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"Modernism and Post-Modernism" conference in Teheran at the Museum of Contemporary Art the result of President Khatami's influence

The Art Newspaper speaks to the museum's director Sami Azar about how a more progressive government brought about Iran's increasing acceptance of Western ideas

When President George W. Bush condemned Iran as being on an “axis of evil with Iraq and North Korea” it is unlikely he knew that Iran’s President, Mohammed Khatami is profoundly interested in aesthetics and in the role art and culture can play in opening up his country to the rest of the world.

This philosophical inclination showed itself repeatedly at an unprecedented conference held in Teheran at the end of April on “Modernism and Post-Modernism”, organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Teheran.

“But are your artists trying to find the truth”, one keen young philosopher asked all us speakers from the West. He did not understand when we smiled nostalgically, perhaps a little condescendingly.

On the face of it, it was a surprising event. The Teheran English-language paper quoted one pundit as saying,, “We haven’t reached Modernism yet, so why are we worrying about Post-Modernism”. Worried or not, we speakers were the attraction of the moment, with up to 500 eager, highly educated students and faculty crammed into the lecture theatre to hear us talk about feminist art in the US, Land Art (my contribution, at their request), video art, globalisation and art and the end of art. I asked the director of the museum Sami Azar, what lay behind this, to me, apparently revolutionary encounter between West and East.

He attributed it directly to the example set by President Khatami, himself a former minister of culture: “Artists and artistic activities have been given great encouragement since Khatami came to power in 1997. We are being advised to be active in the cultural scene, to end Iran’s political isolation. The doors were closed for two decades after the Revolution [1979], but now we are opening up and we are facing a generation that longs to know more about recent art movements.”

It soon became clear that Modernism is viewed in Iran with distrust, as a kind of monolithic, almost imperialist movement, sometimes synonymous with a degenerate modernity, while Post-Modernism is seen as issue-based and more capable of reflecting local identity and values. Conceptual art is being deliberately espoused, with the first exhibition of Iranian Conceptual art held at the museum last year.

Did none of this work cock a snook at the mullahs, I asked, and did this not get you into trouble? Dr Azar says that he was surprised to find that even the hard liners did not complain at the “many politically explosive” works. Maybe they have learned that they cannot close the door any more, he says. Certainly, demographics are not on the side of the elders: 70% of Iranians are now under 30, a statistic which may well be encouraging President Khatami to allow the occasional safety valve.

And signs of an evolution in the monolithic rule of the mullahs are everywhere. The politically well connected chancellor of the women’s Al Zahra University, Dr Rahnavard, told us that she supported Islamic feminism, and quoted the Prophet to back her case. More women than men go to university, she said. Many women have just been elected to power in local elections; we aim for modernity within our tradition, like the Japanese, she said.

Back at the museum, Dr Azar is planning to get Iran’s most famous artist in exile, Sherin Neshat, to show there. Shortly he will be putting out a display of American Pop art from the astonishing collections in store (all bought at the end of the Shah’s reign in the 70s by the Shahbanou’s brother).

The museum is already back on the exhibition circuit, having lent to recent Warhol, Gauguin, and Calder shows, and to the Surrealism exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. This is glasnost, Iranian style. It is worth putting up with the irritating head scarf to see it in action.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iran’s glasnost'