LACMA presents “In the Fields of Empty Days”, a comprehensive show of Iranian art spanning several decades.
Art Radar got in touch with curator Linda Komaroff to discuss the exhibition’s approach to time, tradition and the ethics of (cultural) appropriation.
“Past and present. These are the twin polarities that frame the museum,” writes Michael Govan, Director of the Los Angeles county Museum of Art (LACMA). This frame is based on the museum’s prescribed function as sanctuary of the past and the inevitable exhibition of artwork as a “presumably accurate reflection of what once was”, even though reconstructing a fragmented “real” past is hardly feasible. A museum-goer’s perception of art, like time itself, is malleable, meaning art, like any known fact, can be intentionally misleading. Ultimately, Govan suggests, it is one’s understanding of the present that will best inform him or her about art, theory and practice in the past.
The exhibition “In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art” demonstrates this reflexive approach, pursuing understandings and memories that negate – or, at least, disrupt – history’s standard and “often prescriptive” linear narratives. The exhibition brings together historical and contemporary Iranian art, demonstrating that artists, between the 1500s and 2018, meaningfully subvert the logic of time.
In keeping with the unique history of Iran, the exhibition seeks to mirror the nonlinear nature of its subject matter. “In the Fields of Empty Days” takes as its theme the continuous and inescapable presence of the past in Iranian society, revealed in the art and literature acquired by the museum since 2006. Among illustrations of contemporary life and political realities, the collection depicts the historic kings that have become paradigms of splendor and virtue and Shi’ite saints or martyrs that are evoked as “champions of the poor and the oppressed”. The cohabitation of each figure, object and storyline provides a pleasingly confusing foray into a past which is not finished and a present (or future) that refuses to uproot itself.
The exhibition probes into this interconnectedness – this perpetual feedback loop of time and tradition – through the themes and practices of heroism, theatre, appropriation and visual anachronism. Between 125 works of photography, painting, sculpture, video, political cartoons, animation and illustrated manuscripts, the exhibition and its curator, Linda Komaroff, focus on the intersection between bygone time and contemporary experimentation by providing viewers with a jumbled timeline of Iranian media and innovative scholarship. Art Radar caught up with Komaroff to discuss her work and the necessity of such an exhibition in the United States.
In the exhibition catalogue, questions of appropriation arise. Could you elaborate on issues of appropriation – of Iranian culture and its past – in terms of contemporary curation? Were there any challenges or ethical conundrums you faced whilst putting the show together?
I think that I approach curating contemporary art from the vantage point of its relationship to the broader history of (Iranian) art and my own familiarity with the culture of Iran. I am first and foremost a historian of art with a special interest in 14th- to 16th-century Iran. My epiphany, and it truly was an epiphany, came as a direct result of an exhibition I saw at the British Museum in 2006: “Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East”, organised by my colleague in Islamic art, Venetia Porter. This landmark exhibition focused on writing and demonstrated how artists today use this classic Islamic art form but in a contemporary manner and often in materials other than ink and paper. I was hooked. And so, in 2006, with the encouragement of LACMA’s Director Michael Govan, I began to acquire contemporary art for my department, Art of the Middle East. Initially, my acquisitions were mainly restricted to photography and other print media.
In addition to integrating contemporary works within the historical installation, I took over an unused space – basically an elevator lobby adjacent to the Islamic art galleries – where I began to have small dedicated installations. Four or five years on my range of acquisitions expanded to include video, soon followed by neon and 3-D works. In 2015, with the core of our Islamic art collection on a Latin American tour, we were able to redo the galleries and install the first of a two-part exhibition devoted to the contemporary collection. Titled “Islamic Art Now”, each installation included dedicated spaces for videos. My twin goals in terms of that two-year exhibition and in building the collection in this area have been to portray the ideas of identity, politics, faith, history and culture that help define the remarkably diverse artistic heritage of the Middle East with a special emphasis on Iran. All of this helped prepare me for the “In the Fields of Empty Days” exhibition.
Can you speak more about the juxtaposition between the past and present in the show? How does viewing a 16th century Safavid manuscript illustration in the same room as a Pouya Afshar, Shadi Ghadirian or Shirin Neshat alter the work itself?
In the exhibition, the juxtaposition of past and present is not about showing historical and contemporary works together; rather it is about demonstrating how Iranian artists both past and present use anachronisms to visually alter time. In the past, Iranian artists updated stories of the past to their own present. Some contemporary artists move time in the opposite direction by disguising or reframing the present in the past. This is obviously something of special interest to me, and not merely because I am fascinated by the idea of time travel, as I stated in the first essay of the catalogue (and hopefully astute observers will note that all the subheadings are titled after books or films on time travel). I am attracted to the transitory but consistent nature of time: the future becomes the present which becomes the past whether in a matter of nanoseconds or eons. I appreciate when artists play with time, disrupting the cycle and spinning the chronometer. And so much of artistic manipulation of time is nonetheless of the moment. The visual merging of past and present today may appear to future viewers merely as the blurred edges of old and older.
