In the winter of 2020, the most controversial art biennial in post-revolution Iran, the 8th Tehran National Sculpture Biennial, was shut down early. This was a biennial considerably different from other large-scale visual arts events in Iran and could have also been named the “Interdisciplinary” or “Contemporary Art Biennial.” Its relative independence and openness enabled a collective display of works by Iran’s latest generation of contemporary artists that, in theme, expression, and orientation, hardly satisfied the official keepers of culture and politics in Iran. Many of the artists who participated in the event do not engage with sculpture in its classical sense, and the sculpture biennial has, in recent years, increasingly embraced artists from various fields as it adapts and incorporates a changing conception of what art and sculpture are today.
This inclination toward experimentation, the conceptual understanding of art, and the social turn in Iran’s contemporary art has not been limited to sculpture. The micro-centers that paved the way for the new art’s nonconventional expression in post-revolution Iran were influenced by various media, including painting, photography, the graphic arts, and theater. This text focuses on works of sculpture not because of their unique pioneering role but because the field of sculpture represents both a unionized profession as well as a social, artistic construction. How and why did sculpture, among all the branches of visual art, come to be a nexus for new artistic approaches (even if only for a short period of time) and function to display, reflect, and promote such a wide spectrum of contemporary Iranian art, especially as compared to other art genres and other large-scale official events and festivals?
To answer this question, I take two different paths. Firstly, this text looks at the way sculpture was excluded from official education in the years after the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 and its subsequent predominance in the art scene by the time the reopening happened in 1993, as well as through the ensuing years of change and turmoil. Secondly, by examining the new beginnings and independent micro-centers that facilitated artists’ ability to experience new artistic strategies in post-revolution Iran, I try to describe how a new generation of sculpture students broke through the official framework of this field. The text then looks more closely at that generation’s gradual influence on the Association of Iranian Sculptors (AIS) and, later on, on the Tehran National Sculpture Biennial — a movement that, after nearly two decades of ceaseless activity, has led both the AIS and the biennial to embracing an interdisciplinary and contemporary attitude toward art.
In the history of modern Iran, sculpture has been a sphere that produces intersections and conflicts between power, tradition, the body, and political and cultural modernity. The first city monument in modern Iran was a weaponry object called Toop Morvari.1 Later on, during the Qajar and Pahlavi eras and under the influence of modernist Western sculpture, works representing power were introduced into the public domain. Through this exploration of modernist tendencies, Iranian sculpture sought to invent a new history for itself — a history that, according to Parviz Tanavoli, one of the field’s most prominent figures, had previously been more or less a history of absence, and so had to be sought anew among functional, ritualistic, and everyday objects.2 With the dominance of Islamists in the years after the revolution, sculpture was then dragged into the center of crisis: the destruction of monuments of former rulers in city squares was only the tip of the iceberg. Soon after the revolution, it became clear that the crisis of sculpture went significantly deeper than simple anti-Pahlavism, as is demonstrated by the fate of many non-monumental city sculptures: Dariush Sanizadeh’s Farmers (1974) and Bahman Mohasses’s Fiferman (1972) are among the famous examples that were likewise torn down and sent into exile.
One important dimension of this crisis was the total exclusion of sculpture from universities, which lasted until 1994. During these years, the sole opportunity to train in sculpture were a few private workshops; these, of course, were not in a position to start a movement or undertake any considerable activity. In the blood-soaked 1980s, with the closing of universities and the exclusion of independent, leftist, and secular artists from public activities and exhibitions, the domain of art in Iran suffered a marked decline. Painters, despite also not having any opportunity to exhibit, found themselves a narrow field of action in their own, private workshops, where they could practice their art and give informal lessons. Sculptors, however, due to the more technical nature of their medium, were deprived of such a possibility. With a lack of collectors (the target market for many sculptors) and the material necessities to produce sculpture (including large workshops and expensive materials such as stone and bronze), any prospect of producing in a professional sense in those years was virtually out of the question.
