The 3rd Tehran Sculpture Biennial
May 28 - July 11, 2002
Niavaran Cultural Center
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The Third Tehran Sculpture Biennial officially began on May 28, 2002 at the Niavaran Cultural Center Gallery. After the First Sculpture Triennial (spring 1995) and the Second Biennial (winter 1999) were both questioned and criticized by viewers and participants, many were apprehensive about the third round of the event. There was however overwhelming enthusiasm about this exhibition. Among its new developments were the addition of open-air spaces at the Niavaran Cultural Center for presenting artwork, and an unprecedented participation by young artists.
Parviz Tanavoli, a sculptor and pioneering artist of the Saqqa-khaneh school, and considered one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Iranian art, was the curator of the biennial. After a lengthy absence from the Iranian art scene, Tanavoli agreed to cooperate with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in organizing this Biennial.
The seven-member jury of the Biennial was comprised of Mohammad Mirfenderesky, Nami Petgar, Kamran Katoozian, Behzad Hatam and three foreign guests; David Galloway, Arnaldo Pomodoro, and Marco Meneguzzo. Galloway, a former chief curator at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (1977-78), is the present Chair of American Studies at Ruhr University (Bochum, Germany). Pomodoro, is a renowned Italian sculptor and recipient of many prizes throughout his career including the Sao Paulo and Venice Biennales, and the Henry Moore Grand Prize of Japan. His work was added to the collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977. Marco Meneguzzo, an author, art critic, and founder of the video section at the Venice Biennale was the third of the foreign judges.
The winners of the Biennial were announced during a ceremony on the same day:
1. Kambiz Esma‘ili-Sharif
2. Mahmood Bakhshi-Mo’akher
3. Amir-Ahmad Mo‘bed
4. Fereshteh Moosavi
5. Fatemeh Emdadian
6. Mehdi Omidbakhsh
7. Kambiz Sabri
8. Mehdi Ahmadi
9. Kamran Esma‘ili
10. Neda Shafi‘i-Moqaddam
The first three winners were awarded a Biennial Prize and research trips to Paris, and the remaining seven winners received honorable mention and prizes. Kambiz Sabri’s work was chosen to be included in the permanent collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
During the opening ceremony, Parviz Tanavoli spoke of the achievements of a new generation of Iranian sculptors, and expressed his hopes of continued progress in the field. David Galloway referred to the manner in which new Iranian artists had tapped into the resources of a rich past, without being themselves trapped by its boundaries. “The future lies with artists,” he said.
May 29th marked the beginning of the Seminar, organized alongside the Sculpture Biennial and chaired by Javad Mojabi. Urging young artists to push society towards new viewpoints and concepts, Mojabi, who considers himself more of a writer and critic than an organizer of such events, spoke of Iranian sculpture as being in its “year zero.”
David Galloway delivered a lecture titled “Art as a Multi-media Multi-cultural Experience,” about six artists working in Germany. Marco Meneguzzo delivered a lecture on “Art and Society: Italian Art from Modern to Art Povera; 1958-1968.” The last speech of the day was by Arnaldo Pomodoro who spoke briefly of his work and experiences, and showed a film about his artwork.
It was an honor to be able to speak to the three guest judges of the Biennial on behalf of Tavoos Quarterly, to hear their own words on the past, present and future of Iranian art, and their own experiences in this regard.
Interview with David Galloway,Marco Meneguzzo and Arnaldo Pomodoro:
Guest judges of the Third Tehran Sculpture Biennial
May 29, 2002, Tehran
We are of course very eager to hear your opinions of the Tehran Sculpture Biennial.
Marco Meneguzzo: I think we all agree that there were a lot of talented artists. But talents must be cultivated in a fertile terrain. I think we gave prizes to those that we recognized not as the best, but as the most significant. We also tried to appreciate originality and potential, and the idea of having a global and local identity, which is not easy at all. There is much to be done. We saw art that reminded us of something that had been done twenty, thirty years ago, which is really a problem.
But then I think that a young artist should try, perhaps for a time, to learn about art from those he admires, and he has to steal many things from other artists.
So you think it’s all right to take from other artists?
M. M.: Yes, it is. Because art often comes from other art, from a language, a code. To communicate through art, you must change that language. Not revolutionizing it completely of course, because then you run the risk of not being understood.
Picasso, for instance was the most important thief in art. But everything he stole became a Picasso thing. This is how it is usually done. Perhaps it’s not right, but this is the idea, that art comes from a previously existing language.
Were you looking for original interpretations of previous languages in the works you chose at the Sculpture Biennial?
David Galloway: It wasn’t that explicit, and we weren’t necessarily looking for that. But I do think we all felt that the value of the biennial was in recognizing promise, not necessarily in recognizing ‘achievement’ in the conventional sense. These are people who potentially have something to say, and who should be encouraged and given additional opportunities to find their own voice.
If you want to stay with the question of voice, children learn to speak by imitating their parents, and gradually they break away from that, and form their own style, hopefully. The same thing happens with artists. There was a wonderful Irish poet, named William Butler Yeats, who said, ‘When I was young, my poetry was old, and when I grew old, my poetry became young.’ What he meant was that when he was a young poet, he was imitating other poets, and therefore he had an old voice, but he had to go through that first in order to achieve his new voice, his own young voice. I’m not saying all those people did that, but every now and then you see that ‘this is a bit of Brancusi,’ or ‘this is a bit of Heinz Macke,’ or this is whatever. But that’s perfectly logical. Regardless of the field, you learn by imitation, for example in music, and only when you have mastered the notes, or the language, can you go on and make something that’s uniquely your own. And I’m not sure those were central issues for us.
