Mahmoud Bakhshi explores the unresolved triggers of the 1979 Iranian Revolution in “The Unity of Time and Place” at narrative projects gallery.
Mahmoud Bakhshi holds his second solo show at narrative projects gallery in London, where the Iranian artist explores the relations between history, politics and artistic research. The exhibition – on display until 17 March 2017 – marks an important shift in the artist’s practice.
Iranian-born artist Mahmoud Bakhshi’s “The Unity of Time and Place” at narrative projects in London sees the gallery space transformed into an immersive installation that references the infamous Cinema Rex fire in Abadan, in southern Iran. Hundreds of people had packed the theatre in a working-class district of Abadan to watch The Deers (1974) (a film directed by Masud Kimiai and starring Behrouz Vossoughi), when four men barred the doors of the cinema and set fire to all four sides of the building to prevent rescue attempts. The arson attack tragically killed over 400 people on 19 August 1978, and is considered to have triggered the 1979 revolution.
History as a scenography
Films documenting the episode and archival footage set the scene in the gallery space and tell the story of what happened on that day while the interior of the cinema has been replicated at the gallery with vintage furniture and carpet adorning the floors and walls. Eliding investigative or historical enquiry, the artist rather chooses to reconstruct historical events as a means of creating a stage for discussion and creation in the present. History is thus approached by the artist as a scenography that continues to structure aesthetic, social and political life into the present.
Artistic research and history
That is not to say that new details of historical relevance have not been uncovered as part of the research process. Bakhshi’s research has highlighted details that have escaped the public’s attention to date, including significant details linked to the atrocity. He has, for instance, interviewed Masoud Kimiai who directed The Deers (Gavaznha) film that was showing when the arson attack took place. The interview is one of the film and video materials screened in the exhibition. narrative projects gallery founder Daria Kirsanova said in a press statement that the exhibition is the result of a year’s worth of research.
The exhibition draws parallels between the Cinema Rex fire and the coup d’état of 1953, which occurred 25 years to the day before the fire. Gallery director Kirsanova explained:
Both events had a crucial impact on the history and transformation of not only Iran but the entire region, drawing parallels on both their date of occurrence and location. Abadan, an oil-producing city in the south of Iran, was an epicentre of the coup d’état and is also where Cinema Rex was located.
The Iranian Revolution, art and politics
The project feeds into the wider focus of artistic inquiry in Bakhshi’s practice: the possible roles and impact that an artist today may have, as well as the effect that a given work of art may have on society. In an artist statement published in 2009, when the artist was shortlisted for the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize (MOC CAP) which he subsequently won, Bakhshi reflects on the motivations for exploring the relation between history, politics and art:
Most of my projects are direct answers to situations I observe and connections I make with the historical past of my country. I have often had conflicted feelings about this approach and have always looked at artworks that are disconnected from political issues, that are beautiful and important for art history, with envy. But, I was born in Iran, grew up after the Revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War period. I have found difficult to create artworks disconnected from my surroundings.
Previous work has also explored the “aftermath” of the revolution and specifically how this has effected the development of visual languages – from official propaganda to dissident art practices. In his 2014 project TalkCloud – a cross-disciplinary project that includes lightbox sculptures, drawings and video – the artist presented a number of sculptures and a series of digital drawings that investigated the relationship between art and power-holding systems in Iran and globally.
The drawing series Hard copy (2012-ongoing) reference familiar propaganda iconography that glorifies martyrs in the Iran-Iraq war. Bakhshi transformed them into simple, childlike drawings, using formal alterations to trigger conceptual metamorphoses. He took these images out of their charged context, the detached realm of ‘heroic propaganda’, and turned them into schematic, nearly abstract graphic symbols that recall both embroidery and traditional storytelling visual techniques as well as digital glitch systems.
A series of four lightbox sculptures included in the TalkCloud installation hold text displayed in a manner that recalls traditional Persian calligraphy. The content, however, are famous verses of poetry or manifestos. The artist selected well-known phrases that comment on the social role of art. The quotes include expressions by the leaders of the Iranian Islamic and Russian Bolshevik revolutions – Khomeini and Lenin – alongside those by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the ideologue of the ‘artistic engagement’ and Social Realism, Anatoly Lunacharsky. One work also cited Andy Warhol.
The contrast between the content of the phrases, which call attention to a social role of art, and their presentation in the shape of embellished ornament, seeks to ask questions about the aestheticisation of politics. In this body of work – exhibited at Niavaran Cultural Centre in Tehran as well as at narrative projects for his first exhibition with a commercial gallery – Bakhshi explored the origins of the notion of so-called ‘political engagement’ in art, as well as thinking through the interaction between art and capital in the art world.
“The Unity of Time and Place”: a shift in direction for Bakhshi’s practice
“The Unity of Time and Place” marks a shift in artistic strategies for the artist, demonstrated by the artist’s experimentation with what can be called immersive installation or scenography. Where as Talk Cloud probed the generalities of the relations between art and politics, “The Unity of Time and Space”, in its direct engagement with a historical case study, attempts to construct a more active role for politicised art in the context of a commercial gallery. According to “The Unity of Time and Place”, art can serve as a way to create stages for direct intervention: into the gallery, into history and then perhaps also subjectivity.
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