Counter Cultures: Negar Azimi on "Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014"

Artforum International, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Counter Cultures: Negar Azimi on "Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014"


IN ONE OF THE CORNERS of "Unedited History: Iran 1960-20 I 4," a sprawling exhibition that opened [-hi, past May at the Musee- d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, an installation of five screens flickered. At its center was a 1973 film called Mogholha (The Mongols), directed by Parviz Kimiavi, which recounts the story of a fictional young director who rounds up a band of Turkoman tribesmen to play Mongols in a surreal retelling of the history of cinema. In one of the HIM'S more unforgettable scenes--and there are a few--the robed Turkomans in Mongol drag march through a harsh desert climate with antennae in hand, reciting a litany of names of technological gadgets en route: microwave, monitor, oscilloscope, and so on. The recitation makes for wonderful, absurd poetry, and as the director draws unsubtle but hilarious parallels between the traumatic thirteenth-century Mongol invasion of his country and the muscular modernization of 1970s-era Iran under the shah, the film can't help but seem like a harbinger of what is to conic in at least one of the twentieth-century histories this exhibition of unusually great ambition sought to address.

In tracing the modern history of Iran from 1960 to the present and its echoes in visual culture, the curators of "Unedited History" motley crew led by Catherine David, herself an old hand at putting together heady exhibitions on and around the modern and contemporary Middle East--ventured into a minefield. For one of the accidental legacies of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the toppling of the shah--no doubt one of the last century's great political passion plays--was to make the project of representing Iran and its histories a feverish battleground littered With rival claims. Was the revolution a great catastrophe or a great victory? Whose Iran? Whose modernity? "Unedited History," as the curators conveyed in one of their many unusually erudite wall texts, set out to dismantle the view that the revolution--whose primary figurehead was a hectoring holy man by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini--abruptly halted the advance of .modernity in that country. Wherever one stands politically, this posture is refreshing: Shows with stakes, and an argument to make--especially in the era of the bland group show--are increasingly rare. Having said that, one can only imagine royalists, who for much of the past three decades have been devoted to mourning the death of the Shah's "Great Civilization," getting seriously splenetic.

THE EXHIBITION OPENED with a series of oils and collages by Rahman Mohassess, an artist as strange as he was gifted, whose semihuman figures assume the shapes of heroic grotesques. He was joined by his contemporary Behjat Sadr, whose moody teetering between figuration and abstraction seems to capture the atmosphere of a generation negotiating Western-style moderniza-tion in a more or less traditional society. (As it happens, her painterly surfaces look like oil spills--a fine parable for the petrodollar-flush 1970s.) A section titled "Archaeology of the Final Decade," assembled .by curator Vali Mahlouji, presented traces of various Iranian avant-gardes of the '60s and '70s and, by extension, their own Peggy Guggenheim in the form of the then empress, Farah Diba, who hovered as a barely acknowledged specter over a vast swath of the show. Here, there was a smattering of documents related to the relatively little-known Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts that she patronized--staged for eleven summers, it was at its peak one of the most adventurous and idiosyncratic festivals in the world. Among these documents were a rare film drawn from the first day of Robert Wilson's unreal seven-day, seven-night production KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE, 1972; a recording of the late director Bijan Mofid's beloved animal-human parable Shahr-e-Ghesse (City of Tales), 1968; and photographs from I 972 of members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company doing calisthenics with the sixth-century BC pillars of Persepolis behind them. …

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