Metaphysics of Absence: Martyr’s Museums in Iran

University of London
Goldsmiths College
Department of Visual Cultures
BA Course Museums and Galleries: Framing Art
2 Dec 2008

For my talk today, I have chosen to present a ‘different’ museum to you. Yet, I invite you, as we progress, to go beyond the sublimity of the terror it provokes or the extreme banality of its making and to look at the intended function for which it was built. It was meant to convey to you, as well as to the native viewers, what fails to reach you through other channels. You might recognize the mode of its representation as a desperate attempt to balk at representation per se.

Martyrs Museums were established by the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs in most major Iranian cities after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), known as the longest declared war of the 20th century with more than a half a million casualties. The Foundation, established in 1979, was originally responsible for supporting the families of the martyrs of revolution, not war. The same way the war was to sustain the revolutionary fervour, its casualties were also considered the continuation of revolutionary martyrs. The pictures we see here are from Shiraz Martyrs Museums. I chose this example for two major reasons: first, Shiraz Museum exhibits a variety of art works side by side with other museum objects and secondly, it is located inside a holy shrine. The artworks consist of donations to the shrine and for that matter they vary a lot in subject matter, date and quality and precede in time the rest of museum objects.

As André Malraux once wrote, ‘each exhibit is representation of something, differing from the thing itself, this specific difference being its rasion d’être.’ It is not only the difference between what you might expect from a museum and what you will see here, rather the difference between the original message and what you read into it that I try to underline.

Although it can be easily considered a very bad copy of European museums charged with local ideology, one can go as far to say that the influence has been large enough to result in a different understanding of exhibition. Moreover, it is not only in its form that it addresses the European model. It is supposed to present to the Other what it considers to be done by him. (At least from the Iranian point of view, the Iran-Iraq war was engineered, imposed and finally lost by the west.) It tries to impress the western viewer by making use of the only universals it shares with the omnipresent, all-encompassing and almost universal other (loss, violence, absence and the body) to hold up a metaphysic of absence against him. In this respect, it has also something to say about the role of representation itself. Thus, bringing this museum to you, in a sense, is to provide it with the ultimate audience it searches for. These will come later. For the moment, let us have a glance at the differences.

To begin with, it is no war museum. The difference is that of a soldier and a martyr. A dead soldier is a life lost. A martyr is death conquered. A dead soldier is a disappeared multitude of contingencies—for him, his family and the State. A martyr is an icon gained, an expectation fulfilled. A personality unified. A history affirmed. Death in war is a sudden disruption of what was to be continued. Martyrdom is supposed to portray the perfect ‘end’.

Then, the subject of Martyrs Museum is not appreciation of heroism. Heroes are celebrities, martyrs anonymous. A living hero is still respectable while martyrdom is constructed only through death. A hero risks his life, a martyr surrenders it willingly. Thus, heroism cherishes life, while martyrdom is impatient to end it. Therefore, it is the death drive more than anything else that Martyrs’ Museum embodies, going against the ideas of both artistic beauty and sublimity.

A martyr is no victim either. Thus this is also different from a genocide museum. It is not a representation of an injustice tolerated but rather nullified through amazement with death.

It is not surprising then, in a particular sense, if there is nothing to see in this museum. There are no museum objects as such, rather remnants of what could not be exhibited. No sublimity or beauty. It is not a matter of watching death from behind a glass. Nothingness itself is staged. Here, we do not deal with the overwhelming of imagination or its play with understanding. Just everyday men, everyday objects. And these, in their most humble state: dirty, covered with mud, destroyed, and possessing no economical value. The museum barely requires security. The museum ventures to create no totality: everything is scattered as in the war itself. They are not sorted, for there can be no criterion for sorting here: no hierarchy or hegemony in death apart from the superiority of the martyrdom over other forms of death.  It brings into mind the cabinets of curiosity in this respect and yet, there is nothing curious about the exhibited objects per se. The showcases do not illustrate the lives of the ‘great men’ who are no longer among us, rather the absence of the very ordinary men who are no longer considered ordinary because of their self-determined death. Not how one lives, but how he dies is cherished.