I think, first of all, we were all very impressed by the energy that was there, by the variety of materials that were used, by the scope of the different idioms that were used, and how many people attempted somehow to tap into the traditional culture of Iran, and yet find something new to do with it, to redirect it.
So you think that there were successful experiments, using the older traditions?
D. G.: No, I think there were promising experiments. I mean, I’m very prejudiced, because my experience of Iran is the experience of the Saqqa-khaneh, and I believe very deeply in what they believed in and tried to do. I think some of them, though not all, were very successful at that. It’s a difficult tightrope act, to work out the rich ancient visual tradition and yet try to be modern, to do something new. And I think some of the Saqqa-khaneh artists succeeded, above all, Parviz Tanavoli of course. I think also Zenderoudi, although… I think there’s always a danger in Zenderoudi’s work that it’s too decorative. But nonetheless I think it’s a success.
But apart from being a successful experience with tradition, is it also a valuable work of art?
D. G.: Art grows out of a context, a society, a time, a climate, a soil, light, history, out of all the art that was created before it […] so I’m not sure you can really ever totally isolate it. It would be very difficult. Because the visual culture here is so rich, so complex, so wonderful and exciting that I don’t know how you can separate a work from that.
I think a work, to a certain extent, has to be seen in this context. And that’s what you meant by local versus global. There’s also a point at which you ought to be able to say, forget all that, and look at the work on it’s own terms.
So although our artists are working within their local culture, they are able to address a global audience. Is this the most promising direction for us to be headed? Can we connect with that global audience?
M. M.: I think now that the avant-garde has ended, there are many possibilities. But in this case, it is a bit more difficult to decide, because one does not know what could be avant-garde and what may be traditional […] so let’s change our point of view a little and speak about success in art. Today, if you want to be successful in art, you must find something that no one else has done before in the same way. There is a word, ‘genius loci,’ which refers to that part of your culture that is not learned, but a part of you. A typical example of Iranian success is Shirin Neshat, a woman. There may be many women in Iran with works like hers, but she was successful, because she interpreted very well the situation of women in Islam and Iran from a Western view.
Of course, individual artists are different. Why an artist who has grown up in the same place with the same ideas, may be so different from another […] is a question of language, intuition, ability, and so on.
[…] But you also must consider the idea of a place and of a reality, the image of a place and reality; these are different things. The Italian trans-avant-garde was a very successful movement, because it revived painting and brilliant color, after a period of mostly conceptual art. And this is what the art world thought of Italian art at the time, and what it should be. Of course in Italy things are more complicated, and many people may not agree with
this opinion. But the success was for that reason.
I think that one of the ways to achieve success is to have few ideas, but to be very clear and to the point so that the audience understands the message immediately.
Mr. Pomodoro, tell us your opinion of this biennial.
Arnaldo Pomodoro: I think, the best thing about this biennial is the opportunity it creates for easy communication. Young Iranian people are very well informed, so I don’t see any difference between Iranian artists and European ones, or those in other parts of the world.
The problem is another one. The image can be impressive all by itself. You may be a well-informed artist, but you have to put something else that is inside of you into your artwork.
I think what Meneguzzo said about stealing […] every artist steals, and every artist has a godfather or a father. I have two fathers. One is Klee, Paul Klee, and the other is Brancusi. The two are very much related, and they opened my mind, because I felt that I was in the same world. In the meantime, you must study and keep learning, visit museums, exhibitions, and so on.
You know, when I was very young, I hated some of the old masters. I couldn’t bear to see classicism because I am Italian and was born in a part of Italy where I was confronted with such great genius that it made things very difficult […] Michelangelo, Leonardo, Piero Della Francesca, Bramante, Di Giorgio Martini. I grew up with these masterpieces. And so I decided to become an architect. And then I discovered Paul Klee, and Brancusi. That doesn’t mean that I had to pass through the Constructivist, Surrealist, and Dadaist movements. But you have to study. If you have not studied cultures, it’s a disaster, and you have to be informed by the image.
We were very curious about the artists while selecting the prizewinning works. Tanavoli gave us a bit of information, because we were very interested in knowing whether the artist was young, old, a man or a woman […]. We really wanted to know a little more. But anyway, to go back, I think and in my opinion the selection was very well chosen, but we still don’t know the artists.
Do you think it would have affected your decision about the artist if you had had information about them beforehand?
A. P.: Oh no. No. It was just curiosity, which comes after a decision. I mean, there were many with three votes, four votes, but we were not convinced, we needed a little bit more information.
M. M.: One of the things I have seen in this biennial is that Iranian artists seem to want to build, to construct. In Italy, and in many other places, they use readymade objects, not only the way Duchamp did, but also in the manner of the Pop artists. So to me, this idea of constructing is very interesting.
A. P.: Also we wanted to see quality in the forms. I like to see craftsmanship in sculptures. You should understand the nature of the material, whether wood, stone, bronze, iron or welded iron sheets. Everything in sculpture must be of high quality. When you see sculptures that are created with objet trouvé, they must have a very powerful mentality behind them, because the world is full of trash. Gonzalez and Picasso are the best examples, and there are others. In America, Chamberlain used junk from an automobile, but to create a form.
