Life in Iran under spotlight in contemporary video art exhibition

A scene from the video art piece “Simorgh,” by Iranian artist Morteza Ahmadvand, featured in the exhibition “Rewind, Pause and Fast Forward: Mirrors on Iran,” on display until Sept. 29 at the Pi Artworks gallery in İstanbul.

August 22, 2012, Wednesday/ 16:24:00

Despite its geographical proximity to Turkey, for many Turks -- as for many Westerners and Europeans -- Iran is a country known only through stereotypes and Orientalist fantasies.

A new exhibition at İstanbul’s Pi Artworks gallery that features video art by six Iranian artists offering their own interpretations of Iran presents a new perspective for those who wish to learn more about the country. Titled “Rewind, Pause and Fast Forward: Mirrors on Iran,” the exhibition is spread in two branches of Pi Artworks, in the Galatasaray and Tophane quarters.

“Rewind, Pause and Fast Forward” aims to show people only the artists’ interpretation of their homeland, nothing beyond their own lived reality, explained Aly Afshar, one of the show’s curators. Asked what it was specifically that they hoped to convey about Iran in putting together the show, Afshar stressed that they “had no intention of representing Iran beyond the daily life experienced by the artists.”

The title of the show refers to the buttons on a VCR, Afshar explained, noting that while such devices are rather outdated in other countries, they are still very popular in Iran. “It highlights the difference between a medium that is thriving in Iran and an increasingly defunct system … so both contrast each other. Moreover, you can start viewing these videos in the middle, start or finish, yet they don’t lose their message wherever you begin viewing -- so it creates a further obsolescence for the use of video buttons,” he said, adding that the exhibition’s title may also be interpreted to suggest that both the VCR and the environment that the artists live and work in are firmly rooted in the 20th century, unable to adapt.

One example of this timeless, non-linear quality is a video titled “Simorgh,” by Morteza Ahmadvand. The video’s title literally means “30 birds” but also refers to the mythical king of birds. In the video, 30 birds -- some captured in the wild and caged for the first time, others long accustomed to life in a cage, and yet others born in cages -- are recorded inside a cage with a hole in its top. The viewer watches as the birds react to the hole in the cage and, occasionally, fly away.

Given that Iran is known by many people only through issues of oppression, censorship and a lack of women’s rights, it might be very difficult to put on a show that deals with such themes without being moralistic or falling into clichés.

Asked how they avoided becoming trapped in clichés, Afshar said that they had no strategy beyond “holding a mirror to the artists’ lives” and that many themes came out naturally from the variety of videos in the exhibition that one associates with the social and political atmosphere in Iran and also throughout the region. “In many ways the interpretations can be carried over to many other countries in the region, which makes this not a uniquely Iranian [exhibition]. This remains an important defining aspect of this exhibition,” he added.

All of the videos in the show have a universal, rather than merely national, significance, addressing issues such as militarism, political conflict and horrors of violence.

A work titled “Military Service Under the Flag,” by Mahmoud Bakhshi, featuring the artist himself performing militaristic rituals, can only be watched at a distance through a hole in the wall.

“School Diary,” by Simin Keramati, reflects the horrors of war through a children’s notebook, in which she recalls her schools years during the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq War.

Other videos in the exhibition include “Find the Lost One,” by Neda Razavipour, which asks viewers to find a lost person on the screen, and “Puppet Behind the Curtain,” by Farniyaz Zaker, which questions the place of women in society.

“Rewind, Pause and Fast Forward: Mirrors on Iran” will run through Sept. 29 at Pi Artworks Galatasaray and Tophane. For more information, visit www.piartworks.com.

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