Last June, a group of 16 artists from nine different nationalities flew to the Iranian capital Teheran to work on an extensive art project in the city. Working with the concept ‘I’m longing for and I don’t know what,’ the participating artists, who had all lived and studied in Berlin, arrived empty-handed to the capital and for two weeks travelled around the city, visited peaceful mosques, workshops and galleries and got influenced by the changed environment and the locals. Despite some obstacles and difficulties with the authorities, the project was a success and their visit concluded with a large exhibition at the House of Iranian Artists where they presented installations, video art, sculptures and photographs. Among the participants was Icelandic artist Sara Riel, who grabbed the attention by creating a mini “glacial lake” in an outside pool while the air temperature reached more than 40 degrees in the city.
Respecting Social Values
The project was organised by Iranian artist Leila Pazooki, who currently lives in Berlin, and will later be presented in a form of a video. “This project was part of Leila’s Master’s degree and she invited us to be part of it. She organised the trip and the exhibition and documented the whole process, how locals responded to our visit and our artworks and how we reacted to this new situation and the cultural differences,” Sara explains. And the process was challenging, sometimes overwhelming, but for the most part an incredibly rich experience for them all she says.
“Before I left, my friends had warned me and told me to be careful. I guess some people think of Teheran as a dangerous place, but that is a misunderstanding. Many people are prejudiced against Iranians and their beliefs and even confuse Iran with Iraq, which is very ironic as these two countries are old enemies. My experience is that Teheran locals are incredibly friendly and hospitable people. They are polite and easy going and most of all very curious about foreigners. They ask questions and are eager to exchange stories with travellers. I never experienced any fear or insecurity when I strolled around the city. I just minded my own business,” she explains and continues:
“What I found most difficult was the unbearable heat outside. Every day the temperature reached about 40 to 45 degrees and air pollution is a huge problem in the city as well, which only made matters worse. About 29 people die each day because of the air pollution. At the same time, I had to respect the dress code and wear a long-sleeved dress, pants and cover my hair with a scarf when I was in public places. It took me some time to get used to that.” The clothing rules have become even stricter than they used to and Sara tells me that repression has increased when it comes to expressions of individuality.
“There are countless laws that control the people and everything is split between the genders, publicly. When we for example wanted to go for a swim to cool down, we had to go in separate groups. The girls before noon and the guys after noon. It also took me some time to remember that I wasn’t allowed to shake hands with men in public,” she says.
There are also laws against alcohol in Iran, but locals find their ways to get their goods. Although alcohol is illegal, bottles can be bought from special dealers on the black market and can be enjoyed it in the privacy of one’s home. “Leila is involved in the art scene in Teheran so we got to know Iranian artists who invited us to parties. They are very open people and when they have a reason to celebrate, they do it properly. They drink, dance and sing and feel free to wear the clothes they like. The girls dress in mini-skirts and don’t need to cover their hair. As individuals, partying behind closed doors, men and women in Teheran are equals,” she adds.
Glacial Lake in the City Centre
There is a big difference between private and public spaces and all sincere interactions happen inside people’s homes but not out on the streets, Sara says, and strict rules apply to the way people are allowed to behave in public. It is, for example, illegal to photograph public buildings and some of the artists got into trouble by breaking the rules. One girl lost her video camera and another one got busted for photographing a TV tower.
“The police watched carefully what we were working on just to see if everything was morally acceptable. They also wanted to show their power” Sara explains adding:
“The gallery is run by the government so we had to explain every aspect of our projects and give a full report on what we planned to do, which is nothing but censorship. Many ideas never became a reality and one guy actually had to change his project, which was quite funny though. He had built a giant satellite out of metal, recorded sounds on the streets of Teheran and wanted to make a sound installation. As satellites are forbidden in Iran he got a firm no. But he found a way to bend the rules. He decided to make a large spoon out of the same metal and put it a few metres away from the satellite so it would look like a bowl of soup. He then named the piece ‘Guten appetit, das ist kein Satelit.’”
Asked if many of the artists attempted to provoke the authorities with their projects, Sara says the majority of them tried not to stir things up.
“I had no urge to challenge their politics or social values and I think most of the artists shared the same view.”
One part of the project was to start from scratch so the artists had no ideas or materials to work with when they arrived in Teheran and had to walk around the city and search for inspiration. One of those walks led Sara into a small store which sold jelly wax, (the same kind of wax sometimes used to make candles). She bought a large bucket and started to experience.
“Jelly wax is a peculiar material. It looks exactly like frozen water and you can shape it in various forms. In the heat, it melts fast but when put it in water it stays exactly the same, just like real ice chunks. From the beginning, I wanted to do something outdoors and outside the gallery was a small pool. After I bought the jelly wax I got the idea to put the chunks of wax in the pool and make them resemble ice cubes floating in a lake and create an illusion. When you look at the pool from some distance you think that the water is cold and the wax is actually ice floating on the surface, but when viewed more carefully you realise differently” she explains. The 40 degrees temperature and the physically unpleasant feeling of the unbearable heat mixed with the thought of floating ice cubes in cold water made the contrast even stronger.
“The idea worked and fitted well with the concept, ‘I’m longing for and I don’t know what’. People at the opening understood my idea and the Teheran kids played around with the chunks in the pool, just like I wanted. After the opening night, we were off again, and had to leave all the artworks in the gallery and say our goodbyes. That is a good feeling though, to know you have left something behind.”
You can view some of Sara Riel’s artworks on: www.sarariel.com