We Are Standing Outside Time
An Ongoing Artistic Collaboration Between Shahram Entekhabi and Behrang Samadzadegan
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The State of “In Between“ in Contemporary Iranian Art

Julia Allerstorfer

 

In the course of the exhibition “The State of In Between in Contemporary Iranian Art,” the studio-house Salzamt (Linz, Upper Austria) has invited the Iranian born artists Shahram Entekhabi and Behrang Samadzadegan. During their artist residency, a site-specific, collaborative project came into being that focusses on the curatorial concept of “in between.” Initially, it is interesting to mention that Entekhabi is an artist who lives in Berlin, whilst Samadzadegan is based in Tehran. On the other hand, and compliant with the era of globalization, both of them canęt be fixated on a certain location or nation. Nor is it possible to define them as Iranian artists living in Iran or outside in the global Iranian Diaspora. Artistic practice emerges “in between,” beyond geographic demarca­tions and arbitrary boundaries and utopian national constructs. For both artists, this configuration seemed to be an almost perfect condition to initialize an artistic venture that addresses several essential aspects in current discourses on Iranian contemporary art.

 

The notion of “in between” includes several approaches. Homi K. Bhabha ap­plied the term “in between” in the context of (post-)colonial identity construc­tion, cultural difference and performance (1). According to Bhabha, different cultural stratifications existing together, intertwining each other and counter to one another as well as the negotiation of productive in-between spaces find their expression in a “thinking on the border.” Therefore, he developed theoreti­cal figures such as the hybrid “third space” as a threshold between definitions of identity. In the introduction of his book The Location of Culture (1994) Bhabha alludes: “What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain of elaborating strate­gies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (2) To bring it back to Iranian contemporary art and to the case-specific situation of two Iranian born artists and their residency in Linz, Bhabha’s idea of productive “in between” spaces seems to be an appropriate basis for further considerations. Due to the special case of a close cooperation between two Iranian born artists Entekhabi and Samadzadegan, as well as an Austrian curator and researcher, one can assume the emergence of what Bhabha called “in between spaces.” These in between spaces include individual semantic lev­els, empirical values, experiences and perspectives on behalf of the participants. Adapted from several discussions and intense conversations, some common features became apparent in terms of similar approaches or attitudes towards the mechanisms of the art market, “ethnic marketing,” (3) neo-orientalism/ post-colonialism, and pivotal questions concerning Iranian contemporary art in general. The resulting hybrid space turned out to be a valuable chance for an art project as well as theoretical reflexions.

 

What does it mean to refer to a state of “in between” in contemporary Iranian art and which methodological problems are raised with this issue? In the first place it is about the field of tension between tradition and modernity and the “local/au­tochthonous” and the “global” that can be regarded as one of the main matter of debate. In this regard, Hamid Keshmirshekan invokes the – maybe – conflicting priorities of “contemporaneity” or “specificity” as two chief features in contem­porary Iranian art discourse that form part of the “dichotomous desires in the art of early Twenty-First Century Iran.” (4) “Contemporaneity” implies the notion of “postmodernist” imagery as one of fragmentation and hybridization that find its expression in the dispersal of various traditions and the recombination of differ­ent visual elements. (5) “Specificity” includes the Iranian artists’ engagement with cultural and social concerns as well as “deep-rooted anxieties about national and cultural identity.” (6) Therefore, Keshmirshekan raises the crucial question that perfectly fits into the concept of “in between”: “Is it possible to open up an art practice and discourse that is both contemporary and global, but also indig­enous and specific?” (7)

 

