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One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran

Turbulent Waters Run Deep

With all of the action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years, Iran has been shuffled to the back of most American’s minds. However, the controversial election this past summer has brought it back into the spotlight, reminding us that Iran, too, continues to suffer from many problems, political and otherwise. One Day: A Collective Narrative of Tehran reveals images of daily life in Iran’s capital city — also the largest city in the Middle East — giving viewers a uniquely layered look inside this ancient yet thoroughly modernized place.

The exhibition is organized by Taraneh Hemami, a San Francisco-based artist born in Iran, and Ghazaleb Hedayet, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and resident of Tehran. It will likely surprise most viewers. At the thought of Iran and the Middle East, many Americans probably think of either a) women in burqas and machine gun-toting men burning American flags or b) rugs. One Day reveals dimensions far beyond our common conceptions, asking us to open our eyes and our minds to the depths and breadths of life in Tehran — in some ways quite similar to our own, and in other ways, completely incomprehensible.

One thing to keep in mind while viewing the exhibition is that some of the works were created before, and some after, the controversial June 12, 2009 election, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory over Mir-Hossein Mousavi was widely, and at times violently, disputed. Some works were created in direct response to this event, while previously created works were cast in a new light.

Abbas Kowsari’s “The Time is 24:00. This Is Tehran” is one of the post-election works — a photo triptych with panels that run horizontally, rather than vertically like those of the early Christians or Hieronymous Bosch. But like the typical triptych, Kowsari’s work depicts three layers; in this case, three layers of the city of Tehran.

The top photo is a beautiful yet troubling depiction of an immense skyline obscured by smog, while the bottom photo is a series of images of pedestrians walking along the street. The center photo presents one of the most bizarre and captivating images in the exhibition: figures fully covered in black cloaks descend (or are they ascending?) the face of a building, dark blemishes on the stark red and white geometry of the structure. They are apparently policewomen in a post-election show of force, strangely reminiscent of the latest spy thriller films. The triptych as a whole is an odd juxtaposition of images and ideas which, along with striking contrasts of shape and color, form a mesmerizing picture.

Ghazaleh Hedayat’s “Taxiography” also presents an intriguing take on daily life in Tehran; she had taken to letting her pen wander across a journal page as she rode in taxis throughout the city, resulting in an enormous series of color-coded doodles, ranging from fairly simple to utterly Gordian. Following the lines conjures up feelings of tires thunking over potholes, roads twisting tightly through closely packed structures, and perhaps the occasional squeal of brakes. These drawings are maps, but maps of the texture of the roads rather than their direction.

On the other hand, Taraneh Hemami’s “Turning Green” is an actual map of the roads of Tehran laser cut out of green wool carpet. The green is a reference to the color adopted by the opposition party during the post-election fallout. It lies in the center of the floor, forming a point of orientation, and also a link to and comment upon the traditional Persian carpets for which Iran is so famous. It seems to represent both the spread and the limits of Iranian culture — Iran has become a player in world economy and politics, yet remains misunderstood by many.

As one wanders the small gallery filled with these thought-provoking works, radio plays in the background — and auditory piece by Nima Alizadeh entitled, “This is Tehran, Voice of Islamic Republic of Iran.” It consists of clips from the 24-hour Radio Tehran from before and after the election) and represents selections from religious programs, the news, children’s shows, and numerous other types of transmissions.

The clips sound just like the radio babble heard in every car and household in the world, yet the content is sometimes beautiful and often perplexing: “We are going to show our strong fist to the world.” “Say prayers for a martyr's mother.” “We can have a green, breathing, and settled city.” “I have no weapon except for tears.” “Till the end of this year, 90 million will be added to the poor of the world.” It seems these, more than anything, sum up the vast depth and breadth of life in Tehran.