I.U. [Heart] – The Third Line (Exhibition Review)
In 2000, then-Iranian president Mohammed Khatami presented to the United Nations his proposal “Dialogue of Civilizations”, calling for peaceful, multilateral communication among countries, communities and cultures East and West – an exchange of compassion and love.[i] Artists were among the interlocutors he identified to lead its advancement. Many chapters in Iran’s history have passed since Khatami implemented his strategy; harrowing world events, more revolution and reform, a new president, foreign policies that further restrain the country’s movements and new internal policies that tighten the citizens’ freedom of expression. Yet, the five artists in the exhibition I.U. [Heart] at Dubai’s The Third Line from 23 June – 31 July 2010 carry onwards with the noble tenets of Khatami’s proposal. They communicate their intersections with civil unrest; convey their ambivalence about Iran-U.S. relations, the U.S.’ exertion of political, military and economic influence on their country; intend to expand the perception Iran “enjoys” in the West; and wrestle with how they, as young Iranian artists, negotiate regional and international labeling.
Curator and participating artist Mamali Shafahi conceived of the exhibition in 2008; the title “I” stands for Iran, “U” stands for United States, and “[heart]", placed at the end of the abbreviations, reverses the meaning of the affectionate phrase “I love you.” To put “Iran” and the “United States” in the same sentence today is at once, controversial, as Shafahi confirmed at the advent of the exhibition’s opening near Iran’s presidential election in 2009. Concerned about how the socio-political content in I.U. [Heart] might foment the predicted hurricane of protests, the Ministry of Culture rescinded the exhibition’s required permits. Shafahi sought alternate venues, which led him to The Third Line. The Dubai gallery added the show to their summer program of group exhibitions.
I.U. [Heart]’s concept and title draw from Mamali Shafahi’s 12-panel light box of the same name. Neatly organized patterns of white stars adopted from the American flag shine through bright green, a color that symbolizes freedom in the Islamic Republic of Iran, support for Mousavi, and the Green Movement. It reflects a complex mix of idealized freedom and localized disruption. Interested in how his peers explored similar themes, Shafahi decided to organize an exhibition. He selected works by four other artists who were born between 1977 and 1982 and, like him, grew up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The most explicit political symbolism in I.U. [Heart] that is universally understood is Mahmoud Bakhshi’s Doormat/Persian Rug series. Using traditional Persian handicraft to demonstrate a tense political situation, wall-mounted portrait carpets memorializing Iran’s past and present political leaders hover above doormats depicting Western flags. The flags’ intended placement would force visitors to symbolically trample Western emblems, an act that the artist experienced upon entry to a few national and public buildings in Tehran.
The oldest historical reference to the nation’s experience of conflict and social discontent is evidenced in Shahab Fotouhi’s Virgin Boys, Bloody Blossoms. Casualties of the Revolution were glorified as martyrs; front pages of newspapers ran pictures of public executions in progress and gory depictions of the dead. In the series, Fotouhi thinly veils the printed evidence of atrocities; a wallpaper pattern of cheerful red poppies serves as bait to the appropriated newsprint underneath.
At first glance, Vahid Sharifian’s work is a counter-narrative to the exhibition’s principal themes. While he prefers to mine the fairytale musings of his mind for ideas instead of conflicts outside his front door, Sharifian does make references that, in the context of I.U. [Heart], subtly reflect the challenges of his surroundings and a nostalgic perspective of American popular culture. Sharifian has exhibited internationally, including in Iran Inside Out, yet the artist cannot leave the country as he did not perform the obligatory military service. His ironic and kitschy sculptures include cartoon figurines enjoying milk flowing from a miniature birdbath in Mickey and his Mother, and a Statue of Liberty posing on a cake top with an airplane fastened to her head in Saving Hollywood, insinuating 9/11 and threats to the American dream. In the quirky photographic tableaux Queen of the Jungle (If I had a gun), a scantily clad Sharifian toys with the persona of Sheena, a 20th century American comic book character. He frolics with deer in a kitchen, prepares to break his mirror image with a fish, and appears to aim at a pheasant with a red rod resembling a light saber.
Arash Hanaei’s childhood recollections of the Iran-Iraq war and how its chaotic aftermath impacts the daily lives of Iranians manifest in an organic and confusing installation of light boxes and works on paper. Digital drawings of vampire fangs, a machine gun, headless men in suits, flowers and Pandora’s box comingle with an image of the artist wearing a bear costume. Distressed reproductions of old negatives fixed with happy children hang near several drawings of shoes, the soles of which are symbols of disrespect in Arab culture. The sum of work appears like an eclectic mixed tape, with retro urban symbolism and unrest emerging as the dominant voices.
Beyond the artists’ questions and statements about their country’s recent history of revolution, socio-political reconstruction and shifting restrictions, they express an awareness that they are culture brokers, like it or not, for a region whose identity is regularly reduced in the media to a depressing string of conflicts and repression. Yet, several artists in the exhibition find it difficult to make work that escapes socio-political themes, as they permeate their everyday lives. Sharifian is perhaps the only one who eschews classification based upon his nationalistic and cultural fidelities. In tandem with the expectation they create art that fits within the scope of recognized regional narratives, Hanaei addresses the psychological impact on artists caused by the recent boom in the Middle Eastern contemporary art market. In his video The Winding Horse he repeatedly agitates, “Like all artists from Middle East, I always have something to show!”
Three decades after the Islamic Revolution, restrictions on the free exchange of creative ideas remain a sore point for practicing artists in Iran. Bakhshi contests the country’s censorship practices in Khate Poolsaze Farsi; a large panel of graffiti loosely translated from Farsi as “I’ve got something to say” is stamped “Halal”, a certification normally used on food products that translates from Arabic as “lawful” or “permitted.” It is a satirical statement on how localized control manifests through a wide range of idioms.
Khatami’s philosophical “Dialogue of Civilizations” was a hopeful antidote to widespread violence, repression, and pain caused by “clashing” civilizations. I.U. [Heart] identifies similar historical concerns, though with the added complexity of ten more years of events. The title suggests a thematic limitation summed up by dualities (Iran-United States, love-hate), but it merely serves as a starting point for other conversations. The exhibition is subtler than it is direct; tacit metaphors and irony resound in most works. Lyrics to Boy George’s 1982 hit “Do you really want to hurt me?” next to an image of the Earth in Hanaei’s light box encapsulates the show’s expansive message, concluding with the heartbreaking, sentimental words, “…If it’s love you want from me/Then take it away/Everything is not what you see/It’s over again.”
Art Dubai Journal (2010) [online]
[i] Address by H.E. Mr. Mohammed Khatami, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Internet]. Available at: