Alternative Iran
Contemporary Art and Critical Spatial Practice
Pamela Karimi



The Different Senses of the Alternative

FIGURE I.1 Av Theatre Group, Melpomene, directed by Babak Mohri. 2013. Old underground thermal bath, Tehran. Photograph by Jeremy Suyker.

IN FEBRUARY 2015 I came across a photo-essay on “Iran’s Underground Art Scene” circulating on social media. The work of French documentary photographer Jeremy Suyker, its cover image shows an experimental theater group performing in a disused underground thermal bath. I was struck by the spontaneity and expressiveness of the bodies of the performers interacting with their audience (fig. I.1).1

Looking at the people packed tightly into the abandoned subterranean vault, I was also reminded of the lived spaces of my childhood. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, my family took shelter in similar places. Some nights we slept under the main staircase in our house, clinging to the faint hope that the concrete structure would be the last thing to yield to the aftershock of an air strike. We lay jammed into the stair alcove, with the soffit so close it felt claustrophobic.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (hereafter, the Shah), the underground became part of the reality of our lives—and not only in the form of domestic bomb shelters. After school, I would go to a class convened by my art instructor, Ali Faramarzi (b. 1950),2 on the fourth floor of the upscale Vanak Mall in northern Tehran. Tucked away at the end of a long corridor lined with administrative offices and storage spaces, the door of the class bore a small plaque that read “Faramarzi Art Studio.” Over cups of steaming tea and Danish pastries, we would listen to extempore lectures on art history, Faramarzi holding rare and colorful art books in front of his chest to illustrate compositions, ideas, and techniques. I still remember the day in 1987 when he introduced us to Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio, pointing to the ghost-like objects outlined in white lines in a French book. There was something uncanny about Matisse’s use of the same color—an oxide red, or, more precisely, a blood red—for both the floor and the walls of the studio. Saturating the space, this blood red resonated with the war images that we saw on TV and in the propaganda murals and posters plastered all over the walls of our city.

Most of those who lost their university teaching posts because of their “Western” viewpoints or affiliation with the Shah’s regime, which lasted from 1941 to 1979, had little choice but to give lessons in their homes (using public studio spaces as a formal place of education or a source of income was a challenging undertaking). Faramarzi’s painting class, then, was presumably among only a handful that operated in a public space. His sculpture class was another matter, as he would recall years later. Based on their interpretation of Islamic texts, religious scholars had dictated that sculpture was a “forbidden medium,” so “all teaching sessions involving three-dimensional art had to take place in a more secretive location”—in this case, the basement of the mall.3

With the cooperation of the mall security guard, Faramarzi managed to keep the location of his teaching sessions under wraps. But he still had to take precautions. Girls and boys attended on separate days, and the only way to learn about these after-school painting lessons was through word of mouth; classes were not publicized at all. Indeed, private art studios were only fully recognized by the government after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.4 To obtain a license to teach, instructors had to follow specific rules outlined by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Vezarat-e farhang va ershad-e eslami; hereafter, MCIG).5 This was the sociopolitical milieu in which my generation learned about Western art, a topic banned in the government-run educational system.

That late afternoon lesson on Matisse’s Red Studio would be cut short by the earsplitting sound of air-raid sirens signaling the approach of Iraqi fighters. The lights went out and we rushed in a panic to the basement, running down the stairs in complete darkness with the thudding pulse of antiaircraft fire all around us. As we sheltered near Faramarzi’s stash of statues, I told a classmate how sorry I was that the Red Studio story had been interrupted. I was still feeling energized by the painting and wanted to know why Matisse had chosen to make his studio blood red. Appalled at my seeming unawareness of the danger we were in, she whispered, “We’ll be lucky to get out of here alive.”

Matisse’s Red Studio and endless nights sleeping in shelters are not just my memories; they are microcosms of a shared experience that continues to this day. While no conventional wars have been fought on Iranian soil since 1988, the threat of war has remained ever-present. The practice of art follows a similar logic. While efforts have been made to legitimize all kinds of art, many forms continue to be deemed inappropriate; regularly monitored, censored, or even banned by the government, they are often consigned to informal and unofficial spaces. Although Suyker’s photograph is of a sanctioned performance space, it nonetheless fully captures the mood that still prevails in Iran—the juxtapositions of excitement and fear, happiness and disappointment, stealth and openly passionate expression.

My reading of Suyker’s photograph might be interpreted as subjective, but familiar and cultural factors also mobilize this personal experience. To appropriate Roland Barthes’s words in Camera Lucida, Suyker’s photograph works as “a sort of umbilical cord, [which] link[s] the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”6 The viewer relates to the photograph through personal experience, but at the same time the image can become an entry point into a shared cultural memory.7

In the same way, Iran’s nongovernmental art and cultural scenes are not only sites of personal encounters but also part of the collective experience of its citizens, and particularly of the artist community. This book sets out to provide an entry point into this experience without catering to voyeuristic curiosity or emphasizing the allure of what is already perceived as stealthy, illegal activity.

From the Underground to the Alternative

Some writers and journalists, especially if they live outside Iran, refer to postrevolutionary sites of nonconformist and grassroots activities as zirzamini (literally, of the underground). Although the term is often associated with banned, Western-style music performances, it is also applied to other artistic and cultural events.8 Azar Nafisi’s best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), helped bolster the global perception that all sorts of unofficial activities are taking place in Iran’s domestic and concealed spaces. After being forced to leave her post as a university professor, the US-educated Nafisi conducted private classes in her apartment for students who wanted to learn more about world literature. Many of the books they analyzed were banned and could not be taught at the university. With its vivid description of the sharp contrasts between public and private life in Iran, Reading Lolita drew attention to the underground spheres formed by experts who were unable to work in public or operate within the state-controlled educational system.

While there were many such gatherings in Iran in the early years of the Islamic Republic, as well as a strong underground distribution network for foreign films and music, the black-and-white world depicted in Nafisi’s book—where most genuine artistic expression must be performed in secret—could lead the reader to the false conclusion that everything is clear-cut in the daily lives of Iranians. In truth, most unconventional or even forbidden (makrooh) activities occur in more porous environments. Blake Atwood, who has written on the circulation of banned films and music in the 1980s and 1990s, believes that the underground in Iran must be treated more as a third space that brings together public and private pursuits, sometimes forcefully but more often casually.9 In the years before the lifting of the ban in 1994, men specializing in film (filmi) or video (videoie) moved quietly through artist studios, graphic design offices, film circles, and architectural firms, renting out videocassettes of “artsy films” (filmhaye honari).10 These films, by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Andrei Tarkovsky, would in turn influence postrevolutionary Iranian highbrow cinema. The robustness of the underground networks, combined with the relative openness of their operation, suggests the situation was muddier than is generally assumed.11

