Rahimi-Golkhandan on Grigor, 'Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio'

Talinn Grigor
Shabnam Rahimi-Golkhandan

Talinn Grigor. Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio. London: Reaktion Books, 2014. 296 pp. Illustrations. $39.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78023-270-6.

Reviewed by Shabnam Rahimi-Golkhandan Published on H-AMCA (September, 2015) Commissioned by Sarah-Neel Smith

Untitled [Shabnam Rahimi-Golkhandran on Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio]

Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio is a lavishly illustrated book that sets out to accomplish a formidable scholarly feat: to provide an overarching history of the contemporary art of Iran, while also complicating the constructing elements of that agenda—neither “Iran” nor “history,” “contemporary” nor “art” are to remain stable and flat constructs in architectural historian Talinn Grigor’s account. Grigor demonstrates that “art”—consciously lowercased—is heavily implicated in government policy, constructions of national identity, and architecture. At the same time, she historicizes the category “contemporary” both in order to reframe existing categories of “modern” and to complicate the spatial and temporal singularity of “Iran.” In the author’s own words: “[t]he struggle of identity in modern Iran can be interpreted as multilayered and intensely contested pictorial discourse.… In post-revolutionary Iran, all of this thinking about art has to be embedded in the minutiae of strategies of power and identity, of colonial pasts and bright futures” (p. 12).

Grigor’s extensive background in architectural history allows her to situate the modern and contemporary art of Iran within its corresponding spatial imaginations and constructs, rather than flattening them to their political implications or economical underpinnings.[1] For example, the two constructs of “the street” and “the studio” that constitute the second half the book’s title as well as the titles of its first two chapters reappear throughout the volume to designate both spatial and temporal shifts. As Grigor puts it: “the struggle of identity formation [in Iran] is a pictorial discourse, which has on its wide spectrum the street at one end and the studio at the other” (p. 241). In chapter 3, “The Exile,” the concept of exile is added to those of the street and the studio in order to further spatialize the history with which the book is concerned, while complicating the divide between “public” and “private” that underpins the author’s concern with policy and identity, censorship and creativity.

This spatial structure shapes one of the most important arguments of the book: that it is “architecture and architectural culture” that constantly mediates between the state and artist while also being “foundational to the development of modern art in the twentieth–century Iran” (p. 125). One must ask, however, whether this emphasis upon “architects and architectural culture” might not uphold a chiefly “top-to-bottom” scholarly approach to the notion of creativity in which the celebrated artist is always-already subordinate to and subsumed by the state’s strategies of power.

The book’s first chapter, “The Street,” narrates the history of the art of Iran immediately before and after the revolution of 1979, when the Islamic Republic supplanted the Pahlavi dynasty. The chapter thus traces the transformation of the streets of Tehran from the period of the revolution (when they served as the backdrop upon which the politics of state and identity formation were enacted), to the immediate aftermath of the revolution (when the streets became canvases upon which the ideology of the new Islamic state alone inspired the pictorial space’s form and content). Grigor focuses extensively on the murals of martyrs of war that inundated the streets of Tehran, which were created in the absence of a systematic program for arts education or exhibitions (pp. 54–60; 74–90). The author discusses an array of images that includes postage stamps, posters of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88, murals of the martyrs of that same war, and the decoration of burial plots of Behesht-e Zahra, the cemetery that housed the bodies of “the martyrs of the revolution” and “the martyrs of the war” (p. 66). She situates them all within the ideological and bureaucratic life of the new state by noting that the construction of these public images was fully in line with the political strategies of the state in framing the war. For example, in her discussion of the Museum of Martyrdom and the museum at Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, Grigor demonstrates how the posters aimed to “historicize the war” by moving “street art into the museum” (p. 76).

