Mahmoud Bakhshi: ‘I was focusing on the people who died, and on an artist doing something, which then has an effect that is a problem’
Turning the gallery at narrative projects, London, into a 1970s cinema, Bakhshi places his audience at the centre of two pivotal – and parallel – events in recent Iranian history
by ANNA McNAY
The date 19 August is a significant one in Iranian history. In 1953, it saw the coup d’état, which gave the shah increased power to rule more firmly as a monarch, and, in 1978, it was the date of the tragic Cinema Rex fire, in which estimates of between 400 and 800 citizens lost their lives, when the building in Abadan, southern Iran, was set on fire by Islamic militants during the screening of the controversial film, The Deers (Gavaznha in Persian), directed by Masoud Kimiai. As two camps of opinion laid blame for the fire either with Islamic fundamentalists, who opposed all forms of entertainment (and were later found responsible), or the shah’s secret police, who some thought started the fire with the aim of pointing the finger at the fundamentalists, this latter event is widely considered to have triggered the 1979 revolution.
For The Unity of Time and Place, his second exhibition at narrative projects, Mahmoud Bakhshi (b1977, Tehran) has created an immersive installation, recreating the interior of a 1970s cinema, and showing incisively collaged film footage from The Deers and an interview with Kimiai, on two screens, either side of the central dividing wall.
The project reflects a wider focus of artistic enquiry in Bakhshi’s practice into the role and responsibility of an artist and his work, particularly when dealing with, or responding to, sociopolitical currents.
Bakhshi studied for a BA in sculpture at the faculty of fine arts at the University of Tehran, and has since held residencies at the Delfina Foundation in London and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam. His work was included in the National Pavilion of Iran at the 56th Venice Biennale and is held in collections worldwide, including Tate Modern, London; Doron Sebbag Art Collection, Tel Aviv; Devi Art Foundation, New Delhi; and the Thaddaeus Ropac Collection.
After his visa was denied at the last minute, and Bakhshi was unable to come to London to install his exhibition and attend the opening night, Studio International spoke to him in Tehran via Skype.
Anna McNay: Can you help to set the scene by outlining something of the two key events behind The Unity of Time and Place, both of which took place on 19 August – the coup d’état of 1953 and the Cinema Rex fire of 1978, said to have triggered the Iranian revolution of 1979?
Mahmoud Bakhshi: In the first instance, I didn’t know that the coup was on the same day as the fire. I had really wanted to do a project on the cinema for maybe four years or so. I’d made a work relating to the cinema before, Cinema Bahman. It’s kind of an Islamic “tradition”, if you like, that people don’t like cinemas and so they set fire to them, even since the revolution. But the Cinema Rex fire was the most tragic instance because of the number of people who died and because they locked the doors with the audience inside. Then, maybe a year ago, while reading documents, I realised that the fire and the coup had taken place on the same date, 19 August. For 25 years, the shah had celebrated that date. It was celebrated in all cities across Iran as a national uprising, which was ridiculous, because it was a coup, and the shah only gained power with the help of the Americans and the British. I think the fire was an answer to him directly, because it took place after the celebrations.
AMc: You say that the shah gained power thanks to the Americans and the British. If I understand correctly, the coup effectively came about because Britain instigated a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil to pressure Iran economically after the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and his parliament voted, for the benefit of the Iranian people, to nationalise oil supplies, which had been under British control through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). This followed the refusal of AIOC, a British corporation (now BP), to allow an audit of their documents in order to limit the company’s control over Iranian petroleum reserves.
MB: That’s right. Of course, it was a sensitive issue for a long time. The revolution was kind of an answer to the coup.
AMc: As recently as August 2013, the CIA admitted that it was in charge of the planning and execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda.
AMc: But to come back to Cinema Rex: when the fire happened, a film called The Deers was being screened. It was also being shown in other cinemas around the country at the same time, and, indeed, there were also other fires in those cinemas on the same date, 19 August 1978. Can you tell me something about the film and why it was so significant and controversial?