By the time universities reopened — after a three-year hiatus from 1981 to 1984, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution — a brutal purge had been carried out on professors, students, and the content of academic courses. The only remaining hope to learn sculpture became through the sporadic classes and workshops held in other majors: “volume” (hajm) workshops in handicraft, stage design and makeup courses in theater, and certain architecture courses. The dominant pedagogical attitude in that period was prescriptive and either in service of representing the governing ideology (i.e., the “Islamic Revolution” and “sacred defense”) or with a tendency toward a sort of conservative identarian traditionalism.
In 1992, the sculpture major was revived through the efforts of a group of former sculpture graduates of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran. The knowledge and technique passed down through the reinstated major remained, however, conditioned and constrained by the general framework of mainstream politics, which condemned figuration and used the words “volume” (hajm) and “relief” (naqsh barjasteh) in place of “sculpture” (mojasameh). “Volume building” (hajmsazi) implied a sort of distancing from the presence of the body in sculpture but at the same time was able to temporarily reconcile the two “authorized” tendencies of traditionalism and modernism. The only sculpture allowed to officially return to the public sphere was that which observed the rules and regulations introduced by the Hajm Office of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Hozeh Honari3 of the Islamic Development Organization. The first Tehran National Sculpture Biennial after the revolution was held shortly following the reinstitution of the sculpture major at universities; an exhibition called Tandis: The First Triennial of Volume Works4 was also held in the spring of 1994 at Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). The triennial’s jury statement offers an impression of the overall nature of the era’s policy and spirit, which applied to the visual arts in general and to sculpture in particular:
One of the secrets of the immortality of Iran’s art and civilization is the architecture of this vast land, and the mark of Iranian architecture and art is the maturity of the sculpture and stone reliefs in these magnificent collections; such are the great Asian and Indian civilizations. Now that the contemporary world is going through complicated transitions, it is necessary to understand its various aspects and take “healthy” advantage of them in a way that is “appropriate” to cultural needs. … The First Triennial of Volume Works is organized and structured through the acknowledgment that works like statues, reliefs, and monuments have a sublime role in the formation and arrangement of urban spaces and also the fulfillment of the cultural and aesthetic needs of the flourishing society of Islamic Iran.5
The way this statement continues on by categorizing and describing the works awarded prizes by the triennial can — in addition to affirming this text’s assumptions — offer us a clear illustration of the era’s discourse and policy-making framework. The prize-winning works fall into six groups: the expression of content through form (Untitled by Taher Sheikh-ol-Hokamaei and Waiting by Faegheh Kamali Raad); using national traditions (Mohammad Mehdi Anoushfar); figurative sculpting (Mother by Sholeh Hojabr Ebrahimi and Human by Ramin Saadat Gharin); reliefs (Olive Leaf by Naser Houshmand Vaziri, Familiar-Tattered by Esmaeil Asgari, and Whirlwind by Kayvan Amiri); creating a unique space through form (The Bird by Morteza Neamatollahi, Arash-e Kamangir by Ghodratollah Memarian, and Ascendance by Bijan Akhlaghipoor, among others); and inspired by the heritage of national art (The Ram by Malek Dadyar Garoosian).6
These works mostly used the traditional motifs of Islamic art history and fused them with the symbology that emerged from the “Islamic Revolution” discourse of the second half of the 1980s, including monumentalizing the art of war and the revolution, a tendency to align with the specifications of the Hozeh Honari, and tying creative work to the traditional materials of Iranian architecture and handicrafts, orienting toward the decorative arts. Other artists who worked relatively distanced from this ideological field, and also held academic tenure, tried to redefine the idea of “volume” through the lens of modernist forms and significations. The work of Victor Daresh, one of the most prominent artists at the time, was transitioning from symbolic formalism to a kind of stylistic modernism that was mostly concerned with experiencing form. Daresh tried to introduce to his students the language of modern sculpture and, occasionally, minimalism. This kind of art, in terms of the possibilities it opened up in form and the manner in which it met the medium, found its main concerns in ontological themes as well as a handling of form and the sensual-aesthetic significations implicit to it.
In the early 1990s, students enrolled in sculpture majors experienced an atmosphere that, in contrast to the growth and experimentation being experienced in other cultural milieus at the time, was conservative and had a very limited range. But from the mid-1990s onward, the direction that sculpture took was affected both by the trends and elements prevalent at the moment of its reintroduction and by young artists’ responses to these existing hegemonic formulations of sculpture. Put another way: this new generation of sculptors in the mid-1990s was attempting to break through the predefined framework of sculpture by way of new encounters and experimentation.
