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When Legacies Become Debts – about the artworks

About the artworks in When Legacies Become Debts.

Hannah Darabi’s research on Iranian propaganda books published between 1979 and 1983, offers a look into photographic production in Iran during this period. Her journey through these books leads to the reconstruction of a visual legacy, in the form of a photo-book itself: Enghelab Street, a Revolution through Books: Iran 1979–1983 (2018). By creating a reciprocal encounter between a selection of photographed spreads of these books, images of contemporary Tehran, family photos, postcards, TV stills, and text cut-ups, the project proposes new timelines and perceptions of a history still in the making.

Hannah Darabi and Ronak Moshtaghi look at another series of publications called white cover books which began spreading on the streets during the same time as the revolution unfolded in Iran. Mostly published between the euphoric years of 1978–79, they are recognisable by their plain white covers and bold black letterpress titles. They were published in their thousands by various political groups and sold on the street. Chosen and translated in an expedient and intuitive way, they were pirated copies of whatever pieces of literature or theory were in reach at the time. As objects on display here, forty years later, they make visible the urgency with which they were published, distributed and collected. A fragment of the collection of white cover books indexed by Darabi and assembled in the exhibition space by Moshtaghi investigates this urge to collect, and of things that happen to fall into one’s hands in a lifetime. Moshtaghi suggests that, going beyond their nostalgic value, this agglomerate is the knowledge one chooses to be exposed to, and that one chooses to surround one’s children with: a library that, though full of hidden obscurities, holds the collected teachings of morals, ethics, history and culture. The visual aesthetic and conceptual language of the books was what a generation continued to build upon – “the ‘culture of resistance’ whereby certainty, beauty, violence, revolution and death were the main discourses of life.”

The white cover books are reflected on in Moshtaghi’s sound installation Mom Likes Politics Too (2018), which introduces us to these publications through the memory of three people connected to them in various ways: a writer, a university student, and a horoofchin – a letterpress operator in the publishing industry. Their stories are read out loud by speakers from the artist’s own generation.

In another sculptural installation, The Late Poem Surrounded by Friends (2018), Moshtaghi evokes the image of the deathbed. Here the poem is referred to as if it is a dearly remembered late wife or husband. The poem has seemingly arrived at the wrong time; yet it is not left alone, it is cared for. The brick sculpture, which is simultaneously in ruin and in the making, offers a look at the timeliness or untimeliness of narratives and language, where stories are retold through new voices and multiple mouths.

Borrowed Scenery (2017) and Mouthful (2018), two films by Shirin Sabahi, revolve around Matter and Mind (1977), a minimalist oil pool sculpture by artist Noriyuki Haraguchi (b. 1946, Japan) which has been installed at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art since its inauguration in 1977. Over the past four decades, the highly reflective container has transformed into the object of a vernacular ritual: an accidental wishing well that triggered museum visitors to throw coins and other objects into, implying the kind of unintended consequences that can arise from attempting an aesthetic programme – leading with a certain intention, while resulting in a completely different outcome. The project ultimately led to Sabahi inviting Haraguchi back to Tehran to oversee the restoration of his sculpture and salvage the medley of objects from the pool. Some of these objects are exhibited in the installation Pocket Folklore (2018). The title Borrowed Scenery is taken from shakkei, a principle of East Asian garden design whereby a background landscape or an external autonomous element is incorporated into the composition of the given context of the garden.

The Fabulous Life and Thought of Ahmad Fardid (2015), a documentary written and directed by Hamed Yousefi (in collaboration with Ali Mirsepassi), explores the legacy of Iranian philosopher Ahmad Fardid (1910–1993). Fardid, who was also an avid public speaker, considered himself an intellectual crusader fighting to halt the rising Western influence in Iran. The self-proclaimed philosophical spokesperson for the Islamic Republic, Fardid constructed a mystical and ‘spiritual’ political philosophy that strove to deliver Iran from the culturally ‘debasing’ and spiritually ‘dehumanising’ experience of Iranian modernity. Under the conspicuous influence of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Fardid called for the recovery of modern Iran to its Islamic roots, a project fuelled by his concept of Gharbzadegi (Westoxification), which would quickly become a buzz-word in Iranian critiques of the modern, secular West. The film features extensive interviews
with Fardid’s former colleagues, associates and students, as well as scholars of modern Iran, and uses rare and previously inaccessible footage of Fardid’s debates featured on Iranian television. More broadly, the film presents a comprehensive intellectual history of modern Iran, from the post-Constitution (1906) to the post-Islamic Revolution period, through a figure whose obscure philosophical path remains largely absent from prevailing conceptions of the rise of political Islam.

The photographic series May Died in June (Azar Bahman Tir Khordad Mordad) (2015–2017) by Hadi Fallahpisheh hints at the tropes of identity-based artworks which heavily dominated the Iranian contemporary art scene of 2000s (in the aftermath of the state’s open border policy, which saw the Iranian art scene enter into global art markets and institutions). Fallahpisheh invites friends to wear clothes from his personal wardrobe and spend time with him. The series is composed of ‘backstaged’ shots of this visit, in which sceneries and bodies spoil interpretations and interrupt readership, questioning the ability of representations to convey truths. Such revisiting of one’s own wardrobe for Fallahpisheh is also an act of opening up the door to see ‘what one has to wear tomorrow’.

In a newly commissioned work, Body Side (2019), Ali Meer Azimi investigates the disappearance of a group of urban sculptures and monuments in Tehran that went missing around spring of 2010. The work brings together materials, either found or made by the artist, to develop a fiction theory, correlating the history of urban monuments and their origins in Tehran’s old Arsenal to the birth of reverse engineering. The detective story unfolds into an exploration of a ‘bio-topology’ in which certain things from the surface of the city are devoured by an ancient algorithmic organism. The piece comprises a publication, Like Bees Working in a Bubble Hive, and an audio installation, with contributions by Dirar Kalash and Konstantin Schimanowski, located in a transitional spot on the staircase of The Mosaic Rooms.

In CAD Conspiracy (2019), (also a new commission), Mahan Moalemi and Bahar Noorizadeh collaborated together to develop a visual essay. In the three-channel video, the installation shots of contemporary art exhibitions serve as an entry point into reflections and speculations on the politics of documentation, the history of representational technologies, and the future of empirical perception in relation to developments in machine vision. The realities of uneven circulation, accessibility and mobility in the art world meet political fictions based around how emerging technologies might transform not only our perception of the given reality but the very fabric of empirical reality itself. The artists worked with machine learning engineer Chris Tegho, who developed a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN), currently training it on 60,000 installation views extracted from contemporaryartdaily.com. While learning, the GAN creates its own “installation shots”: artificially generated gallery rooms containing art works. The output of this intelligent learning process is regularly updated in CAD Conspiracy throughout the duration of the exhibition.

In a gestural act, the exhibition borrows a spiral staircase from Dora Garcia’s Red Love installation (2018). This structure intersects The Mosaic Rooms’ Grand Room and hosts a collection of white cover books and a series of conversations which will unfold in the exhibition space over the course of ten weeks. EUROPIUM has responded to the exhibition with design interventions, including Security Blankets I and II (2019).

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