In the past few years, visual art events in Iran used to take place almost entirely in gallery spaces and engaged only with their pre-existing public. The revolution of 1979 exacerbated this situation, with the censorship on art limiting the expression of many artists, including the ones with social and political concerns. Also, the sovereign has not been supportive of participatory activities in the social environment, especially those with social-political criticism - and finally, there is a lack of support from institutions inside the country. Therefore, the art scene in Iran has been mainly focused inside the so-called white cube. On the other hand, mainstream art, since it has a more exotic look at Iranian art and seeks to market it, has focused on portable works. Since then, although most of the Iranian artists present their work within the white cube, there is an increasing urge to explore the possibilities outside gallery spaces for some contemporary artists and art platforms to demonstrate their inquiries. Persbook is one of the platforms that focus on site-specific art and public engagement.
Looking at the history of Persbook, in the beginning, it was a virtual platform on Facebook founded by Neda Darzi in 2010. As an artist herself, she aimed to introduce young Iranian artists to the public through Persbook. Later on, Darzi decided to transfer this platform into a more open space and develop it outside the rather isolated art community, in order to foster a deeper connection with people outside the white cube.
Since the 7th annual in 2017, there has been more focus on space-oriented projects in cities. Persbook’s 7th annual was planned in pigeon towers in Isfahan - a city with a longstanding tradition in pigeon keeping - a challenging endeavour, as the curators faced problems in cooperating with the city hall with the nuances of the city’s cultural and religious background.
To understand the challenges of curating a site-specific event in a historical site and in collaboration with the public, I will be investigating Persbook’s 8th annual of Iranian contemporary art in November 2018 in Yazd. Going through the archive of the event, one can recognize the potential in following traces of cultural heritage in contemporary life and utilizing it as a conversation tool. This annual was joined by Negar Farajiani, an artist and curator originally from Yazd who works at the convergence of diverse media and plays with the concept of space, both private and public. (Farajiani N.)
As Farajiani was born in Yazd, her understanding of cultural context of Yazd had a consequential effect on realization of this event according to the possibilities of the city. Neda Darzi and Negar Farajiani, both as curators, chose Yazd because of its cultural-artistic potential and the possibility for effective collaboration with the Yazd Visual Arts Association. Yazd, the city of wind catchers, is located in the desert and was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2017, an event which motivated the city hall to patronage more cultural and artistic projects in the city. Yazd is a representative example of a traditional settlement in which the harmonious interaction of humans and nature in this harsh environment results from the optimal use and clever management of the limited resources.
A contemporary art curator at a historical site is characterized as a figure moving beyond the traditional institution to pursue the opportunities for art presented within the complications of history in context. I had a chance to interview the curators, Darzi and Farajiani, and I talked with them around their experiences with site-specificity, public engagement and their methods in curating this project, considering the influence of the historical site on the works. As Cathy Stanton says: “Curating at historic locations has the ability to provide striking, memorable images that possess the power to provoke new considerations of the past in viewers, and for this, reference to place is essential.”(Stanton, 2015) Although I was not able to visit the event, I had a chance to discuss the representation of their project after going through their archive and documentation.
The title of Persbook’s 8th edition was Retexture[بازبافت], referencing Yazd’s textile heritage and its geography. In this annual, most of the works were created during engagements and interactions between the citizens of Yazd and the fifteen invited artists over a period of five days. the selection process was twofold; some artists were chosen from Neda Darzi’s experience in previous Persbooks, and others through an open call for the event. Farajiani explains the importance of thorough research on the context in site specific curatorial projects. She sees the strength of Persbook 8th in its collaboration with local artists and their deep knowledge of the context and the social behaviour of the region.
A site may offer a particular history, formality, culture. The last Persbook experience in Isfahan led the curators to develop the project through a thorough research practice, and to study the cultural, historical and religious aspects of Yazd for more successful results. Studying, exploring and recognizing the religious and cultural context of the city was very important for the curators of this Persbook's annual to advance the space-oriented aspect of this project alongside the importance of collaboration and collectivity between artists and public. In this regard, four months of research and documentation on Yazd's textile art was given to the participating artists. During the production of the event, there were many gatherings and events to facilitate understanding and deep engagement with the context, including research into historical documentation, an architectural tour guide and presentations and seminars about the cultural context of the city by experts. Farajiani was concerned with the question of “what would happen to the cultural structure of this city if this genre of art interferes?”
Two of the most prominent points of this project is the re-emergence of textile art and the reinvigoration of the city's cultural heritage, which were highlighted during the five days of process-based artworks. The recent Persbook event drew attention to the traces of Yazd heritage inside the artworks and the interaction of this heritage with the public. In the space of those five days, cultural and artistic heritage from the past was taken to the present and framed within a contemporary context - while at the same time opening a new avenue of dialogue in Yazd's society today through different methods, such as participation. White cube by Fatemeh Sadat Fazael Ardakani is an example of this interference. Through its use by the public, her work (a mosquito net, a valuable asset in the center of Iran in the summer) changed function every time they entered. She explains: “one person prayed inside, two people kissed each other, a child playing inside or two people resting inside, each time the concept of the work was changing from an installation to an interactive artwork according to the public and the atmosphere they created inside.”(Persbook 8th) In her work, placing the mosquito nets in public space, connected its historical function with today’s public scene.
