words by: Norman Douglas
Third World Modernity in the Post-Modern Age
The sculptured demons of European churches are to some degree comparable (surely they are involved in the same basic obsession), but they lack the power, the grandeur, of the Aztec ghosts, the bloodiest ever to people the clouds of our earth. And they were, as we know, literally bloody. Not a single one among them but was not periodically spattered with blood for his own festival. ...[I]t is agreed that the number of victims annually numbered several thousands at the very least in Mexico City alone. The priest had a man held belly up, his back arched over a sort of large boundary marker, and with one fell blow of the knife of shining stone, cut open the trunk. The skeleton thus severed, both hands reached into the blood-filled cavity to grasp the heart, wrenching it out with a skill and dispatch such that the bleeding man continued for a few seconds to quiver with life over the red coals before the corpse, flung away, tumbled down to the bottom of a staircase. Finally, at night, when the corpses had been flayed, carved, and cooked, the priests came and ate them.
--"Extinct America," by Georges Battaille
I remember The Four Hundred and Forty Four Days like they were yesterday, like it was September 11. Not September 11, 2001, but 1973. That's when Richard Helms and his CIA backed General Augusto Pinochet and his goons, using my birthday as the high point of a campaign of destabilization, murder, disappearances, and sabotages. With the assassination of democratically elected President Salvador Allende in the presidential palace at Santiago on that day, the American puppet turned modern Chile into the banana republic Americans liked to imagine is all that lies outside their hallowed borders and cold war bunkers, exterminating tens of thousands, sending another greater number into exile, and disappearing 50,000 into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the holds of US-supplied aircraft. The US was not about to allow some theoretically third world country enjoy the lifestyles of the socialists in Western Europe, for whatever reason capitalists then and now care to offer.
That same year, 1973, I found my second job. I pumped gas. A couple of months later, the bloodsuckers in the American oil cartels came up with a brilliant idea. They called it the energy crisis, Einstein's relativity be damned. America needed to raise its oil prices to a level closer to what the Europeans paid if profits for the richest 13,000 Americans were to rise the 300 percent they have risen these past thirty years. At the time, America discovered the perfect Oceania, and it already had a name, Arabia. The only black kid in all white New England towns, I had heard "nigger" all my life. It was only in 1973 that I heard "sand nigger," referring to you know who (towelhead, raghead, sand monkey, camel driver, palm loafer were some of the other clever terms coming from the nearby military installation at Quonset Point). That same year, Richard Helms lost his job as CIA director because he wouldn't stump the FBI Watergate inquest. Nixon promptly assigned Helms to the embassy at Tehran.
All this took place to the background of Vietnam, I remind you. These were not isolated incidents to a thirteen year old kid in the middle of nowhere, USA. I imagine the rest of the world knew what time it was, much as they know today. I also fear that too many Americans adhere to the ostrich head in the sand version of history, so I feel obliged to recapitulate another twenty five years of US belligerence, just in case.
Although Nixon resigned, and Ford finally left the Nam to the Viet, Carter was faced with the ripples of the OPEC problem. By 1977, when I hit my first college campus, the site of Iranian students on urban street corners and college greens was as ubiquitous as Starbucks is today. Their big gripe? The US Embassy, doubling as CIA headquarters, and where Mr Helms remained in charge, practiced the systematic disappearances of those opposed to such activities and, by extension, the Shah. Thus, it should have come as no surprise in 1978 when the kids had had enough and seized the joint. Thus ensued the 444 Days, ending with the inauguration of Ronald Wilson Reagan, who had promised to do Jimmy Carter's eve of election suicidal rescue mission one better. As we all know, even with the hostages released, Ron and his successor, George, Sr., remained unhappy that these kids would so humiliate the US for the sake of a bearded old coot who had been expelled from Iran by the CIA way back in '63, when Kennedy was shot, even before Helms was director. The Reagan-Bush response took shape as the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, whose military is a product of CIA genius and allied technological know-how. The Swedes, the French, the US all supplied Iraq with the ordnance needed to devastate the Islamic Republic of Iran for ten long years, with consequences we continue to deal with, while both those nations lost an estimated million apiece in young manpower. Go USA!
