Relatively isolated from the heart of the Venice Biennale, the Pavilion of Iran is located in a former shipbuilding factory in the Cannaregio district. The search, however, is worth the effort, as visitors are presented with an industrial, squat-like labyrinth, unfolding an eclectic mix of strong artworks making strong statements.
This year’s presentation is organised by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary art and the Faiznia Family Foundation, a not-for-profit artistic organisation launched in 2014 to reinforce Iran’s artistic international visibility and intercultural exchange. Although Iran functions as the focal point for the exhibition, curators Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia have opted to include artists from the greater region of the Middle East and countries in Central Asia to present the cultural richness of this tumultuous region. They state that the selection for contributing artists and artworks was based on the extent to which they are true to the region’s indigenous cultural elements while at the same time exploring contemporary culture. The result is an exhibition that equally promotes local traditions and modernity, without ignoring the socio-political atmosphere of ongoing conflict.
‘The Great Game’ draws inspiration from the battle between Russia and the British Empire for supremacy in the Middle East at the end of the 19th century. Articulating that this tangle of political, economic, religious and social frictions are of continuous presence and are inherent to the identity of these countries, the Pavilion of Iran includes art from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. A more selective focus on Iranian art, is found via ‘Iranian Highlights’, a group exhibition with works by Samira Alikhanzadeh, Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar, Jamshid Bayrami and Mohamed Ehsai, covering diverse media, genders and generations.
Despite the apparent eclecticism of the exhibition’s composition, its wide reaching subject matter is divided into a set of several reoccurring themes such as war, gender, cultural identity and traditional crafts. Tensions between the Middle East and the West are expressed in Iraqi artist Adel Abidin’s ‘I’m Sorry’. This poppy light-box installation ironically addresses how the artist was welcomed during his first trip to the United States. Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal is also on display with his work ‘Canto III’, which formed part of his satirical solo booth at this year’s Armory Show with gallery Lawrie Shabibi (Dubai). In ‘Canto III’ we see a monumental bust of Saddam Hussein wearing the Dome of the Rock atop his head. Bilal is planning to launch the work into space to orbit earth for all eternity, a stunt directly inspired by such a plan made by members of the Ba’ath party, absurdly conceived in Hussain’s honour at the height of his power.
Arabic calligraphy runs like a continuous poem throughout the entire exhibition. In the works of master-calligrapher Ehsai, who used to teach at the graphic art department in the University of Tehran, the elegant words inspired by Persian cursive script make up dynamic compositions. By making intelligent use of overlap, scale and bold colour, Ehsai was one of the first Iranian calligraphers to extensively examine visual communication. Conceptual artist Bakhshi Moakhar’s ‘Talk Cloud’ presents a heavy iron cloud reminiscent of comic books, containing the statement that artistic practice is an automatic necessity as inherent to human functioning as breathing. Parviz Tanavoli’s calligraphic ‘Heech’ sculpture is displayed to represent Iranian 1960’s art movement Saqqakhaneh, who set out to integrate symbols of popular Muslim culture into art, creating a kind of Islamic Pop Art.
Acknowledging the fact that Iran is most famous for its poetry and literary heritage, this exhibition is to be perceived as an exemplary selection of what the broader Iranian field of visual art has to offer. These curatorial intentions result in an overwhelming constellation of artworks that could be construed as slightly chaotic. The cohesion of the artworks presents itself on a substantive level regarding critical social engagement, acknowledgement of the region’s traditions and the contemporary. The compilation of the artworks on display therefore tends to lack some sort of interplay. This, however, doesn’t have any implications for the strength of the show, which feels like a treasure hunt through an interesting and differentiated alignment of thought-provoking artworks - the results from a region steeped in historic turmoil and with a challenging field of tension between traditional identity and developments enforced by modernity.