Fact after revelatory fact spills out of the Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli. The 78-year-old, Tehran-born sculptor, scholar and polymath is ruminating on his life and work during an absorbing Skype chat from his home in Vancouver.
He describes, for instance, how in 1962 he put together a contemporary Iranian art exhibition tour of the US, which opened in Minneapolis.
“People there only thought about Persian miniatures; they had no idea that there were modern artists in Tehran,” he says. Participating artists included Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Nasser Ovissi. “I chose the works, rolled them up and took them to Minneapolis.”
Then, in 1965, Tanavoli rocked the Middle Eastern art scene by including “Innovation in Art” in an exhibition in Tehran. The work, comprising a metal pitcher adorned with rainbow stripes inserted in the centre of a Persian carpet, was made with a Duchampian flourish. “I probably wanted to shock Iranian conservatives because they liked fine art and flowery paintings,” he says. The piece is now in the collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
His inquisitiveness is endearing; he has a predilection for ancient Persian stone lions and tombstones made for kings of the Qajar era (1796-1925) and, crucially, a love of locks, which has informed his sculptural forms since the 1960s. “I have around 1,000 examples, mainly Persian, from pre-Islamic to the 19th century. As a child, I saw these locks hanging on the grilles of the [Shia] shrines,” he said.
Shiva Balaghi, a visiting scholar at Brown University in Rhode Island, has organised a retrospective of Tanavoli’s work, which opens next week at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Balaghi and her co-curator, Lisa Fischman, the director of the Davis Museum, have brought together more than 175 items from the 1950s to today, encompassing prints, paintings, linocuts, jewellery and ceramics. Many works are drawn from Tanavoli’s vast private holdings; some are on loan from public collections such as the British Museum and New York University’s Grey Art Gallery. Sixty years of work will surround a centrepiece garden dedicated to Tanavoli’s “Heech” objects. “Heech”, the Farsi word and symbol for “nothingness”, is the bedrock of Tanavoli’s art. He says of its sensuous, elongated form that “Heech has a body, a shape, but also a meaning behind it”.
Tanavoli made the first manifestation of “Heech” in 1965, when he painted the calligraphic notation on to a mixed-media piece shown at the Borghese Gallery in Tehran. He explains: “I was fed up with artists misusing calligraphy in painting. Other artists were proud of following western art. So I decided to make something of nothing . . . poets, such as [the 13th-century Iranian mystic] Rumi, draw attention to ‘nothing’ centuries before me. There are things and ‘no things’, they balance each other.”
Its many iterations, especially the Heeches confined in cages, are startling, even moving. In 2005, he created a small sculpture in this vein to highlight the conditions of the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay. The show will also include the biggest ever example, the 11ft high “Heech on chair” (2009). Tanavoli is frank, though, about the limitations of this form. “After seven years of making nothing but nothing, I decided to move away from these old friends. Somehow the Heech prevented me from moving on,” he says.
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