Imagine an old, three-story house in the middle of Tehran on a hot spring afternoon; on the roof of this old house, a Greek artist is casting a mould of someone’s hand. The hand of the subject is in the position of typing on a cell phone. She has to remain still for a couple of minutes for the alginate mass to take the hand’s shape. In the meantime, an artist from South Korea is editing the dailies she has taken from her movements on the city streets. On the second floor, a Japanese artist is writing a lengthy poem on a duct tape.
Five or six years ago, such things were too fantastic to even dream of. But now, the policies of the new administration cultivate a better relationship with the world outside and with the endeavours of art residencies such as Kooshk, there is a good prospect for such activities to repeat.
Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos, Sujin Lim, and Asaki Kan are the winners of the 2nd Annual Kooshk Artist Residency Award¹ (KARA). They were among the 377 applicants from 97 countries, who were granted the opportunity to reside in Iran for a month, so that they can become acquainted with Tehran’s artistic milieu, experiment, and put their abilities to the test in this new context. The selection was done by five respected international members of the jury, consisting of Aaron Cezar, creative producer and director of Delfina Foundation; Michket Krifa, independent curator and art critic of African and Middle Eastern photography; Naiza Khan, artist, researcher and founding trustee of Vasl Artists’ Collective, Pakistan; Susan Hapgood, curator, executive director at International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP), senior advisor to ICI, and founder and director of the Mumbai Art Room; and Tooraj Khamenehzadeh, artist, curator and program manager of Kooshk Residency and co-founder and a member of the board of directors of Rybon Art Center.
Two Concepts of Height by Sujin Lim
It is perhaps wrong to consider the applicants as representatives of ninety-seven “nationalities.” Nationality is a made-up concept that enables the governments to establish order and domination throughout their territories; the boundaries that, despite the claims of an ever-growing “globalisation” are becoming increasingly visible. However, while politicians rely on these boundaries, artists do not. They usually pursue “art” as a “dialogue” that leads to a better understanding of the world outside the defined borders. It is not easy, on the other hand, to talk about nationality; having been born in Greece, Esmeralda grew up in France and now she living in New York, Asaki resides in London but speaks English with a Japanese accent, and Sujin has stayed in Europe and America multiple times.
The three chosen artists of KARA had the opportunity to reside in Kooshk in May 2016, during which they visited Tehran’s art galleries and museums and interacted with Iranian artists in order to create artworks under new circumstances. The three of them talked about their previous works in a session held in Rybon Art Center; Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos’ works have been related to linguistics, issues related to social networks, and their impact on daily life. This can also be traced in the works she created in Tehran as well. The work of Esmeralda’s residency was a multimedia artwork, consisting of sounds, neon signs, and printed images. In her statement, she refers to Montesquieu’s Persian letters, which is a satirical account of France and Europe’s eighteenth-century society, revolving around the innocent experiences and observations of two bewildered Persian noblemen, Uzbek and Rica, who travel to Paris. Esmeralda tries to give an inverse account: now a French (or Greek) individual is visiting Tehran. Her goal is to show, despite a form of “cultural homogenisation,” which is the result of the impacts of new technology, how “national, religious, historical, or cultural differences” can be considered. “How can one be Persian?” is an installation consisting of an empty card display stand and a number of photographs. Photographs are printed in postcard sizes and are scattered under the empty stand. The images are the “usual” tourist attractions when they encounter Iran: old tiles, traditional carpet ornaments, racks and baskets of dried fruit, or colourful products sold at Tehran’s traditional bazaar. On all of these photos, there is a shadow of the photographer’s hands — two hands holding a smartphone. This shadow, ironically, is similar to Azadi Tower, the symbol of Tehran. On the background, a neon sign reads “My Own Shadow”, in Persian and French. There are two other neon signs in Esmeralda’s presentation: “East” and “West,” each with an arrow pointing to a direction. If we change our position on the left and the right of the signs, we will realise what used to be east is now west and vice versa.