I also have to confess my great interest in writing and calligraphy of any kind, even if I can’t read it. I have a lot of work from the early period of my career, in which I used writing. I have many books on Persian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, and Babylonian writing in my library.
I am stupefied, because every time I go to places like Yemen, Oman, Morocco—wonderful architecture—Turkey, I create works in response to each of these trips and the emotions that I had.
I dedicated a work to the epic of Gilgamesh, the first great poem. We discovered his message, received it from the books, and it is still a great mystery. And we still don’t know if it’s true or not. And this, I don’t see it very much, using script and writing in works, the only one is perhaps Tanavoli.
Perhaps we are afraid of not being understood.
A. P.: But you can’t necessarily read my writing, even myself, sometimes people say, we cannot read the writing of Arnaldo, because I don’t copy exactly […]. Sometimes I call people, Japanese people, other people that I know, to ask if I wrote something, because, I don’t know!
While we’re on the subject of writing, and before we move on to other questions, I am interested in your opinions on Tavoos.
M. M.: I hope that you have a lot of readers, because it is a very sophisticated magazine. I think that it takes a lot of courage to undertake such a project in this country. It is a luxury, something glamorous compared with other publications here.
But I wanted to say something that could be useful for you; a warning to young Iranian artists. I spoke about stealing, that the artist has to steal from other artists. But, usually, in countries where freedom of knowledge is achieved after a long period of isolation, the young generation usually attempts to begin to update, immediately. There is nothing worse, because you don’t have to do something that someone else did six months before. This was what we saw with young artists in the former Soviet Union, in the late eighties. They drew initial recognition, there was a curiosity about them, but they soon disappeared. This is a danger.
Because it was not original art?
M. M.: Maybe what I’m telling you now is something very difficult and very conceptual. Art is never original. But there is a language behind it. You must have something. Something small, a little phrase, a poem if you are able to do it. But it must be your own.
D. G.: I wanted to say something about stealing. There are two words that have to be separated in English, ‘to steal,’ and ‘to borrow.’ Shakespeare for example stole every single plot of every single play he ever wrote. All the history plays come out of Raphael Holinshed’s chronicles for example. No one considers Shakespeare a bad playwright because he took his plots from somewhere else. What’s interesting to us is what he did with them, what he made out of them, what came out in the end. And therefore, if you talk about Shakespeare, you don’t talk about ‘stealing,’ you talk about ‘borrowing.’ That’s very interesting. Borrowing is a nice thing to do. I borrow a cup of sugar from you, and someday you’ll get two cups back, or whatever. Borrowing is nice. It’s friendly. Stealing is aggressive, illegal, unkind, and inhumane. So if you do it really well, its called borrowing. If you do it badly, it’s stealing.
A. P.: […] When in front of Brancusi, who is so perfect, I used to feel really angry. I used to think, ‘What can I possibly do?’ In 1959 I was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, looking at the Brancusi sculptures. I said ‘I must penetrate this perfect form.’ I visualized it then, my sculpture, a very solid geometric form, penetrated. And I was born, as a sculptor—a fulguration, which happened in a few minutes.
So I didn’t steal. I would say it was a gift, which he gave to me. You see, sometimes you think an artist is so complete that you cannot possibly copy. It’s not true, because then I went to the problem of torsion in sculpture, which is very important. Torsion makes the material alive. Sculpture must be alive. I hate stationary sculpture; statues with their massive bases, I really hate them. Like a tomb. I hate bases, and eliminate the bases of my own works as much as possible.
M. M: I think that perhaps I prefer the words ‘to steal.’ Because for me, to steal means ‘I must have it in any way or I will die.’ And the image I have is to take an element, an idea and to run away. This kind of violence, it is a kind of illumination, a brightness, ‘Yes I must have it, I want that, I want it absolutely.’
A. P.: You have to pass through. You receive an emotion, but then the emotion has to be changed, and you say to yourself, ‘I have to do it in another way.’ And then you invent your style, but you even have to change your own style, otherwise you become boring. Sometimes even Picasso is a little boring. Because he repeats himself, but he is always good, because of his skillful hand, the quality of his media, and because he is practically a genius. […] Do you know what is boring? When there is too much craftsmanship. With craftsmanship, you have to be really very careful.
M. M.: You don’t have to be a slave to ability. You don’t have to be a slave to your own ability in doing things.
A. P.: Rigor is the thing. Rigor. Il rigore. Very important. Like Michelangelo said, you have to keep striving to be pure. Puro.
Contrary to what you said in your warning to young sculptors, students of sculpture feel a lack of communication. In the field of music, we have master classes in our universities. Professors from other countries often come to work with students. But we have a lack of
this kind of communication in our sculpture.
M. M.: This is the first problem. We are here to hopefully add something to your knowledge, to ease the communication. I come here with my luggage filled with books, which I gave to the library
of the museum. I know that it’s very, very difficult.
A.P.: Well, you can invite academics here, perhaps for a seminar. They will give lectures, and students can speak to them. We have this system in Europe, exchange of opinion, from all over Europe.
D. G.: You also need more exhibitions and the presence of non-Iranian art.
A.P.: In this period where communication is really so global, I think you should know, even though you are aware to an extent, of what is really going on. And its hard, to have the door open.
M. M.: Seeing the artworks is a different experience altogether. You have few artworks here, and you must change this quantity with quality. You have for instance in the sculpture garden, fantastic sculptures.