In Place and Collaboration: Contemporary Art Curation Within Historic Sites, McDougall explains it that conceptualizing and organizing a site-specific project presents the curator(s) unique possibilities which are accompanied by the chosen heritage site. The importance and the effect of the building, site, or space that has designated historical value allow visitors to navigate the historical heritage as well as the artworks, finding connections between the traditions/cultural heritage and their contemporary interpretation of them and further conversations.(McDougall, 2013) Within the traditional context of Yazd, in the Persbook event those connections were made through the participation and engagement of the visitors, individuals of varying ages, social classes and ethnic backgrounds. In the work of Mona Aghababae, she used a tire ring and wrapped a traditional Yazdi fabric around it. The ring was spinned around the city by children.
Another aspect engagement in this event, refers to collaboration between curators and governmental departments. Again after the experience with pigeon towers in Isfahan, collaboration with the city hall, the Yazd Visual Arts Association, cultural heritage organization and Ministry of Culture and Islamic guidance played an important role for this project, especially for the two independent curators. Farajiani mentions: “besides our effort and ambition for this project, it would not be possible without the support of these departments.” One of the challenges she mentions was the apprehension for this event from the city hall because of its unexpected social engagement.
Linking site, physical space, visual art, and the body, the concept of the “logic of materials” comes into play. Emerging from late 1960s European sculpture and North American post-minimal art, it describes a process in which the distinction between artwork and physical location is tested; in which process of transformation are identified; materials are utilized as catalysts for change, or to define the artwork as a point of intersection between processes. The practices of artists associated with this idea frequently aligned the nature and affect of materials with notions of event and performance: not only is site-specificity defined in exchanges between visual art and performance, and between materials and events, but the body also became a key aspect of the terms through which the site and the site-specific work were elaborated. (Kaye, 2000) This kind of approach is what we see in the works of this project: a concern in how materials, history and body interact with each other and produce meaning.
An interesting example of these considerations is the work of Hamid Fateh. Fateh explains how his return to Yazd, his birthplace, with Persbook, provided a space for him to see and understand Yazd better than before. He says that by asking for help from people, he formed a training workshop for himself and others in which they created a work by interacting and contemplating with each other. He created an installation with participants, asking both men and women to wear Sharbafi (silk textile craft, famous as a traditional craft in Yazd) to talk about the possibilities of coexistence with each other. He referred to a past time when the poor and the rich of Yazd lived next to each other around the traditional water cistern. With his work, Fateh wants to explore social hierarchies and different architectural textures. (Persbook 8th, 2018) In his work, the conversation between the material, body and architecture can refer to questioning and interrupting the daily scene of the city. As Nick Kaye has stated, site-specific art is defined precisely in these ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning, through which the artwork and its place may be momentarily articulated one in the other. (Kaye, 2000)
For curators, the process of generating the relationship between artworks and people was of the highest priority. They desired for engagement and interaction among spaces and local people while facilitating the display of contemporary artworks; considering the new nature of the space-oriented artwork in Iran. For Neda Darzi especially, it was important to show interdisciplinary works that have the ability to adapt to space and use space differently from a typical gallery space.
What added the new experience to the city of Yazd in that 8th Persbook annual was the live engagement of the artists and people from various strata of society. From the curators' point of view, the dialogues that took place during the five days of the festival in Yazd, bridged the gap between power, people, and art. Local people allowed artists to interact with their daily routine, which was an indication that they were welcoming collaborators. Alongside the artworks in the ancient part of the city, several workshops and seminars were held by artists and researchers. During the event, none of the artworks was damaged, and local people along with the artists continued to interact and even occasionally perform in some works. One of the reasons of this high interaction in the cultural-religious context of Yazd was due to the recognition of space and history of materials in the city's architecture and textile art that led to firmly positioning of the works in the site.
According to Kaye, a “site” is a complex of chemical, organic, physiological and biological systems, interacting and affecting one another, and as such, a complex of relations always in process. (Kaye, 2000) The success of this edition of Persbook lied in the skilful practise between all of these factors - resulting in a harmonious coexistence with the local community and fruitful collaborations. After managing to build such strong relations, one question remains: what will happen to the site, when the artworks leave?
For more information about Persbook check here.
Kaye, Nick, 2000, Site-Specific Art Performance, Place and Documentation, London: Routledge, pp. 57-150.
McDougall, Ashleigh, 2013, ‘Place and Collaboration: Contemporary Art Curation Within Historic Sites ', Desearch Postgraduate Journal of Art & Contemporary Culture , Issue 3.
Persbook 8th, 2018, Directed by Matin Rokn (shown in Lajevardi Foundation, January 2019)
Stanton, Cathy, 2005, “Outside the Frame: Assessing Partnerships Between Arts and Historical Organizations,” The Public Historian V. 27, No. 1, Santa Barbara: University of California Press, p. 28.
UNESCO, Historic City of Yazd, Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1544, (accessed 20 June 2019).