At NYU's Grey Gallery, named for Abby Weed Grey of Minnesota, director Lynn Gumpert purports to explore the arts that precipitated the revolution of 1978. With MoMA curator Fereshteh Daftari and members of NYU's Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, Gumpert has put together a visually stimulating but ultimately disappointing exhibit. Along with the show, Between Word and Image: Modern Iranian Visual Culture, the curators have pieced together a catalog full of essays published by I.B.Taurus, entitled Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution. The show is divided into three sections, and laid out so that most everyone will enjoy it or not in the same order. It starts with the fine arts works of most of the artists involved with the Saqqakhaneh movement, loosely centered around Hossein Zenderoudi and a bunch of his peers, most born in the 30s, few if any of whom resided in Iran beyond 1970. It seems that through the generosities of Ms Weed who embarked on her career as an art patron shortly after her capitalist husband dropped dead and left her with the booty around 1960 the artists in the show were shown in the US, then later in Europe, where many of them enjoy life to this day. While the achievements of Zenderoudi and his pal and contemporary, Parviz Tanavoli, are aesthetically rich, with a calligraphic density that arguably outstrips the experiments of New Yorkers like Ad Reinhardt, Alan Kaprow, the Fluxus people, and later, Lawrence Weiner, one wonders just how traditional these works were seen by the Islamists and their partisans. Much is made in the catalog of the artists' affinity for their native land, especially and literally of Marcos Grigorian's experiments with the sand and earth of Iran, materials he fused to canvas as deftly as anyone working in paints. But only a careful reading reveals that the show's fine artists are not really part of the revolution the show ostensibly addresses. Not directly. Like myself, they were alive throughout the troubles, they saw it on the telly, heard it on the radio, read it in the news, they chose sides, but from afar, from the comfort of the lifestyle to which a talented purveyor of decorative oriental/eastern-themed works may expect to enjoy in the socialist west of Europe. Because these artists removed themselves from the place of their birth, residing in Europe, one wonders how authentic are the catalog's claims of their concern for native culture. Obviously, the debate is an endless one. But the evidence against the curators mounts.
As one moves into the next stage of the show, the photographs of Abbas, one observes some rather telling, arresting, informative, and even (to many) disturbing images. Abbas, Iranian by birth, is the only photographer in the show. Raised in Algeria during the revolt against the French, Abbas moved to Paris and joined Magnum photo agency, eventually becoming its president. Abbas, citing such time-worn metaphors as illuminated manuscripts as justification, accompanies his photographs with lengthy texts. A great speaker, Abbas' written texts somehow detract from the level of information conveyed by the images they purport to accompany. His specificity, his revelation of intent, his aftermaths, his will to inform make the photos more suspicious than they might have seemed alone. The three shots of Prime Minister Hoveyda, at the office with advisers, at home with Laila and the kids, dead on a slab in the morgue with a grinning gun-toting rebel smiling over him, all work without text, and stand as one of the best narrative-reportorial image-essays extent. Although Abbas declared himself part of the revolution, his recent comments point out his unwillingness to return to Iran from France, the rapid growth of his disillusionment with the revolution. Abbas wants to affirm his own existence, though taking photos of a moments of human tension and exchange, moments that are not necessarily beautiful to us or to him but which are part of the memory of all we have lost. Abbas seems more concerned with the heroic role of the artist in glorious individual transcendence than in real, permanent revolution. The only reason revolutions ever fail is that the actors abandon the sense of permanence if they ever felt such a thing the energy of purpose without limits that such public defiance entails. Abbas' abandonment is telling as one enters the final section, the basement, where political posters are on display.
The political poster was a ubiquitous sight around the world in the 70s; rural locations often suffered as much postering as city centers. The hippie movement encouraged radicals everywhere, bringing down the French government of DeGaulle in 1968, and giving the left a general urge toward creative resistance. The seventies were no different, with the war in Vietnam lasting half the decade. The USA, no model of the world today, suffered a regular pariah status back then, with terrorist organizations like the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and the Symbionese Liberation Army raising hell at home, while the Baader Meinhof Gang (whose last assassination was of the Deutsche Bank president in 1989) and the Red Brigades giving Western Europe a headache. The cold war was in full effect, and evidence reveals that many of these Maoist and Stalinist cells received funding from the Soviets or the Chinese. The Iranian movement was no different. The posters in the show reflect the influence of the popular agenda of the era. The cultural and nationalist liberation fronts pricked their thorns in the sides of the USA's puppet dictators from Latin America to Angola to South Africa. The political posters reflect the hybrid Marxism of the time. Hardly Hegelian, it turned to three major themes: anti-US or Western imperialism; the veneration of martyrs, be they recent victims of demonstrations or assassination/disappearances or historic martyrs from centuries before; the syncretization of local religious faith in future heaven with revolutionary goals. This last aspect is perhaps the most curious, resulting in the liberation theology of El Salvador, where right wing death squads inadvertently mobilized US opposition to dictator Duarte with the murder of American Catholic nuns. In Iran, it resulted in the reification of the Ayatollah Khomeini, exiled by the shah in 1963 after the events of Kordad, when three days of religious student opposition to the Shah's White Revolution (program of Westernization, curiously colored after the skin of the "most high" race) came to be seen as the start of the revolution.
