by Silvia Cirelli

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Characterised by many contradictions and socio-political dualities, Iran is a country with countless paradoxes, divided by an exasperated ambiguity, which may well be appealing to some, but is clearly difficult to decipher. It possesses an extremely sophisticated cultural physiognomy: it encompasses the search for modernisation versus the safeguard of Islamic traditions, freedom versus censorship, reformism versus conservatism. Conflicts occur at such a high rate that public and private life are neatly separated, and the Iranians invariably fall into a hereditary social schizophrenia, an imbalance due to the various diverse models they had to live through, clearly opposing one another.
Contrary to what one may think, however, this existential uncertainty has not hindered the creative process of one of the liveliest countries in the Middle East; it has, in fact, contributed to its remarkable flourishing. The Iranian cultural sphere keeps on evolving and it is epitomised by literature, cinema and contemporary art.
Setting a challenge to the expressive restrictions imposed by the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war, where censorship became very strong, Iranian artists succeeded in crafting bold and innovative artistic strategies, showing the diversity of their cultural scene, which is a blend of contemporary contradictions, deeply explored with an unforeseen audaciousness. Despite this complex variety, one may identify common features in the stylistic work of several artists, such as a rather obvious autobiographical component, epitomised by the need to convey a personal diary, capturing the complexity of a contorted and ambiguous legacy.
The aesthetical production of Gohar Dashti, the young artist represented in this exhibition, aptly fits into this thriving scenario of allegories and paradoxes.

Born in 1980, Gohar Dashti grew up and still lives in Tehran. She is a perceptive observer of one of the most critical periods in the recent history of this country. Through her art, she intends to represent a generation which had to endure shared tragedies, soon become painful individual stories. Whilst she was born, Iran was going through the Islamic Revolution, which contributed to overturn the social and religious patterns of the time, in favour of a government controlled by the strict rules of the Qurʼan (or Koran). In the first few years of her life, instead, the abysmal Iran –Iraq war was taking place (1980 – 1988), eight years during which more than eight hundred thousand people lost their lives.

The art of Gohar Dashti, strongly influenced by the traces of this past, therefore ought to be read in connection with these strong private experiences. It is a powerful account where poetry transforms life into art, talking about the intimate vulnerability and unrest of a generation affected by history.

The transformation of life into art is at the basis of the 2008 series Today’s Life and War which, through a succession of images, focuses on the impact that war had and still has – she uses the term today and not yesterday – on daily life in Iran. It would appear that the Persian never really overcame the atrocities of war: the ghosts of those years still linger and can be strongly perceived, hindering a most needed harmony. Life and war thus become two intrinsically linked ideas, which look for each other and breathe a parallel life. In the artist’s own words: “Having grown up in a time of war put my generation on a constant state of alert. We are surrounded by persistent reminders of war, it has become part of our lives.”
For this reason, the two main characters are peers of the artists, a young couple grown up during the eight years of the war with Iraq. They try and carry on with life regardless, and are shown whilst watching television, hanging the washing or reading newspapers, although the setting which surrounds them is far from serene. As opposed to having breakfast in a dining room, they eat in front of a menacing tank; they do not celebrate their birthdays having fun with their friends, but blowing candles on a cake, while military trenches envelop them.
Every picture is laden with details and nothing is left to chance: the artist is indeed very meticulous, as far as the setting and preparation are concerned. At first sight, we feel like the image we are looking at is welcoming, with a teacup, the Persian rug and the goldfish; this changes when we notice the cemetery of helmets or the scattered weapons, which bring us back to reality.
It is interesting to notice that the couple does not look intimidated by this setting; their gazes are not full of compliance, but convey determination, perseverance, and the will to carry on living their lives. This perseverance is a key feature in Gohar Dashti’s narrative style, a tendency also found in the creative symmetries of many young Iranian artists. Any consoling connotation is foregone in favour of courage over submission and determination over apathy.
This suggestive power is equally epitomised in the following series, Slow Decay, dated 2010, where the setting becomes more intimate, almost personal, and breaches a familiar scene which, this way, turns into an allegory of shared recollections. The beholder feels like he is peeking into a house: it may well be that of the artist, or of any other Iranian.
We are then faced with a rather harsh background, this time exasperated by an unnatural, almost daunting, stillness. The silence perceived is suffocating and creates a strong tension, so overwhelming as to be easily perceptible. The gestures are captured as they happen, frozen in an abstract time, where the emotions, symbolised by the gazes of the protagonists, take centre stage. The petrified expressions of the people depicted hint at a long repressed agony, the confession of a deep pain or sad memories, which we can only hope to decipher. Once again, the artist goes beyond the conventional methodical principles, focusing on perceptions and emotions which transcend the rational and aim for the subconscious.
While Today’s Life and War sees Gohar Dashti paying attention to very small details, such as war instruments mingled with house appliances, in the series Slow Decay, she exploits the power of colours. In all the shots, pale hues take on a relevant role, as well as shades of white and pink, which heighten a perception of intimacy, giving the scene an air of deceptive tranquillity. This stillness is soon interrupted by the intrusion of hostile red stains, on the white sheet, the shirt pocket or the hem of a hanging dress. In an overbearing manner, these stains get bigger and bigger and take on a greater space – “The red moon is on the alert”, as in the poem by the Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad – red therefore becomes blood and the frame is transformed into a landscape or ruins, a graveyard of recollections, which have been kept silent for far too long.