The cultural developments of the 1990s are commonly attributed to the coming into power of the first reformist administration (1997–2005), and as such the history of art and culture in Iran is also subject to the history of politics. So, then, it’s no surprise that the emergence of a new art in post-revolution Iran has been identified with the mounting of the First Conceptual Art Exhibition at TMoCA in 2001, which was a product of such changing political and social forces. However, it’s important to note that Iran’s cultural field at large had, by that time, already entered the post-revolution era: from the birth of new journals in the cultural-intellectual field to a fresh and innovative spirit in private workshops and ateliers, a multitude of such signs indicated a surpassing of the officially sanctioned borders of the cultural sphere both conceptually and aesthetically, and thus a new movement was already underway in the late 1980s.
The events described in this text may not receive much attention in the official chronology of contemporary art, but they nevertheless make visible many vectors that have contributed to Iran’s art of today. As philosopher Jacques Rancière argues in Chronicles of Consensual Times (2010), “To speak of a chronicle is to speak of … the scansion of a time and the tracing of a territory, a specific configuration of that which happens, a mode of perception of what is notable, a regime of interpretation of the old and the new, of the important and the ancillary, of the possible and the impossible.”7 Thus, retracing aspects of Iranian art history that have so far been ignored is a vital act.
Victor Daresh’s students regarded his approach to “volume” as an escape route to distance themselves from the semiformalist mode of art demonstrated by the traditionalist and propagandist artists supported by the Hozeh Honari.8 At the same time, during these years — when the heat of 1980s extremism was cooling down — the modernist attitude that continued to prevail in academia bewildered those students who, in this new era, were anxious to experiment and express themselves in new ways. They satisfied this hunger through activities undertaken in unofficial, underground circles, like attending the workshops of artist and art historian Aydin Aghdashloo and art historian Ruyin Pakbaz, or seeing works of collectives such as GROUP71, who ran the experiential exhibition Khane Kolangi-ha (Abandoned Houses) over a period of six years. Sassan Nassiri, a member of GROUP71, posits that it was “the first great conceptual art project in Iran.”9 For the first iteration of Khane Kolangi-ha, Nassiri, together with Farid Jahangir, Mostafa Dashti, and Shahrokh Ghiasi, performed paintings, installations, and slide projections over the course of a few months in Jahangiri’s father’s house, which was slated for demolition. The young artists turned the history and impending fate of the house into a ritual that, in response to the pervasive urban developments beginning to spread across Tehran, highlighted the act of destroying itself, in both a general and a particular sense. The art that GROUP71 was presenting had another side too: it was unstable, hard to access, and conceptual in essence.
A similar project, though larger in scale, was launched in 1999. By this time, Khosrow Hassanzadeh and Bita Fayyazi had joined the group. For this project, entitled The Metamorphosis of the Caspian Sea, Nasiri brought the issue of landslides and the ensuing destruction of homes along the Caspian coastline into that dying, dilapidated house, and Fayyazi displayed her installation The Crows. Despite their limited audience, these events served to expand the imagination of a new generation of youth. Fayyazi, in particular, was perhaps one of the first artists whose installations influenced the contemporary art scene, holding sway especially over students of sculpture and ceramics. She won the prize of the 6th National Biennial of Contemporary Iranian Ceramic Art for her installation Two Thousand Ceramic Beatles (later called Cockraches). That such a cross-disciplinary work would win a ceramics prize was a rare event in those years, serving not only to transform long-held conventional beliefs about the medium and traditional materials but also to cast light on a new possibility for the spatial and conceptual expansion of sculpture, as well as showcasing alternative ways to approach artistic impression and expression for young artists.10
Through encounters like these, students who until then had had little, or no, opportunity to experience the international art scene were introduced to the flexible and multimedia nature of new and contemporary art, as well as the understanding that this artistic approach could provide them with a wider scope for contemplating the social context of the era. Very soon, this encounter moved beyond its passive form: students started organizing events at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran that were designed to change the boundaries and definitions of artistic experience. One such event was held in March 1999 by the Tehran Concept Group, which consisted of two sculpture students, Mahmoud Mahroomi and Elahe Shahidzadeh Mahani, and two painting students, Kiomars Sadeghian and Mohammad-javad Tabatabaei.11 More than one hundred students gathered on campus to paint or perform their impression of a musical piece as it was played by a trio. This Tehran Concept Group event is perhaps one of the first collective responses displayed by this new generation: it was an effort to move together, as a group, beyond a particular medium, and to bring into dialogue the various artistic majors through a sharing of ideas, impressions, concepts, and expressions. Today it may seem commonplace, but this event, in the guise of a collective student action, captures the spirit of the time — a time considered the climax of the student movement in post-revolutionary Iran, which here became crystalized in the form of an artistic experience.