As such, this museum is not an archive, but its denial. What is achieved is unknown and incomprehensible, what is lost is disdained. But why should this collection of singular deaths be exhibited? And why, particularly, in front of foreign eyes? For sure, the State and revolution take interest in this. To borrow Hal Foster’s words, the museum shares much with a mausoleum (remember, Shiraz Martyrs Museum is located within the holiest shrine in Shiraz), but here it goes much beyond a mausoleum as far as to become its denial. It is a site for performance not theatre. It is not a place for individual mourning or remembrance. The museum tries to resurrect what it shows.

It tries to impress the viewer by the particularity of the collective, by a contingency open to everyone. If Proust saw museums as the perfection of artist’s studio, the Martyr Museum is ‘the phantasmagorical perfection’ of the war scene. Only the viewer can fill the exhibited absence and lack. The museum calls for self-identification. In Tony Bennett’s words, ‘the exhibitionary complex is self-observation from a certain perspective.’[1] In this sense, other museums are no less ideological in their claims. One can easily use the words of François de Neufchâteau, the Minister for the Interior at the time of French Revolution with the change of some terms to describe this museum:

While the museums [of the French nation] enriches your mind, its laws and examples will enrich your soul. It will make you more worthy to practise the arts, because it will have shown you the greatest art of all, the art of betterment. Fine art, in the hands of a free nation, is the main instrument of social happiness and a useful subsidiary of the philosophy which ensures the well-being of the human race.[2]

If the museum represents a martyr’s personal belongings it is not to make a statement about war in general, but to underline his singular absence, which, like his unheard-of proper name, does little to describe him. The objects are not signs or relics, they are what they are, everyday banal object. And ‘everyday’, in this case, means ‘today’: the temporality of the Martyrs’ Museum is that of the present. According to the Koran, the martyrs should not be considered dead: ‘And do not speak of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead; nay, (they are) alive, but you do not perceive.’[3] One should always think of martyrs as present. This is much closer to the temporality of art works than that of religious works.

I quote Jean-Louis Déotte:

Here we encounter a temporality—the temporality of collected objects, works of art—which is not the temporality of religious works which, although the same, are caught up in the stranglehold of a particular age and which, because of this, have to make their mark, to make a statement and have a specific destination. This is the temporality of suspense, of incompletion, of return, the temporality of a continuity which extends across ages, a cyclic temporality.[4]

This might explain why the directors of the museum have not found it strange to place a variety of artworks some dating back a thousand years next to everyday objects, armours, and naïve artworks by village martyrs. The impact on the viewer, however, is not as intended. The presence of naked death, without pretension or adjustment, disrupts the museum function of artworks, and interestingly, gives them back their original function. Thus the division that the museum tries to negate, shows through as forcefully as possible. An ornamented gilt sword of the 17th century turns into a real sword once again and is no longer an object of mere aesthetic appreciation. The illuminated Koran of the 14th century turns into the text of an ideology which has cost the lives of martyrs. On the other hand, the claim of the work of art to immortality, its persistence to survive, falls in contradiction with the fragility of lives lost in the war. [Another quote from Déotte:]  ‘There is a demand which comes from a long way off, from unknown ages and other lands. And this demand is inextricably bound up with the determination to survive.’ [5] The will to survive and the will to death fight silently in showcases: the banality of war, when presented with its real face, is emphasized through a comparison with the sophistication of ornaments. Thus, the sublimity of war and the beauty of art are both shattered, which turns a visit to Shiraz Martyrs’ Museum into a very horrific experience. The museum directors have tried to benefit from the timelessness and apparent immortality of the artworks to fortify the impact of the museum, yet the inherent contradiction in the idea of art as an autonomous domain, as creation of museum objects for the sake of aesthetic appreciation undermines the whole idea. The ungraspable singularity of particular deaths prevents the collection from turning into a single whole while the ‘real’ violence, defies an idea of aesthetic sublimation. Rather, it returns the artworks into their historical determination tearing apart the theatrical ‘as if’ that a museum relies upon. This failure in combining the universal idea of art and singular death, in turn, accentuates the fragility of the ‘person’ behind the immortal martyr and disrupts the suspension of the temporality that both the idea of martyrdom and art demand. It reminds the immediate danger of aestheticisation of death: to turn the martyr into a ‘type’ as desired by institution.

