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Paul Revere rides again in 'Persian Visions'

Revolutionary potential in Iranian photography show at USM

Untitled by Ebrahim Khadem Bayat
by Daniel Kany, Press Herald

In America, we don’t typically think of artists as intellectuals. Warhol proffered the idea of artist as ringmaster – mixing theater and salesmanship with talent. The Abstract Expressionists were sold as hard-drinking brawlers isolating themselves for their own self-expressive spiritual journeys. Now we aren’t sure if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are even on our side or if they’re just selling snake oil.

But somewhere in there is an American notion of an avant-garde with truly revolutionary ideas. We can hardly forget, after all, not just Paul Revere’s ride, but his highly-propagandized image of the “Boston Massacre.” After all, it is often argued that it was Revere’s artistic license with this engraving that set the revolutionary fire alight. A similarly credited image is Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” engraving of a snake chopped into its component colonies.

These images do not illustrate facts or traffic in settled notions. Instead, they seek to stretch the viewer’s imagination forward. While Franklin used the logic of wartime (and economic) alliances, Revere mobilized fear: If citizens of Boston could be shot down in the street by British troops, no one in the Colonies would be safe.

The power of these images created by our most famous leading intellectuals led average citizens to conclude marshal action was necessary. This is how the American Revolution went from unthinkable to logical to inevitable – to history.

Governments have long understood the power of art. History is dotted with Savanarolas getting Boticellis to toss their own paintings onto bonfires. There are Daumiers and Hogarths and Malevichs: The Soviets came to fear the revolutionary potential of Malevich’s abstract paintings because they saw how he became a leader in a successful revolution – their own – so they turned on him and banned his abstraction. Now, we are reading about Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoarding of 1,500 allegedly Nazi-confiscated paintings; a reminder that the dark genius of Hitler – a talented painter – did not overlook the power of entarte Kunst – “degenerate art” – and its propensity to inspire revolutionary ideas.

USM’s “Persian Visions” is a photography exhibition that shows us what edgy art made in oppressive regimes can look like now. While it was created by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Minnesota, this widely-travelling show had to pass through government filters, but it nonetheless bristles with mystery and a pervasive sense of paranoia in forms essentially alien to American cultural thought. This alone makes the show worth visiting, but even the obvious questions (like, to what extent was it redacted by Iranian censors?) inspire thoughts that genuinely stretch our intellects on the topics of culture, freedom and the role of art within a society.

The three score photos (and two videos) by 20 artists on view at the USM Art Gallery in Gorham and USM’s Portland campus Area Gallery also comprise the first survey of Iranian photography on display in America, so – as compromised as it may be – it is a historic show.

“Persian Visions” largely features photographs of people in interiors. It is set thick with mystery and anxiety. Considering it is a society of law-enforced burkas (which, according to a feminist dialectic, assigns revolutionary power to a woman’s displayed sexuality; a idea rich in Koroush Adim’s unnervingly ravishing “Revelations 2,” for example), we see life in Iran as happening indoors where families can take off their public masks. In other words, the dialogue is not public/private as we know it, but political/private as Iranians ostensibly live.

Self-portrait by Shokoufe Alidousti. Courtesy Press Herald.

Farshid Azarang’s “Scattered Reminiscences,” is a standout work, but it holds tight to the mortal domestic concerns of the show. It features 11 panels in three lines starting with old snapshots of family members. These images are then followed by photos of television screen static (images of televisions play a surprisingly large role in “Persian Visions”) and then return to newer portraits, cut to black (brother, undoubtedly dead) or finish with a blurred image (sister, Alzheimer’s? dementia?)

A deep theme is the unknown, and it is very different from American-style tension usually defined by its resolution. One of the two very strong videos, “White Station,” follows an old woman during a white-out blizzard as she ventures out of her apartment building to the bus stop. And when the bus doesn’t arrive, she moves to the next stop before, ultimately, giving up. In a video looped for an exhibition, this takes on a fascinatingly doomed-to-endlessly-repeat-itself feel.

Shokoufeh Alidousti’s self-portraits show her in black with only parts of her face revealed (hinting at a sophisticated take on synecdoche – using a part to represent the whole) on a black ground with black and white family photos of her as a little girl with mom, dad and siblings. This weaves a gorgeously tangled web of blocked or hidden narratives about her interior life (in both senses). And it presents an artistic way of seeing the world that could hardly be more different than Maine’s art of ocean and nature scenes, or even our labor-intensive contemporary art of process and craft.

Just as Franklin and Revere looked to the cutting-edge communications technology of the printing press, “Persian Visions” presents photographs ripe with the digital potential to squeeze out to the world through any tiny access point to the Internet.

It is also a reminder of the critical issues of identity that accompany or even drive radical societal change. After all, when Franklin and Revere made those famous images, they were not yet Americans: They were Englishmen.

“Persian Visions” is not a typical photography show for Maine. It is thoughtful, smart and – despite passing the censors – potentially subversive.

“Generous Butcher,” a composite image, by Esmail Abassi. Courtesy Press Herald. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland.

Via Press Herald

Related Link: 'Persian Visions,' Ovations concert promise 'diverse immersion' in Iranian culture 
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