Art experts living in Iran are fully cognizant of the term zirzamini, or “underground,” but interpret it in varying ways. In the theater, any performance not sanctioned by the MCIG tends to be labeled underground. As I will show in chapter 1, this unauthorized status may be due to a lack of desire to seek permission rather than a failure to secure it. In other words, restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic are not the sole reason for the choice of alternative locations for theatrical performances. Deeply indebted to the teachings of the Polish experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski, many theater experts in Iran choose unconventional locations for their performances, some of which may inadvertently exude an air of covertness or out-of-sightness, even when paperwork from the MCIG is in order.12 Regarding “underground” music, with its potential to be distributed more widely, in both physical and virtual ways, music historian Nahid Siamdoust writes that the distinction between “underground” and “aboveground” is tenuous and depends on circumstances. As such, the concept “continues to mean a number of things. It often refers to music that crosses the boundaries of the publicly permitted as far as content, language, and musical form are concerned; it can also allude to a wide range of musical genres, depending on government restrictions.”13

In the visual arts the definition of “underground” is even more fluid. Artist Rozita Sharafjahan (b. 1962), founding director of the MICG-authorized Azad Art Gallery (also known as Tarrahan-e Azad Gallery) in Tehran, claims the term is rarely used to describe unofficial and private art galleries in Iran. Instead, these private spaces with trusted audiences (carefully chosen from the curator’s close circle of artist friends) are called “showrooms.”14

In Tehran, one of the pioneers in the creation of unregistered, “alternative” art spaces is Fereydoun Ave (b. 1945), a Zoroastrian who went to school in England before studying theater arts in the United States, where he was part of New York’s underground film movement and a longtime assistant and friend of Cy Twombly. From 1984 to 2010 Ave hosted the 13 Vanak Street space and a more private space in a converted Olympic-size pool at his house. But Ave himself did not perceive these spaces as underground showrooms or galleries, and says he found it unsettling when artists used such terms in unofficial invitations to their shows.15 For Ave, a more appropriate way to describe them would be “experimental,” “under the radar,” “noncommercial,” “nongallery,” “nonexhibition,” or “private clubs.”16 This kind of designation recognizes that even if there is an “underground” quality to any initiative outside the direct purview of the government, nothing is absolutely subterranean or covert.

In contemporary Iran, art practices ebb and flow in the interstices between realms of legality and illegality, visibility and nonvisibility, publicness and privacy, presence and absence, transparency and ambiguity. There is no consistent tradition with a fixed technique, or a single “appropriate” means of engaging in artistic practices. Rather, Iranian artists improvise in multiple ways, and even official protocols admit degrees of elasticity. Hamidreza Sheshjavani (b. 1975), a scholar in art economy (eghtesad-e honar), a newly established field in Iran’s higher-education system, has defined four categories of art institution, each of which sponsors the arts in line with its own interests: executive (hokoomati), governmental (dolati), public (omoomi), and private (khosoosi).17 This makes for complicated relations among Iranian art, politics, and economics. Art connected with the upper echelons of government, the executive, is often purely agitprop. Governmental art, by contrast, is not necessarily propaganda, although it is subject to strict rules governing its making and presentation. I experienced this for myself in August 2020, when I was invited to join the jury for an urban art competition for a governmental organization, Tehran Municipality’s Beautification Bureau (Sazman-e ziba sazi-e shahrdari-e Tehran). As conversations progressed on a shared WhatsApp platform—the pandemic ruling out more direct contact—I saw how the independent curators and artists involved in the initiative became increasingly frustrated with the official editing of the language of the mission statement and the call to artists that outline concepts and methods of distributing funds. As this editing came more and more to resemble censorship, the artists and curators withdrew their support and the project collapsed.

While there are a few overlaps with governmental (dolati) initiatives, most of the art projects discussed in this book fit into Sheshjavani’s categories of public (omoomi) and private (khosoosi). However, even within these two categories, there are different shades of public and private. Some artists proceed without authorization, but many others seek permission from Iran’s MCIG, whose guidelines tend to fluctuate as a reflection of the composition of its leadership or the political atmosphere. The minister of culture and Islamic guidance is appointed by the elected president of the Islamic Republic and confirmed by Parliament. Often, the license for an event is issued by the ministry, only to be disregarded by the judiciary, which is under the control of the supreme leader. In addition, most things considered taboo in Iran are not legally proscribed, so within the rubric of the MCIG it is sometimes possible to take advantage of these legal gray areas to bypass the unwritten rules. There have also been paradigm shifts in methods of control and regulation. For example, when in the early 2010s theater became privatized, the ministry adopted a nontraditional method of issuing permissions, involving the nonnegotiable enforcement of regulations by non-MCIG agents (see chapter 1). The MCIG’s August 2021 call for a complete renewal and further “Islamization” of the existing rules, under the watch of the newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi, was another major paradigm shift that shook the artist community to its core.

Whether sanctioned by the authorities or not, whether performed in open or closed locations, the examples showcased in this book reveal what I call a loose covertness across both art spaces and art practices.18 The artists’ occupation of unconventional sites, especially private homes and disused buildings, can be seen in relation to the alternative art scenes of the 1960s and 1970s Europe or America, or the renewed artistic interest in the abandoned buildings of postindustrial cities in North America and Europe. But a parallel—perhaps a more appropriate one—can also be drawn with the unconventional artistic practices of the Occupy Movement. While alternative and even oft-unauthorized, these art scenes are highly visible as vigorous challenges to the status quo within the urban contexts of developed countries. In Iran, however, artists operate in relative disguise, subject to censorship, surveillance, and ideological restrictions. Being visible in public—even for those who comply with the rules—often means being exposed to the relentless control of Iran’s morality police. As such, artists often opt for loosely covert spaces.

Flying under the radar is something artists had to do in the Soviet Union as well, as Victor Tupitsyn relates in The Museological Unconscious (2009).19 The sweeping, and often deadly, purges of the Stalin era were followed by a brief period of liberalization, cut short when the premier, Nikita Khrushchev, visited the thirtieth anniversary exhibition of the Moscow Artists’ Union in 1962 and found, to his dismay, that some artists had felt emboldened to depart from “committed” and social realist themes. After this, the suppression of artists resumed in earnest, and many took their artistic practice to private spaces.20 Tupitsyn describes how kommunalka (communal apartment) became a code word for many exhibitions. This “communal optic” registered the influence on art of characteristically Russian phenomena such as “communal living, communal perception, and communal speech practices.” Tupitsyn analyzes the series of “anti-shows” organized in private apartments between 1982 and 1984 by the Moscow-based group APTART—the name is a play on “apartment art” and the Cyrillic transcription of the English word “art.”21 In doing so, he reveals a perceptual gap between Western and Russian views of what otherwise appears to be similar work. Within the communal space of a large apartment building, Tupitsyn writes, Russian artists created greater autonomy in relation to official institutions than their counterparts in the capitalist West.

If the kommunalka, the most characteristic form of living in the Soviet Union, provides a useful lens through which to view its unofficial art, then the story of Iranian art could also be told through the loose covertness that is one of the most prominent forms of daily life in Iran. In this book, when appropriate, and in line with the preferences of Iranian artists, I have drawn comparative examples mostly from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, out of a desire to initiate a dialogue between Iranian alternative art and other global models.