In a different form, Asaki Kan’s work deals with universal issues. Asaki’s earlier works were about concepts such as heat and cold, or darkness and light. In her works presented on “Mohsen Gallery’s Roof,” she has carried on with the same approach. A work called “Transparent Memory” is an installation consisting of a water tank on a three-meter high structure. Water drips down from the tank. Below the tank, there is a big copper sheet, under which heating elements are installed. Because of the sheet’s heat, each drop evaporates as soon as it hits the copper, leaving only a trace of vaporisation and the oxidation of copper. The sudden evaporation of water from the surface of the sheet, makes a sound, corresponding to the rhythm of the water-drops. “Even though the main point is very personal, I would like people to see it, hear it, smell it, and drink it. I would like them to feel and think about it freely, without considering the original subject-matter, and be inspired by it,” remarks Asaki in her statement. This very personal and detached approach can be seen in her other works as well; in another work called “I am stuck,” despite implying political connotations, when we read the statement, we find out that two broken cups — that seem to have been previously interlocked — are not alluding to the world outside, but a representation of the artist’s own feelings.
How can one be Perisan? by Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos
As much as Asaki Kan’s works are introspective and the result of a self-revelation, Sujin Lim’s works are pointing to the other direction, i.e. they are depending on the environment and a reaction to the world out there. Reviewing her works, we realise that most of them deal with specific issues in specific geographical locations. Treating environmental problems and pollution, including nuclear radiations, or pollution related to industrial wastes, have usually been her to-go subject-matter to be inspired by and to create. As a matter of fact, Lim’s works are not “personal expressions” of inner moods, but artistic reactions to the environment. This reaction often moves on a thin line between social action and artistic work. The outcome of Sujin Lim’s one-month residency in Iran is two videos that have been created by interacting with Iran’s political and cultural issues. In the first work (en route to Azadi Square), she questions the restrictions on performing in public spaces in Iran and her own homeland. “On the Way to Azadi,” with sequences of her presence and movement in Enghelab Street, heading to Azadi Square, ending in a long shot from the Tower and her dance-like moves under it. A portion of her statement reads: “How can one differentiate dancing from body’s natural movements? How do these limitations force someone to modify his/her movements in day-to-day life?” Lim practically addresses this question by smoothly moving through the street and the crowd of people. Her movements in “On the Way to Azadi” oscillate between dancing and not dancing; by slowing down her dance-like movements, she stands somewhere between “expressiveness” and “refusing to express.”
This form of questioning and sensitising can also be seen in her other work “Two Concepts of Height.” The work consists of two screens. On the left screen, a picture from the ghost of a Korean individual’s nose is shown, while on the left a similar image of an Iranian person can be seen. Lim says in the work’s statement: “Plastic surgery is very popular in Korea. Many people undergo surgery because they want to have a more beautiful appearance, such as bigger eyes and noses, smaller chins etc. Owning a standard look does not only lead people to be more satisfied with their physical appearance, but they end up with better job opportunities and a higher social class after marriage. How does a society’s consensus affect the individual’s physical appearance? During my residency in Iran I realised two opposing concepts of aesthetics of nose for Iranian and Korean women: in Korea, a bigger nose is desirable, in Iran a smaller one.” Thus, through making a norm such as “standard nose” problematic, she sensitises us to the progress and creation of aesthetic forms in the society. This will in turn raise another question: where does this “desirable standard” come from? Or in other words, when have these “standards” been created? Have inter-cultural relations and the prevailing of the “desirable West” image been affecting the formation of such desires? Are these “ideal noses” or “ideal eyes” not the very white, Western ideals, and is our favourite image something separate from the “ideal hero” we see in movies? In the short term, answering these questions does not seem to make any difference in how people are attracted to do plastic surgeries, but works such as those of Lim’s can highlight the less-seen problems of society and make us consider them in the light of new questions. If an ideal and an ultimate reason for art (outside itself) can be imagined, “making people think” and “questioning” can definitely be among them.
Transparent Memory by Asaki Kan
Same thing applies to the one-month-residency of artists in Kooshk: even though it does not affect the participants profoundly, on an individual level, it can remind the artists that how different individuals adopt different approaches in creating a work of art. And even though one month is too brief for gaining an exhaustive knowledge of the host’s culture, by finding common cultural grounds between the cultures and their distinctive qualities, they can at least get acquainted with the environment they live in. Residency programmes in bigger scales can bring the individuals closer, and endeavour to remove “boundaries” while respecting the discrepancies. It may lead to the understanding that despite the numerous differences inside and outside, we share one thing in common: that “art” can be a haven to escape to for bearing what we call “reality.”
¹ The Kooshk Artist Residency Award has been implemented to support artists, creativity and the development of new ideas in the unique milieu of Tehran. This Residency program is a chance for attendants to research and experiment. The Residency is an annual event lasting one month, offered to four selected artists.
For further information on The Kooshk Artist Residency Award click here.