Disputed Modernism in Iran
At the 12th Istanbul Biennial (17.09 - 13.11.2011), the installation ‘Two Archives' by the artistic duo Pages, turned out to be one of the highlights of the exhibition. Pages is an artistic platform, which was initiated in 2004 by the Rotterdam based artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi. Along their individual practices they developed a long term collaboration, producing a wide range of projects, forms and manifestation such as a bilingual magazine (Farsi/English), installations, videos, publications, etc.
Pages are currently working on their next publication relating to the Iranian island of Kish due to be released in early Spring of 2012 by Nai publishers. I had the chance to interview them in Istanbul and later on in Rotterdam about their joint practice and upcoming book.
In Istanbul you presented your most recent installation ‘Two Archives', where you juxtapose two narratives investigating what you describe as forms of ‘Modernism and dispute within an Iranian context'? Can you expand on that?
Pages: "‘Two Archives' has one foot in the archive of the British Petroleum (the part that depicts its early history in Iran from 1902 to 1953 as the Anglo Persian Oil Company) and another foot in the Western collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary art (acquired from 1977 and inaugurated together with the museum in 1978). Both of these are politically and ideologically disputed archives, but at the same time depict a very specific relation to modernity. In the installation these two archives remain separate from each other. But their re-appropriation into objects or images always involves, literally or not, some form of superimposition. For instance in the video-loop projection called ‘Forth and Back - Knocking-off Time at the Refinery' (which is an appropriation of a 1921 footage from the BP-archive depicting workers leaving the oil refinery at knocking off time) the one-and-a-half minute footage is superimposed with itself in reverse, resulting in the worker's endless accumulation in front of the refinery's gate, suspended between leaving the refinery and returning to it. Or the object with the title ‘Superimposed' is a physical merging of a scale model of two oil derricks from the period of the oil search in Iran by the British. One derrick is modeled after the first unsuccessful oil well from 1902 and the other derrick after the first successful well from 1908 (which was also the first oil found in the Middle East). Superimposition as a narrative device, for instance in cinema, is a passage from one temporality to another, but implicit in this is an ellipsis, or something omitted between the two temporalities. We can say that it is this structural gap in the narrative of modernity that we try to come close to in ‘Two Archives'."
Why didn't you choose to mingle or superimpose the narratives in ‘Two Archives'? Or is this distance created between the two presented narratives, pointing at the structural gap in the narrative of modernity you are referring to?
Pages: "No. It was an intentional decision to have the two stories next to each other. The relationship is kept open, it's up to the viewer to imagine how and in what form they could relate.
In the case of the Western painting collection of the MOCA, the superimposition is less literal compared to the above examples. The paintings we showed in Istanbul depict the painting collection as they are in the storage of the museum. In some ways they are copies of the original Western paintings. The superimposition is implicit here, you could say it's between the modernist painting tradition and the removal of the collection from the Tehran contemporary museum during the revolution. And maybe between the modernist tradition and its withdrawal lies a possible idea of an Iranian modern painting."
The presentation in Istanbul is part of an ongoing process, how do you see this work evolve? I felt that in Istanbul the emphasis was more on the BP Archive?
Pages: "At the moment we are working on a video based on the last propaganda film the British Petroleum company made in Iran before evacuating the refinery. What is interesting about this BP-film project is that during the making, it got caught in political conflicts around the oil nationalization and became a total failure for the company, it was the first and last Technicolor film made in Iran. We want to explore the different aspects of this film project and its process when it was being made. The result may be another film, we are not sure at the moment.
We wouldn't say there was less emphasis on the museum collection. We see the work as one installation. Nevertheless we are also expanding on the paintings."
Would you see this correlation between ‘Modernism and the Iranian context' as symptomatic for Iran?
Pages: "The experience of modernity is coupled with a sense of historical displacement. But in Iran more specifically since the early 20th century, this was shaped through the economy of oil in how it configured, in a rapid tempo, a sphere of contemporariness, but one in denial of its immediate historical condition. So it is true that something for instance like the collection of Western modern art in the Tehran MOCA (the largest collection of Western art outside the West) becomes a symptom of this denial. The collection was opened in 1978. But with the 1979 Islamic Revolution it was withdrawn into the museum cellar for 20 years, forbidden from public view, and after that it was only partially exhibited. But there is a paradox here. The displacement is in the role given to these paintings within the museum before the revolution as representations of modernity in Iran, and not when they got hidden into the cellar. Their withdrawal gives them a new contemporaneity as some recurring remains of a disputed modernity."
In what sense was the presentation of the collection of Western Modern Art a displacement before the Revolution of 1979?
Pages: "In the museum they were exhibited to represent modernity and internationalism in Iran as envisioned by the shah and the queen. Obviously this was a charade. In that first exhibition, in some ways these paintings were already an imitation copy of their original."
At the moment you are working on the publication ‘Kish, an island indecisive by design', which is in relation to your previous projects and installation works about the island. Can you describe the works you did with Kish and its context. And how will the new publication relate to your previous installations?
Pages: "Since 2005 we were doing a series of works in relation to the Kish island in the Persian Gulf. The very first of the series was the installation ‘Sunset Cinema' and the last one was the ‘Isle' in 2009. These works were compiled of architecture models, videos and printed material. Each focused on an aspect from Kish's modern history. ‘Sunset Cinema' for example was a response to the Kish Documentary Film Festival. It proposed mobile architectural structures to host the film festival throughout the island's different urban settings. This festival had become a cultural hub among Iranian documentary film makers. It showed films that were often not tolerated in festivals in mainland Iran. After 6 years its director and initiator was removed and the festival was stopped. By addressing the festival through architecture this project commented on the developments in Kish and its relationship to the Iranian mainland. In this work the geopolitical conflicts of Kish, mostly concealed under fictive layers of tourism and leisure, was brought into direct relation with the socio-political situation on the mainland. In the installation we screened some of the documentaries from the festival.
Regarding our upcoming book on Kish, while it brings together all our previous works about the island, it is at the same time a work on its own, which expands on the ideas developed in these past works."
Concerning the changing architecture in Kish, you use the interesting notion of geopolitical indecisiveness. Can we relate the forms of disputed Modernism that you detect in ‘Two Archives' with the Kish context?
Pages: "Incidentally the Kish island's modern development was inaugurated the same year as the Tehran museum of contemporary art, and both are troubled places inherited from the peak of Iran's modernization in the 70s. Both the works we did around Kish and the ‘Two Archives' begin with this idea that histories of places and archives tell us about the past and future only because they involve excesses of fiction that evolve around an unresolved gap. And to translate their stories one can only speculate on this gap."
More info on http: //www.pagesproject.net