Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.
“Government” is a contentious concept. A more prevalent understanding of government is a formation made up of a group of people belonging to a land who arrive at freedom and independence within a particular regime of power. By and large, however, “government” is taken to be synonymous with “the state” ruling a country.
If we go by the artist’s statement, this collection of paintings by Mojtaba Tabatabaie is closer to the second definition of government. These are triptych paintings presenting “the state” as a concept. The collection of acrylic oil paintings, Monoptych, State/Diptych, Triptych, is based on seven famous photographs of the seven government cabinets after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. These photographs are familiar to Iranian viewers. They have appeared numerously in magazines and newspapers, and as such they have become part of the Iranian collective memory. “By being hung on walls,” writes the artist in the statement for this collection, “these works accept the role of representing the state… and in turn visitors accept the role of being subjects\citizens.”
The aim of these painting is to literally bring the state before the people. This is done in a way that “the state” in this equation is always “the other.” It matters little how “popular” the state may be, it always occupies a different, higher plane. Photographs taken of cabinet members are by nature done in a way as to lay bare a hierarchical structure of power. The president and his key ministers stands in front and closer to the camera while less significant members are placed father back.
Characters in these paintings are close to their real sizes and this affords us the opportunity to stand at eye-level with representatives of the state; though here, too, because they are framed, they are at a distance and we are literally outside the frame. All paintings are triptych. The fact that “diptych” [in the Persian language] is also “cabinet” (or state) has given the artist a chance to play with words, one that itself emphasizes duality.
What’s interesting is that by turning photographs of cabinets into triptych paintings the artist has affected a distance between us and various representatives of the state. In the history of art, triptychs are usually associated with religious paintings (in churches or scenes with Christ and Mary). Seen this way, triptychs of Tabatabaie are true to their roots – the images of presidents in the second panel [with its Persian overtone of cabinet] – are representatives of a sacred establishment: The seven cabinets after the Islamic Revolution which are now part of the Iranian political history.
But what is history? Is it that singular truth that we have set out to discover, record, and present? Historical exegesis is directly related to memory and memory is the outcome of a particular reading from a particular angle.
Being in the middle of this exhibit gives us the change to come face-to-face with post-revolutionary officials and to recall our memories specific to their rule. In this sense, these paintings not only do not suffer from lack of a realistic finish but they benefit from it. By blurring photographs in painting, and moving closer to the edge of abstraction, the artist brings us closer to hazy forms that stand for a historical figure. At times, the painter takes the blurring to such extreme as to turn all figures into daubs. The women of the cabinet are particularly susceptible to these effacements – they appears like paint blotches without form on canvas.
Synchronizing form and content through the blurring technique, abstract figures appear closer to our own mental image of them. Our understanding of the state changes with time and our memories of them are transformed. Perhaps the painter chose this technique to emphasize the singularity of his own way of seeing them. In fact, the artist seems to be saying that by being too close to these representations, we have been unable to bring them into focus. Of all the cabinets represented, the Provisional Government of Mehdi Bazargan is an exception. This is the first cabinet that took power after the revolution, it has been less seen in recent times, and in these paintings it is also treated differently. It is not as blurred and this exception is telling. It is as if the painter is saying that with the passage of time we can now reach a degree of understanding and consensus regarding that particular period.
What is perhaps common between us and the painter is that we also think of our own understanding of that period as more complete. We need to wait and see if that which we thought to be “true,” that which formed our mental image of that particular historical era, was the whole “truth” or only part of the Clematis Hat that we see in the picture. No doubt time is a good judge for the artist and for us.
A review of the painting exhibit of Tabatabaie at Etemad Gallery
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