Mahmoud Bakhshi’s exhibition addresses the violence of Iran’s 1979 revolution, and as the title, ‘The Unity of Time and Place’, suggests, the past inhabits the present. This is a notion which redefines ‘post-revolution’ and tackles the broader misuse of the prefix ‘post’ – often wrongly invoked in reference to a past phenomena no longer considered pertinent to the present.
The exhibition is comprised of two films (made nearly 45 years apart): one featuring a clip from the Iranian movie ‘The Deers’ (1974) and the other, a 2016 interview between that film’s director, Masoud Kimiai, and Bakhshi. For four years after its completion, ‘The Deers’ was banned by the Iranian state, deeming its stark account of the country’s poverty a criticism of the lack of social welfare under the Shah (Iran’s monarch and head of state between 1941 and 1979). During his reign, Iran’s oil revenues boomed but while the Shah and his cronies got fantastically rich, the poor remained just that. This is a socioeconomic divide not alien today, where, according to a 2016 Oxfam report, the richest 1% hold as much wealth as the rest of the combined world. In the late 1970s, popular unrest in Iran climaxed and bloodshed ensued. When ‘The Deers’ was finally screened in 1978 at Cinema Rex in Tehran, reactionaries got wind, bolted the theatre doors and torched the place with the audience locked inside, killing more than 400, and sending Iran spiralling toward revolution and the usurpation of the Shah in 1979.
Across the exhibition, Bakhshi bridges the events of 1978/9 with the here and now of the gallery, utilising film’s illusory potential to marry the audience and on-screen time and space. The artist has reconstructed Cinema Rex in the gallery by installing rows of vintage theatre seating and keeping the space dark (bar the projectors), not only simulating the environment in which hundreds were burnt alive but also dulling one’s awareness of the gallery – its safety – and increasing the viewer’s capacity to inhabit the atrocity of Cinema Rex. As the gallery’s name alludes – thinking of ‘projects’ as a verb rather than a noun – cinema can amplify reality in a way in which is possible of no other medium.
Both films are silent but each room contains speakers that play a deafening drumming, a rhythm that scores the time spanning 1978 and 2017. The films are projected on opposite sides of a central partition wall, suggesting a spatial symmetry between each film. The reflex between Iran’s revolution and the present time and space throughout the exhibition implies that political insurgence is both memory and experience. Like the repetitions within the work’s installation, Iran is over and over again struck by revolt. As tears flood Kimiai’s eyes recounting the horror of the Cinema Rex fire, it’s clear – even nearly half a century later – the wounds of the revolution still bleed.