MB: First, the director, Masoud Kimiai, is a most critical, or political, film-maker. He aroused a lot of anger with that film and it had a huge effect in stirring the revolution. In the region around Abadan, which was quite important in terms of oil, no one had been interested in objecting before the film, but, afterwards, and after the fire, they started to go on strike and they joined the revolution. We cannot say that he made the revolution, but he certainly helped with his movies. The Deers was particularly significant because it was the only movie that showed the main characters fighting against the regime with guns.
AMc: For your installation at narrative projects, the two symmetrical gallery spaces have been turned into parallel “cinemas”, with carpeted floors and back walls, old cinema seating, and two short, looped projections, showing on either side of the dividing wall. This is the first time you have worked with film on such a scale, but the installation, as a whole, nevertheless possesses sculptural qualities …
MB: I hope so. I was trying to make something more like a sculpture. But I haven’t seen the show and I can’t tell from the images how successful it has been. I tried to edit the videos to be as short as possible to encourage the viewers to walk around the wall. I want the audience to go between the two rooms, with the same movement as if going around a painting or a sculpture or an installation. This was the concept. I don’t know if it has worked.
AMc: Absolutely. I think, because you can hear what is going on in both rooms, you are drawn in and compelled to move around. It is an amazing space, in itself quite sculptural, and the way your work is installed really enhances this.
The first room shows a collaged film you have made of scenes from The Deers, thought to have been those showing at the time of the outbreak of the fire, overlaid with images of the burnt-out cinema.
MB: Yes, we know that the fire happened about 25-30 minutes after the screening began. These scenes show a contemporary 1970s audience in a theatre. It was a bit like a mirror, with the audience in the cinema watching themselves.
AMc: For us to be watching these scenes now is really quite chilling when you realise what was happening at the time.
MB: Yes. And then the screen goes white and you see the leftover chairs, from after the fire.
AMc: Did anyone survive?
MB: Yes, some people got out through the windows, but the number that died was immense – the minimum estimate is 377, but it could have been anything up to 800. In those days, the interior of the cinema interior was all produced out of cheap plastic; there was no non-flammable material. When the fire began, most people probably died from the gases produced, even before the flames reached them.
AMc: Did you grow up with this event very present in your collective history?
MB: Yes, during the revolution, this movie, and other revolutionary movies, for example, from Chile, were quite hip and they would show them a lot. Cinema was important in the revolution – it was the most important thing in the revolution, perhaps. Our cinema – Iranian cinema – is known everywhere.
AMc: The second room of your installation shows the visual footage of the director, Kimiai, from an interview you conducted with him, when you asked him how he felt about what had happened to all those people while watching his film. After giving his answer – in which he appears to well up and become quite upset – he asks you to erase the footage of his answer. Was the omission of the audio a compromise you agreed on together?
MB: I actually haven’t checked it with him yet. To me, the work is more like a photo or a visual – it’s not a film any more. It was a late decision to erase his voice. I didn’t have time to ask him, but I like just using the visual material because it’s not an interview any more – it’s more about his emotion concerning those people. He wasn’t happy with his answer, but what I have shown is just his feeling, and this is what was important to me.
Some people who support the opposition blame Kimiai and think he made this film because he wanted to support – or even cause – the revolution. They consider him guilty. So he was kind of defending himself, saying how mad he’d have to be to do such a thing. But my question wasn’t really about those people, it was more focusing on the people who died, and on an artist doing something, which then has an effect that is a problem.
AMc: And that, in a way, is a question you are asking yourself and the artistic community at large through this, and other, works: what is the role of the artist in society and what responsibility does he have for the outcomes of, and reactions to, his work?
MB: In a way, yes, exactly. And when I saw the installation, I thought, it is, more or less, a self-portrait. Kimiai was, in a way, just a case study of the position you find yourself in as an artist. What is your role and, in revolutionary situations, should you do anything? Are you responsible for the result of an event? Should you go with one party or not? These are questions that I – and any other critical or political artists – face on a day-to-day basis.
AMc: By presenting both films without voiceovers and without any overt didacticism, you raise a lot of questions, and viewers are compelled to think and draw conclusions for themselves. You achieve more impact, this way, I think.
MB: I hope so. It’s not a documentary. There is a boundary between documentary and visual art: documentary announces more, it deals in statements. Visual art, at least for me, is about just opening up questions. These are things for which I have no answers; they are ongoing themes.