With the success of the Islamicists in Iran, most of the men who ran the poster workshops, like Nicky Nodjoumi, emigrated to the West, keeping their portfolios with them. It is thanks to these collections that the show enjoys the poster section. The post-revolutionary posters mobilizing support for Islam and, with the start of the Reagan-Bush-Hussein onslaught, support for the defense of the nation are by and large attributed to a guy named "Author Unknown." Which brings me to the main point of this diatribe. At last.
The Georges Battaille citation at the start of this piece continues in the same vein for three more paragraphs, the first two of which follow:
And they were not always content with a bloodbath for themselves, the temple walls, the idols, and the bright flowers piled upon the altars. For certain sacrificial rites involving the immediate flaying of the man chosen, the priest, transported, would cover his face and body with the bloody skin and body. Arrayed in this incredible garment, he prayed ecstatically to his God.
And it is here that the amazingly joyous character of these horrors must be clearly stressed. Mexico City was not only the streaming, human slaughterhouse; it was also a city of wealth, a veritable Venice, with canals, footbridges, ornamented temples and, above all, flower gardens of extreme beauty. Flowers were grown even in the water and they decorated the altars. Prior to the official rite, the victims danced, "decked out in necklaces and garlands of flowers." And they carried flowering and scented reeds which they alternately smoked and inhaled.
Then, the ex-surrealist, career librarian, and life-long communist begins his conclusion on another note.
Death, for the Aztecs was nothing, They asked of their gods to let them receive death in joy, and to help them to see its sweetness, its charm. They chose to see swords and arrows as sweetmeats. And yet these savage warriors were simply pleasant and sociable, like any others, fond of gathering to drink and to talk. There, at the Aztec banquets, one frequently got drunk on one of a variety of drugs in common use.
[italics are mine] I reference these citations in order to point up my overall impression of the show, having read the catalog. I suppose that the term "modernity" should be enough to tip off the average reader of situationist-inspired tracts to the right wing bent of the curatorial project at Grey Gallery. Under the guise of educating the public about the creative energies that preceded and precipitated the revolution, the curators remind us that the noble goals of the revolutionaries are not only qualified in advance, but demonized in the execution. Abbas, the photographer, is the strongest contributor to this attitude, lamenting the murders of the shah's generals as if such murderers should not have been executed, as if their revolutionary executioners bear more guilt for the one murder than the generals for their thousands. I think it telling that Battaille, in his effort to lionize the Aztecs, ends up dwelling on their barbarity for four paragraphs, condescending to their humanity, their "simply pleasant and sociable" characters only in brief. This is how the catalog reads, reducing the revolution to the barbaric victory over secular elements more appealing to just about everyone on display. Must art always be the marginal line of defense for capitalist degradation, or did Ms Weed and friend Gumpert simply find themselves with limited resources and the best intentions? I anticipated something far more progressive (aggressive?) politically, something that would inspire my imagination with memories (Vico links these two), with the eye-touching tenacity and persistent memory too few art world shows manage. Reading the institutionalized writers in the catalog, I felt they wanted me to look at these crazy suicide bombers because they possess some humanity after all.
When all is said and done, however, it looks like another case of the idle and well-to-do abusing the idle and not-so-well-off. There are some images in the show which appealed to me, Zenderoudhi, Armajani, Tavoli, Gregorian's earth canvas, and the unschooled janitor of the art school in Tehran who sculpted with found materials. If you see this show, leave my politics at the door, don't read the catalog, and try to take each work on its own merits. Social contextualization especially the modernist context in a post-modern world can be sticky.
Copyright © Norman Douglas