Aesthetics, politics and production of Iranian visual culture in transnational circuits »


Already visible in the 1990s, when Iranian cinema began to attract international attention, the turn of the century saw an expansion in the visibility and movement of Iranian creators and creative works across borders. As with developments in the realms of Iranian politics and society at large, the artistic productions and practices of this period were profoundly shaped by the rapid technological changes that took place against a geopolitical backdrop of global tensions. Yet attempts to make sense of the arenas of Iranian politics, society, and art – either individually or in relation to each other – have largely operated within a rigid framework of authority versus resistance. Mazyar Lotfalian’s What people do with images: aesthetics, politics and the production of Iranian visual culture in transnational circuits explicitly rejects this insufficient framing and fixation on the search for fixed meanings, in favor of a critical anthropological approach that sheds light on the practices and material relations underlying the new “aesthetic regimes” (p. 119) that have emerged in the first fifteen years of the new millennium.

In his introductory chapter, Lotfalian draws on Rancière’s notion of dissensus and Fischer’s concept of the world to expose the how and why of his focus away from textual meaning. Rancière argues that aesthetic practices can disrupt what is considered sensible in society, “thus shifting the boundaries of what is acceptable, rather than engaging in opposition or consensus building” (p. 12). Using this concept of dissensus allows Lotfalian to explore the ways in which art can act to destabilize meanings and open spaces for the emergence of new meanings and practices. Similarly, the concept of ‘worlding’ as used by Fischer and other anthropologists allows Lotfalian to ‘look at the whole range of technological, institutional and political spheres’ in which people create and interact with images. Building on Rancière’s claims about the disturbances of the sensible, Lotfalian introduces the term “meta-politics” to examine how aesthetic practices can avoid being “stifled by pre-established or stereotyped signs, symbols, or forms.” (p.30) Lotfalian also uses his introduction to make two key assertions that are fundamental to this book: namely, he identifies the rise of political Islam and digital technology as the two most important political and technological forces that have shaped cultural productions since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The second chapter of Lotfalian provides an overview of these two forces over the past thirty years and their consequences for cultural productions. Highlighting how these changes have impacted the terrains of diasporic and Iranian production, the chapter focuses on four main case studies to explore the thorniest question of who speaks for whom when it comes to Iranians in Iran and in the Diaspora. These Four Cases Are Jon Stewart’s Very Different Movie Rose water (2014), the mixture of genres by Ana Lily Amripour A girl walks home alone at night (2014), Sepideh Farsi Red rose (2014), and illustrations by Hamid Rahmanian for a new translation of the Shahnameh epic as well as a 2016 shadow play that Rahmanian created for an epic love story. Lotfalian argues that with the exception of Rose water— which attempted direct political effort — all of these other works operated in “meta-political space rather than via polarized political antagonism.” (p. 26) Lotfalian attributes Rose waterto his inability to go beyond this familiar framing and opposes it to the generative possibilities of the other works envisaged. These other works, according to Lotfalian, also draw attention to the continuum that constitutes the bonds between the Iranian diaspora and those living in Iran as well as the intergenerational dialogue at play. speaks for whom, the chapter would have benefited from a more direct and thorough discussion, especially in view of the controversy and the material consequences of the question in the contemporary moment. Every day, for example, Iranian social media platforms, from Twitter to Clubhouse, are filled with heated debates about who has the right to represent Iranians. Offline, those who claim to be the authentic voice of Iranians have secured notable amounts of foreign funding for their political projects and/or have successfully advocated for policies such as “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran.

