UNDER THE DOME OF TIME:
Two Iranian Sculptors
Robert C. Morgan
Sculpture Magazine (Vol. 27, No. 2) March 2008
Through an unusual and unpredictable series of coincidences, I received an invitation from the municipality of Tehran to serve as a juror for their First International Sculpture Symposium in March 2007. Although hesitant at the outset, I graciously accepted the invitation out of a sincere interest and curiosity to see what kind of sculpture was being produced in this part of the world. As a result, my experience in Iran proved immensely rewarding on many levels. The weeklong visit afforded an opportunity to meet with Iranian artists and to reflect on public scale sculpture in the context of a Middle Eastern urban environment. Because the symposium was international, I had the occasion to view these large-scale works in relation to those of other artists invited from various parts of the world. In addition to my role as a juror, I visited the studio of Behrooz Daresh and later viewed photographs of Earth works by Ahmad Nadalian, both leading sculptors in Tehran, who I had met earlier at the Venice Biennial in 2003. In the course of my visit, we traveled to the medieval city of Isfahan together where we discussed at length the cultural, poetic, and conceptual implications of Persian art and its impact on their work. I soon began to understand the complexity and sophistication of this culture and the multitude of avenues one could travel before reaching an accurate assessment of Iran. But, most of all, I began to see the necessity and the potential value for bringing the work of these artists into a dialogue with the international art world.
In Tehran I discovered that the word “symposium” is not merely used to describe an organized discussion about art, ideology, or politics, it may also refer to a meeting of artists selected by a committee who are invited to produce work based on proposals, in this case, a models. Within the course of three weeks, the artists would upscale their models in materials such as stone, metal, wood, bronze, and rubber. Although over a hundred and fifty sculptors applied, the list was reduced to twenty-two by an initial selection committee. Those included in the final list represented such countries as Iran, Italy, Sweden, Peru, Serbia, Iraq, Syria, Netherlands, Turkey, and the People’s Republic of China. The quality of the work was generally conservative in the sense that it dealt with Modernist issues through the use of permanent materials. Because Iran has one of the largest marble quarries in the world, many stone carvers were selected to participate. Not only are the Persians interested in stone carving, as they have been for millennia, but the prize-winning works selected were to be sited in public spaces around Tehran. Therefore, permanence and longevity were important.
The concept of permanence in sculpture is almost a subliminal aspect of Persian culture. It is a culture that virtually defines meaning in art according to how long the work will last. Then again, for artists like Behrooz Daresh and Ahmad Nadalian, the idea of permanence as a criterion in art is clearly beginning to change. They are interested in a more conceptual approach, and, to some extent, a more implicitly political approach. The implicit politics – often represented in the films of the celebrated international filmmaker, Abbas Kouristami – may either reflect human rights or simply pertain to being in a dialogue with the international community. At the moment, if you make a living as a sculptor in Iran, you make it through commissions and prizes or through teaching.
artists appointed to teach, there is a subtle, though pervasive
enforcement of certain constraints related to discussing issues of content
within the academy. In Tehran, there is no real art market on the
level of anything that exists in places like New York, London, Berlin, or
Beijing. Therefore, if one is going to function as an artist within
the limits of what is possible, one must work between official art,
academic art, and concepts that may exist on a more advanced level.
In contrast to Europe, America, Australia, India, and Asia, where advanced art is separated from the personal, such a separation does not exist in Tehran. To be working on an advanced level means that one is working on a personal level, that is, on a level that is neither official nor academic. There are many ways that one can divide one’s career, but the point is that to enter into an avantgarde or postmodern status as an international artist, which both Daresh and Nadalian are attempting to do, is, for the moment, not an easy accomplishment.
I will mention three artists whose work I found impressive at the Tehran Symposium. The first, Parastoo Ahovan, an Iranian artist, works in both stone and steel. Her sculpture, entitled “Balance,” is a monumental twisted square form, carved directly in stone, with several dangling steel spires inside a large central aperture. The second, Sahand Hesamian, also Iranian, welds intricate geometric dye-cut forms in steel. His large-scale sculpture, entitled “Shams,” is constructed from uniform triangular elements that appear as a circular shape with a diameter of three meters and radiates an illusion of infinite space, reminiscent of the mosque interiors in Isfahan. The third, Ali Jabbar Hussein, an Iraqi-born artist who now lives in Copenhagen, contributed an untitled white and black marble architectonic structure with shapes that hold a resemblance to the early, pre-automatist Miro. Jabbar’s dream-like house with a white marble ladder involves a group of slightly irregular planar spaces circumscribed on the left by a bridge-like arc. The arc arbitrarily moves from one modular parapet to another, thus activating a white marble enclosure that contains a black marble plug. Jabbar’s work has a frontality with an over-all three-dimensional theatrical affect that is ultimately resonant and mesmerizing.