Part of the exhibition places emphasis on themes of martyrdom and mourning. How have these images of Iranian martyrs refunctioned or recontextualised in the museum? How does this exhibition create, as philosopher Jacques Rancière calls, a “system of visibility” for these individuals, and what are you expecting viewers to take away from them?
LACMA is not “refunctioning or recontextualising” most of these images, apart from the historical ones, which number three: a 16th-century manuscript page, a 19th-century lithographed book of a religious text and an early 20th century painting. Rather, it is the artists who have selected this imagery for reinterpretation visually and/or in terms of meaning, although obviously as a curator I am inspired by their work. I expect that the average visitor will encounter the art largely on visual terms without bringing too much context to it; even the casual observer will note the recurrence of certain images: the hand of Abbas, the double-edged sword of Ali, the flaming halo, etc.
The historical works are shown alongside them for context, to demonstrate their longevity and as an indicator that the cycles of martyrdom have always provided Iranian artists with a way into the past. This is perhaps most obvious in the exhibition space, which juxtaposes Shoja Azari’s video The Day of the Last Judgement (Coffee House Painting) with a coffee house painting of the type that inspired Azari. I think pairing the two adds to the experience but the painting, however graphic and moralistic, is much less powerful than the video. The video despite its patina of historicism is clearly about our own present-day inhumanity. For those more familiar with the symbols of Shi’ism, they may observe that religious imagery can be secularised and viewed more abstractly or recontextualised for the 21st century with or without the trappings of faith.
You have spoken on the anachronisms present in Iranian art. Could you tell us a bit about the contemporary artists in “The Fields of Empty Days” that are fuelled or constricted by this phenomenon?
One of the best examples is perhaps Siamak Filizadeh, especially his series Underground, [and the] ostensibly fictionalised account of a 19th-century Iranian king, Nasir al-Din Shah. Here Filizadeh’s muses are Iranian history and literature, Persian miniature painting, Old Master painting, 19th-century Iranian photography, and Iranian and American popular culture and cinema; but whether his visual inspiration is derived from historical or contemporary sources, the venue for his narrative and its meaning are always anchored in today’s Iran.
In light of ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran, why is it important to house this exhibition in Los Angeles in 2018?
The exhibition took shape in 2014, as I explain in the introductory essay to the catalogue and evolved during a time of progressively better relations between the United States and Iran. The exhibition dates were scheduled over a year in advance. Regardless of timing, I believe our visitors will be attracted to the art in visual terms, engaged by the virtuosity and creativity of artists from Iran (and diaspora communities); beyond that, I hope our audience will become more curious about Iran perhaps developing a more humanistic view of Iranians as people who create and appreciate beauty like “us”, thereby becoming less-inclined to accept at face value some media reports about Iran. Of course, we have a large Iranian-American population in southern California – for them, I hope visiting the exhibition will be an affirmative experience of self-recognition and acceptance.
Komaroff shares a poem at the beginning of the exhibition catalogue, rousing romanticised thoughts of Persian kings and Islamic conquest, which are, for many Westerners, entirely confined to historical literature of the sort. It is one thing to reminisce over the “memory of the lambs of splendor… [of] cities gone with the wind” and it is entirely another to be immersed in its narrative continuation or chronological interruption. The excerpt, pulled from Mehdi Akhavan-e Sales’ “The Ending of the Shahnama” goes:
Our hearts bound by the memory of the lambs of splendor / in the fields of empty days / our swords rusty, worn out, and weary / our drums, forever silent / our arrows, broken winged. / We are the conquerors of the cities gone with the wind. (PDF Download)
“In the Fields of Empty Days”, while being an impressive feat of retrospective exhibition, imparts upon its viewers that the present’s inherent connection to the past – and our outmoded methods of teaching and viewership – ask of us to not only look ahead but behind us. It portrays identity, politics, religion and history – concepts that help define the remarkably diverse artistic heritage of Iran – through re-configurations of time. The work in the exhibition is that which Iranian artists have researched and repurposed or reinterpreted with the passage of time, in each case producing something artistically innovative and culturally, socially and politically relevant. “Rather than look toward the future for the possibility of time travel,” Komaroff suggests, “perhaps we should look to the past.” Time and again, by invoking the past as a means of describing the present, Iranian art elicits transcendence beyond the traditional constraints of time and space.
“In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art” is on view from 6 May to 9 September 2018 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036, USA.
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- LACMA and Yuz Museum embark on new partnership – April 2018 – During Art Basel Hong Kong, Shanghai’s Yuz Museum and LACMA discussed their ongoing partnership
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- “Senses of Time” at LACMA: African artists examine the lived experience of time past, present and future – March 2016 – artists use video to explore diverse temporal realities: the personal and the political, ritual and technology and the body and automation
- LACMA’s ground-breaking “Islamic Art Now” – in pictures – July 2015 – LACMA’s show of their contemporary Middle Eastern art collection charts the expanding parametres of Islamic art
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