So you are encouraging these people whom you say have promise. Then these works, do you believe they could compete in international markets? How much of a chance do they have?
M. M.: Surely not by staying here. Or else, they need someone to come here.
A.P.: But to encourage you, after the war, at the age of 25 or 27, my dream was to go to America as soon as I could. I finally did, when I was awarded a study grant in 1959. I arrived and began to work with a gallery. And that’s what you have to do. The best Iranian artists are there, on the market already.
M. M.: To get the market, you can’t wait for the market to come here.
A.P.: You have to have exhibitions, exchange of exhibitions. And this is a good initiative. You really should thank Tanavoli, because if he didn’t write a letter to me, I don’t know if I was going to accept.
M. M.: May I suggest something? There is really no art market. Build your own art market. Start right now, there is no need to wait for the next exhibition. Why don’t you open small galleries in your kitchen? Open your own studio.
A. P.: Like the two brothers, the twins, we understood they worked even in the street. They can invite people and go to see this sort of thing […].
Mr. Galloway, having experience in working with Iranian artists, what’s your opinion about the history of sculpture in Iran?
D. G.: You don’t have one. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, I mean you do have Farhad. You have legends about sculpture, which are maybe sometimes better than the sculpture. But, I mean, Persepolis, it’s a walk-through sculpture. And, if you see the way brickwork is used in traditional Iranian architecture, and even today, if it’s well done, it has a three-dimensional, tactile, quality to it. I think in fact there is a very rich sculptural vocabulary that’s waiting to be used. Again I think that’s what Parviz did.
We were in Golestan palace and we saw the ceremonial door that’s carried for Hossein in the procession. A door like that, its very sculptural, its very three-dimensional, also you fasten things to it, it was again the sort of Saqqa-khaneh idea. So even if you didn’t actually have sculptors, you still had sculptures. You still had a sculptural quality in handicraft, and things like that. I think this is a very tactile culture. The first thing that strikes you is of course color, reflections, mirrors, etc., even something like these horrible wall things here. They’re three-dimensional, it’s stucco, it’s applied, it’s an applied work, and the mirror-work is three-dimensional.
Tell us about the experience of being a jury member, how did you go about selecting the works?
M. M.: Being part of a jury is really not so easy. You need, I think, to have a great deal of experience, to be able to think in the same way as the artist, but to have seen a lot of things and to have fully comprehended them, internalized them, and to see the artist in a compassionate way. You have to transport yourself. You need a kind of objective view. I’m not saying that an objective view is a better view, but a wider view. In the last few days we were judges of something. It’s not easy to be an objective judge, it’s really a heavy responsibility. You must also have a sort of distance. If you are involved, you cannot be a good judge.
D. G.: We took works out of every direction where we thought they were done with sincerity, with skill, with promise, with fantasy. It didn’t matter what the form language was. It didn’t matter if it was abstract, or figurative, or concrete, or whatever. And yet I think what all those works have in common, is that they are done with soul, compassion, engagement, and that they show promise. There’s a vibration. There’s radiance.
I was just telling a crazy story about 1977 when I was trying to find the collection for the Museum, because it was scattered all over Tehran, in this palace, that palace. Some pieces were lost, a lot of stuff was in an old warehouse, an old palace near the Bazaar, which was being used as a warehouse. And in the courtyard, of this palace were two huge wooden crates, colossal, you couldn’t imagine how they got them in there. And we went through all the paintings that were in the palace, some of them were sent to the provinces, a lot of the works were very bad, but among them were Picassos and so forth and so on, and we sorted it all out. And I kept asking people, ‘What is in those big boxes?’ and they said it was road building equipment. And I thought, well, road building equipment must be big, it’s steamer rollers and stuff like that. But on the very last day, before the truck pulled out, I climbed up on the crate with a crowbar and broke open a board, because these crates were [breathing noises] they were radiating, they were…[hums], you put your ear, you could sort of hear them sing, and road building equipment doesn’t sing. So I got this board open … Hallelujah! These voices really sang, and it was Henry Moore, both of the Henry Moores that are here. They had been deposited there, and somebody or other thought they were road building equipment.
What I wanted to say was that these works radiated something. They said ‘save me,’ ‘find me,’ ‘look at me,’ whatever. And this is something that you can’t define. You can’t put your finger on it. You can’t say, because it’s so original or so well executed or something else, all those are factors, but there’s something very mysterious, something magical.
The Long Road Ahead
A Conversation with Parviz Tanavoli
The Third Tehran Sculpture Biennial provided the occasion to speak with its chairman, Mr. Parviz Tanavoli. We were to speak of the Biennial, but my curiosity led me to inquire of the state of modern Iranian sculpture, and of the artist’s views on young contemporary Iranian artists.
You were the chairman of this year’s Sculpture Biennial, was this the first time you had accepted such a responsibility?
When I was asked to take this on, I accepted for one reason. I had grown apart from the younger generation. I have not been involved in the [Iranian art] scene for about twenty years, and at least two generations of sculptors have been trained in the interval. The works I see in the streets and squares are not much to look at. I wanted to see where we were standing, and also make contact with the younger generation, and so I accepted to chair the Biennial. The results were fortunately very satisfying and successful. Many young people are working passionately and enthusiastically. Great changes have taken place in our sculpture.
What is the source of these changes? Could you tell
us of the history of contemporary sculpture?
