FARHAD MOSHIRI with Life is Beautiful (2009), at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris, 2009. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris.

Less Than Zero

Farhad Moshiri

Iran USA

The Lonely Planet guide to Iran, a posh travel guide for backpackers, issues a warning at the top of its web page for the country: “The political situation in Iran remains and caution is advised.” However, during an afternoon interview with ArtAsiaPacific in Paris last November, the artist Farhad Moshiri insisted, “The pace and pressure is different in Tehran. Things happen. It’s the best kept secret in the art world.” But Moshiri, born in Shiraz and educated in Los Angeles, should not be mistaken for a cultural ambassador for his native Iran. 

After nearly a decade in the United States, first in high school and later at Cal Arts, Moshiri returned to Tehran in 1991. Iran had just condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a major cause of the Gulf War (1990–91), and as Moshiri quickly points out, “Iran was generating good publicity for itself.” In 1997, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami was elected president and he ushered in a short period of relative liberalization, tolerance and economic reform. Nevertheless, some restrictions remained. “I wanted to return to Tehran to make films,” Moshiri explains, “but each time I submitted my proposals for short films to the government-run Farabi Cinema Foundation for approval, I was politely rejected.” His films included no violence, sexuality or other shock tactics, which Moshiri decries as “Western tools to provoke a reaction, not Iranian tools.” He wanted his films to depict whatever he saw on the streets, but Farabi wanted specific details of the subject matter. Moshiri then submitted a film script, but each time Farabi proposed changes. “After five re-writes it’s no longer your idea, but rather theirs,” Moshiri says, though he also admits he found Farabi’s willingness to listen to his ideas very invigorating.

While creating his experimental shorts, Moshiri made ends meet by restoring antique furniture. He spent a month working on a chair and two months on a crib to achieve the patina his wealthy clients demanded. He had an “aha” moment when he understood that while collectors would pay almost anything for a painting, the moral police were less passionate about pictures than moving images on celluloid. 

Despite his declaration at Cal Arts—where he was exposed to electronic music and video—that he would never return to painting, it was his canvases that launched his career as a kind of poster boy for contemporary art in Tehran. Just a few years later, one of his paintings brought in more than one million US dollars at auction. As he tells AAP, “When you’re vulnerable, you tend to return to what is familiar.” 

Moshiri unveiled a popular series of paintings of antique ceramics—bowls, urns and jars—utilizing his skill at creating cracked, distressed surfaces as a way of evoking ancient Persian history. However, Moshiri also superimposed Farsi calligraphy directly on top of the image of the classical vessel: innocuous sayings such as “The Past Is the Past” or “Whenever You See A Lover, Think of Me.” For Moshiri, the use of calligraphy references the pop calligraphy movement of the 1960s, which flourished under Empress Farah Pahlavi. And like most artists working in challenging environments such as Singapore, China and Pakistan, where censorship laws are strictly enforced, one learns to be cynically nimble. He reflects, “Irony allows you to be playful without being too militant about your opinions.”

Soon Moshiri’s paintings of pottery evolved into more saccharine subjects drawn from quotidian life in Iran. He identified orthographical bloopers in advertising and brands, such as the laundry detergent Barf, which in Farsi means “snow” (and in English, vomit), and kitschy real-estate developments reflecting the nouveau-riche taste for random East-meets-West pastiche, which he captured in his “Post-Islamic Revolution Buildings of Tehran” photography series. These signifiers of progress and his country’s embrace of unabashed materialism in the 1990s became a major source of ideas.

During this time the established Iranian artists were revered for their abstract and calligraphic paintings, but Moshiri and his younger peers became associated with the found-object movement. And like many artists today, Moshiri also began working with local artisans, emulating Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, and creating fantastically tacky works that mimicked more pedestrian tastes. For instance, A Beautiful Chandelier (2004), a grand shimmering embroidery of a light fixture, floats like a spaceship in the center of a black velvet background, declaring itself an object of desire. Collectors and curators have also developed a taste for his paintings that appear to be concocted out of cake icing with a pastry chef’s decorating tools, resembling popular baked goods sold in Tehran as well as in American suburbs. 

In Mobile Talker (2007), included in the recent Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, where Moshiri did the actual “frosting” of this cake-like painting, a young woman is depicted talking on her mobile phone, which floats just above a still life of a heart-shaped wedding cake, prettified in shades of pastel orange, peach and pink. Mobile Talker captures Iran’s obsession with Western culture, a constant theme for Moshiri and one he focused on in a group show of Iranian contemporary art that he curated for Kashya Hildebrand in New York in 2005, entitled “Welcome.” In his curatorial notes he wrote, “Well-intended errors can be seen everywhere: billboards, restaurant menus, street signs and product packages . . . Despite all these mistakes, we feel a certain familiarity towards things American . . . This incredible willingness exists within and contrary to a governing Islamic system that has theoretically battled the so-called ‘Cultural Invasion’ of the West, for the last 25 years.”

Whether it is an all-black canvas covered with thousands of sparkling Swarovski crystal diamonds that spell out Eshgh, “love” in Farsi, or a wall installation of found knives arranged in cursive script to read “Life is Beautiful,” beneath these banal clichés Moshiri’s work reflects a sardonic desire to preserve ancient traditions on the one hand, while also yearning for something new. More often than not, this longing is for a bright shining fantasy that stands for everything that society attempts to suppress.