The third chapter takes an ethnographic approach to a number of case studies of curatorial practices, including those of museum exhibitions and gallery spaces in Iran and elsewhere. The broader context of these reviews is the political conflict between Iran and the United States, where rising tensions coincide with a rapid increase in interest in buying and exhibiting Iranian art in international markets. . Once again, Lotfalian’s case studies are far-reaching, ranging from Shirin Neshat’s 2001 experimental multimedia piece The Logic of Birds (of which Lotfalian was an actor) to a discussion of global art markets, including those of the United Arab Emirates. This last discussion is particularly important given that – as Lotfalian himself notes –”[t]he politics of curatorial practice stems not only from curators, but also from an emerging market for Middle Eastern art” (p. 38). As with his discussion of films in Chapter Two, what Lotfalian finds promising is the emergence of an aesthetic that works at the level of metapolitics.

Chapter four applies the notion of autoethnography to understand the works of Shirin Neshat, Marjane Satrapi and Reza Bahraminejad. Although not internationally celebrated like Neshat and Satrapi, Bahraminejad’s work has garnered critical acclaim, including winning Best Documentary for The flying foggers (2003) at the 22nd Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Lotfalian argues that as a genre of self-exploration, autoethnography allows both to tell a personal story, but also “to explore the ambiguity of storytelling and the difficulty of giving voice to both oneself and those of others”. (p. 68). Here again, Lotfalian does not impose framed readings in terms of resistance but questions the way in which autobiographical forms can propose “metapolitical reworkings”. [that] are more important than ordinary political contestations” (p. 50) Because it remains largely focused on just three case studies, this chapter offers a more granular sense of the works considered as well as Lotfalian’s points about metapolitical spaces.

Chapters five and six examine images and themes that are important in Shia Islam, with emphasis on the transnational mediation of the Karbala paradigm and the taziyeh, or Passion Play, which is affiliated with it. While much has been written about the importance of Karbala symbolism in Iranian art and politics, Lotfalian’s exploration of transnational mediations, avant-garde experimentations and creative digital engagements with this religious history provides a compelling argument about how these new forms “extend the conditions of possibility for Shia-Islamic visibility” (p. 86) and can play a transformative role in the public sphere. He best illustrates this last point in Chapter 6, where he examines how religious imagery was remobilized during the 2009 Iranian presidential election and its consequences.

Lotfalian’s final chapter is about the Iranian underground. Given its Cold War overtones of stealth and counterculture, a reader looking at the book’s table of contents might reasonably have thought that this chapter would contain stories of defiance and resistance. But after reading the previous chapters, we know that we should not expect easy classifications. Lotfalian remains cogently consistent in his rejection of the opposition/authority binary, citing a number of different examples from music and visual culture to argue that the post-revolution Iranian underground has been a “grey area. . in which creativity challenges both the state and neo-liberal credits” (p. 108). directed by Azadeh Akhlaghi, music and lyrics by Mohsen Namjoo, the novel by Shahriar Mandanipour in 2010, Censorship: An Iranian Love Storyas well as the work of several filmmakers such as Panahi, Ghobadi and Rasoulof.

The fact that Lotfalian covers so much ground in the number and type of artistic work he discusses is a strength of this book, but it sometimes leaves the reader hoping for a deeper analysis of the material under consideration. Lotfalian is sensitive to the many – sometimes contradictory – factors that shape Iranian cultural productions. For example, in the chapter on curatorial practices, he cites the growing interest in Iranian works, but also notes the concomitant pressures to produce art geared towards this market. Similar pressures drive knowledge and culture producers to create content that easily fits the authority-resistance binary. Given that Lotfalian makes an important argument against this tired framework, a more explicit discussion of the institutions, funding networks, and discourses that constrain Iranian cultural productions would have made the work even stronger.

Old reading habits are hard to break, and at various points in this manuscript this reviewer found itself wishing that Lotfalian had offered a scathing rebuke here or glowing praise there for some of the works under review. The fact that he did not speaks to the consistency of his approach, which is set in rich contexts, ambiguities and possibilities. This theoretically robust book will be of great interest to academics and general readers who follow Iranian art, culture and politics, and is especially recommended for those who are tired of repetitive and inadequate frameworks for understanding Iranian society. contemporary.

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