The sculpture of the world is one issue, Iranian sculpture is another. Modern Iranian sculpture is basically very young. It may not be much older than I am. We did not have sculpture before that, or if we did, they were works commissioned for town squares and were mere copies of foreign works. As a result, the Iranian public had a limited knowledge of the field. They had only seen figures of a king riding upon a horse or standing, or else busts of historic characters like Sa‘di or Ferdowsi.
This Biennial shows that Iranian sculpture covers a broad spectrum, and can include many other forms and techniques. As you can see, young people have used a wide range of materials to express their beliefs and ideas. We should not begin speaking of world sculpture, for it is too vast a subject for this occasion. Its process of development has never paused. It began with ancient Greece and continued up to the present. It should be discussed elsewhere. But our sculpture, which had been asleep for such a long time is now awakening. The situation is very hopeful.
And what was the situation like, before this long slumber?
Before this, before the Revolution, a sculptural movement had begun.
Our sculpture movement began with the Saqqa-khaneh; what had taken place in painting in the early sixties and was also being pursued in Atelier Kaboud. There, I held exhibitions of modern sculpture, pieces made of cement, plaster, car parts or whatever, but in different forms, quite unlike what people had seen in the town squares. The public began to realize that other forms of sculpture existed, in other mediums. These works were shown at this gallery and at Farhang Hall, for there were no other galleries besides Atelier Kaboud. Although there were shocked reactions from some, everyone learned how truly diverse this art form could be.
I was the first to build and install modern public sculptures. The first was Farhad the Mountain Carver, installed in front of the City Theater, and the second was installed in the courtyard of the university in Shiraz, which was torn down during the Revolution. The pieces still exist.
In any case, the first modern public sculptures were produced about thirty years ago. Four generations of Iranian sculptors have been trained in the past forty years, beginning with my generation, just before the Revolution. Sculpture came to halt for twenty years, and then a new generation came forward. They are the fourth generation, whose work we see at this exhibition.
Do you see the progress as a steady development? In cinema, the third generation cannot be compared to the first. Is this the case for the fourth generation of sculptors?
In a country with no sculptural background, the pioneers inevitably had the most difficult time. We have come a long way since the unveiling of the first modern public sculpture. The sculpture department of Tehran University was established forty years ago. At least ten professors now teach there and hundreds of students are being trained. In the recent biennial, nearly four hundred artists participated with over a thousand works. Therefore the number of individuals has greatly increased; in my time there were only two or three active sculptors. Communication has made progress and the public is more familiar with the large number of sculptors. These are very positive points. Today new contemporary sculpture is no longer strange to the Iranian public. They encounter works in squares, parks, public spaces and even homes.
But the twenty-year interim between the generations means they do not know each other. We are familiar with the sculpture of the sixties, we know that nothing much happened in the seventies and eighties, but a new wave emerged in the late nineties, which has continued to the present. These works are undoubtedly original, but they lack the depth of a true work of art. The artists are still in their twenties and thirties, and it is still too early for us to judge them. They need more time to develop. Over ninety percent of the participants in this biennial were under thirty. I hope they continue on the paths they have taken, grow roots, and achieve greater success.
Iran has a long tradition of three-dimensional depiction, which you yourself have researched in the past, such as the designs of locks or on tombstones. Do you consider
them to be part of the history of Iranian sculpture?
The general definition of sculpture includes any voluminous or solid object. Everything, from buildings to furniture, even tables and chairs. Everything we encounter in our daily life, if it appears solid, could be defined as sculpture. This concept has a different background in the West, where it begins with the human body and continues in the same domain. This trend was disrupted in Iran with the Islamic era, but we have always had sculpture: locks, door handles, cages and shrine covers, and even in architecture, in the capitals and bases of columns. We had a wondrous and continuous sculptural tradition. Our people have always produced three-dimensional objects. This is what I have based my artistic career upon, not Western sculpture and figure making. I did not go after the renaissance sculpture of Greece and Rome; I instead based my work on the materials that have a long tradition in this country.
You mean to say that the sculpture of other countries is bound to academic definitions?
Today we are drawing closer to one another. The West has also drawn away from the figurative and turned to imaginative sculpture, using any material that could express the artist’s emotions. Many sculptors today are taking boards and beams and boxes into the gallery, whatever they feel best expresses their intent, quite unrelated to the human body. We may be over a thousand years behind the West regarding the academic tradition of sculpture, but in the end, in the present day, we have drawn closer together. We should not say we are behind, we are not that far apart. We are both at the same point today.
Are we both at the same point, or have they arrived at the path we took years ago?
They have come to take the same path we took years ago. We became their model and they ours. Now if we succeed in returning to our roots and leaving the Western models behind, I believe we will be in better shape. The cultural history of Iranian sculpture is quite different from that of the West. We will never have a Michelangelo, because our traditions and religious background never allowed for a humanistic approach.
Lacking this historical background, can we approach it another way? Don’t we need the historic precedents? When you teach, you surely begin with the basics: lines, shapes, anatomy. Does our sculpture possess this knowledge?
I don’t think it proper to consider the body as the basis of sculpture. Western academies believed they should start from learning to reproduce the human body. This theory is not supported today. It is not required, it is only one path among many. Other paths can be just as important. Anatomy can also be learned at the end of training.
The forms of Iranian sculptural history may also find enthusiasts today. Can they be presented as artworks on their own, or will a combination of these forms and contemporary art lead to the globalization of Iranian sculpture?
