Sunday, 20 September 2009




What is the most significant thing to have happened in recent months to Iranian contemporary art? Not something that occurred inside Iran. It is, instead, something that happened abroad – in the auctions of contemporary art organized in Dubai by Christie’s International and Bonham’s. Both long-established artists and relatively new ones benefited from the sudden surge in prices. Parviz Tanavoli’s sculpture The Wall made $2.84 million US – an auction record for a Middle Eastern artist. A calligraphic painting by Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, who now lives in France, made $1.6 million. Another calligraphic painting by Mohammed Ehsai fetched $1.16 million. Six of the seven most expensive lots in the sale were by Iranian painters or sculptors.


These big prices were not the first. On March 4 a painting entitled Love, by a younger Iranian artist, Farhad Moshiri, was the first contemporary Middle Eastern artwork to break the million-dollar barrier, at an auction organized in Dubai by Christie’s rival Bonham’s.


There were several reasons why these sales were significant. For example, they were generally interpreted by commentators as a sign that Iranian contemporary art was beginning to have a share in the boom that had already created extraordinarily high prices for the work of certain contemporary Chinese artists, among them Zhang Xiaogang, who paints pictures based on family snapshots made during the Cultural Revolution, and Yue Minjuin, whose paintings also allude to recent Chinese political events, prominent among them the Tianamen Square Massacre of 1987. This boom, in turn, has been seen as a consequence of the great surge in China’s political and economic importance. In crude terms, there is a parallel with what happened to American art in the years immediately following World War II. When American emerged as the dominant economic and political power in the new world dispensation, the spotlight moved to American visual culture, which, up till then, had been regarded as a provincial poor relation of artistic developments in Europe, and particularly of Modernist art movements in Paris.


The situation with Iranian art is not, however, exactly the same as the current pattern in China, or with post-World War II developments in America. Iran is an important regional power, but not, or not yet, a force on anything like the same scale as the new ‘tiger economies’ in China and in India. It has in recent years been isolated by the events that created the Islamic Revolution. Till recently, the only contemporary Iranian artists with international reputations were those who lived and worked outside Iran. A case in point is Shirin Neshat, who has long lived and worked in New York, and whose much-admired videos are made in Morocco. Now it is artists resident in Tehran who are prominent among those whose work is bringing high prices. The buyers seem to be clients, not from the United States or Europe, but from the Middle East.


This, too, is interesting because, despite recent successes at the Sharjah Biennial, which has become the chief forum for Middle Eastern artists, Iran is in some respects culturally isolated. The language of the country is not Arabic, though it is written in Arabic script, and in religion it is Shia, not Sunni. It is Sunni clients, in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, who tend to be the most active collectors of Islamic art in all its forms, both ancient and modern. Clearly they are now beginning to discover something in contemporary Iranian art that expresses aspects of 21st century Middle Eastern life that they are unable to find among purely Arabic artists.


At this point it is worth taking a look at the work of Farhad Moshiri, and some of his contemporaries. Moshiri was born in Shiraz in 1963 and now lives and works in Tehran. He received part of his training in the United States, at the California Institute of the Arts, one of the most prestigious schools in America. John Baldessari, perhaps the most influential conceptual artists in the USA, was his mentor there. He is well acquainted with the work of a wide-range of leading contemporary artists, from the British YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, to the Japanese Takahashi Murakami, who has made designs for Vuitton handbags. Moshiri exhibits internationally but prefers to live and work in his own country. As he said in a recent interview with The Art Newspaper: “I feel happier living in Tehran compared to anywhere else. Artist friends who’ve never lived abroad don’t understand why I stay in Iran but I just feel like I fit and I don’t constantly question why I’m living there. That ís very comforting.”


To anyone familiar with 20th century American art, Pop influences are very visible in Moshiri’s work. Yet anyone who also knows Tehran, and the life-style of the prosperous Iranian middle-class, will immediately see that this Pop element is inflected in a distinctively local way. For example, Moshiri has a taste for the over-the-top kitsch Louis XV style that abounds in expensive Tehran furniture stores. He has an ironic relish for the cheap glitter than outsiders associate with new-rich Middle Eastern taste. Yet this is combined with a delicate sense of the possibilities offered by traditional calligraphic forms.


This mixture of influences is also visible, though in a different guise, in the work of some of the younger Iranian artists Moshiri admires and thinks of as colleagues. Rokni Haerizadeh, for example, was born in 1978, and is therefore a generation younger than Moshiri. He paints pictures with specifically Iranian subjects, such as wedding-parities, that owe something to Matisse and Van Dongen, but also something to Safavid miniature painting. As with some Safavid miniatures, one suspects that certain paintings by Haerizadeh would not currently be acceptable for public exhibition in Tehran. His work is nevertheless easily accessible on the Internet, for example on the Saatchi Gallery web-site, and he too figured in the recent Christie’s auction in Dubai. As his birth-date indicates, he belongs wholly to the new Iran, which has come into being since the Islamic Revolution.


If the Dubai auctions confirmed that Iran, as represented by its contemporary artists, increasingly occupies a situation of cultural leadership in the Middle East, the actual art works that figured in these sales offered a good idea of how complex the Iranian situation actually is. Under the Shah, Iran was open to influences from France, and also from the United States. Though Iran and America are now politically opposed and often, it seems, on the verge of open war, the nostalgia for American popular culture continues to exist strongly in Tehran. One can compare the situation to the one that has long existed in Cuba, where the political and cultural relationship to America is paradoxically similar. Yet Iranian art is clearly no longer simply the client of what happens in the great art-centers of the West. Nor does it just peddle an Orientalism created to suit western taste.


Elements that now appear in new Iranian art often seem to indicate increasing skepticism about official attitudes, without being openly defiant. The same thing can be said about much new Chinese art. The Chinese authorities rapidly learned to live with the situation, since they realized that the new Chinese art was doing more for the prestige of their country than official propaganda could ever achieve. The transformation of the Shanghai Biennial from a marginal to a distinctly official event has been both a measure of change, and a tribute to Chinese pragmatism. The recent Dubai auctions, to put if bluntly, seemed to indicate that it is almost impossible to resist cultural change when this is suddenly backed by large sums of money. Iran has now been handed the leadership in Middle Eastern art, whether it wants it or not. 


This site was last updated 20-09-2009