A Montrealer in Iran

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The Montreal based artist and filmmaker Payam Mofidi is having a solo exhibition in Tehran’s trendy Assar Art Gallery. The exhibition has been titled “Destroyed Memories” which evokes a feeling of imminent nostalgia for the audiences, and indeed that is the intent of the artist.

The mixed media paintings are reminiscent of pre-revolution photographs and artwork plays around with people, disfiguring and visually manipulating. There are no recognizable faces or events in history here, however the work triggers a sense of remembrance and familiarity of a bygone era which is not unique to the Persian viewer, undeniably these work are universally decipherable.

Even the most savant art follower might question the reason behind such utterly contemporary work being allowed in one of the most closed off capitals at a time when the country is fast becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the world due to political and economic pressures exerted by the west?

A few months ago Iran decided to exhibit the biggest Modern and Contemporary art collection outside of Europe and North America, which they had inherited from the dethroned Queen Farah Pahlavi after the 1979 revolution. This art collection which the Queen had started to accumulate during the reign of Shah contains some of the most spectacular work by artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch and René Magritte.

If you think the irony and the political message of a row of Andy Warhol’s multi-coloured Chairman Mao being exhibited publicly by the Islamic Republic is lost to this observer then I am sorry to disappoint you. Iran is setting itself up as a place for art, and whilst other aspects of the system and culture are being oppressed, visual arts is flourishing, and this certainly gives an image of Iran as a progressive player in the region to be reckoned with, not to mention appealing to supporting forces like China and Russia.

Nevertheless, regardless of political games being played, visual arts having the freedom they have acquired in Iran is a step forward for the many exceptional artists working in and out of the country, and I see any exchanges with the west a hopeful and positive move which then can be built on for all of our sakes.  

“Destroyed Memories” by Payam Mofidi plays with the notion of nostalgic musing and these images are violent, disturbing and grief-stricken, however the way they are painted and the coloring used defy nightmarish feelings one might expect before confronted with the work. They are gentle, soothing and engaging, for they make you delve deeper into your unconscious and find your own memories which you had disregarded.

Memory is a delicate, elusive component of our psyche, yet even though they might seem ephemeral they are set in stone so to speak, for we repress them and they only resurface when we are faced with a trigger. Destroyed is a term that can be seen as tongue-in-cheek because no memory is shattered, they exist in the cavernous dark corners of our mind and they affect our day to day conducts.

Through evolution the human brain has created some sort of defence mechanism to combat the psychological damages we might endure in the event of an unforeseeable experience, and that is the repressed memories. However, this mechanism is not exclusive to bad experiences; it deals with other intense, unsettling matters the same way. We do repress love, passion, sex, beauty and other stimulations that might not sound so destructive, but the point is that these experiences will remain with us whether we are aware of them or not.

When we are faced with a trigger that causes resurfacing of a memory, a profound connection is established and we cannot help feeling inspired, alas with this elevated mood comes a sorrow that can only be explained by our realization at having forsaken those memories. We feel sad because we had ignored our experiences consciously for so long even though they had been in play throughout our lives. Nevertheless we find beauty in those triggers as like an epiphany moment we connect with our surrounding and come out of the cocoon our mind had built, and for me Payam Mofidi’s work do exactly that and I suspect I am not alone.

“Destroyed Memories” will be at Assar Art Gallery Tehran until 24 October, 2012

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