We are still lost in the same twisted maze. We still differentiate between the visual arts (sculpture, architecture and design), but I believe the time for such categorizations has passed. A sculptor can now sculpt with poetry or music. The sculptures do not need to be three-dimensional. The artist may produce a sculpture based on other criteria. We have a very rich tradition of poetry. If our sculptors are enriched with poetry, they do not need Michelangelo or da Vinci as models. They can choose Rumi or Hafez and follow in their footsteps. I have always tried to prevent sculptors from taking the old, stale academic paths which no longer attract any supporters, and guide them towards the beauty and richness of Iranian art, an art brimming with poetry, literature, spirit and emotion.
If our poetry is sculpture, has our culture reached the point where it is able to accept it as such?
This should be left to the sculptor to decide. I’m not saying that every poem is a sculpture. Poetry is poetry, but if a sculptor decides to take a poem as a sculpture, it is acceptable today. What brings the sculptor to display the flow of water in a stream as sculpture may also inspire him to consider a poem as sculpture. Do not ask me the reason, for many of these ‘whys’ have now become meaningless, and the basis of art can no longer be defined precisely.
Throughout the world, many of these ‘whys’ and definitions have been withdrawn and a precise meaning cannot be provided. Is it so in Iran? For example, are your sculptures accepted as sculptures?
We actually possess a very rich imaginative culture, which can quickly take us to the forefront. Sculpture is not a weightlifting competition. It is related to the mind and to thoughts, and so an individual with a sharp mind can rise quickly and gain international recognition; this was what happened with [Iranian] filmmakers. Therefore no rule or principle exists. But whether my sculptures are accepted as such… I should say this is relative. Years ago when I held my first modern sculpture exhibition, I don’t think anyone was pleased. The reactions were very extreme. Some people actually lifted my sculptures off their bases and threw them on the ground. They were very angry, for they thought that I had held a culture up to ridicule, but it was the opposite. Today, those same early modern sculptures, such as Farhad the Mountain Carver, are accepted by the public. They pass them by very casually, and may even miss them if they were to be removed from their places. People need originality, but they also need background knowledge and acquired habits. They grow used to something after a time, and as I said, this is relative. I have no statistics to know how many people enjoy my work, but I do know for sure that the number of people who have come to enjoy my work, to enjoy modern sculptures is much greater now than in the past.
Was the modern outlook you speak of in evidence at this year’s Biennial?
Up to a point, yes. For instance, someone had piled sacks of flour on top of each other, and named it their sculpture. It was soft of course, but today soft sculpture is acceptable. They were stacked in the courtyard of the Center and visitors came to admire them. They were completely unrelated to human forms. Another participant had arranged firewood in the courtyard. A group had suspended balls of yarn from the trees. Another group had covered household objects—televisions, tables, and benches—with newspaper. These are ‘concepts’ which the sculptors feel the need to express. They do not want to astonish the spectator. It is very different from fifty years ago, when the folds of clothing, eyelids or the teeth behind a smile had to be carved in stone. These skills were valued in the past, but they are no longer relevant today. They can be learned by any factory worker after a bit of practice. Today the sculptor, like the poet, must have a message to convey, and how that message is expressed is very important.
Visual motifs and symbols were used extensively in the history of our visual arts. How can they be utilized in contemporary sculpture?
If we speak of sculpture in general, then we are including all three-dimensional objects. We are not lacking in sculptures. We should not have complexes over why we did not produce a Michelangelo or a Rodin. With closer attention, we will realize that the West, which did have these artists, has now arrived at a point we have actually left behind. In fact, we are making parallel progress. The West is now in search of signs and symbols.
Signs and symbols play an important part in our lives. Like the red stoplight, which makes an automobile stop, and is a red alarm. It has other precedents, and is related to blood and danger. When someone is angry, his or her face turns red. The color red signifies anger. The green light, which means it is all right to move ahead, is the color of peace and sincerity. These signs and symbols are so meaningful to us that they can provide the basis for our sculptures. For example, I have used locks and cages in my work. They have the same form in all cultures. The lock is a symbol of security, but in Iran it carries other meanings as well, and is considered to possess spiritual and healing properties. You attach a lock to the lattice of a shrine because you are seeking something from a higher power. You are seeking peace, help, and consolation. Therefore, each culture associates certain concepts with certain objects, and these associations must be discovered. Even in our own culture, a cage may be a kind of prison, but it is also where a bird feels safe and at peace. It sometimes symbolizes peace. These concepts are very important, both in our culture and on a global scale, and many artists have explored them, especially in the Unites States, where artists sought refuge in popular culture. Andy Warhol, for instance, used Coca-Cola bottles and film stars that are household names in the US, as the subject of his art. He wished to communicate with people, and that was the best way to do this.
Is this Conceptual Art?
This is the starting point for conceptualism. Before Pop Art, we were enslaved by techniques, and had to take the path we previously spoke of; begin with the academy, master the necessary skills, and create our own abstract forms from that. We were ruled by a dictatorship. After Pop Art, it became obvious that this path was unnecessary. There was no longer a single way to go. Our path, that of Eastern mysticism, is another alternative we may choose, and it is in my opinion a very beautiful path, and can shorten the long road to the truth. Of course I am not against mediums, tools and techniques. But they can be learned and perfected without the learner becoming enslaved. This is why I consider the recent Biennial a new beginning for the younger generation. This beginning is a return to a form of poetry. It signals the end of the enslavement which academies and schools dictate. This Biennial functioned quite free from the definitions of previous years. Young people have turned their backs on old rules and gone in search of new ideas.