“Alternative” is the term I use throughout this book to describe Iran’s artistic genres, in preference not only to underground but also to informal, unofficial, countercultural, oppositional, defiant, or activist. Informal (gheyr-e rasmi) is a word often applied to political graffiti, or to the young people who dance in the streets of Tehran to Western music played on portable stereos or iPhones. With its makeshift connotations, “informal” does not reflect the ethos of the work featured in this book, which is created by individuals who see themselves as professional artists rather than occasional political agents or activists. “Unofficial art,” in turn, is a historically specific term in the literature of modern art, commonly referring to the context of the communist systems in which most art activities were funded by the state, and anything outside that system was deemed unofficial.22

The Anglo-Saxon term “counterculture” has fallen out of use since the 1960s, as Western societies have become less homogenous, fragmenting into an increasing number of subgroups, some interconnected and others isolated. However, in Iran—and in many other developing countries with authoritarian systems of governance—there is still a substantial divide between the mainstream and the counterculture. Theories and ideas regarding global countercultural movements remain pertinent to some of the trends addressed in this book, and in particular to the Iranian artists who have departed from the center and moved to remote areas, much like their 1960s American hippie counterparts.23

Oppositional and defiant art are terms that can refer to any prohibited approach, such as photographs with strong feminist connotations, for example, or sexually provocative paintings, or antireligious iconography. Many Iranian artists feel they are unable to display a large portion of their work for this reason. Evoking the equivalent Soviet term, “writing for the desk drawer,” Jinoos Taghizadeh (b. 1971) refers to this body of work as “closet art” (honar-e keshoyi), while Houman Mortazavi (b. 1964) calls these art forms, for example his “untitled” watercolor series, his “under the bed” (zirtakhti) collection, that is, not viewable in public (fig. I.2).24 The practice of concealing them aside, these works belong to the category of object-oriented art, a territory already explored by several esteemed art historians, notably Talinn Grigor, Shiva Balaghi, Fereshteh Daftari, Abbas Daneshvari, and Hamid Keshmirshekan.25 This book has a different focus, addressing the wider spectrum of alternative art scenes, including critical engagements with site.

Activist is a term whose political connotations can overshadow the aesthetic merit of a work.26 Moreover, not all art forms discussed in this book are defined by their opposition to the regime and its ideological apparatus. Some very young and passionate artists just want to experiment with unusual locations and unconventional forms of presentation, regardless of politics. Sometimes, the emphasis is simply on the aesthetic or therapeutic qualities of the art. In other cases, the shortage of official arts spaces means that artists and performers turn in desperation to ad hoc locations, participating in unofficial (and thus seemingly underground) activities not for political reasons but because they have nowhere else to go. While some alternative art forms appear to reject state-sanctioned ideologies and aesthetic sensibilities, others focus more on neoliberal economics, targeting powerful private entities or real estate developers involved in urban renewal plans.

When art is taken into unconventional locations, the parameters that define its essence and medium change. It gains an ephemeral and dematerialized character and, with it, the potential to transcend ideological boundaries and commercial pressures. From its inception, the aforementioned Azad Art Gallery has described itself as an alternative “space (faza) to create cutting-edge art.” By sponsoring experimental art (honar-e tajrobi), it distances itself from the “narrow-minded nouveaux riches who always expect some conventional codes in Iranian art.”27 Similarly, in selecting the artists who presented at 13 Vanak, Fereydoun Ave favored those who were unable to show their art in official and registered spaces, either because of the subject matter or because the art was not the kind of commodity that could easily be sold in the regular art market.28 Ave wanted to nurture and financially support conceptual artists, and especially those who were working outside the commercial system.29

The Ethos of Iran’s Alternative Art

In this book, experimental music and theater are addressed insofar as their encounters with alternative sites are of significance. Architecture is explored when the design process is symptomatic of a search for the creation of alternative spaces for art and everyday life. Although focused only on the work of a selected group of renowned architects, my aim here is not merely to celebrate them but to follow what Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye calls “a line of inquiry,” and a way of thinking about initiating a dialogue between the public and the private through design.30

Most of the other art forms that I discuss in this book belong to the art-historical category of post-studio practices, which encompasses socially engaged art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, and community-based art and involves physical and intellectual engagement with a variety of agents on the ground.31 As such, the art under study here is “dematerialized,” a phenomenon rooted in 1960s countercultural practices, such as Happenings, that dissolved the boundaries between the production and consumption of art. In the mid-1960s, many alternative initiatives emerged in major cities like New York.32 The broader, social dimensions of art were also theorized by philosophers, artists, and critics, among them Umberto Eco, Jean-Luc Nancy, Guy Debord, Joseph Beuys, and Paulo Freire. Art historian Lucy Lippard famously crystallizes this new way of looking at art—of rejecting the market system and engaging instead with spaces and things beyond the limited institutionalized spaces of art—in her Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, 1966–1972.33

While such a freeform approach to art and community life may seem to fit more easily into progressive Western societies, it is also plausible in the global South. In fact, Iran has a long tradition of communal and interactive art that reaches back to premodern times. Oriented toward experience rather than objects, many of these artistic expressions materialized in the form of religious ceremonies during the lunar month of Muharram, notably the ta’ziyeh passion plays that narrate the tragic and heroic martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in the battle of Karbala in Iraq in Muharram of 680 CE.34 Ta’ziyeh means “consolation,” implying the blessing that performers are believed to obtain by dramatizing the events that led to the persecution of the Prophet’s family. While symbolizing the spirit of resistance against tyranny, the ritual drama is also shaped by the active participation of ordinary people. Nonprofessional actors are invited to contribute as both performers and spectators, and the way the story unfolds is spontaneous and at times improvised. Hamid Dabashi writes that in ta’ziyeh, “[t]he stage is not really a stage, not because [those] who stage the ta’ziyeh are poor and cannot afford a proper amphitheater, but because the stage must be an extension of . . . ordinary realities. . . . Non-actors can frequent the stage easily, while the actors fall in and out of character without any prior notice.”35 Nor was participation in artistic expression limited to religious art and rituals. Naqqali (storytelling), Shahnameh-khani (reading of verses of the Shahnameh), roohowzi (layman entertainment performances), and motrebi (light music played on streets and at social events) were interactive and time-based entertainment art forms that, in their delivery, resonated with religious passion plays.36 This collective approach even extended to the high-ranking professional (miniature) painters of the royal courts: while one mastered the portrayal of the human body, another would be an expert in depicting foliage or animals, and so on. In fact, until the modern period and increased interactions with Europe, it was rare to think of art as a solitary pursuit.

