LACMA Iranian Art Exhibits Troubled History

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The new exhibition opening Sunday, May 6, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) – “In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art” – strives to draw attention to contemporary art from the region and how artists use the past as a metaphor for the present day. What the art in the LACMA show really exhibits is the troubled history of the region and its haunting impact on the Iranian people.

Just as the 2015LACMA exhibit on Weimar Republic art conveyed an unsettling image of German life between the world wars, the Iranian art conveys a country continually in strife from outsiders and disillusionment with rulers, whether royal or religious. Given current issues with Iranian leaders, one cannot help but walk through the gallery singing phrases from the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in one’s head: “The world looks just the same, and history ain’t changed” along with the ending, “Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss.” Whether under Shia or Shah, the artwork presents a disquieting picture.

“In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art,” features works from more than 50 artists. The exhibit contains 125 works, 60 of which are from LACMA’s permanent collection, in a variety of media. It includes photography, sculptures, paintings, videos, animation, posters, political cartoons, historical illustrated manuscripts and even Persian carpets.

“LACMA has one of the most finest collections of Islamic art in the world,” noted Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director. It includes “both historical and, due to a decade long effort, contemporary” works by artists from Iran, many of whom have moved elsewhere to be able to work (particularly women).

Mashup of Anachronistic Elements

“In the Fields of Empty Days” is organized in two sections: Kings and Heroes; and Saints and Martyrs, and includes a small section of documentary photographs, posters, and publications. Both strands seem to overlap in their images of war, turmoil and religious zeal. Curator Linda Komaroff, who leads LACMA’s Art of the Middle East department, “This show is about an art that willfully bends time and obscures place, rather than conforming to the linear narrative that we associate with traditional art history.” She commented that “Iranian artists moved in time and space, updating the past to the present, often to present political commentary that will get by state censors.”

Komaroff pointed out that many of the images, particularly in the Kings and Heroes area, blur elements from the past with surrealistic images from the present. A series by Siamak Filizadeh, titled “Underground (2014),” features digitally manipulated photographs presented like large oil paintings. The works show leader Nasir al-Din Shah, who ruled from 1848 until his assassination in 1896 in comical light. He promised to be a better rule, but as shown in the images of the 19th century ruler anchored in the present. One piece, “Return from Europe,” show the king and his heavily female entourage dressed head-to-toe in veils carrying shopping bags from Cartier, Gucci and Givenchy along with a boy carrying his Nike purchase. In a triptych on the execution of that Shah’s assassin, he shows half of the people gathered as observers in religious garb and half in Western garb, with people in both throngs using cellphones to record the event.

Shirin Neshat’s 2012 photographic series brings the Shahnama or Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic, into the present. The photos show people with hands crossed over theirLACMA hearts, or just bare dangling legs, to depict patriots and villains with battle scenes covering their torsos like tattoos.

The photographs by Abbas are from the1979 Islamic Revolution and departure of Mohammad Reza Shah (r. 1941–79). The protests pro-Shah and pro-Khomeini look largely the same to someone who cannot read the Farsi signs.

Nicky Nodjoumi’s lithographs feature political cartoons that reflect the upheaval in 1979. One shows the Shah being dropped into the “trash can of history.”

“Never Ending Chaos 7 (2013),” an aptly named piece by Rana Javadi, depicts war, religious strife and constant turmoil.  The collage of warriors and battles is assembled in a grid framed by women in hijabs.

The final gallery features Pouya Afshar’s “Mourn Baby Mourn (2017),” a 6-minute, 37-second animated video installation set within a large tent. Four different scenes are projected on the inside (and visible on the outside) of the tent. The simply rendered images reference historic martyrdom and the powerful emotional state induced by a community grieving.

It is ambitious and probably disingenuous to attempt to present a survey of art from one country or culture as a unified whole. While uneven, LACMA’s exhibit of Iranian art interweaves elements of history into the troubled present in a visually interesting way. The exhibition will be at LACMA through Sept. 9, 2018. The museum’s main facility is located along the Wilshire Boulevard corridor, adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits and the under-construction new home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

By Dyanne Weiss

Exhibition preview and press event May 2, 2018
LACMA: In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art
The Met: Modern and Contemporary Art in Iran

Photos by Dyanne Weiss

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