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'And I Know': Metallica at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art


01 Jan 2011 00:223 Comments
22_8803051750_L600.jpgFinding hope in a tomb for masterpieces.

[ art ] Dreams of Fall, a play by the Norwegian Jon Fosse, is set in a cemetery. A man and his former lover, from days long past, meet there by chance. The man also encounters his parents, whom he hasn't seen for years, and ultimately crosses paths with his ex-wife. This cemetery is nothing other than a metaphor for human life. In this strange land, where some leave for good while others find one another after decades apart, men and women, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, surrounded by death and its trappings, love, hate, and reject one another as they have done, time out of mind.

French director Patrice Chéreau recently staged Dreams of Fall at the Paris City Theater. Chéreau reenvisioned the setting and placed the action in a gallery of the Louvre. How could this grand museum evoke Fosse's graveyard? For years, generations of spectators have come to the Louvre to gaze on other sorts of graves -- those scenes of lives past, painted by the masters of the Western world. If human beings hopelessly try to love one another among the tombs in Fosse's original imagining, so do the visitors at the Louvre in Chéreau's staging, among paintings that mirror their loneliness and desperation, their suffering.

I was reminded of these differing but complementary visions of Dreams of Fall by the recent exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art -- Masterpieces of the World's Great Artists. I was expecting an artistic revelation, but found myself in a cemetery. The artworks here were dead. I found it impossible to engage with them. No sense could be made of their presence in Tehran; none of their aura of brilliance, of genius could be felt. And it was clear that the political context, whether deliberately or not, had left a deep imprint on their presentation.

A few years before the Islamic Revolution, former Empress Farah Diba commissioned her cousin Kamran Diba to build a modern art museum and acquire works by the most prominent names in the Western art world: Van Gogh, Seurat, Picasso, Braque, Magritte, Giacometti, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rothko, Pollock -- there is at least one piece by seemingly every great artist of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Now the most important collection of Western art outside of Europe and the United States, it is worth an estimated $2.5 billion.

In Chéreau's vision of the Louvre, generations of spectators find themselves mirrored in individual masterpieces. The Revolution turned the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art into an unindividuated, metaphoric mirror, offering its blindingly white walls to Iranian spectators as its grand collection of Western art was locked in a basement for almost three decades. While Louvre goers appropriated the heritage there on view as part of their own lives, the new generation of Iranian spectators was denied contact with a collection of dazzling, innovative art that could have been part of their history.

In the early years of the Islamic Republic, the museum was virtually dormant, except for the occasional show of religious or revolutionary paintings. Many Iranian visual artists departed the country during this era. Despite the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the reconstruction that followed, the institution's policies remained unaffected for years. A few Western art exhibitions finally took place during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, including shows devoted to Joan Miró and Arman. In 2005, during the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it seemed for a moment that the museum was on the verge of a renaissance. Selected works from the long-interred collection were exhibited for five months under Alireza Samiazar, the most open-minded and daring director in the museum's history. Ahmadinejad, however, ordered his dismissal and the collection was returned to storage. The present show, originally planned for summer and then extended through October, was overseen by Mahmood Shalouee, Samiazar's more religious-oriented replacement. What prompted the show, given the present political circumstances, remains a mystery.

The decades-long suppression of the collection caused grievous damage to the post-revolutionary generation's experience and understanding of the arts. While it includes important European figurative paintings of the sort called, ironically in this context, "accessible" -- works, for instance, by Picasso, Degas, and Monet -- it also encompasses avant-garde American works that demand open-mindedness and thrive on the kind of knowledge acquired through repeated exposure or formal education or both. Needless to say, living in a country ruled by a strongly anti-Western regime makes none of that easy to come by.

Despite the fact that foreign TV channels offer Iranians multiple windows on the Western world, even though Iranians dress like Westerners, watch American films, and increasingly share the same behavioral codes, they remain haunted by a traditional, religious vision of art that denies its individualistic and sometimes carnal essence.

A work of art does not exist in a vacuum. It is the consensual relationship between viewer and work that generates the artistic experience. The contemplation of spectators' perceptions has unquestionably nourished the creativity of American contemporary artists. Whether spectators liked what they saw or not, they were free subjects who slowly accepted -- or rejected -- simulacra of commercial objects, new forms of abstraction, or industrial-scale sculptures as authentic works of art.