In another essay, the author refers two other primary concerns in contemporary artistic practice, namely “identity” and “exoticism.” (8) The first he defines as a local, historical, imagined and collective identity and also self-identity, thereby ad­dressing how artists have interpreted contemporary aesthetics in light of national and indigenous ideologies. The second issue is related to the ever-present ob­session with cultural and indigenous ideologies and can be seen as an outcome of the first. Both of them involve challenges relating to the “self” and “other,” as well as the issue of “expectation.” (9) The latter acts a main point of criticism of “exoticism” which “… in a strong or radical sense could direct the workęs internal rationale and what even governs the aesthetic choices of an artist towards an unrealistic and derivative product which has been shaped purely for the interests of the “others.” (10) Due to the global art marketęs increasing concern in contem­porary Iranian art, “the new audienceęs expectation has resulted in production of stereotypes in favor of that expectation.” (11) In other words, these art works are geared to exotic views of a mainly American and European audience and to what they would expect to be shown as “Iranian” and as “contemporary.” In the sequel Keshmirshekan hints at a number of artists, who are representatives of the younger generation and form part of the wave of change transforming contemporary Iran. With a need for self-representation and working with various artistic practices, their rather critical, satirical, ironic and sometimes humorous artistic language “has also become a common method to criticize exoticism and as a metaphorical reaction against united sacred values defined by officials.”(12) Their crucial interest in social and political realities as well as their immense con­tribution to the process of “inventing a new politics of identity for the twenty-first century” (13) is also true for the artists Entekhabi and Samadzadegan. Especially in their collaborative project, the controversy of identity is linked with a strong skepticism and a critical scrutinizing of the politics of representation as well as the complex relation between Iranian artists in- and outside Iran and those art­ists, who consider to be “in between.”

 

With that said, another important aspect of the “in between” is addressed. It is a fact that Iranian contemporary visual culture consists of artistic production both inside and outside Iran. As Anthony Downey states, “the Iranian Diaspora, like all migrant communities, looks both westward and eastward, to the present and the past, to the legacy of tradition and the ever-pressing immediacy and, ultimately, relates back to national practices within Iran itself.” (14) Put in another way, Iranian Diaspora artists are in a close dialogue with their homeland, while they likewise grapple with local conditions of their host countries. At the same time, cultural production in Iran both informs the Diaspora and international art practices and is equally informed by Diaspora and global artistic movements. (15) Shaheen Merali describes the political, cultural and respectively individual situation in Iran as follows: “Within these two fields of the cultural and the political, a new space has emerged, a prefecture of individuals cruising (around but still within) state de­termined values with a political valency and an astute sense of potential forebod­ing – here a denatured balance of within and without has developed.” (16) Every artistic articulation – whether it is within a country or in diaspora – is located “in between” current social and political circumstances, ideological projections and visual codes between the so-called “East” and “West.” In the case of Entekhabi and Samadzadegan, the network of relationships experiences a highly concerted form and manifests itself in their intensive cooperation and artistic productions in Linz during their residency.

 

As mentioned previously, the state of “in between” strongly relates to the ques­tion of identities. “Cultural difference,” “hybridisation/hybridity,” “border identi­ties” and “border passers” are frequently cited keywords, when it is a matter of characterising individual, social and political identities in the complex field of the so-called “postcolonial” and “globalized” era.

 

Regarding Iran, Mir-Ehsam describes the modern and postmodern everyday life as a “modern conditio humana,”an amalgam of old and new: Traditional cultural achievements that are still today integral elements of the Iranian people have, however, changed in their contact with the present and have completely integrated into modern views, relationships and perceptual patterns. By using a pattern which he is terming “this and the other” he is pointing out the connection of traditional Iranian thought with the aspects of freedom, democracy and modern rationalism in science and technology within an ethical context. (17) Mir-Ehsamęs arguments draw on the already mentioned difficulty of the bold and much-cited conflict between tradition and modernity: “I will be travelling along only one of the many paths available on this journey – a path which attempts to supersede the false polarity of “this” and the “other” by creating a third alterna­tive. This third way, which combines tradition and modernity, may very well exist in other nations, however, I believe, Iran has become its most original and most developed manifestation. In Iran the challenge of uniting intellect and intuition, west and east, past and future has reached epic proportions.” (18) Mir-Ehsan’s problem-solving approach is the required nexus of both of these conceptions of life, which would lead to a third possibility. If in Iran this combination of tradition and modernity has become “its most original and most developed manifestation” as Mir-Ehsam pointed out, should remain undecided at this point. Anyhow, the author is right in his assertion that Iran is confronted with formidable challenges in assembling the various elements of both versions.

