A day at the Iranian Pavilion during the Venice Biennale

November 22, 2015
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With the fears of rapid climate change, terrorism on the rise, and human rights abuses everywhere, this is not a time for art to be looked at an admired for its beauty or the pleasure it insights within us. It is a time for art to be a vessel of social commentary and hopefully, to ultimate instill change. That basically is the provocative message behind “All the World’s Futures,” the theme for this years  56th Venice Biennale art exhibition, which runs from May – Nov. 22, 2015. Organized by Okwui Enwezor, a veteran curator of international undertakings like this, “All the World’s Futures” brings out into the open a central preoccupation of the moment, namely the belief that art is not doing its job unless it has loud and clear social concerns.

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For these 6 months, Pavilions all across the beautiful city of Venice become the home to contemporary art exhibitions from over 140 artists and 53 countries. Because my time was limited in Venice, I was able to only visit two Pavilions, and of course the focus of this post will be I am very proud to say, on the contemporary art displayed by Iran. Working in conjunction with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran’s national pavilion this year was the largest presence that Iran has ever displayed in the 8 times it has participated in the Venice Binnale.

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The first exhibition, entitled The Great Game, takes its inspiration from a 19th century tug-o-war over the lands of Central Asia. The second, entitled Iranian Highlights, offers a select mix of four Iranian contemporary artists who have forged various careers on the international stage over the past 50 years. The two exhibitions are meant to work in harmony together, all under one roof to share the story of Iran’s past and shed light upon its future.

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The Iran pavilion stands sentinel in a former ship-building factory between two canals at the very northernmost tip of the city, along the Calle San Giovanni deep in Venice’s Cannaregio district. The atmosphere is industrial, with paintings mounted on makeshift walls erected from sheets of white canvas and sculptures perched on the bare concrete floor.

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The pavilion’s open interior creates a seamless transition as visitors move between the two displays. Here, Iran has showcased 40 artists. Many are part of the larger of the shows, The Great Game, which brings together the work of artists from Iran and her neighboring Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Kurdistan. The Great Game is followed by the Iranian Highlights exhibit – the traditional showcase of national artists at the Biennale – a choice selection of four Iranian painters, photographers and conceptual artists from across three generations.

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In keeping with festival director Okwui Ewenzor’s desire to heal the horrors of history by focusing on the “current state of things”, The Great Game serves to underpin the common historical, geographical and artistic ties between Iranian artists and those from other countries. Ever aware of the unfavorable media presentation of this part of the world, the curators have tried to create a dialogue between viewers and works, enabling Biennale visitors to experience these regions through the eyes of the artists assembled instead of the news and media at large. Introducing the public to new artists in order to challenge preconceptions about Iran and its neighbors and to move away from negative stigmas is the overall goal. In my opinion, the curators have done a fantastic job of this and in these challenging times, are pushing viewers to really think differently about the state of world affairs.

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I was honestly very proud of the Iranian Pavilion and was thoroughly impressed by the range of the art displayed and the message the artists conveyed. I encourage you all to plan your trips to Venice during the Binnale; it is a rare experience that I am privileged to have participated in and can share with all of you. Many of the exhibitions are free to attend, and you can never put a price on something that inspires you and causes you to question everything and dive further into the think tank.

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