A curated chapter in culturebase.net
19 March 04 - 09 May 04
´The question of documentary work in the field of art can by no means be limited to the accuracy of the particular work but must rather be directed towards its internal politics of truth.´
Hito Steyerl, ´Politik der Wahrheit´, in springerin, fall 2003
Reality has (re)conquered art. Even before Okwui Enwezor´s platform Documenta, the slogan of artistic intervention in society was a central feature of discourse in the media. More and more often, photo-series are exhibited and European artists and curators seek access to the ´third world´, where reality is held to be more authentic. Lately in Barcelona, an exhibition was devoted wholly to documentary practices in the arts and featured not only photographers but also word-artists like Salam Pax, the author of the Baghdad Internet war diary, and W.G. Sebald, whose travelogues freely blend the reality of his travels with the histories of places visited. ´Després de la Notícia´ (After the News) stresses the importance of and need for artistic rather than journalistic views of reality for two reasons. Firstly, whereas war correspondents flit from slaughter to slaughter, artists dally, so are able to gain deeper insights into reality and to widen them by developing alternative realities. Members of the group ´Article Z´ filmed life in Ramallah daily during the war in Iraq and transmitted their images through Channel 4 on the principle that a) conflicts always have a context, and b) that an acute conflict should not be allowed to distract unduly from a chronic one. Secondly the reception of art takes place within a different framework to the reception of journalism. An exhibition´s ambience - be it a gallery, museum or art-room - puts observers into a different frame of mind than a newspaper´s. A newspaper gives the bare facts; an exhibition encourages reflection.
Yet in thinking about art, we should not forget the commercial aspect. Documentary work and non-European art in particular are favoured for business reasons. Documentary art is easily freighted, since photos are lighter than sculptures, and is easily digested, since representational art has more evident content. Philanthropic curators are keener to draw attention to untenable conditions than to tenable artistry; artists are keen to drop their roles of being ethnic curiosities so are quick to respond to curators´ demands, and the result is uniform art under the aegis of video aesthetics. Boosted by the growing entertainment value of ´reality´ - a value such as in Europe is associated with only the British ´young savage´ Damien Hirst or the German corpse-exhibitor Gunther von Hagen - this new culturalism may lead to a facile and sterile popularity. A video-camera is no artist, and a flickering screen no installation.
The situation has been different in lands whose artists were not out to exploit a market and perhaps for this reason have been able to create one. As the curator Rose Issa has found out, Iranian directors, especially Abbas Kiarostami, have created a style blurring ´the borderlines between fiction and fact, between features and documentaries.´ Real Fiction is what she calls this new style rooted in reality - and indeed where else could it root? Where repression is rampant and art is dubious, simple images can be used to convey ´human´ tales, which rise above the level of everyday ideology and thus beyond the reach of ideologues. When Kiarostami films a man filming, as in filming a purported filmmaker jailed for having gained access to a well-to-do family by posing as the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the distinction between fact and fiction is blurred and indeed no longer important. Yet there remains a statement, a reflection which keeps itself aloof from politics but relates to the political field of the commonweal.
The situation is similar in the field of visual art. Reality is just too strong, and the inner contradictions are too great. 25 years after the revolution, Iran is being dragged this way and that in the tug of war between conservative clerics and a liberal youth now making up more than half the population. Traces have been left by the Iran-Iraq war and political ossification of the 80s, by waves of fresh air in the 90s, and by the following stultification, as well as by ambiguous feelings about the west. Iranians live in a society reaching back thousands of years, but a society with a feeling of helplessness, due to missed chances. ´Controlled schizophrenia´ is the term applied by the Iranian philosopher Daryush Shaye to the condition of this society, which has freed itself from the past but has yet to find its way into the future. But his schizophrenia is an ideal compost for art which focuses on reality, not so as to copy it but so as to play with it and discover symbols and metaphors.
Farhad Moshiri, a young artist who travels to and fro between New York and Teheran, takes rococo furniture, more often found gracing the rooms of the small but powerful bourgeoisie, gives them a veneer of gold and tops them with a ghetto-blaster, likewise with a gold veneer. There are no mullahs in sight, no mixtures of veils and jeans as seen on often rather contrived ´documentary´ photos, but nonetheless a commentary par excellence on the reality, which has more facets than the veil of western media suggests.
Rugs are an emblem of Iran or rather of ancient Persia, of a land from a Thousand and One Nights, full of pomp and excess. Though the Persians lost their war against Greece in spite of greater resources, yet they bequeathed to posterity a heritage which still fills showrooms Germany in the form of the Persian carpet, often on sale at enticingly cut-prices on the evacuation of premises. This carpet is placed by the artist Farkhondeh Shahroudi in the most various contexts, as the garden of paradise full of immanent perils. A photo series of hers reveals carpets, naked feet, veiled bodies and naked knives. It looks like a still life of Iranian reality.
The writer Abbas Maroufi came so near reality as the publisher of the critical cultural magazine ´Gadun´ that he was forced in 1996 to choose between jail and exile. He chose the latter and has since been living in Berlin. He has withdrawn from Iran in body but not in mind, as shown by a call of his, published in the magazine ´Zeit´ (29.01.04), to Iranian reformers. In his novels, small parts of villages or townships have features of universal significance. His ´Symphony of the Dead´, published in German by Suhrkamp, offers a panorama of recent Iranian history as reflected in a brotherly conflict whose intensity vies with the one between Cain and Abel.
Shahram Zadeh, too, lives in exile. As a dissident in Tehrangeles he gazes with the emphasis of the forcibly evicted at his homeland far away and probes its inner life. Huge series of photos sharply reveal its dichotomies in the form of veiled women on mopeds and of oil-besmeared bus-drivers with screwdrivers in hand. These show how strange and familiar this land has become. Orient or occident? Zadeh resorts to both but remains unmistakably himself, committed only to his own uniqueness, not to a system.
Reality, as shown by these examples, is always defined by its context. Reality does not reveal itself to all viewers as fully as to an artist. For this reason alone the artefacts may not be appreciated fully by viewers less familiar with the reality which they refer to. But art need not be wholly universal and able to survive translation into alien cultures unscathed. It need only survive to some extent, and just as ´boards signifying the world´ may change a stage into a general truth, these artefacts refer to themes of universal import, be it in the private or public sector: love, power and death.