Just how Iranians kept these traditions alive is not so clear. Today, many performance artists and theater experts strongly oppose any connections with the ta’ziyeh while acknowledging the influence of experimental theater directors Peter Brook and Grotowski, who both traveled to Iran and performed there in the late 1960s and 1970s, during the Shiraz Arts Festival, launched by the Empress Farah and held annually from 1967 to 1977.37 Ironically, both of those iconic directors were captivated by the dramatic possibilities of ta’ziyeh performances that were brought into the spotlight at the fourth festival, which revolved around the theme of the “ritual.” As Brook explained:

I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theater: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing—although they knew perfectly well the end of the story—as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theater form became truth.38

Brook would distill his experience into an experimental theater piece, Orghast, performed at the 1971 Shiraz Arts Festival, which was written entirely in a language invented by his collaborator, the poet Ted Hughes. As a contemporary review in the New York Times notes, the use of words that had no meaning—only rhythm, texture, tone—forced “the spectator to listen to the work as they would listen to music, and to watch the action as if it were a religious experience.”39 Grotowski, who visited Iran four times and closely followed the Shiite rituals, also used elements from the ta’ziyeh tradition to bond performers and audiences.40 Theater historian Daniel Gerould has written of how Grotowski’s actors became “celebrant[s] for the community of spectators, inciting them to take part in the rituals.”41

Often Iranian performances, some featured in this book, draw on what the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht calls Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect or simply alienation), the theatrical device that intentionally distances audiences from the fictive narrative and instead engages them in real activities. With the exception of a few, Iranian performers tend to deny the connection between the Brechtian distancing effect and the ta’ziyeh.42 But several scholars, including Hamid Dabashi, have compared the dramatic value of distancing in conveying the strong moral principles associated with the ta’ziyeh, where performers do not “play roles” per se, but try to impersonate the protagonists and the antagonists.43

This cross-fertilization—from Shiite performances, to European avantgarde theater, and back again in contemporary performances in Iran—provides an insight into the complex spectrum of influences on Iranian art. Ta’ziyeh props and their methods of assembly—and in particular, the temporary structures hastily assembled for the annual rituals of the month of Muharram—have also proved to be a source of inspiration. As will be shown in chapter 4, the same “rushed” building style (hey’ati; literally, of a delegation—referring to a delegation of devout men who quickly construct large-scale, temporary religious paraphernalia), which has become a defining feature of agitprops in Iran is also used by artists to make sarcastic commentaries on urban propaganda.

In the last two decades of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iranian visual arts were increasingly dominated by ideas of personal expression and distinct authorship, both of which were indexed to financial value. However, there were still some instances of interactivity. Dematerialized and time-based art forms were introduced to Iranian art scenes during the Shiraz Arts Festival through artists such as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Wilson. In 1966 the architect and artist Kamran Diba (b. 1937), Empress Farah’s cousin, collaborated with the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) and calligrapher Faramarz Pilaram (1937–1982) on Clever Waterman (Ab-baz-e zebar dast), a Dadaist-inspired multimedia installation (or what Diba himself refers to as poochgaraie or nihilism) involving water faucets and large-scale adaptations of a silhouetted diver whose body was animated by calligraphic inscriptions on the subject of water. The whole spectacle was set against the soundtrack of a Dadaist poem about water.44 Invited guests at the opening of the show included, surprisingly, the staff of Tehran’s Department of Water.45 In 1976, Diba had some women in designer shoes stand on a mock winners’ podium while Ahmad Aali (b. 1935) photographed them under the watchful eyes of audiences at the exclusive Zand Gallery.46 That same year, as part of his activism during the Lebanese Civil War, Koorosh Shishegaran (b. 1944) appropriated Eastern European interactive mail art with a work titled honar-e posti.47 In the decade-long run of the Shiraz Arts Festival, performance art (honar-e ejra’ie) or theater-like art (honar-e te’atre gooneh) gained a firm foothold in Iran.

After the revolution, compared to theater, music, and the Islamic “harmonious movement” performances (harakat-e mowzoon) that substituted for dance, visual art found it harder to engage with the community, despite the historical traditions of interactivity.48 Throughout the 1980s, mural painting was probably the only visual art form that engaged a broader public—and even then, this engagement was one-sided, with passersby being mere spectators. Dematerialization and participation in art were more commonly found in private art scenes.

Regarding how unconventional forms of art became widespread as early as the 1980s, classical guitar performer and composer Saba Khozoie (b. 1966) further describes how hard it was to systematically learn conventional arts such as Western classical music. “Even during broadcast orchestra on TV, the cameras refused to focus on the musicians and the instruments they were playing. If the TV broadcasted a performance, they would do so by pairing the music with images of flowers, rather than focus on the performers themselves,” Khozoie recalled.49 These restrictions made it difficult for Iran’s classical musicians to be innovative and progressive. But at the same time, such restrictions paved the way for alternative and subversive forms of music—fusion styles and rock and rap.

In the 1990s, a few exhibitions in rundown and ready-to-renovate homes revived forms of conceptual art (honar-e mafhoomi), performance art (honar-e ejra’ie), and ephemeral art (honar-e mira). While they were on display, these shows caught the attention of both casual visitors and high-profile art circles, but for various reasons—a lack of sponsorship, a shortage of film and photographic documentation, a dearth of press coverage—for a long time they failed to make their way into art history books.

In the early 2000s, under the reformist president Muhammad Khatami (in office 1997–2005), the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) and its progressive director, Alireza Sami-Azar (b. 1961), broke new ground with a series of cutting-edge exhibitions on conceptual art (honar-e mafhoomi) and new media art (honar-e neo media), in which artworks engaged the space of the museum. More exhibitions of site-oriented art (honar-e makan mehvar) and participatory art (honar-e mosharekati) followed in their wake.50 By involving their own bodies and the bodies of their audiences, and by interacting with the built environment, Iranian alternative artists pushed the boundaries of conceptual art to make it more dematerialized and experience-based. In Iranian art circles, “dialogic” (ta’amol garayi) and “engaging” (dargiri) are the terms most commonly used to describe this participatory approach. For some Tehran-based art historians, interactive art (honar-e ta’amoli) can be defined as that which “allows a shared experience between the artist and the viewer . . . in unexpected (gheir-e ghabel-e pishbini) and open (goshoodeh) ways.”51

Engaged Audiences and Affective Sites

Rather than being mere onlookers, audiences are frequently co-producers or participants in these alternative art forms. But the nature of the audience varies among the categories of experimental music or theater, performance art, and installation. The majority of those who can afford to apply for permits, purchase art materials, and produce nonconventional art that does not generate any income are from middle-and upper-class urban centers. The backgrounds of these artists are mirrored in the audience for their work, a small portion of the educated urban elite.

Theater, by contrast, attracts a much broader cross-section of society, especially in its traditional religious and vernacular forms.52 My main focus in this book will be on the experimental style, increasingly embraced by directors and actors since the officially sanctioned privatization of theater in 2009. Although some experimental theater takes place in private, it is also staged in authorized private companies and public places, particularly in residual urban zones, to reach a wider audience. Graffiti art is likewise intended for a broad, public audience. The fact that it is officially condemned as “vandalism” also means it carries more political weight than other art forms. While the graffiti artists chosen for this study are highly skilled, the nature of their art obliges them to keep their distance from any form of elite art circle or institutionalized art.53 Being political, sometimes they will present their work in private, in front of a small audience drawn exclusively from like-minded friends. Often, graffiti artists operate under tag names and pseudonyms and deliberately avoid proper documentation of their works. As they rarely respond to queries about their work or invitations to participate from academic circles, I was very fortunate to be able to interview some of them.

