The Aftermath of the Image-Production Revolution in Post-Revolution Iran

A longer version of the essay was originally presented as a talk at the Iranian Contemporary Art Symposium, Bonn, May 2012 before being published by NAFAS multi-lingual magazine. The full text can be accessed here.

Mohammad Hossein Zarqam, a young Iranian artist, burned his birth certificate in front of a camera. The photograph appeared online, was admired by 117 other people of his generation, and was finally sold to another young artist for less than a 100 Euros. It would cost him much more and would take him months to get a second copy of the birth certificate if he intends to do so. Meanwhile, he will not exist officially. But people like him do not officially exist anyway.

Iranian art today is rarely addressed from a visual cultures point of view. When it is, it is seen not as a part of a larger system of image production, but rather simply in opposition to it, as a grappling with censorship defined as a ban on representation of certain topics. As such, Iranian contemporary art is regarded as the expression of Iranians when they speak out using the free margins to express what is conceived of in the freedom of a vacuum. It is also considered as being closely connected or trying to connect to the international art scene. Such formulation also conforms to the image of the country and the expectations of the outsiders. It fits the function of this art within global visual culture. But this art functions quite differently within national borders; it is actually a different notion of art. This accounts for the charge of “self-exoticism” being so strongly leveled against artists who, by choosing a different audience, try to shift between these two functions. It is nearly seen as an act of betrayal.

“Why frown upon self-exoticism if it provides the exotic a chance to be seen? What other way is there to attract the attention of the outsider?” Thus reply those accused of self-exoticism. And they are right. Those of us who have tried to address a foreign audience, through words or images, have felt the pressure. How can you address those whom you have gathered based on an interest on their part in something different from what you are about to express? Ironically, attracting attention—that very essence of contemporary art—through a local gesture fits well in the governmental image-production system.