The second chapter of the book, “The Studio,” deals with what Grigor describes as the “closeting” of artists and “the culture of the Avant-garde” (p. 95). The chapter covers, roughly, the period between the Iran-Iraq War (1980s) and the end of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the mild-mannered theoretician of the “Dialogue of Civilizations” with a penchant for inclusive dialogue instead of disciplinary exclusion who headed the state in the mid-2000s. Grigor continues to investigate a plethora of images and cultural productions, including not only posters, stamps, and murals, but also paintings, sculpture, and the revitalization of the gallery and museum scene in Iran. This multifaceted approach to creative space of Iran—or, as the author suggests with her use of the locally prevalent catch-all phrase, faza-ye honari (artistic space)—allows the reader to establish a sense of temporal progression within a narrative which otherwise steers away from linearity (p. 17).

While this faza-ye honari was gutted by the draining years of the war, Grigor notes its drastic reshaping as a result of the Khatami era’s inclusive cultural policies and its multifaceted affectations. The author also details a range of shifts in state policy and its sometimes surprising effect on the artistic space of Iran between 1988 and 2005, which range from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s reversal of its exhibition policies, to the tolerant approach of the Ministry of Culture towards exhibitions in private galleries, to the sometimes unexpected outcome of Khatami’s Dialogue of Civilizations, which generated interest inside Iran in the productions of the Iranian exile community in New York, Paris, and London. The implications of this reintroduction of the works of the exilic community, along with the shifts in the exposure of the art “of Iran” to the international viewer and buyer, are the focus of the book’s third chapter, “The Exile.” Grigor provides a comprehensive list of exhibitions of contemporary and modern art of Iran in the Western Hemisphere in the past fifteen years, while also providing an account of the establishment of auction houses in the region and their effect on the market of Iran’s contemporary and modern art.

The primary source of information in the book appears to be the author’s interviews with practitioners in the field, from artists to curators to government officials and heads of museums and galleries. In the absence of any substantial study of the contemporary art of Iran, the broad strokes with which this methodology paints the history of the present are to be expected. However, the book’s silence on two themes is most surprising: that of the movement of capital/funding, and that of the agenda and method of practice of practitioners who, unlike most of the examples in the book, are not necessarily within the mainstream of artistic production. It would have been relevant to note, for example, the shifts in state policy for allocation and distribution of funds to various cultural centers. The same terrain of thought could have also engaged with the relationship between this monetary allocation and the state’s policies of control over private and public spaces alike. Grigor does mention the construction of a few of the most notable new cultural establishments in Tehran of 1990s and 2000, such as the Niavaran Cultural Centre, the House of Artists, and the Bahman Cultural Center (p. 128). There are stark fluctuations in the funding that sustains each of these institutions and the degree to which they remain monitored by the state; attention to these particularities could have complicated the role of architecture and architect as the primary mediators between the state and the art community. 

The second absence is more understandable in the context of the book’s formidable task: in the space of 253 pages, the author may not be able to engage with peripheral strategies of art and exhibition-making (such as unofficial and/or mixed-purpose venues, which are generally accessible through invitation and word-of-mouth), that might provide a different view of the relationship between the state and the cultural realm. It would certainly modify homogenous portrayals of the governmental entities, such as the Ministry of Culture or municipalities, as the centers of oversight and control. If the book’s primary impulse is to catalogue and account for most of the major practitioners of art in contemporary Iran, additional engagement with peripheral practices may have to wait for what follows Grigor’s admittedly novel approach.


[1]. Grigor’s previous publications deal heavily with the history of Pahlavi architectural programs, as well as the historiography of Qajar architecture and the visual culture of the Islamic Republic. See Building Iran: Modernism, Architecture, and National Heritage under the Pahlavi Monarchs (New York: Periscope, 2009), “Recultivating ‘Good Taste’: The Early Pahlavi Modernists and Their Society for National Heritage,” Iranian Studies 37, no. 1 (2004), and “Of Aryan Origin(s), Western Canon(s), and Iranian Modernity,” in Repenser Les Limites: L'architecture À Travers L'espace, Le Temps Et Les Disciplines (Paris: Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, 2005).

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Citation: Shabnam Rahimi-Golkhandan. Review of Grigor, Talinn, Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio. H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. September, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44530

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