Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 30, 2023
Pamela Karimi Alternative Iran: Contemporary Art and Critical Spatial Practice Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2023. 452 pp. Paper $35.00 (9781503631809)

In Alternative Iran: Contemporary Art and Critical Spatial Practices, Pamela Karimi explores a wide spectrum of contemporary artistic practices in Iran from 1980 to the present day that engage with diverse urban and natural sites, with a particular emphasis on Tehran, Iran’s capital city. These spatial artistic practices range from graffiti and architectural design projects to Gesamtkunstwerk installations in dilapidated buildings, ephemeral performances in remote mountains or in prominent urban spots, choreographies for a trusted group of audience members, theatrical pieces staged in unconventional settings such as taxis, and interventionist strategies within gallery spaces. Previous scholarly works investigating the contemporary Iranian art scene have primarily focused on object-oriented art. Karimi’s book provides the first comprehensive account of critical artistic engagement with sites in contemporary Iranian art. Karimi demonstrates how these practices defy facile dichotomies of subversive/nonsubversive, political/nonpolitical, and private/public, leading her to use the terms, “loose covertness” (6) and “alternative” [jaygozin] (7) to describe both these artistic practices and art spaces in which they are materialized. As Karimi tells the story of contemporary spatial practices in Iran, she highlights the role of a key state entity in creating the tension between the public and the private, namely the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG).

Established after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the MCIG was intended to control the state’s self-representation in public and promote Islamic values. Karimi’s book recounts how since its formation, the MCIG, with a loosely defined set of criteria, would authorize or cancel permits for cultural events including exhibitions, theatrical performances, concerts, movies, and art classes. Through the book’s numerous case studies, we observe the emergence of a tension between the state and people’s aspiration to shape their cultural sphere, leading to constant tug of war and ongoing negotiations between the MCIG and the creative community. Nonetheless, Karimi diligently describes episodes in which artists chose alternative spaces for their work, even when permits were granted by MCIG for conventional institutions. She also chronicles episodes in the history of Iran after the Revolution, in which the MCIG embraced more inclusive policies to grant artists more freedom and space to create artworks. Karimi also foregrounds phases where the MCIG appropriated “alternative” artists’ tactics to exert greater control.

Instead of presenting a rigid and conclusive definition for “alternative” and “loose covertness,” Karimi utilizes her entire book project to elaborate on these terms through the creative practices that she explores. These practices illuminate how Iranian artists pursue a mutually constitutive relationship between the public and the private domains, eschewing a binary understanding of the public as the exclusive site of the official art governed by the state and the private as a clandestine refuge for artists. Diligently foregrounding the unique affective and aesthetic qualities of the “alternative” spatial practices in contemporary Iran, Karimi avoids using other possible terminology such as underground, unofficial, oppositional, informal, or countercultural. Indeed, a significant number of the artworks discussed cannot be easily confined to categories such as oppositional or underground. One such example are the large mixed media, papier-maché installations by the women’s collective Tehran Carnaval, which embody their ethos of infusing humor, joy, and a feel better mood into their own group. Occupying public spaces such as abandoned urban sites or a mid-construction building, the collective’s nonelitist and nonchalant projects, such as a huge shark, a dangling horse, or a national Iranian car made of cardboard could evoke different interpretations. While revisiting the existing discourse on political use of humor in artworks in Middle Eastern and Iranian art, Karimi highlights how Tehran Carnival’s installations through their emphasis on humor created possibilities for a space in-between binary of “provocative and decorative, artistically sophisticated or plop, political or nonpolitical” (199).

Another example is Houman Mortazavi’s 1995 installation at the derelict and vacant residence of a deceased high-ranking political figure in the deposed court of Raza Shah Pahlavi. Mortazavi gained access to this house through the granddaughter of that official. As Karimi underscores, Mortazavi could have exhibited his project in well-respected public galleries, but due to its larger scale, he opted for that private house, tearing down wallpapers, painting all the windows, and destroying some sections to divide the space into thematic rooms. To enhance the sensory impact of his work, he incorporated various sounds and smells in each room. Karimi explains that Mortazavi’s installation did not engage with the overt political implications of the house but was nevertheless a gesamtkunstwerk project embedded in the artist’s experience of everyday life in public spaces. Through his subtly critical commentary on various hallmarks of Tehran’s public spaces, including mural paintings honoring the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, the state propaganda, and dress codes including headgear, Mortazavi created a dialectic that tacitly brought the public to the private rooms of the house. For the authorities and the morality police who frequently visited the exhibition, it read above all as “nonsensical” rather than political or oppositional (65). Despite lacking permission from the MCIG, the exhibition went on for ten days, welcoming a general audience, until it was shut down by the authorities.

