right of return?

There is a small AV component to the exhibition. At one end of the L-shaped room, Persian-language videotapes, many produced in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, play on a monitor. One recent afternoon, viewers could watch a loud but not overly strenuous aerobics and "Persian dance" workout held on the sprawling patio of a McMansion complete with marbled waterfall. The leader of the proceedings, Mohammad Khordadian, performs in a style evidencing intensive study of the work of Richard Simmons. A half hour of a relentless Khordadian was followed by Caltex Records' 20 Music Videos, Vol. 1, featuring diaspora pop stars such as Sheila, Morteza, Sepideh, Mansour, and Martik. Released in 2007, much of the collection mimics the products of 1980s Anglo-American pop culture that read now as simple camp.

These videotapes are amusing for a few minutes, and then terminally boring -- exercise reels are obviously not meant for static consumption, and streams of like-styled low-budget music videos similarly repel attentive viewing. But a few minutes is enough for them to do the sort of work they're here for. Their earnest fustiness, which makes them easy to deride and dismiss, can also impart a faintly melancholic nostalgia. Their inherent cultural ambivalence may be taken as a cause of their aesthetic impoverishment. Or as compensation for it. The music videos in particular hint that today's cutting-edge YouTube excitements -- doubtless to be remade Farsi-style a few years hence in Tarzana and Canoga Park -- press no surer claim to the title of "progress" than do this season's remodelings of Pringle can and Levi jean. Many players in the contemporary art scene regurgitate the mundane and inane in a putative effort to get at such points, but are betrayed by their own calculated laziness: If you're really an artist, don't you have something better to do? Dropped without adulteration into the museum context, these rankly commercial tapes are much more successful at prompting analysis and introspection. Mohammad Khordadian and Sheila really don't have anything better to do than to get you thinking.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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