I found these works striking in their tactile presence in which the fissures and interior spaces equivocate with form in ways that western Modernism does not speak. The language was ineffable, beyond the terminology of a culture that I have been programmed to know. Within the context of public art, however, the aesthetic dimension of such works could easily change. A sculpture might hold either an emblematic status in an open space or be secluded on the edge of a housing project where natural light rarely makes contact. Some of this happens by chance in that the decisions of placement often hold no special criterion or civic interest other than the politics, which is generally reticent toward becoming directly involved. Even so, given a fortuitous site, these forms might lend a reflective mode to the environment that would outlast the diurnal routine and instill solace within the viewer’s eye. The presence of good public art might preserve the senses from the oblivion of motor traffic, pollution, and the entropy of an overcrowded city.
But the problem, of course, is the preservation of existing space in balancing the physical and mobile operations of the city with a potential for natural beauty. This is essentially the talk I delivered at the Islamic Religious Museum where I spoke to a full house of listeners, all of whom where intensely aware that I was an American. In the course of my presentation, I sensed a genuine respect, as my ideas were being weighed and considered as a background on which this largely younger audience might formulate their own perspective and thus define a visual urban reality for themselves. Historically in Tehran, mosaics and what might be called abstract design reliefs – when presented and situated in relation to architecture and urban planning – were a powerful agent in illuminating the symbolic tactility of a place and in registering time not merely as a marker or a routine but as a transcendent offering by which to enrich the moment where people shared living within a metropolis. The Tehran of today is quite different. It is a city torn between the old and the new, between theocracy and liberalism. Tehran is in the midst of the ancient past, the recent past, and the lingering hopes for modernization, including a public transportation system and a restructuring of decaying neighborhoods. It is a city in search of a direction within the turmoil of conflicting values that continue to seethe beneath the surface of daily life.
Behrooz Daresh is an intelligent, physically fit artist in his mid-sixties who carves domes from Styrofoam blocks that rise up from a flat planar space below. Between the underside of the dome and the “stage” below there are countless tiny cut-metal figures suspended on thin wires. The figures are abstract, but recognizable as figures. They literally float within the light that reflects from behind or from the dome above. With titles, such as “Aporia”, ”Apocalypse”, and “Elegy for a Nobleman’s Death no. 2,” his constructions have a kind of abstract theatricality and a sense of real humanity. These miniscule Noguchi-like forms and figures vibrate with the air currents, creating a delicate diffusion of energy. Daresh is interested in the space of infinity found in the interiors of the great Mosques, particularly those built during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the Safavid period. Yet there is a quality about his sculpture that is fully contemporary, removed from any explicit or predetermined ideology. His sculpture is an oblique manifestation of the term “conceptual sculpture” that offers new possibilities that ascend beyond the current desperation of much installation art. It is sculpture in exile whereby the psychological feeling of suspension within space becomes an arbitrary, nearly Bergsonian phenomenon, rather than simply about the physicality of being in space. It is a conceptual viewing experience where one imagines a slightly off-center whole in relation to the parts. This kind of arbitration occurs through perception and meditation. It opens the threshold of thinking to another reality, another state of being not unlike Artaud’s observations of the Balinese Puppet Theater.
Some sculptures by Daresh are distinctly liberated from the space of the theater, the box, or the dome. They exist in their own space. Two examples would include “Serpent’s Dance in Paradise” and “Evening’s Praise.” In each case, there are three curvaceous abstract figures in an out-of-doors environment. Instead of being held by wires within a contained theatrical space, these figures appear to move autonomously. They are free from any external architectural space and exist independently within their own space. They create their own space. For Baresh, the figures are like poetic stanzas, given to delicacy and a refined sensibility. They absorb the conditions of both time and space. They dance, as do the figures of Matisse who simplified his figures in order to give emphasis to the dance itself. It would appear that whether Daresh is working with the simplified figure within the dome or whether it is outside in nature, there is a continuous thread that moves through the work. There is an uninhibited concept of liberation that art as life should be free of restraints and that the mind of the artist should be feel to think and to feel as he or she pleases. Artistic freedom, in fact, may become the barometer of a society in terms of how it functions in relation to the body and to its social and cultural governance.
Ahmad Nadalian’s work is like a synaptical charge between the Paleolithic cave art and Ancient Persia. He works with directly the earth, primarily in sand and stones on the shores or shallow pools of rivers, ponds, and streams. He can often be seen near the Haraz River in the village of Poloor, approximately 65 kilometers north of Tehran, wearing s wide-brimmed straw hat, carving impressions of fish, human hands and feet, river goddesses, and animals into rocks beneath the surface of the water. From 2000-2001, Nadalian did his Hazar River project where numerous animals, fish, and human signs appeared along the course of the river, thus suggesting an allegory over time that may have been done centuries ago, but in fact were carved in postmodern times.