In her account of “alternative” Iranian art, Karimi synthesizes her extensive interviews with Iranian critics, artists, and scholars, along with numerous local reviews of the artworks, the reactions of the Iranian public to the works in social media, her own lived experience in Iran, as well as her on-site engagement with some of the works. Through this comprehensive approach, she provides an insider’s account of these artistic practices. Simultaneously, she activates a broader dialogue to connect her analytical frame of “alternative” Iran to a wide range of artistic practices and critical discourses worldwide. She specifically highlights remarkable similarities between the work of artists from the former Soviet Union and Iranian artists. Both groups of artists engaged critically with space, adeptly maneuvering through venues that reside in ambivalent spaces—spaces that are neither entirely closed nor open, not entirely illegal but also not fully under the control of the state. One such instance is the Kindergarten collective, founded in the mid-1980s by Andrei Roiter and three other artists who served as night guards in a vacant building in Moscow which was previously a kindergarten for the Communist Party’s children. The artists used the building as an atelier and an unofficial arts center. As Karimi elaborates, the space could not be considered underground due to its proximity to a former KGB headquarter, and the fact that a KGB representative was always aware of the exhibitions there. Increasingly attracting global attention, after two years the space was shut down by KGB. In addition to such comparisons, Karimi draws upon parallel examples from more familiar cases in anglophone art history, such as the A.I.R Gallery’s alternative space in New York and the Situationists’ spatial and interventionist strategies in Paris. In doing so, Karimi not only foregrounds affinities between the alternative Iranian artists and their Western counterparts but also differentiates the stakes of each project by providing historical context and explaining their respective objectives within those contexts.

Alternative spatial practices in Iran contend with the challenges of obscurity both within and outside the country which further complicates the task of writing about them. As Karimi argues, the conceptual framework of these practices makes them difficult for the global art market to grasp and they fall outside of the range of objects that Western institutions have conventionally acquired and exhibited. She elaborates that when these institutions present Iranian art, they often center objects that peddle in tropes of the veil, calligraphy, and simplistic binaries of modern/traditional, religious/secular, victim/oppressor, that distort the rich complexity of on the ground life and art in Iran. On the other hand, inside Iran, these “loosely covert” practices may occur without a broad public, including art critics, knowing about them. In certain instances, the works may not have been adequately documented even by the artists themselves, further increasing their chances of remaining obscure.

Although the book’s chapters are not organized based on the conventional timeline of the historical events in Iran, Karimi’s narrative of porous borders between private and public enterprise offers a nuanced examination of the nonlinear shifts in cultural policies in post-Revolution Iran and their impact on critical spatial practices. This includes an analysis of key periods such as the cultural revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, Hashemi Rafsanjani’s reconstruction era, the period of open cultural policies under the reformist government of Khatami, the Green Movement, and the Khosoolati economics in Iran. The book’s four chapters are laid out according to spatial strategies that the artists and cultural arbiters employed to materialize creative works in various sites. Each chapter encompasses case studies across different media and genres, drawn from various episodes of Iran’s post-Revolutionary history. Thus, rather than proceeding chronologically from chapter to chapter, the book project as a whole encapsulates the simultaneity of different possibilities in creative spatial practices in the contemporary Iranian art scene. Moreover, in each chapter, Karimi provides the historical precedents from before the Revolution, highlighting the continuity and generational dialogues among Iranian artists pre- and post-Revolution.

The first chapter, “Invisibility,” focuses mainly on engagements with covert spaces within urban locations that host a wide array of practices—exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances, installations. The loosely covert spaces span from private homes, residences of Christian European diplomats, churches, and unconventional theater spaces such as an old subterranean thermal bath. Chapter two, “Escapism,” delves into an array of creative engagements with the environment in remote natural sites. Most of the projects in this chapter, ranging from performances in ancient mountain temples to sustainable architectural workshops, emphasize the collective spirit of community away from everyday politics. Chapter three, “Ephemerality” explores critical interventionist practices within urban spaces of Tehran including strolls in the city, performances in politically sensitive or nonsensitive sites, exhibitions in public buses, guerrilla style installation on roadside, among other examples. Chapter four, “Improvisation,” examines a broad spectrum of curatorial practices, architectural projects, alongside the formation of unconventional gallery spaces and art foundations in Tehran. The multitude of cases explored in each chapter constitutes one of the strengths of the book. However, at times, it prevents the author from thorough argumentation for certain cases, resulting in assertive readings of artworks that leave the reader wondering how the author determined the works in question were indeed functioning as she asserts they do. Perhaps the book’s central focus on inclusion could be tempered by examining how some of the works would problematize or expand the author’s own frameworks of analysis.

Alternative Iran’s unique contribution to the field lies in its analytical framing and sensitive exploration of the mutually constitutive relationship between private and public spaces in the contemporary Iranian art. Karimi’s meticulous documentation and analysis unveils a rich spectrum of highly creative practices that would have otherwise remained unknown beyond the borders of Iran.

Maryam Athari
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Northwestern University