Maybe Iranians can find a connection between themselves and Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, or Andy Warhol. Over time, while making their way amid dictatorship and censorship, they may have discovered hidden and tortuous mental roads that I can't even imagine.

But if the liberation of this collection from its decades-long isolation is a wonderfully promising step toward democracy and tolerance, there is still much to be done. To blankly present a long-suppressed collection of Western art to a generation that has been granted no guidance in its appreciations is not enough. The belief that an artwork can manifest its transcendent power simply by virtue of hanging on a wall or standing in the middle of a room is illusory. An absurdity, even.

Contemporary Western art evidences an acute awareness of the spectatorial experience, and its proper installation reflects this: A work's position within a room, the dimensions of that room, the way it is lit -- all of these are crucial factors in how the viewer engages with the work. The installation of this great collection in Iran's present context -- as would be true in any context -- required serious curators with a clear vision of what this specific group of works could express via a sympathetic installation.

The exhibition, however, was mounted without any evident organizing, unifying principle: It focused neither on a given period nor a particular art movement nor an aesthetic development nor a substantive theme. Nothing of the kind. It existed simply to show as many works from the collection as possible in one place at one time. As if wall hangings along a historical corridor, the works were situated in rough chronological order, allowing a visitor to bear witness to a broad, boring spectrum of modern Western art down an interminable stretch of galleries.

Given the size of the collection, there was no room for all the pieces to be shown at once. Works were thus hurriedly replaced from one week to the next, leaving walls punctured with screwholes. Attending to a Picasso painting ringed by "fascinating" holes, traces of the wall's former tenants, was an unsettling experience.

Rather than neutral and invisible, each divoted wall unexpectedly became an expressive surface. If I had encountered this phenomenon in a Western country, I might have imagined the holes to be a poetic evocation of war. Or perhaps, I would have interpreted their presence as a radical gesture aimed at desecrating the institutional value of the Picasso. But in Tehran, I could see these holes only as the result of a museum policy that disdained to exercise basic respect for its own greatest treasures.

Watching other eyes looking at these paintings and sculptures would certainly have brought me another perspective on the exhibition. But the museum was almost empty at noon -- nobody except a tourist couple and two young students, very discreet. As I walked slowly through the vacant galleries searching for others, I eventually noticed that music was playing in the background, a piano solo emanating from the speakers located in various rooms.

Though the piano theme was masked by oriental ornamentation and a sweet harmony, it sounded familiar. I slowly realized it was interpreting a song by Metallica, the legendary heavy metal band -- a classic ballad that I knew perfectly: "Nothing Else Matters." A love song on its surface, its lyrics evoke social pressures, as well, and the human need to make choices as a free individual.

Without lyrics -- the Islamic rules permit only instrumental versions of Western songs -- this was an astonishing cover version. I recalled the beginning: "So close, no matter how far / Couldn't be much more from the heart / Forever trusting who we are / And nothing else matters."

I focused then on the music and found my way fully to its origin. I reached the song's core and heard the husky voice of James Hetfield singing its climactic lyrics:

Never cared for what they say

Never cared for games they play

Never cared for what they do

Never cared for what they know


It seemed to me that here was the answer I was looking for. If I could find my way to Metallica's original vision, young Iranian eyes could reach into these modern masterpieces one way or another. No matter how far they had been kept from Western culture, no matter how much religious brainwashing they had been subjected to, no matter if they paid the price of their government's ignorance for their entire lives, their hearts must still trust in themselves. Like Fosse and his poetic vision of the cemetery, like Chéreau and his conception of the Louvre, surely they knew how to transform this dead space into an intimate realm in which the nominally alien works of art reverberated with their own, individual sensibilities. And if that is so, nothing else matters.

see also | Tehran Museum of Glass and Ceramics

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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excellent article,i am also a big fan of the group metallica..one of my favorites is a song called 'fade to black' it is on youtube...listen to it

maliheh / January 1, 2011 12:12 AM

I sensed an aura of envy from the author more than anything else; why should Iran have the largest collection of western modern art outside of europe?!!

By the way most museums are virtually empty at 12 noon.

Shawn / January 1, 2011 5:28 AM

Why would he/she be envious?

Anonymous / January 2, 2011 3:59 AM