Just one month after the First Conceptual Art Exhibition at TMoCA, another group of students organized an event at the College of Fine Arts that is significant in the history of contemporary art in Iran for its wide-ranging experimentation with new media and conceptualism. This event, titled Corridor, showcased more than seventy student works from the fine arts and other art faculties, ranging from sculpture, “volume,” and installation to performance, modern dance, and conceptual works. While this event couldn’t compete in scale with TMoCA’s conceptual art exhibition, it was in line with the other sporadic student events that had taken place at the College of Fine Arts and became one of the most notable among them.
In A Wheelbarrow for Sixty Million Brains, a performance staged at the college in 2001, three students donned formal suits and eyeglasses, stood behind a wheelbarrow, and, in a gesture meant to evoke iconic characters of the film The Godfather, began smoking. The performance continued on for one full play of The Godfather soundtrack, which was one of the most popular films in Iran at the time, making its rounds as a VHS bootleg. Was the wheelbarrow carrying the wasted brains of Iran’s then sixty million citizens? A people whose only concern at the time seemed to be cursing the coach of the national football team for failing to qualify for the World Cup? While, in exactly that same moment, the US was bombarding Afghanistan? With this ironic gesture, the students were protesting the influence of mass media on culture and the process through which people’s thoughts and emotions become so manipulated that they are not able to perceive the crises surrounding them.
Together, these kinds of student-led artistic efforts depict a schema of the era’s sociopolitical atmosphere, as well as the students’ enthusiasm for expanding their understandings of art and its possibilities — an art that, on the one hand, was dematerialized and indifferent to an object-oriented approach, and thus to the commercial character of art, and, on the other hand, was concept-based and well positioned to intervene in the dominant, professionalized art and social scenes of the day. An experimental, interdisciplinary atmosphere was taking form at the College of Fine Arts, which spanned the sculpture, theater, architecture, painting, photography, and music departments. Nevertheless, among the diverse students who held these events, it was the sculpture graduates who managed to bring this multimedia and conceptual approach to their professionalized institution.
There was one other significant difference between this generation of artists and those of the previous. At the time TMoCA decided to organize its First Conceptual Art Exhibition, the situation in Iran’s art scene was very different from today. Only a few recognized artists insisted on experimenting within the field of this new and conceptual art. So, the museum decided to populate the exhibition through a public call. A plethora of proposals were received, some of which led to emerging artists having their very first experience of being exhibited at TMoCA — a rare opportunity in the professional life of an artist that can permanently determine their relation to the institution and other authorities of the art scene. These young practitioners entered the museum when they were still developing as artists, and as many of their practices matured, it ironically led to their departure from the museum. But, in this way, the new generation of artists somehow bypassed the traditional “hierarchy of transmission” of skills and symbolic capital: through the credentials they gained by participating in the TMoCA exhibition, these youth swiftly distanced themselves from the day’s master-pupil relation and instead shaped their own field of influence.12
The long years of cultural constriction lasted until the early 1990s, but, as mentioned above, the way out of this situation had already made itself apparent before the rise of the so-called reformist administration in 1997. However, when TMoCA officially came to adopt this approach, in 1999 — a turning point crystallized in 2001 with the First Conceptual Art Exhibition — the experimentations of the artists who had previously been confined to unofficial, semiprivate spaces found a new platform. And TMoCA, under the direction of Alireza Sami Azar, came to play a key role in this transformation. After two solid decades of a conservative ideological approach, the museum — the most important public institution for art policymaking and the representation of modern art — began using contemporary art to open up a dialogue with the larger world.