Many of the projects in this book contain an element of subversiveness. A few artists dare to be explicit in their message, even if descriptions and reviews of the artworks tend to be couched in rather nebulous terms. One such artist is Amir Mobed (b. 1974), who engages with gallery spaces in openly provocative ways. In 2011, he staged a famous “Opening” at a group show in Tehran’s Siin Gallery in which he “censored” the artworks of his co-exhibitors. To get into the gallery, people had first to get past the artist, who was posted at the entrance, dressed as a militant security guard, complete with a bank robber’s balaclava. Once inside, they found an installation of framed artworks, some of which depicted mundane and apolitical images—of flowers and butterflies, for example. Against a loud soundtrack of Qur’an recitations, Mobed then burst into the room and proceeded to censor the works by stapling sheets of black cloth onto the outer edges of the frames (fig. I.3). When audiences and other participating artists tried to stop him, he roughly pushed them aside, wielding the large stapler even more forcefully, so it began to sound like gunfire. Calculated to agitate and shock, the performance invited a reaction from its audiences. While fully aware of Mobed’s intended message, some in attendance rushed to rip off the black cloth when the “censor” moved to other rooms. A few art critics celebrated the interventionist aspect of Mobed’s performance, but this kind of blunt political message is rarely welcomed in Iran, even sometimes among those who strongly object to censorship.54 Writing in 2013, Tehran-based art historian Helia Darabi (b. 1974) cast doubt on the directness (rokgooyi) and one-sidedness (takgooyi) of Mobed’s method of delivery in this performance, although she appreciated the fact that he drew attention to the pervasive systems of violence to which Iranians have become inured.55

FIGURE I.3 Amir Mobed, Opening, performance featuring the artist as a “censor.” 2011. Siin Gallery, Tehran. Photograph by Zarvan Rouhbakhshan. Courtesy of Amir Mobed.

Most subversive art projects that critically engage with space are subtler in tone than Mobed’s “Opening.” The political artwork may be out there, in plain sight, but its intentions will remain obscure. Artists often disguise their role, leading spectators to see the performance as an unstaged event. In this sense, many art performances resonate with what the Brazilian dramatist and political activist Augusto Boal called “Invisible Theater”—a form of performance whose seeming “ordinariness” enabled it to escape the attentions of the police during the repressive dictatorships in Brazil and Argentina. Often, political references are oblique. In her exhibition Open Wiring (Sim-keshi-e roo kar; an archaic, exposed wiring system equivalent to knob-and-tube wiring in the United States), which took place from November to December of 2015 at Tehran’s O Gallery, artist Jinoos Taghizadeh featured, among others, the iconic nine-minute shot of the homesick Russian poet carrying a candle across a pool, from Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Taghizadeh recalled, “The struggle to keep the flame lit while poised between wind and water is a metaphor for our life in Iran. In one long, uninterrupted shot, it effortlessly captures the story of our struggles in coping with the simplest, futile (bifaydeh) even, tasks of everyday life.”56 Taghizadeh’s remarks also evoke Tarkovsky’s yearning for capturing the meaning of his own life under the Soviet regime and, hence, allude to the extent to which former Soviet and Eastern Bloc art speaks to a certain generation of Iranian artists.

Many artists in Iran who speak or write about politics in art do so in an abstract (enteza’ie) manner. For instance, when, in 2012, MesoCity Tehran Workshop: Art, Ecology & the City invited a team of architects and artists to reflect on the future of Tehran’s qanat, an extensive derelict underground water network, some took the opportunity to explore the dark side of state-sanctioned rapid developments in the capital. Since the early 1990s these developments have extended the capital northward over the slopes of the Alborz Mountains, underneath which are the mother wells, the deepest and widest shafts located closest to the aquifer where the qanat originates. The wastewater of the northern inhabitants of Tehran goes straight into these channels and then directly into the historic downtown, where the soil is porous enough for water to penetrate the surface.57 Thus, the qanat no longer functions as an irrigation system for natural groundwater but instead as a wastewater network, with destructive consequences.58 A statement by participating artist Amir Hossein Bayani (b. 1977) reads: “The [simplest] view of the qanat narrates life and movement in the underground. . . . [W]ater, the liquid of life is constantly flowing in the underground, and all this happens away from the eyes of citizens on the surface. Thus, the truth is not necessarily what lies in front of us.”59 Bayani’s statement about hidden water sources obliquely references the ways in which “truth” is handled in Iran. This tacit sardonic language is also evident in testimony about the art of Shahab Fotouhi (b. 1980), consisting of blue-colored dots on highways and bridges to mark the location of the qanat ducts. Regarding Fotouhi’s demarcations, the organizer of the workshop, Paris-based architect Sara Kamalvand, writes, “Fotouhi insisted on the static atmosphere of the contemporary condition. By being constantly projected in the future, by living in a superficial world where everything has become as flat as an image, his blue spots on the ground create an unexpected event pushing the viewer in the present.”60 Because of the government’s systematic neglect of ecological issues, which has escalated since the 2010s, recent engagement with environmental issues has taken on a political tone, if only tacitly. If the dissident tone in this approach readily resonates with many people, there are other ways of engagement with the environment whose politics is more layered and complex. As I show in chapter 2, sometimes engaging with natural places becomes a means to create opportunities for freedom of artistic expression rather than further the environmental discourse.

The subtle, multilayered engagement with politics is also evident from the local literature; for example, in the summer 2016 issue of the prominent Tehran-based journal Herfeh honarmand (The Career of the Artist), in which Iranian artists, critics, and art historians elaborate on the many ways art and politics are enmeshed. The articles cover a broad range of art forms that fall into the category of political art (honar-e siyasi), among them revolutionary art (honar-e enghelabi), ideological art (honar-e ideologic), formal art (honar-e rasmi), governmental art (honar-e dolati), social art (honar-e ejtema’yi), oppositional art (honar-e moghavemati), activist art (honar-e konesh gara), and protest art (honar-e e’terazi).61 While most of the articles focus on the political themes and ideas depicted in object-based art (painting and sculpture), some contributors address the spatial aspects of art and politics—the same themes that inform my engagement with the political dimensions of alternative art in this book. For example, artist and art critic Samila Amir-Ebrahimi (b. 1950) refrains from addressing underground art culture in the Islamic Republic, but she does write on how social art (honar-e ejtema’yi) went underground (zirzamin) during the Pahlavi regime.62 In another important contribution, based on a roundtable discussion organized by Herfeh honarmand’s editor-in-chief, Iman Afsarian (b. 1974), the prominent conceptual artist Barbad Golshiri (b. 1982) sets out to dispel the myth of the isolated artist (honarmand-e monzavi) promoted by formalist artists of previous generations, insisting on the value of engagement in public spaces and in society.63 Here, too, Golshiri prefers a low-key approach. To paraphrase him: a political artist is not necessarily one who directly encounters some kind of interference from the authorities or is given a nudge (sikh bokhoreh) by the (morality) police—there are more subtle ways of being political.64 On this issue, I align myself with Golshiri. Most of the art presented in this book was not made with express political aims, which is not to say that art which consciously engages with politics is not of interest to Iranian artists and their audiences, or to me in this study. More precisely, I want to shift the emphasis: rather than looking at objects and spaces through their semantic associations, I want to consider the practices of flow and circulation that propel art and the ways in which art provokes certain feelings and emotions. Rather than seeking the literal meaning of the art under study, I intend to look at how it becomes less readable and more feelable when it enters a certain sphere.65