 

Daryush Shayegan, in “Tamed Schizophrenia,” which is based on the book Le Regard Mutilé: Schizophrenie Culturelle: Pays traditionnels face ą la modernité, (19) has also occupied himself with the question of Iranian identity. According to him, three different, yet not mutually exclusive, interlocking identities have been established: the ethnic, religious, and modern, with overlapping zones in between them. (20) Simultaneously, each of these categories claims a traditional territory, from which the others are excluded to a large degree. This interlacing of domains of the three identities in contemporary Iran results in an extremely contradictory atmosphere, in which Shayegan describes as schizophrenia. (21) In respect of Iranian contemporary art, the author remarks that the oeuvres of contemporary Iranian artists, undoubtedly reflect their modern identity in which they put the inheritance of their past and the world in which they live. In a certain sense, the three strata of Iranian identity–the ethnic, religious and modern–are simultaneously both a bridge and an obstacle, which, for Shayegan, have to bring together the intertwined, yet different worlds and overcome the histori­cal discontinuities of modernism. This three-layered model would allow a range of possibilities of understanding as long as it succeeds in giving each layer its space, in separating them without pulling them apart. Therefore, it is necessary to learn how to move between these strata without becoming enslaved to an exaggerated identity in the process. In accepting the ambivalences and dis­crepancies given through this three-layered model with alert mind and without resentment, it would broaden the register of knowledge and the range of sen­sibility: ”But, driven back from the critical field of knowledge, these three layers provoke blockages and disfigure, as in a shattered mirror, the reality of the world and its mental images. This unifying art of remodeling heterogeneous spaces is, to my mind, the third way, which escapes at the same time from monolithic visions of ideologies as from the illusion of unrealizable utopias. It is perhaps the way of tamed schizophrenia.” (22) Further, it is interesting to increase the dif­ferentiation of Shayeganęs three strata of identity. Consequently, it seems to be necessary to bring into question and to problematize the conceptualization and formation of the adjectives “ethnic”, “religious”, and “modern”, as well as their fixation to several epochs of Iranęs history in general, to its history of ideas and religions as well as their impact on contemporary Iran. Similar but precedent to Mir-Ehsan, Shayegan has proposed a model of resolution for the identity crisis given through these three heterogeneous strata: the creative construction of innovative interactions and connections between them. Even though Shayegan therefore cautiously applies the term “schizophrenia” which is weakened through the adjunct of the adjective “controlled” or “tamed”, this perception requires a closer examination. Here, it needs to be scrutinized, if “Schizophrenia”, as a medical term which denotes a serious mental disorder, is the appropriate choice for a label which wants to characterize and illustrate the apparent identity crisis of the Iranians. In order to return to the field of Iranian contemporary art, an­other main issue is to explore this modelęs relevance for and its implementation in concrete pieces of art. It is obvious that numerous artists reflect those strata which Shayegan classifies as “ethnic”, “religious”, and “modern”. Beyond that, this pattern is amplified through a wide range of other layers and issues as well as artistic strategies of performance. Although contradictions and discrepancies are depicted in this way, most of these artistic expressions cannot be defined as visual reflections of a “tamed schizophrenia.” Based on a critical and reflected dispute with the different strata of identity, Iranian artists use their individual expe­riences as well as a complex mixture of stylistic languages to demonstrate their personal arrangements to cope with an identity crisis – a state of “in-between” – which assumedly is not only true for contemporary Iran.