From 1998 to 2003, TMoCA wielded undeniable influence over contemporary art in Iran: it offered important opportunities to encounter new art, from running lectures and film sessions to inviting international artists to show at the museum, such as for an exhibition of contemporary English sculptors. The institution also hosted many Iranian diasporic artists, who offered innovative experiences in comparison to what was otherwise available under Iran’s atmosphere at the time. Siah Armajani, for example, visited TMoCA in 2002, during the last years of Sami Azar’s directorship, and Armajani’s speech, works, and attitude toward sculpture as a public art left an unforgettable impression on the emerging generation of artists.
In the catalogue accompanying the First Conceptual Art Exhibition, each artist contributes a statement that relates their personal perception of conceptual art. Taken together, these texts effectively demonstrate that, in those years, there was no clear perception of the origins and significations of conceptual art in Iran; the artists mostly position conceptual art as an escape route toward freer artistic experimentation and expression. One participant, Behnam Kamrani, writes: “Conceptual art seeks to revive content in artworks.”13 This statement reveals how the new generation desired to distance themselves from the “contentless formalism” of the preceding era, a style developed in opposition to the predetermined official symbology, and to instead make a connection to the social context of art.
However, what most distinguished the role of TMoCA during this five-year window, especially in comparison the role of artists’ institutions such as the Association of Iranian Sculptors and the Tehran National Sculpture Biennial, was its relation to cultural governance and policy-makers in a broad sense. It is no accident that the Iranian Students’ News Agency gave their report on the 2001 TMoCA exhibition the headline “Islamic Republic’s First Conceptual Art Exhibition.” Given the political field in those days, one can say that the organization of the museum’s conceptual art exhibitions characterizes a special historico-political formation that lasted only a few years — although the effects continued to be felt in the ensuing years in several forms. At the same time, the socio-institutional logic of presenting and organizing art has dramatically transformed between then and now: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, urban institutions made an attempt to democratize and publicly present culture, specifically by distributing cultural services in the form of Farhangsaras and other cultural centers, or bookstores. Simultaneously, an elitist tendency emerged in cultural governance, as attempts were made to develop a showcase appropriate to the discursive needs of the new political climate as well as a fashionable space for the production and delivery of contemporary art; put another way, it was a space committed to remaining within the surveillance framework of the existing political governance while at the same time offering a promise of openness, tolerance, and pluralism to Iran’s cultural elite. Even those whose works were not selected for the First Conceptual Art Exhibition found a platform for their art by mounting a show at Barg Gallery. What’s most interesting about this scenario is that Barg Gallery was then under the supervision of the public institution the Tehran Beautification Organization (an arm of the Municipality of Tehran).
Despite its short life, this more open approach to cultural policy-making offered the first recognition of the new generation of artists and their way of encountering contemporary art. It came to an end with the rise of extremists in the next administration, meaning TMoCA had to reverse many of its policies, and with this decline of the reformist methodology, the art scene moved entirely into the domain of the market and private galleries, where it largely remains today. In the context of such an environment, it is vital to examine the lasting influence of both the Tehran National Sculpture Biennial and the AIS in organizing contemporary events that continue the experimental, open, and interdisciplinary approach to art that was otherwise left behind in 2003.
The growing prominence of the Tehran International Book Fair, which acted as a sort of foreign department for writers and artists, caused a flourishing period for the libraries of the International Centre for the Dialogue of Civilizations, College of Fine Arts, and Tehran University of Art. Simultaneously — due to the efforts of art historians Ruyin Pakbaz, Hamid Severi, and Alireza Sami Azar and later the photographer Mehran Mohajer — academic theory gained a new foothold in the field of art. However, in that same period, the 1990s, visual arts journals had not yet burgeoned: it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Herfeh: Honarmand and Tandis launched, followed by a handful of other journals. Among these, Mojasameh was particularly influential. It was published by a group of young sculpture graduates, with Jinoos Taghizadeh, Mahmoud Bakhshi, and Mohammad Bahabadi acting as its regular editorial members. And, interestingly, the First Conceptual Art Exhibition of 2001 was most widely reflected upon and criticized in this publication. We cannot judge the success of Mojasameh — whose title translates to “sculpture” — using today’s criteria for established Iranian art publications; although its efforts may seem amateurish and, at times, naive, it is a reflection of the collective efforts of a generation attempting to introduce a new understanding of the medium of sculpture and contemporary art at large, which previously had no place among the masters of this field.