Feelings triumph over logic in major decision-making processes in Iran. In a recent conversation with Ali Alizadeh, a London-based Iranian political analyst and media specialist, the Tehran-based journalist Habib Rahimpour Azghadi talked about how the Islamic Republic has tended, from the very outset, to justify its ideology through emotional (hayejani) rather than logical (haghghani) assertions.66 Azghadi concluded that this approach has penetrated all forms of debate in Iran; all discussions, regardless of their political stripe, continue to be guided by emotional responses. The regime’s propaganda continues to whip up “fleeting feelings” (ehsasat-e lahzehyi) among the masses.67 “Emotional control” is the name anthropologist William Reddy gives to this form of political discourse—a means of exercising power over citizens. As he notes, “Emotions are of the highest political significance. Any enduring political regime must establish, as an essential element, a normative order for emotions.”68

Correspondingly, through circulation and exchange, certain collective emotions gain in value and become more commonplace in society, and this phenomenon in turn influences the political directions of alternative art.69 My study of such impulsive and emotional actions is aligned with cultural critic Sara Ahmed’s assertion that “rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective.”70 Above all, rather than focusing on “feeling” as something that circulates only among living bodies, alternative art forms also attend to architectural spaces and the sites around them—spaces that can accumulate and circulate this affective currency.

Under the rubric of makeshift spaces (fazahay-e jaygozin), art historian Helia Darabi bases her definition of alternative art on the unconventional places in which it arises, highlighting site-specific art (honar-e makan vijeh) and site-oriented art (honar-e makan mehvar) as well as a number of informal sites, including both architecturally significant and informal places such as vacant homes and marginal urban spots.71 Like Darabi, I believe these kinds of sites not only are alternative in and of themselves but also have an agency that paves the way for alternative (jaygozin) art forms. Moreover, the greater the interdependence between art and the space around it, the more the parameters we use to define conventional art institutions are called into question, opening up new possibilities for thinking about the relationship between art and architecture.72

What difference does it make for Iranian art to be critically engaged with space and site? Compare Mortazavi’s exposé of the vagina from his zirtakhti collection, described earlier in this text, to Pooya Aryanpour’s handling of the same subject matter in an actual public exhibition space. Aryanpour (b. 1971) is known for his provocative mirror work (ayeneh kari) sculptures, which often capture what he calls the display of profane images (namayesh-e sovar-e ghabiheh). Other artists before him, most notably Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (1922–2019), have used mirror works in their sculptures. For Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, the ayeneh kari spaces act like a “living theater,” and because of this visual effect she enthusiastically reproduced their images in her work.73

Starting in the Safavid period, ayeneh kari became associated with the inner sanctum of Shiite shrines (imamzadeh). Upon entering, one encounters a dazzling array of small, geometrical mirrors set in the walls and ceiling that presumably allow the believer to “transcend all particularities and realize the Self within all selves, to become not this person or that person but personhood as such, which also means becoming the perfect mirror of the Divine.”74 While ayeneh kari is found in palatial architecture as well, the use of mirror work in shrines is significantly different. There it takes the form of shattered pieces, so fractured that one’s reflection is skewed, an urgency drawn from the teachings of the highest-ranking Shiite clerics, including Ayatollah Khomeini himself, that proscribe praying in front of portraits, including one’s own image.75

With this backdrop in mind, Aryanpour proceeded to deconstruct the whole concept. In Beautiful Virgin (2015), he “reinvented ayeneh kari to contradict and subvert the original sacred associations by substituting the sacred with the earthly.”76 Rather than resisting the inherent function of ayeneh kari, he followed its logic, or what he calls “constant concealment” (penhankari-e modavem), providing “possibilities for distorting what is considered taboo.”77

Aryanpour presented this work at the invitation of architect Faryar Javaherian (b. 1951), who organized the group exhibition Picnic, Iranian Style (Pik nik-e Irani) at the Golestan Palace Museum from September to November 2017.78 Golestan Palace has several ayeneh kari rooms, including the throne room, which was chosen by Aryanpour for his gigantic ayeneh kari vagina-like piece. At the opening of the exhibition, the members of the palace museum staff and other officials did not notice the sly fusing of the sacred and the earthy, and they all admired the art and even took photos with it. Not long after, however, someone spotted the visual reference, and palace staff rushed to place a shroud over the vagina. This addition prompted curiosity, leading visitors to remove the shroud to see the hidden part. Unable to relocate the piece because of its size and weight, officials then placed a divider in front of it to prevent further contact. In the exhibition’s catalog, they darkened the center of the vagina, and on the website the piece was shown only partially. Thus was the fate of the artwork: from a sacred-seeming object to a profane one, and also an interactive art or performance piece, one that provoked various acts of censorship, self-censorship, and curiosity (figs I.4a/b).

FIGURE I.4A Pooya Aryanpour, Beautiful Virgin. 2015. Tehran. Photograph by Sahar Safarian Baranlou. Courtesy of Pooya Aryanpour.

The ferment around Aryanpour’s art exemplifies the very means by which Iranian artists, censors, and viewers negotiate, redefine, or reconstruct new readings and offer participating viewpoints. Aryanpour’s personal ways of thinking about the sacred and the profane did not constitute, as one staff member of the MCIG insisted, protest art (honar-e e’terazi); rather, his art invited various agents and actors to interact with it and change its appearance and meaning as they saw fit. When approached for consent regarding usage of the shroud or the screen or the defacing of images of his work in subsequent publications, Aryanpour responded: “I couldn’t care less; do as you wish and don’t feel obliged to contact me again for every step of this process.”79 In this way, the artist allowed the art to take on an after-life of its own. This complex and interwoven narrative of art and architecture shows the extent to which such pieces are more complicated than portable and frameable art intended for gallery and museum display or for sale at auctions. The tangled tale of Aryanpour’s project, both expected and unexpected, sets the tone for many of the art projects that I present in this book.


1. Jeremy Suyker, “Iran’s Underground Art Scene,” Maptia, 2015, stories/iran-s-underground-art-scene (accessed February 10, 2015).

2. The Iranian artist community is diverse and spans a variety of age groups with different experiences of Iran’s modern art scenes since the 1960s. For this reason, important art and cultural experts who have primarily lived and worked inside Iran appear with their birth dates. Providing these dates will allow readers to have a better sense of what generation the featured experts belong to and how they might have been influenced by the sociopolitical events and art movements that unfolded during their respective life spans. I have avoided such designations in cases where the expert is based outside Iran and is internationally known. Lastly, in these notes and the following bibliography for publications from Iran I have used both the Persian solar and the Gregorian calendars.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. I have adopted a modified version of the transliteration system of Encyclopedia Iranica for Persian words, without diacritics except for (‘yn) and (hamzeh). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations and transliterations are mine. To introduce the significance of the varied connotations of technical terms in the fields of art, architecture, (urban) design, and visual culture, I have provided transliterated Persian equivalents of titles of art projects and art publications as well as key English-language art historical concepts. I have highlighted the latter to help shed light on the efforts of Iranian artists, architects, and art historians in translating or (re)inventing technical terms in their respective fields. Doing so, I hope to open up possibilities for a deeper appreciation and culturally specific comprehension of the arts of Iran, while also diminishing the dominance of the Western canon.

