Can I Get a Witness?
In coming to terms with post-Islamic Revolution Iran, many artists on display at Grand Central Art Center overly mythologize the martyr
When it was first used, the Greek word martyr meant “witness.” Thanks to Christianity, witnessing moved from the secular realm to the religious when people tortured for their faith were called martyrs; Islam further changed its use when any death in the service of religion got the moniker.
Martyrdom is the ungainly focus of Grand Central Art Center’s downer of an exhibition, “Hidden Wounds, Paper Bullets: Iranian Contemporary Art.” Elizabeth Little’s curator notes state the show isn’t about “politics” or “religion,” but “people.” In a reductive way, she’s correct: “Hidden Wounds” is about individuals, but the artists on display have also been shaped by their homeland’s ongoing religious battle for their hearts and souls. The exhibition is much more about religion than it is about people and—more tragically—how religion has infected politics.
A collection of paintings and installations featuring eight Iranian artists (most now living in the U.S.), “Hidden Wounds” is built around the 1979 Islamic Revolution that turned Iran from a repressive, U.S.-backed dictatorship to a repressive, Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship. Informed by recent attempts at another more democratic Iranian revolution, Little’s exhibition feels dated, even irrelevant because much of the work is focused on the past. When you can go to YouTube and watch Neda bleed to death on the streets of Tehran, how important are paintings referencing some 30-year-old event?
I found Makan Emadi’s cartoony paintings of hijab-wearing women in erotic poses too obviously provocative, making what could have been boldly iconic instead wearisomely ironic. I smiled at the title of Armenian artist Alina Mnatsakanian’s multimedia installation The Mountain Comes to Me, but the clunky plaster Mount Ararat, robotics, projections and television graphics seemed an exercise in nostalgia not relevant to the exhibit’s overriding themes.
Taraneh Hemami’s sepulchral installations Names and Hall of Mirrors, near the gallery’s front entrance, have the most power. Fabricated and installed by Matthew Miller, Names fills Grand Central’s walls with long, bordered lists of Farsi names. Artist and installer have placed dirt in the cracks where wall and floor meet, and as the dirt shifts, its gentle dusting of the floor and half-disappeared footprints become fitting metaphors for diaspora and the impermanence of memory. Equally moving is Hall’s sea of mirrored squares embossed with faces straight out of a family photo album. Angled to reflect the viewer’s visage as well as the other squares, faces on top of faces mount up. Given different geographical circumstances, the people trapped inside the mirrors could have been your neighbors . . . or you. I admired the artistry of the artist’s 12 threaded-bead curtains adorned with the faces of executed student protestors, Heroes, Martyrs, and Legends, but this is where the exhibit crossed into territory I’m philosophically queasy about.
The enshrining of the dead—be it Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. war dead or this exhibition’s executed students—feels like a propaganda move, and propaganda is not art. Art appeals to the hearts and minds, opening and expanding them, while propaganda closes them off, forcing us to resort to our basest emotions: hero-worship, wholesale sentimentality, xenophobia or, even worse, the urge to give someone a little payback.
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I identified with the feelings elicited by Yari Ostovany’s tactile noir paintings Treatise Number 6 and The Martyr and liked their dour figures surrounded by darkness and variations of the color red, but I’m wary of the mythologizing of solitude and alienation. Likewise, the punk-rock black-white-and-red giclee propaganda poster images are powerful—open-mouthed men screaming at their executioners, outstretched hands dripping crimson or tulip-holding protesters shot and falling into a sea of their own blood—but then the messages get muddled when angelic shrouded figures circumambulate not a sacred site, but an army tank, making the death of thousands something holy.
In Aydin Aghdashloo’s stunning, if highly sentimental, giclee-on-canvas Falling Angels series, wounds gouged into the dank flesh of political prisoners peel from their naked torsos and take flight as gaily-colored angels. I prefer the darker, more realistic Crumpled Miniature, where the same angel isa creased and discarded image in freefall.
Finally, while two of Hadieh Shafie’s mixed-media pieces are overtly nationalistic: folded paper creates a wealth of origami martyrdom symbols in Tulips of the Revolution and Ready for Any Enemy Thrust has deconstructed Iranian flags covered by repetitions of the Farsi word eshgeh (love), the artist’s remaining pieces are more metaphoric, even hopeful: In Beneath the Garden, eshgeh is elegantly painted on the top half of the piece, hundreds of tightly wound scrolls packed below, part Wailing Wall, part mass grave. I wish I could believe that, like her painting Linked, simply repeating eshgeh over and over again will create an impenetrable fence against the glow of oncoming horror, but it’s not going to happen until we all stop mythologizing martyrdom and call it what it is: not something holy or beautiful, but ugly, unspiritual and completely stoppable.
“Hidden Wounds, Paper Bullets: Iranian Contemporary Art” at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Jan. 10. Free.