Between 1993 and 1999, the Tehran National Sculpture Biennial and the AIS gradually moved from a traditionalist view to a contemporary approach to sculpture, installation, and the new art — albeit following almost two decades of intergenerational conflict. While in the first and second biennials, Shojaeddin Shahabi, Iraj Zand, and Fatemeh Emdadian were included as representatives of the modernist tendency, Malek Dadyar Garousian, Taher Sheikh-ol-Hokama, and Nader Qashqaei, representing traditionalist tendencies, still had the upper hand. However, by the third biennial, the new generation was starting to pave the way, step by step, for a change in direction. During this edition, which took place in 2002 and included works by Parviz Tanavoli, an internationally recognized figure of the day, students and recent graduates set their sights on raising the level of the biennial from a limited, monodisciplinary event to a significant, transdisciplinary one.
For the fourth biennial, in 2005, a place on the jury was given to Hamid Severi, who saw contemporary art from a different perspective than his fellow jury members, the painter Mehdi Hosseini, sculptor and painter Saeed Shahlapour, sculptor and art instructor Hamid Shans, painter Behrouz Moslemian, and illustrator Farshid Mesghali. A new tone entered the jury statement, including this updated line: the biennial is committed to “pay[ing] attention to all forms of expression existing in contemporary sculpture. Therefore, there will be no restriction on the presentation of styles and ideas.”14 The works selected for the fourth biennial displayed a noticeably more open approach to materials as well as remarkable experimentation in perceptions of matter, form, and space, and yet abstraction still dominated.
In a text attributed to one of the board members of the fifth biennial, which took place in 2007, it was admitted that some of the works awarded with prizes that year had moved beyond the familiar definition of sculpture to come closer to an idea of installation art. From Bakht-e Moza’af (Double Chance, 2007), an installation by Hamidreza Jadid and Mona Rostamnejad Samin, to Obour-e Zendegi (Passing of Life, 2007) by Mehrnoosh Mardiha, which took the form of an immaterial projection using reflections of light and shadow, many of the featured works indicated that the biennial had expanded its definition of sculpture beyond the traditional one. The fifth biennial, despite being entirely managed by a modernist and formalist jury, followed the model of the previous biennial in accepting a wide range of artworks — the requirement had been imposed by the presence of a new generation of artists on the association’s board of directors.
By the sixth biennial, which happened four years later, in 2011, half of the jury was made up of the first generation of post-revolution sculpture graduates: Rima Eslam Maslak, Jinoos Taghizadeh, and Kourosh Golnari, along with Severi, the eminent sculptor Mohammad Hossein Emad, and the sculptor Fatemeh Emdadian. As explanation for awarding a prize to Mahmoud Mahroomi’s work The Correct Method of Molding (2012), the jury explained: “The work shows the correct process of alternative modeling and referring to the sculpture medium and the familiar anti-aesthetic narrative approach through which the artist, in the most unblemished manner, expresses his personal and social concerns at the present time.”15 These new policy-makers and jury members clearly had a different understanding of the medium, aesthetics, and the importance of context in the formation of sculpture than their predecessors did.
The seventh and eighth biennials, in 2017 and 2020, respectively, fully left behind the previous iterations’ repetitive framework of sculpture: now the Tehran National Sculpture Biennial includes an abundance of installation, video, and concept-oriented works, and, in the eighth biennial, even some performance works. The juries for these two editions included such names as, again, Rima Eslam Masalak, previous prize-winner Mahmoud Mahroomi, art historian and curator Helia Darabi, and art critic Safa Sabti, who made significant efforts to expand the understandings of contemporary art in the fields of education and art production, both theoretically and practically. The materiality and spatiality of most of the exhibited works is what retains their connection to the genre of sculpture. Many of the younger artists included in the biennial, however, do not define their practices by a particular genre, such as calling themselves a painter or photographer; rather, they introduce themselves as interdisciplinary artists, with diverse experiences unconstrained by a particular genre or medium.
