Rock, Paper, Scissors and a hard place

rock paper scissors

Jinoos Taghizadeh wanted to come up with a distinctive and thought-provoking work to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. But rather than celebrating the event, the Iranian artist chose to illustrate the yawning gap between hopes and reality.

Taking contemporary Persian-language newspaper accounts of the overthrow of the shah and the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini, Taghizadeh embedded images from western works of art – the nightmare world of Hieronymous Bosch, Pieter Breugel‘s timeless Flemish peasants, the French revolutionary-era painter Jacques-Louis David. And on every frame she superimposed outstretched hands: open palms, fists clenched or fingers splayed wide – playing a deadly game of chance.

Rock, Paper, Scissors, exhibited at the chic Aaran gallery in Tehran, conveys the terrifying randomness of what can happen to individuals caught up in events. “I am destined to choose the paper at the risk of being cut by the scissors, the rock that I am determined to wrap if only the scissors allow,” the artist explained.

So when, for example, the Kayhan newspaper reported shortly after the revolution that the Iranian press, censored under the shah, was to be free under the new regime, Taghizadeh decided to juxtapose the newsprint with David’s famous picture of the murdered Marat – a martyred journalist and hero of France’s revolutionary upheaval.

David’s The Oath of the Horatii – emphasising undying loyalty to the state – appears under a banner headline announcing the establishment of the Islamic republic. Classical death masks interspersed with modern photographs adorn the top of another Kayan front page dominated by accounts of the torture and killing of political prisoners by the shah’s Savak secret police.

Taghizadeh’s techniques work on different levels: they suggest an ironic counter-narrative to official discourse; private reponses to public events; the chasm between what is promised and what actually happens; and the true meaning behind the politically correct euphemisms in which Khomeini’s revolution, like others before it, excelled.

Her use of the hologram, nodding and winking from beneath the surface of the prints, means that the images change depending on where the viewer is standing, the quality of the light, and so on – suggesting subtly different ways of seeing.

Rock, Paper, Scissors provides a tantalising glimpse of life beyond slogans. “Iran is not a black and white society,” said Aaran’s owner, Nazila Noebashari. “This country is not just an Islamic republic. Despite the official line there is another life, there is a vibrant art scene, people still manage to convey a message despite self-censorship and state censorship. Probably, if we were totally free to say everything we wanted to say, this wouldn’t have to be such a complex work.”

To accompany her newspaper pages, Taghizadeh produced a short video of a baby being rocked in an old-fashioned wooden cradle, but the words of the lullaby, sweetly sung, are those of a strident Islamic revolutionary anthem: the effect is a poignant evocation of lost innocence.

“I just want to whisper a quiet hurray and give her a medal for courage,” said one anonymous Iranian reviewer.

It is striking that these powerful images got past Iran’s censors. After all, works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Warhol and others – purchased by the shah’s wife Farah – are kept under lock and key at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, victims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s isolation from the wider world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Noebashari and Taghizadeh are reluctant to speculate in public about how they manage to stay out of trouble. But they did decide that several of the works in the series could not be safely exhibited. Even so, the booming Tehran art market promises close attention.

“This exhibition stands to remind us of the aspirations of a nation,” said Noebashari. “This is all about what we were promised: a democratic country, freedom of the press, inclusion not exclusion. Censorship was supposed to end. But 30 years later we still have to self-censor. This revolution was supposed to give us all this. None of it happened. We were not supposed to have political prisoners and now look at us.”

So do they fear the authorities may close down Aaran, like another Tehran gallery ordered shut a few months ago because its “vulgar” photographs went too far for the ministry of Islamic guidance? “Its paper, rock, scissors,” says Taghizadeh wryly. “It’s a game of chance.”

*this article appeared in the Guardian