6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 81.

7. In these terms, Suyker’s photograph is what the cultural historian Marianne Hirsch describes as “a point of intersection between past and present, memory and post-memory, personal remembrance and cultural recall.” See Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 61–63.

8. Spaces of entertainment and consumption of forbidden alchoholic beverages are also highlighted in mainstream media as underground cafes and speakeasies. In this book I only address spaces of art and cultural activities. For an example of reports on Iran’s speakeasies, see Gandom Khatib, “Tehran’s Underground Speakeasies,” Daily Beast, July 15, 2014, (accessed July 10, 2018).

9. Blake Atwood in conversation with Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “Blake Atwood on the Secret Life of Video Cassettes in Iran,” Ajam Media Collective, November 29, 2017, (accessed April 2, 2019).

10. Personal interview with California-based artist Pantea Karimi, July 12, 2020.

11. Atwood, “Blake Atwood on the Secret Life.”

12. In this assertation I am indebted to my conversations with many Tehran-based theater experts, particularly Warsaw-based Grotowski historian Masoud Najafi Ardabili.

13. Nahid Siamdoust, Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 224.

14. Personal interview with Rozita Sharafjahan, January 10, 2019.

15. Personal interview with Homayoun Sirizi, April 7, 2021.

16. Fereydoun Ave in conversation with AB Gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland, “Fereydoun Ave at AB Gallery,” 2010, (accessed March 2, 2021). I am grateful to architect Reza Daneshmir for bringing this recording to my attention.

17. Hamidreza Sheshjavani, “Honar dar zamaneh hokmrani-e pool” [Art in the age of the rule of money], Giyumeh, January 21, 2019, (accessed May 10, 2020).

18. In choosing the term loose covertness, I draw from a collection of essays, titled Loose Space, in which the contributors provide a variety of case studies from around the world where ordinary people appropriate sidewalks and plazas or vacant buildings to protest or celebrate and to experiment with alternative modes of living and meet their individual needs and desires. See Karen A. Franck and Quentin Stevens, eds., Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life (New York: Routledge, 2006).

19. Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 33–121.

20. Volker Diehl, Maria Popova, Matt Watkins, and Nina Mial, eds., Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s (London: Haunch of Venison in collaboration with Galerie Volker Diehl, 2010), 14–17. Also see artist Vitaly Komar and Sasha Obukhova in conversation at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, which restores the archives of alternative and underground art in Russia, available at (accessed May 10, 2017).

21. David Morris, “Introduction: Anti-Shows,” in Anti Shows: APTART 1982–84, ed. Margarita Tupitsyn and Victor Tupitsyn (London: Koeing Books for After-all, 2017), 8–21.

22. See also David Morris, “Anti-Shows,” in e-flux 81 (April 2017).

23. On these topics see, for example, Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); Julie Ault, ed., Alternative Art, New York, 1965–1985 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Christopher Dunn, Contracultura: Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

24. Personal interviews with Jinoos Taghizadeh, July 3, 2020, and Houman Mortazavi, June 27, 2020.

25. See Talinn Grigor, Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio (London: Reaktion, 2014); Hamid Keshmirshekan, Contemporary Iranian Art: New Perspectives (Los Angeles: Saqi Press, 2014); Abbas Daneshvari, Amazingly Original: Contemporary Iranian Art at Crossroads (Los Angeles: Mazda, 2014); Shiva Balaghi, “Against the Market: The Art of Shirin Neshat,” Ibraaz: Contemporary Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East (2016), (accessed July 10, 2018); Fereshteh Daftari, Persia Reframed: Iranian Visions of Modern and Contemporary Art (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019). It is noteworthy that there are also important, albeit less disseminated and recognized, discussions about the relationship between art and art sites, including in articles published and talks given by Darabi (mostly in Persian). The relationship between art and urban cultures is also partially explored in Seyed Hossein Iradj Moeini, Mehran Arefian, Bahador Kashani, and Golnar Abbasi, Urban Culture in Tehran: Urban Processes in Unofficial Cultural Spaces, Urban Book Series (Cham, Switz.: Springer International, 2018); Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh, eds., Cultural Revolution in Iran: Contemporary Popular Culture in the Islamic Republic (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

26. While I do not rely on this term in this book, I am influenced by the literature that exists on activist art forms and I am indebted to the scholars who have discussed them in their respective works. For example, Nina Felshin, Nato Thompson, Grant Kester, and Gregory Sholette, among others.

27. Interview with Sharafjahan. Also see the conversation between Rozita Sharafjahan and Saba Mousavi, “Nasl-e roozhay-e sakht boodeem va zendeh man-deem” [We were the generation of difficult days and we survived], in Mo’asseseh farhangi, matboo’ati-e Iran: Iran Newspaper, n.d., (accessed May 10, 2019; site discontinued).

28. Interview with Sharafjahan.

29. Ave, “Fereydoun Ave at AB Gallery.”

30. David Adjaye, “Building Critical Space,” in What Is Critical Spatial Practice?, ed. Nikolaus Hirsch and Markus Miessen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 9–10.

31. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012), 1.

32. Examples of such alternative spaces are documented by Julie Ault in Alternative Art, New York, 17–76.

33. Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, 1966–1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973). Also see Mark Rosenthal, Sean Rainbird, and Claudia Schmuckli, eds., Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Continuum Press, 1993).

34. Personal interview with Ashkan Zahraie, July 20, 2019.

35. Hamid Dabashi, Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press in conjunction with Harvard University Press, 2011), 220.

36. These performances are seen as entertainment and often looked down on. Street musicians are sometimes regarded as beggars. See Gay. J. Breyley, “Between the Cracks: Street Music in Iran,” Journal of Musicological Research 35, no. 2 (2016): 72–81.

37. See also Masoud Najafi Ardabili, Grotowski in Iran (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019). For the history of the Shiraz Arts Festival, see Mahasti Afshar, Shiraz Festival of Arts: Shiraz, Persepolis, updated and illustrated version of a paper originally commissioned by the Asia Society for “The Shiraz Arts Festival: A Global Vision Revisited” symposium (New York, Asia Society: 2013), %20of%20Arts%2C%20Shiraz-Persepolis%201967-77.pdf; Robert Gluck, “The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran,” Leonardo 40, no. 1 (2007): 20–28.

38. Daniel Gerould, “Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre and Parenthetical Activities as Cosmic Drama,” World Literature Today 54, no. 3 (Summer 1980): 382.

39. Margaret Croyden, “Peter Brook Learns to Speak Orghast,” New York Times, October 3, 1971.

40. Grotowski was available for four consecutive days on the set of one of Naser Taghvai’s (b. 1941) documentary films, Arbaeen, about the Shiite rituals in 1971.

41. Gerould, “Jerzy Grotowski’s Theatre.”

42. For example, one member of the Tantalos Theater (2005–9) was Mehdi Nassiri (b. 1980), formerly a traditional ta’ziyeh performer. He encouraged the rest of the group to include elements from these ritualistic passion plays in their otherwise nonreligious plays. See Najafi Ardabili, Grotowski in Iran, 126.