AMc: You were denied a visa to enter the UK at the last minute. How difficult was it for you to oversee the installation, being given progress updates via Skype? Did you still feel in control of what was happening?
MB: Not really, no. For installation, you have to be there in person. And especially for this one, as I’ve never had a video show before – just individual video pieces. So this was quite difficult. It was unfortunate I couldn’t get a visa. It’s always difficult, anywhere – it’s a bureaucratic thing.
AMc: But, at the same time, you had a very strong application, with a letter of invitation not just from the gallery but also the Iran Heritage Foundation.
MB: I don’t really know how it works in the UK. In France, they have an attaché culturel who deals with artists and so on. I have been to the UK several times before, and often just for a couple of days at a time, for my openings. Usually, except for the three months I spent on a residency, I come for a short time, so it’s clear that it’s just for art purposes – to show my work. So I don’t know why they were asking questions about what is in my account in Europe, and about my income – it was quite irrelevant.
AMc: Do you see this as a symptom of recent political developments here in the UK?
MB: Well, aside from my case, I have heard that they aren’t giving visas to anybody from Iran right now – or that they are making it quite difficult. They sent me an email to say they had tried to call me, but I had changed my mobile phone number when I was in the Netherlands. I had never before received – and so did not expect – any phone calls from the consulate for a visa. They wrote to say that they tried to call me for two days to discuss the issue and that I wasn’t available. It was my mistake to change my mobile, but they did have other ways of contacting me – they could have emailed me, for example. But the political situation between our two countries is not really friendly these days.
AMc: Well, it is a real shame, and I guess you’ll just have to take our word for it, that it has really worked and that your show looks amazing.
MB: Thank you.
AMc: You recently risked sparking controversy with your first public art commission, Endless Celebration, a temporary intervention at the former site of the Lenin monument in Kiev. You made a set of neon traffic lights, standing on a four-metre scaffolded plinth, with a red Lenin, an amber Madonna (the singer) and a green Virgin Mary. How was the work received?
MB: At the opening, there were lots of questions – even while we were still working on it, actually. The conflict between commerce and religion is still quite a hot issue there. The work was more or less like an outdoor graphic sign. By putting it in the form of traffic lights, I was trying to say that all of these things can happen at the same time: people can live together peacefully, without fighting. It got a lot of publicity in the newspapers and on social media. The work has now been installed on the facade of the cultural centre, which is an old factory that has been turned into an arts centre.
AMc: That leads nicely into talking about your studio, which is in a large industrial hangar, just outside Tehran. It is part of an artist-run centre called Bon-Gah, conceived of, and developed by, a group of artists.
MB: Yes, but it’s not so big – it was part of a small workshop. I moved there five years ago. Three years ago, I went to the Netherlands for a residency. From the beginning, I have shared the space with my assistant and younger artists, who needed a space to work in. When I left Iran, I left it with them, and they shared it with some others. Since I came back from the Netherlands last year, I have begun programming it a little, inviting artists from abroad, or others who might just want to come and work there for a week or so. This idea of having a programme, or of making it a more public space, is something quite new.
AMc: You have a publication as well.
MB: Yes, but that’s older – 11 or 12 years old now. We try to print three or four times a year.
AMc: Is something like this unique in Tehran? Otherwise, there are mostly just commercial galleries and a museum that is not that interested in working with or showing contemporary artists.
MB: I don’t want to say it’s unique, but, yes, mostly we have commercial galleries. I would say, in Tehran, we have one more centre working as a non-profit organisation. The rest are commercial, or related to collectors. What we have at Bon-Gah is quite rare.
AMc: And it’s important to you, obviously, because then you can, as you say, forge links with other artists and support one another.
MB: Yes, this is the idea. I wasn’t really happy with the condition of the galleries, where the whole art scene is centred – it was, and is becoming, more and more annoying. So I hope we can do something really alive. I hope we can survive, having this system. It’s wobbly, but, I think, necessary.
• Mahmoud Bakhshi: The Unity of Time and Place will be on show at narrative projects, London, until 11 March 2017.