In addition to receiving a degree from the University of Tehran in the eighties, Nadalian went on to receive a doctorate from the University of Central England. He is well versed in computer language and believes that the most viable and effective way of transmitting his message as an artist is through digital displays, the Internet, and his own extensively designed websites—of which he has three. Yves Klein felt that art was somewhere between the ancient world and the future. A similar statement could be made about Nadalian, except that his forms appear as simulacra of a pre-linguistic culture, in fact, as true signs reiterating something about our present moment. One of his titles is “The River Still Has Fish” – meaning that, in contrast to Paleolithic times, the threat of pollution is changing the rivers of the world in a way that is threatening to all species on Earth.
One could say that Nadalian’s real studios are the rivers of the world. He travels inexhaustibly from one place to another carving his petroglyphs as human traces into the rocks of riverbeds, oceans, and ponds. He has been in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the United Kingdom, Russia, Scandinavia, Uzbekistan, and the jungle rivers of South America. I remember in Venice during the month of August 2003, Nadalian would awaken at the crack of dawn, put on a knapsack full of carving tools and his perennial straw hat, and proceed to a secret alcove somewhere at the end of the Lido. He left the hotel at dawn because this is when the tide was down, which facilitated carving on the rocks that eventually the crashing waves would conceal. In addition to carving rocks – many of which are done on small flat stones that he hides in wilderness places -- Nadalian also carves fish on spools of hard wood, which are then rolled out using a long stick on the surface of wet sand. The result is a myriad harvest of fish that adorn the beachfront. Eventually, of course, the tide will wash over them as well.
As a result of an invitation to the United States in the Spring 2007, Nadalian spent most of his week in New York not looking at galleries and museums, but carving stones in Central Park. Part of his concept is not to make the signs appear too obvious. His work does not shout out loud. Instead, his fish and animal signs are nearly hidden, often difficult to find. The overall point of the work is to deliver signs from his own Persian heritage by carving them into what today we call the “natural” environment. The artist hopes that people will discover them and, in the process, begin to reflect on the environmental and cultural signification they express. Nadalian’s work is a kind of a combined Earth and Process art, at least in Western terms. Yet he is also within the context of Postmodernism by returning us to an era when language did not exist other than as signs, an era when there were no urban monuments and no public art in city squares. There was only the earth on which we trod and the satisfaction of knowing what had to be done each day.
Robert C. Morgan is an international art critic, artist, curator, frequent lecturer, and Contributing Editor to Sculpture.
Robert C. Morgan to Nadalian 2006
"I was so impressed with your concept, working at low tide in the early mornings to carve signs that during the day would be concealed. It calls into question so much about time, history, language, meaning, and sculpture."
"I have great respect for what you are doing and have already mentioned how taken I was by your work in Venice in 2003. The idea of working with primitive signs or basic ritualistic signs that hold universal meaning in the Jungian sense is very important, a necessary and vital aspect of art today."
Professor Robert C. Morgan Ph.D.
Sun, 2 Apr 2006
ROBERT C. MORGAN
He is an international art critic, artist, curator, frequent lecturer, and Contributing Editor to Sculpture. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975 and his Ph.D. from New York University in 1978. Dr. Morgan is Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He has taught at Barnard College, Columbia University, the University of Rochester, Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts, New York.
In addition to a consistently full teaching load, he has written and published over 1000 articles and reviews in more than 50 magazines and professional journals. His essays have been translated into more than a dozen languages. In addition, he has authored books, catalogs and monographs on numerous contemporary artists in various countries. His book on the American Conceptualist Robert Barry was published by Karl Kerber Press in Bielefeld, Germany (1986). Haim Steinbach was published by the Musee d'Art Contemporain, Bordeaux (1988). Duchamp, Androgyny, Etc, was published by Editions Antoine Candau in Paris (1990). A Hans Bellmer Miscellany was published by Baum/Malmburg in Malmo (Sweden) in 1993. His book, Bernar Venet: Work, 1961 -1971, was published by Editions des Cahiers intempestifs in St, Etienne, France as a bilingual edition (1999).
His books published in the United States include Commentaries on the New Media Arts , Umbrella Associates (1992); After the Deluge: Essays on the Art of the Nineties, Red Bass Publications (1993), Conceptual Art: An American Perspective, McFarland (1994); Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997): and The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998) A critical anthology on Gary Hill (2000) was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. A collection of Morgan's essays, entitled El Fin del Mundo del Arte, were published by Eudeba in conjunction with the Centro Cultura Rojas at the University of Buenos Aires (1998). Another volume of his lectures, entitled Duchamp y los artistas contemporaneous postmodernos, was published by Eudeba in 2000. He is co-author of Dorothea Tanning (Braziller, 1995). An anthology of criticism on the conceptual artist Bruce Nauman (Johns Hopkins University Press) and an edited volume of the late writings by the critic Clement Greenberg (University of Minnesota Press) are forthcoming in 2002.
While staying in New York City, I was also invited for a meal by Robert C. Morgan. He cooked fish, and we enjoyed dinner at his apartment. He told me "You have carved many fish, you need fish".