[Quoting Déotte again:]

… [The] memory, which is created from the suspension of historical time and therefore from the suspension of ages, of the intrinsic destinations of the works of art, and from the suspension of internal conflict within the nation, is in fact based on an act of negation. For it is vital to negate what has caused division within humanity and divided the nation, in spite of the fact that, because of its raison d’être, the Museum can only suspend—i.e. not take account of—different destinations, otherwise it would not invent art. That is its system: the need to negate! It must negate the various forms of divisions and differences![6]

It is exactly this system that is disrupted. Following the failure of the negation, the existing differences and divisions undermine the idea of martyrdom as a collective.

The relation between revolution, war and the emergence of martyr museums in Iran becomes more interesting once seen in connection with the history of museums in the west. In France, the Louvre too was an outcome of revolution. In it, a similar dialectics of presence and absence was at work, trying to resolve the urge for removal or preservation of the past. [As shown by Larry Shiner] the two attitudes,

…one bent on destroying every sign of ‘despotism’, whatever the artistry, the other determined to save the ‘art’ however repugnant the symbol, struggled with each other throughout the decisive years of the Revolution. [7]

With Napoleon, the Louvre tried to define itself as a ‘national’ museum asking for the gaze of the other. With Bonaparte’s exactions in Italy and the conquest of Belgium in 1794, one deputy declared: ‘The Flemish school rises en mass to come and adorn our museums.’ [8]

The Martyr Museum also had a ‘national’ claim which in its own way corresponds to colonialism. The colonial formula is simple: the west is interested in the exotic Other for what he possesses and what the west lacks, the same way it is interested in what the Exotic lacks and the west can provide. Yet it is deeply disinterested in whatever it is impossible for the west to provide or gain. This is exactly how one can oppose the colonialist, go for independence and consequently fall out of the global network of relations: by dwelling on this disinterestedness, by upholding the lack not as a demand but a claim, as a void that one refuses to fill. If I rebel no matter what the cost (for there is a great cost in doing what the other is not interested in), I can continue till the end. A martyr is an ultimate rebel tried and tested. But this disinterest in ‘life’ (property of the victorious west) is not a pure aesthetic preference. Actual life should have become usurped by the other to allow for such extremism. And extremism is no strange option in the eyes of one who is obliged to live in extremity. One who cannot live can experience life through its denial.

There is no appropriate measure for suffering. This is a source of injustice that the modern systems of representation cannot easily communicate. For one who has no voice and is unable to touch others, this failure in communication is all the more intense. One who cannot exhibit can all the same turn against representation itself.


[1] Tony Bennett (1995) Chapter 2: ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’ in The Birth of the Museum(London: Routledge), p. 69.

[2] Jean-Louis Déotte (1995) ‘Rome, the Archetypal Museum and the Louvre, the Negation of Division’ in Pearce Susan ed., Art in Museum (London: Athlone Press) p. 226.

[3] Koran, 2: 154 (The Cow). Also: 3: 169 (The Family of Imran): ‘And reckon not those who are killed in Allah’s way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord.’

[4] Déotte, ibid., p. 228.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 231.

[7] Shiner, Larry (2001) The Invention of Art (Chicago: The Chicago University Press), p. 181.

[8] Ibid, 184.