Can this outlook you speak of, largely confined to this year’s Biennial and the fourth generation of sculptors,
become global and draw an international audience?
If there is a way, it is by doing what we are doing now. The foreign judges were very impressed. They knew of the proper manner of looking, and they recognized our works as moving in a healthy direction. Mr. Galloway actually said that all the works should receive prizes. It is true that we are a few steps behind, but if we take the correct path to development, we will soon be at the forefront. The exact opposite of this would be the path we have been taking for the past twenty years. It was going nowhere and would lead to regression. It was taking us towards an illusion, a tired imitation of history, a hopeless place.
How distanced from the public is this hopeful new
path? If a distance exists at all, how is it to be bridged?
The public is not to be blamed. They must first be properly introduced to something, instructed on its qualities, and then be expected to like it. History has shown that people were attracted to every new instrument they were introduced to, and they learned to use and enjoy them. Sculpture is no exception to this rule. If you don’t show these works to people, if they do not recognize them, they will naturally draw away. This is the path the West has taken. After the sculptures are first introduced, a number of people will probably grow to like them, and the supporters will increase daily. Early in the twentieth century, Europeans themselves drew away from art. Cubism for one was spurned and condemned. Many thought it to be a distortion of art, and that it could not continue. But today even children in the West understand modern works, and should this generation create something, it will be a modern work, not a classic one. We do not necessarily have to give the public what they are asking for. Sometimes people, in their ignorance, ask for something inappropriate. It is an imitation, a form of regression.
How have other art forms influenced sculpture, both in the past century of Western history and in the past forty years in Iran?
The arts are interrelated without a doubt. Sculpture, as regards development, was among the oldest of the arts. Painters began the first artistic movements, and the sculptors quickly joined their ranks. This is no longer happening today. Many new movements are begun by sculptors, in three-dimensional works. This art moves ahead parallel to the others, and perhaps even ahead of them. Architecture wishes to achieve the purity of sculpture, and painting seeks sculptural three-dimensionality. Sculpture is the eventual goal of other plastic arts as well. Contemporary sculpture is by no means behind other art forms. I believe it to be developing at the same pace, or even more quickly.
You just spoke of what the public wishes to see, and that it is an imitation and regression. Then are public
commissions not considered to be proper sculptures?
Let me give you an example. In the Italian town where I studied, there were a number of stone carvers, called operaio, or workers. They receive commissions from all over the world for sculptures. With astonishing precision and skill they produce everything from a Madonna and child on a tombstone to busts of famous figures. Should one of these works be brought to Iran, the artists will be worshiped, on par with Michelangelo, whereas in Italy, they are called ‘workers’; they have no creativity. They are merely skillful artisans and produce good imitations. This is what we have not yet understood in this country. We praise ‘artists’ who copy carpet designs or miniature paintings, but in my opinion they are not artists. They are artisans who produce copies. In today’s art world, they are not classed as artists, but as workers.
Third Time’s the Charm
Mahmood Bakhshi Mo’akher
Interrupted/Ancient Iran/ Since ‘78
The constantly interrupted refrain of sculpture in Iran is made up of long and short junctions that every once in a while and for reasons not always known, are cut up and then rejoined. Sculpture experiences a relatively long period prior to Islam during which it assigns itself an elevated status in the arts, however, the interruption of this movement during the Islamic era ruins the historically traceable continuity of this art. The only remnants are seen in the muqarnas (squinches) designed by architects of the time, the religious paraphernalia used in mourning ceremonies, stone lions atop graves, and other such examples of indigenous art.
In the years prior to WWII, Sediqi, Kamal-ol-Molk’s student, travels to Italy. At the height of the European modernist movement, he studies the classic style of sculpture with stone, and teaches it to other students. Contrarily, Parviz Tanavoli and a group of young sculptors bring about the contemporary theories of sculpture and present these in a continuous series of five biennials and numerous exhibitions prior to the revolution. After the revolution of 1979, this progression faces the opposition of previous movements.
Activity on the sculpture scene is pending and no news of it is heard till the group exhibition of 1990 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, composed of the works of several students of sculpture prior to the revolution active during this transitional period. With the museum director’s aid, the first formal exhibition in the country is planned in the form of a triennial for the year 1995 to be held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Comprised of sculptors and museum administrators, the event is neither enticing nor successful.
The Second Biennial after four years! It carries the name of a biennial and is a new look at more active sculptors. January 1999, the presence of swarms of young people and independent sculptors is the main event of the biennial. It is one of the most successful exhibitions of the post-revolutionary era and brings much hope to the sculpture scene [in Iran]. The Third Tehran Sculpture Biennial is the fourth official exhibition of sculpture in Iran’s post-revolutionary report card of visual arts activity.