Barbad Golshiri’s work was among those acclaimed by the jury of the seventh biennial. Nar O Akh (2017), which consisted of an audiovisual installation and soil epitaphs imprinted on the ground using a template, used an unexpected form to contend with Iran’s contemporary political history — and was made by an artist who, in recent years, had completely cut ties with galleries and other art market institutions in Iran. In the eighth biennial, a large space in the first hall was allotted to an installation by Samira Hodaei: a mass of used gloves worn by oil workers, with their unique materiality, made visible the invisible mediator of wealth extraction; their great abundance — in the thousands — referred to the massive labor force that makes the accumulation of wealth and power possible but that has no expression, presence, or share in the public sphere except as an exhausted, uniform, oil-covered, and silent mass. Such works find no place in Iran’s galleries or on the art market, especially since this is an example of a work by a young artist who hasn’t yet established her position in the art scene.
In recent years, the sphere of experience in contemporary, interdisciplinary, and conceptual arts has expanded in Iran, with galleries and both small- and large-scale art events occasionally providing space for such practices. However, I believe that, beyond the limited field of the leading galleries and the market, art associations and biennials can also contribute to changing the dynamics of the country’s art scene. Biennials generally play a special role in the development of contemporary art: although some of the works they exhibit may end up in art fairs and museums of modern and contemporary art, their “event-based” character and passionate commitment to presenting art considered as new, contemporary, and cutting-edge make them alternative gateways into the art scene. While the growing influence of art dealers and the forces of the market cause some complaints about biennials becoming more like art fairs, these events, as mega-exhibitions within the arts community, nevertheless have the potential to stage more unconventional forms of contemporary art, whether through discursive productions and open calls for participation or as curatorial activities that recognize the activist, radical, and dematerialized tendencies in the field of contemporary art.
Art institutions and exhibition spaces continue to transform in Iran. In recent years, the number of galleries has increased, and art fairs, expos, auctions, and symposiums both abroad and inside the country have changed our visual and spatial experience of art, including due to the expansion of online space. Meanwhile, our perceptual experience of these different embodiments of exhibitions is connected to the latent dynamic that influences its social organization: the political economy and mechanisms of policy-making and governance. As the presence of private capital (with its special rentier character in Iran in recent years) has increased and art market institutions have proliferated in various ways, public institutions have generally shrunk and become more marginalized, at the local level (e.g., service and support institutions such as cultural centers), the national level (e.g., museums and foundations), and at the level of trade unions (e.g., independent associations and institutions). The Tehran National Sculpture Biennial is one of the few large-scale events that has not yet been fully integrated into the market institutions, nor dissolved into an official festival organized by the federal cultural governance body, such as has happened with the Fajr Festival of Visual Art. The sculpture biennial continues to be organized by the AIS, an institution that grew out of an artists’ guild, with all the possibilities, limitations, and (lack of) resources that entails.
