January 31, 2007

Reflections on Persian Mirrors

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On Jan. 27 the exhibit “Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran” opened at the Johnson Museum. This hallmark exhibit features 60 works by 20 of Iran’s photographers and is one of the first major surveys of contemporary Iranian photography held in the United States.

The exhibit begins with a brief overview of the history of photography in Iran, while discussing the country’s tendency for propoganda in the 1980s during Iran’s war with Iraq.

Since that time more detail and attention have been given to aesthetics, though there is still no room for nudity, potentially controversial imagery or any art that questions the regime due to the Iranian government’s utilization of censorship.

In this exhibition, the things left unseen leave the greater sensual impact, and those obscured somehow manage to speak the loudest.

Ambiguity plays a major role in the works on display and leaves the viewers asking a variety of questions. In many cases, the pieces are untitled, making it difficult for the viewer to know what he is being presented with.

Nevertheless, the photographs have an undeniable power; they fascinate, enthrall and dare the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

While the cultural environment in which the photographs were taken shapes our perception of these pieces, without knowledge of that particular environment, a different set of questions arises.

Ultimately, these photographs raise a variety of questions about both Iran and the world at large, the relationship between freedom and war and the nature of creativity under censorship.

Out of the whole collection, there are four particular photographs by Kaveh Golestan that stand out. They feature a red wash that effectively blurs various visual aspects while simultaneously making them more vivid. Golestan explains: “I want to show you images that will be like a slap in your face to shatter your security.”

The red wash, resembling blood, brings a new facet to Golestan’s images of war, grief and death that immediately trigger intense emotions. Interestingly, while the red wash veils the photographs, it actually heightens the graphic nature of the images depicted.

Just as the concept of creativity and artistic expression under censorship brings to mind questions about its very possibility, Esmail Abbasi introduces viewers to similarly intriguing contradictions with her series of juxtaposed photographs.

Even more intriguing is Yahya Dehganpour’s ability to invite the viewer into her pieces through the use of reflection. One piece features a large rectangle composed of a 6×6 composition of smaller rectangular images of eyes.

Some of these eyes stare directly at the viewer, while others are averted. Also interesting is the presence of one mirror, which invites the viewer to become not only a witness to this piece, but a part of it.

Overall, this exhibit is eye opening. Supplemental information about the pieces on display greatly helps to aid the viewer in understanding the background behind the work on display.