Symbolism plays a key role in the poetry of this artist. We can identify aesthetics of allegories, where a message is put across via hidden clues, which can be grasped only if one chooses to defy traditional interpretative methods. The 2012 series Volcano is a case in point: here, Gohar Dashti recreates an imaginary theatre [Nella letteratura inglese, non esite il teatro dell’immagine alla pari di quello italiano, per questo l’ho tradotto in questo modo], poised between reality and pretence.
The gestures of the characters are carefully studied, the aim being that of directing the beholder’s attention towards one particular detail or the other. Each scene represents an immediate action, and we almost hear a dull, isolated and equally deafening noise. We feel we can hear the characters laughing, in a sharp and nearly hysterical manner, but we fail to understand the reason behind such joy. Why is everyone falling about laughing? And, most of all, haven’t they noticed that a strange creature, whose big tail can be noticed, is hiding among them? We cannot share the general enthusiasm and we sense the bad omen that something is bound to happen soon.
The artist skilfully crafts the scene so as to represent a suspended wait, blending juxtapositions – silence and noise, action and hiding, happiness and fear – which coexist in the story depicted. Nothing is, however, clearly revealed, in fact the beholder needs to decide which side to stand on, whether we want to simply witness a foreseen tragedy or an innocent game.
The title of the series – Volcano – is particularly engaging, as the artist herself explains in her statement, for it takes inspiration from the morphology of Iran, rich in active and semi-active volcanoes. Despite a high chance of eruption, these volcanoes are still asleep, as the mysterious creature in the pictures. The reigning silence is clearly comforting, but does not entirely rule out danger.

Such mises-en-scène, laden with stage elements, are completely abandoned in the artist’s last project, the inspiring series Iran, Untitled. Here, the artist opts for a rather barren and minimalist setting: a desolate landscape on the outskirts of Tehran. The bleak soil and the pale blue sky are the backdrop to fragments of life, shot in an essential fashion. We do not find exaggerated props, but rather the sublimation of the harmony with the natural world.

Because of this stylistic simplicity, and in view of such a genuine relationship with the surroundings, the photographs of Iran, Untitled remind of the suggestions of Japanese haikus, poems famous for the intensity with which they succeed in expressing, with only three lines, the appeal of nature and the aura of their corresponding emotions. Once again, the artist focuses on the morphology of subconscious evolutions, deeply analysing them. Just like a haiku which, in only a few dictions, can bring language back to its purest essence, these works break the boundary of photography, representing, through images, the purest emotions.

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