 

A final aspect of the “in betweenness” is not least the position of a non-Iranian researcher or curator dealing with contemporary Iranian art. Amongst others, the problems of approach encompass the danger of falling into the “neo-orientalistic” trap of personal expectations and stereotypic notions that Keshmirshekan called “exoticism.” Consequently, “in between” is a term that implicates a complex his­tory, a multi-layered set of situational contexts and an abundance of – inherently heterogeneous – projections. Put another way, even as a curator or researcher, one is inevitably – but at once in the best case – positioned “in between.” Even if one acquires the respective national language and intensively grapples with the specific cultural realities, the challenge with hermeneutic burdens will continue. Alternatively, this state of “in between” contains a wide range of assertive and rewarding potentialities. In the case of the two artists Entekhabi and Samadza­degan, and especially their contribution to the exhibition at the Salzamt in Linz, the capabilities of the idea “in between” have been deployed effectively. It leaves to be desired that this project is an on-going one and will be pursued and expanded in the future.

 

Julia Allerstorfer
Independent Curator and PhD Candidate at Institute for History and Theory of Art and Philosophy (IKP), Katholisch-Theologische Privatuniversität Linz (KTU)

 

 

1)- Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge 1994); Ibid., “Cultureęs In-Between,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (London et al.: SAGE Publ. Ltd 1996), 53-60.

2)- Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 2.

3)-This term traces back to the following publication: Tirdad Zolghadr (Ed.), Ethnic Marketing (Geneva/Tehran et al.: JRP|Ringier 2006).

4)- Hamid Keshmirshekan, „Contemporary or Specific: The Dichotomous Desires in the Art of Early Twenty-First Century Iran,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 4 (2011): 44-71.

5)- Ibid., 44. In explaining „contemporaneity,“ Keshmirshekan refers to: John R. Campbell and Alan Rew, “The Political Economy of Identity and Affect,” in Identity and Affect. Experiences of Identity in a Globalising World, ed. John R. Campbell and Alan Rew (London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press 1999), 5.

6)- Keshmirshekan, „Contemporary or Specific,“ 44.-

7)- Ibid.

8)- Hamid Keshmirshekan, “The Question of Identity vis-ą-vis Exoticism in Contemporary Iranian Art,” Iranian Studies 43:4 (2010): 489-512.-

8)- Ibid., 489. (10)- Ibid., 491. (11)- Ibid., 497-498. (12)- Ibid., 506-507. (13)- Ibid., 512.

14)- Anthony Downey, “Centralizing Margins and Marginalizing Centers: Diasporas and Contem­porary Iranian Art,” in Iran Inside Out: Influences of Homeland and Diaspora on the Artistic Lan­guage of Contemporary Iranian Artists, eds. Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath (New York: Chelsea Art Museum, 2009), unpaginated

15)- Ibid.

16)- Shaheen Merali, “The Promise of Loss,” in The Promise of Loss. A contemporary Index of Iran (Vienna: Hilger BROT Kunsthalle, 2009), 10.

17)- Mir-Ahmad Mir-Ehsan, “This and the Other,” in Entfernte Nähe: Neue Positionen iranischer Künstler (Far Near Distance: Contemporary Positions of Iranian Artists), eds. Shaheen Merali and Martin Hager (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2004), 108-113.

18)- Ibid., 111.

19)- Daryush Shayegan, Le Regard Mutilé: Schizophrenie Culturelle: Pays traditionnels face ą la modernité (Paris: Editions de l’Aube, 1989).

20)- Daryush Shayegan, “Tamed Schizophrenia,” in Entfernte Nähe: Neue Positionen iranischer Künstler (Far Near Distance: Contemporary Positions of Iranian Artists), eds. Shaheen Merali and Martin Hager (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2004), 119-123.

21)- Among others, Shayegan here refers to pre-Islamic history in the country that reaches far back into high antiquity and to the great Persian empires of the Archaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Even if this past is no longer living, it still remains strongly present, however, in the col­lective memory. Compared with this more than a thousand-year-old history, the Islamic identity is much younger, around 1400 years old: Ibid., 120.

22)- Ibid., 123.

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* We Are Standing Outside Time, published on the occasion of the exhibition: THE STATE OF ‘IN-BETWEEN’ IN CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN ART, curated by Julia Allerstorfer, Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, Austria 2012