by Rachel Heidenry
One of the highlights of this year’s Venice Biennale is not found in the Giardini or Arsenale, but rather in the quiet residential neighborhood of Cannaregio. In a building stripped of any typical Venetian charm, the Pavilion of Iran is filled with works by artists from across the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The show, titled “The Great Game” and curated by Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia, takes the historical, political, economic, religious, and social tangles of the region as inspiration and presents a grouping of artists eager to respond to their everyday reality.
Mehrdad Mohebali presents paintings showing people waiting, watching and hiding. In Early Infinity No. 2, a group of people is huddled together under an unidentified architectural structure, looking out toward some unknown action. The crowd includes elderly women, young couples, and older men – all seemingly well off, or at least appearing so. Though painted with detailed brushstrokes, Mohebali’s hand expresses quick movement, the canvas emitting the complexity of a film still. The interplay between lights and darks, shadows and highlights imbues the canvas with questions of what is seen and unseen. It is an exceptional work that has the ability to linger with you for days.
Another painting hung nearby presents something even more mysterious. In Amin Aghaei’s Children, 2014, a white canvas is partially filled in with colorful acrylics. From far away and without any context, the intention seems merely abstract, almost data inspired, but up close subtle details emerge – clothing, a hand, a child’s cheek. Beside the canvas, the artist hangs a small photograph of two children posing outdoors, the painting suddenly revealed. Though the idea is not extraordinarily original, the execution still renders the painting incredibly compelling. Aghaei manages to leave us with questions, while also providing the exact answer.
Moving away from painting – although many other artists certainly succeed in their interpretation of the medium – Babak Kazemi presents an installation titled 8 Year Old Persian Pickle. On a white-painted pantry shelf, the artist places rows of jars containing images of “pickled” Persian life. The reference to headwear is immediately conveyed through the jars decoration – cut pieces of fabric wrapped tightly around the lid. With a balance of humor and the grotesque, Kazemi invites the viewer to ponder the ideas of entrapment and security, longevity and identity.
Other highlights in the show include paintings by Ghasem Hajizadeh, an animation by Farideh Lashai, prints by Bani Abidi, and photographs by Jamal Penjweny. Lida Abdul presents a 16mm film showing the artist painting an unidentified ruin with coats of fresh white paint. At one point a man appears and she proceeds to paint him as well, creating a poetic dialogue about what deserves preservation and what needs to be renewed.
A final work that seems created for the decrepitude of the space’s walls is Parastoo Ahovan’s Dear Iran. The artist wrote a letter to Iran on white canvas and then cut lines into the work so that its threads drape across in elegant waves. Some threads still hang to the intact canvas, the words barely legible, while others fall to the floor – attached, but wholly separated. The work is stunningly simple in its poetic intent, yet complex in its textured message. Just as the threads create hundreds of fragile pieces, interpretations of the piece can bloom into endless ideas.
The Great Game succeeds in bringing together a group of artists interested in exploring the relationship between place and history in a region of the world where voices are bursting to be heard. The curators harmoniously balance urgency with contemplation, while the architecture of the space – crumbling brick, exposed wires and an open layout – enables the work on view to speak louder. Though the space offers little in return, the works seem as though they were made to be there. As such, in a small, deteriorating building in Venice, an incredible dialogue is being had.
The Great Game was curated by Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia. It was organized by FFF Faiznia Family Foundation – Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. All photographs by Rachel Heidenry.