Parviz Tanavoli/Sculpture/Third Biennial/Tehran
Without a doubt, Parviz Tanavoli and his return to the community of Iranian sculptors (not as a guest or passerby but as a teacher and a person in charge) is even more important than the biennial and the sculptures. The distancing of such greats as Tanavoli from any artistic field is in a way its orphaning. I am not mentioning this point to carve out or make up a guardian for a done deed but it is a search for an administrator of the released energy that is facing the future. Sometimes we hear that Tanavoli is the only Iranian sculptor and at other times, the complete opposite is heard. Without a doubt and with an unbiased outlook, Tanavoli is the most important and renowned sculptor in Iran. He has an extensive portfolio, the product and result of a lifetime of uninterrupted and continuing achievements. In the small opportunity presented by this article, it is not possible to name all of these. Let us not forget that his continuing work is at a level unattainable by any other.
Tanavoli’s presence during the short period of six months as a professor in Tehran creates many new relationships between sculptors, city council offices, architects, and builders. From the beginning, Tanavoli regards the biennial as a means to widen sculpture’s circle of activity from museums and galleries to other venues. In his opinion and rightly so, due to high costs, sculpture cannot survive without the cooperation of investor groups, not to mention that both city and architecture also need sculptures. So the most important objective of a biennial is to introduce shining examples of sculpture to these organizations, and to find investors and homes for these large pieces of work.
The presence of the mayors of Tehran, Esfahan, and even several officials from Arabic countries, and their interaction with the sculptors in this exhibition, and the visiting of cultural consultants and talk of purchasing works… is proof of the success of this event. This biennial is a positive and unprecedented move in the direction of economically viable sculpture in post-revolutionary Iran.
Arnaldo Pomodoro/Jury Panel/Galloway/Meneguzzo
The other interesting thing about this biennial is the presence of internationally famous judges in the panel. This issue alone causes a look from the outside world to fall on the works in the biennial and sums up the result of two year’s work in a more comprehensive way. All three judges have previously been to Iran for other reasons. An interesting point is that all three declare wonder and surprise at the extent and amount of the works in the biennial, not foreseeable in a country where sculpture is restricted and financially deficient.
Arnaldo Pomodoro, the renowned Italian sculptor residing in America, as head of the jury brings great worth and esteem to the biennial, which give promise of a more international and global future for the visual arts. Prior to the revolution, in all five biennials held, jury members from European countries and America were present. Since the revolution however, this presence has only been renewed at the cartoon exhibition and it is hoped that this year’s biennial will be a trendsetter for continued collaborations of this kind.
Not only does the presence of foreign judges stop any talk of bias and disagreements regarding the announcement of winners, it also creates new relationships between the local and international art worlds by the nature of the awards given. Instead of allocating funds as prizes, the 1st through 3rd place winners are sent on research trips to Paris, hopefully opening the way for sculpture to expand from its closed circles.
The exhibited works at the biennial are mainly abstract pieces. A limited few figurative and representational works, which break the monotony of the show to an extent, are also included. These abstract pieces are somewhat lacking in variety, which when considering the years of inactivity and non-existence of this art in Iran, is acceptable. In a country where industry, economy and even culture is semi-exported and according to some, assembled from prefabricated parts, one cannot expect works that are completely pure and original, especially in its first few steps in this direction. But in these first few steps, the relatively more personal and local language of some of the pieces, are a ray of light and hope for a more fruitful future.
Ramin Sa‘adat-Qarin’s angels, with black and coarse faces of pumice stone, are awe-inspiring sculptures with the purity and innocence of angels. Perhaps burned and turned into flint stone in some volcano; a beautiful paradox which one can neither pass or look at for long (because of excessive dualism and ambiguity).
Mohammad Bahabadi’s work; a pool made of steel filled with liquid mercury is an Eastern and simple play on the universe and the solitude of Zen, shared by the viewer. The playful movement of the liquid mercury is formed anew with every touch. The clean quality of this piece makes it one of the few worthy pieces of this exhibition as most of the pieces at the biennial are haphazardly put together works of sculpture students.
Behrooz Darash and Amir-Ahmad Mo‘bed have created works that are similar in terms of space. Objects are hung and dangling in space and lighting is used to help create special effects.
Fereshteh Mousavi, Mohammad-Reza Khalaji and Neda Shafi‘i-Moqaddam are the creators of the few figurative pieces in the biennial. Fereshteh Mousavi has used a semi-transparent material to mold pieces of the body suspended as a ghost; a nightmare of disintegrating womanhood. Khalaji and Shafi‘i-Moqaddam tell of the loneliness and pressures which people are under.
Fatemeh Emdadian with wooden forms similar to angels’ wings, in continuation of her past series, arranged in groupings of two or three. The calculated placement of the human-like forms creates a successful interaction between their jagged edges in relation to the negative space between them.
Most of the pieces at the biennial have the look and feel of decorative works. This might be because of the strong decorative aspect of Iranian culture or maybe it is because the selection committee had a notion that this is the kind of work that should be chosen (two of these members are graphic designers).
Large-scale Works/the Bigger,
They say that scale is very important for the judges and that the awards are distributed among the artists who have created larger pieces. I hear this so often and after I first see the show, I believe it. However, after viewing the show four times, I find that 80% of the judges’ decisions are accurate and it seems befitting that the pieces exemplifying new ideas and new ways of seeing are recognized, and those responsible for them, awarded prizes. If we consider scale to be one of the significant factors of visual arts and sculpture in particular, then why shouldn’t we value an artist’s ability to recognize this?
The Third Tehran Sculpture Biennial
Three is a strange number, the number of the Holy Trinity or of the devil as in three 6’s. There are sayings and expressions in street culture that include this number and are related to popular beliefs... three’s a charm, three’s a crowd…. Anyway, we passed three.