43. Dabashi, Shi’ism, 86–87. Hashim Mohd Nasir and Farideh Alizadeh, “A Comparative Study: The Principles of the Distancing Effect in Brechtian Theater and Ta’ziyeh,” Cogent: Arts and Humanities 7, no. 1 (2020), (accessed July 10, 2020); Peter Chelkowski, “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran,” in Ta’ziyeh Ritual and Drama in Iran, ed. Peter Chelkowski (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

44. Diba’s interest in the Neo-Dadaists was also noted by Karim Emami. See Houra Yavari, ed., Karim Emami on Modern Iranian Culture, Literature, and Art (New York: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 211. Cited in Staci Gem Scheiwiller, “Disrupting Bodies, Negotiating Spaces: Performance Art in Tehran,” in Performing Iran: Cultural Identity and Theatrical Performance, ed. Babak Rahimi (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021), 113–27, at 113. I am grateful to Scheiwiller for generously offering an earlier draft of this article. The Dada influence was also confirmed by Diba himself in a personal interview in July 2020.

45. Personal interview with Kamran Diba, July 20, 2020.

46. Hannah Crawforth, “About Kamran Diba,” in Kamran Diba: Good News, Bad News, No News, ed. Negar Diba (Dubai: Gallery Etemad, 2012): 8–11; photographs of the art appear on page 11.

47. Hamid Keshmirshekan, ed., Koorosh Shishegaran: The Art of Altruism (Los Angeles: Saqi Books, 2017). On Eastern European mail art, see Kornelia Röder, “Ray Johnson and the Mail Art Scene in Eastern Europe,” in Mythmaking Eastern Europe: Art in Response, 2014, 3, ed. Mateusz Kapustka, (accessed May 10, 2020); Geza Perneczky, “In the Underground between East and West,” in Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary, ed. Cristina Cuevas-Wolf and Isotta Poggi (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2018), 95–109.

48. For more information on the accepted form of dance after the revolution, or harekat-e mowzoon, see Ida Meftahi, Gender and Dance in Iran: Biopolitics on Stage (London: Routledge, 2017), chap. 7: “Harekat-e Mozun: The Post-Revolutionary Theatrical Dance.” According to Meftahi, the genre also was referred to as “structured movements” (harekat-e formi), “expressive movements” (harekat-e bayani), and “ritual movements” (harekat-e a’yini).

49. Personal interview with Saba Khozoie, June 17, 2019.

50. For examples of artworks and exhibitions, see Helia Darabi, “Fazahay-e Jaygozin” [Makeshift spaces], Hamshahri’s Alef Magazine 89, special issue, Art and Books (Bahman and Esfand [January and February], 1390 [2012]), 112–17.

51. Saba Sebti, Zahra Rahbar Niya, and Mehdi Khabbazi Kenari, “Mafaheem-e Merleau-Ponty: Bastari baray-e tahleel-e honar-e ta’amoli” [Merleau-Ponty’s views: A context for understanding interactive art], Kimia-ye honar 5, no. 19 (1395 [2016]): 43–52.

52. Personal interview with Nazila Noebashari, June 17, 2020.

53. This divide is often mentioned in artist debates about the overlap of art and politics in Iran. For example, in a roundtable discussion about art and politics, artist Barbad Golshiri reminds his artist audiences of the need to pay homage to the significance of the political effects of graffiti art in Iran. See Iman Afsarian, “Nesbat-e mas’aleh dar-e honar va syasat dar honar siyasi-e Iran” [The problem of the relationship between art and politics in Iranian political art], Herfeh honarmand 60 (Summer 2016): 64–77, at 71.

54. Farshid Rahimi, “Goshayeshi bar honar-e modakheleh gar” [An introduction to interventionist art], (accessed May 12, 2020).

55. Helia Darabi, “Rokgooyi behtarin rah nist” [Directness is not the best solution], Aseman Magazine 93 (1390 [2011]), n.p.

56. Interview with Taghizadeh.

57. Sara Kamalvand, “MesoCity Tehran Workshop, Art, Ecology & the City,” Tavoos Art Magazine, 2020, /Articles/ArticleDetailEn.aspx?src=163&Page=1 (accessed July 11, 2020); emphasis mine. Also see Daniela Terrile, “Tehran’s Ecological Corridors,” Domus, February 14, 2010, 2010/02/14/tehran-s-ecological-corridors.html (accessed May 10, 2018).

58. Terrile, “Tehran’s Ecological.”

59. Kamalvand, “MesoCity”; emphasis mine.

60. Ibid.

61. These categories are also mentioned in Mohammad Reza Moridi, Honar-e ejtema’yi: Maghalati dar jame’eh shenasi-e honar mo’aser-e Iran [Social art: Essays on the sociology of contemporary art in Iran] (Tehran: Aban Press in conjunction with Art University, 1397 [2018]), 78–83.

62. Samila Amir-Ebrahimi, “Ma ba haman: Seyri dar honar-e siyasi ejtema’yi-e Iran-e mo’aser” [Us and the Same: A look at the sociopolitical art of Iran], Herfeh honarmand 60 (Summer 2016): 2–26, at 10.

63. Afsarian, “Nesbat-e mas’aleh,” 73.

64. Ibid., 72.

65. In this I am inspired by the work of Lucy Lippard on artist David Wojnarowicz. See Lippard, “Out of the Safety Zone,” Art in America 78 (1990): 130–39. Also see Jennifer Doyle, Hold It against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 8.

66. Ali Alizadeh (@Ali-Alizadeh), “Ali Alizadeh in Conversation with Habib Rahimpour Azghadi,” Instagram, Thursday, April 22, 2020, available on YouTube at watch?v=sdcwH7HgngQ (accessed April 24, 2021). Azghadi has an insider’s perspective. Before being dismissed for his open approach to sensitive issues, he was the director of Zavieh, a program on the Islamic Republic’s official Channel 4.

67. Amir-Ebrahimi, “Ma ba haman,” 12.

68. William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 335.

69. Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 79/22, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 117–39.

70. Ibid., 119.

71. Darabi, “Fazahay-e jaygozin.”

72. On the possibilities of rethinking these spatial relations, see Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006). It is noteworthy that in contrast to proponents of informal art, she also honors the activities of professionally trained artists who create unconventional forms of art such as interactive and temporary installations or ephemeral performances. On informal art practices in Iran, see Pouria Jahanshad, “Honar-e gheyr-e rasmi va gheyr-e rasmi sazi-e honar” [Informal art and making art informal], in Bazkhani-e shahr: Hokmrani-e shahr [Rethinking the city: Urban governance] (Tehran: Ruzbahan Press, 2022), n.p. I thank Jahanshad for sending me the article in advance of its publication.

73. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Karen Marta, eds., Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Cosmic Geometry (Bologna, Italy: Damiani; Dubai, UAE: Third Line, 2011), 19.

74. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 24. Cited in Sophia Rose Shafi, “Glass Palaces: The Role of Aineh-Kari in Shi’a Pilgrimage,” Shia Studies no. 2 (July–September 2011): 6–9.

75. Ibid.

76. Personal interview with Pooya Aryanpour, June 28, 2020.

77. Ibid.

78. For more information about this exhibition, see (accessed June 28, 2020).

79. Interview with Aryanpour.