In comparison with the history of the image in Iran, the history of sculpture is less burdened by issues of heritage, and this has made the new generations of artists freer in expanding the concept of sculpture and experimenting with it. The transdisciplinary significations of installation further contribute to this dynamism. In the view of the art critic Boris Groys, installation is the leading art form of contemporary art. As he puts it:
The installation demonstrates a certain selection, a certain chain of choices, a certain logic of inclusions and exclusions. And by doing so an installation manifests here and now certain decisions about what is old and what is new, what is an original, and what is a copy. Every large exhibition or installation is made with the intention of designing a new order of memories, of proposing the new criteria for telling a story, for differentiating between past and future. … And that is why it is also truly political.16
Consider the exhibition Persian Garden, organized at TMoCA in 2004 and designed to honor and aesthetically expand the idea of the Persian garden as heritage, in comparison to the Two Gardens event, held in 2018 by the AIS, which brought together artists from different fields of art in Kerman and Sirjan for three days. The AIS event became a platform for exploring the political-historical significance of the garden by looking at the relations between power, aesthetics, informal art, social sculpture, and ecology. In this symposium, artists, critics, and scholars — in a then unparalleled opportunity for encounter and exchange — debunked stereotypes of the garden: the most untouchable, transcendental, aesthetic, architectural, and ecological motif found in Iranian art. The participants removed the veil of orientalism and exoticism to instead produce an aesthetic encounter at the intersections of history, culture, form, and geography. This event was meant to act as a prelude to an interdisciplinary exhibition on the same theme, but this show has not yet happened, due to the apparent difficulties of organizing large-scale initiatives. Interestingly, the ongoing saga of the Two Gardens project resonates with the unresolved tension of the Iranian cultural scene, whereby the ruling, class-based garden of predetermined and supposedly eternal meanings continues to contend with the ongoing practice of making and unmaking the ecology of social life as conditioned by nature, history, and aesthetics.
Translated from Farsi.
1 “Toop” is the Persian word for “war cannon” and “Morvai” or “Morvarid” means “pearl,” which here refers to the bulletlike beads on the cannon that some people say look like a pearl necklace (and that represents the significance of the weapon in their eyes). Some of the first monumental items installed in Iranian urban space were these war cannons. However, this one has a difference that makes it a bit special: various popular stories and narratives around this object have fetishized it, even making it like a totem to some people. Sadegh Hedayat, the pioneering novelist, wrote a book titled Toop Morvari, which is largely based on these popular narratives, although in his own ironic tone. The cannon was installed in Arg Square in Tehran in 1811 during the Qajar era, and today it is located outside one of the buildings of the Iranian foreign policy minister.
2 See Parviz Tanavoli, تاریخ مجسمه سازی در ایران [The History of Sculpting in Iran] (Tehran: Nazar Publication, 2013).
3 Hozeh Honari is the art and culture branch of a governmental institution called the Organization for Islamic Publicity, established in 1979 with the mission of propagating the “legitimate” forms of culture, ideas, and lifestyles. Hozeh Honari is a nationwide organization with many branches, staff members, festivals, publications, and so on.
4 Translator’s note: “tandis” means “statue.”
5 Jury statement in The First Triennial of Volume Works, exh. cat. (Tehran: Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), 9–10.
6 Ibid. All works mentioned here are dated around 1994, the year of the exhibition.
7 Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum, 2010), viii.
8 This information stems from qualitative interviews with the first group of sculpture graduates from the College of Fine Arts, University of Tehran, in 2021, who are still active in Iran’s art scene. The interviews were conducted by the author over a period spanning from the winter of 2020 to the summer of 2021.
10 The author accumulated this information through interviews with the artists Jinoos Taghizadeh, Mahmoud Mahroomi, Homayoun Sirizi, and others, as well as the art instructors Hamid Severi, Safa Sebti, Narges Haririan, and others. The interviews were conducted by the author in 2021.
11 Photos of the event and some information about it were given to the author by Mahmoud Mahroomi, an active member of the Association of Iranian Sculptors.
12 Mahmoud Bakhshi, Shahab Fotouhi, the Tehran Concept Group, members of the 30 Group, and Homayoun Sirizi are among these artists.
13 See the artist’s statement in Conceptual Art: Works Presented at the First Exhibition of Iranian Conceptual Art, exh. cat. (Tehran: Printing and Publishing Organization of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), 75.
14 See the jury statement in Fourth Sculpture Biennial of Tehran, exh. cat. (Tehran: Institution for the Development of Contemporary Visual Arts, 2005.
15 See The Sixth Biennale of Sculpture, exh. cat. (Tehran: Institution for Development of Contemporary Visual Arts, 2011), 8, 97.
16 Example footnoteBoris Groys, “A Topology of Contemporary Art,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contempraneity, ed. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 87.
Nastaran Saremy, “Sculpture in Post-revolution Iran: A Fertile Ground for a New Art A Rereading,” in Honar-e Jadid: A New Art in Iran, ed. Hannah Jacobi (Berlin: mohit.art, 2022); published on www.mohit.art, December 10, 2021.