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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 16:29 GMT
UK art on rare display in Tehran
By Miranda Eeles
In Tehran

Tony Cragg's art
Tony Cragg's art is on show in Turning Points
One of the most ambitious exhibitions of Western art seen in Iran since the Revolution has opened in Tehran.

Visitors poured in just days after parliamentary elections strengthened the country's conservatives.

The exhibition, Turning Points, traces 20th Century British sculpture from established masters like Henry Moore to Brit-Art exponents like Damien Hirst.

The excited crowd at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art was mostly made up of artists, sculptors and students.


"It's been our dream to have this kind of exhibition here," said one visitor as she circled Richard Deacon's All Sorts, a large pink ceramic piece, which looked like interlocking strawberry flavoured doughnuts.

"I'm incredibly excited about (the show)," Bita Fayazee, an installation artist, said.

Richard Deacon's All Sorts
Richard Deacon's All Sorts
"One reason is I have always heard about them but it is the first time I have seen them in the flesh.

"Young Iranians really admire and relate to contemporary British art. There is already an understanding, even though we live on different sides of the world."

The expressions on some of their faces were sometimes puzzled, sometimes pensive.

"I've never seen anything like it before," said Leila, a student at Tehran University, as she looked at Bill Woodrow's Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head Dress.

"Connecting all these pieces together is incredible."

No nudity

The show includes work from 13 British artists, their pieces carefully selected to conform to Iranian sensibilities - not an easy task when much of contemporary art focuses on the nude body.

"We're not showing raw sex and full-frontal nudity," said Andrea Rose, visual arts director at the British Council.

"We're taking it as far as we can," she added.

It reminds me of a restaurant here, where we eat just the head of the sheep
An elderly Iranian visitor
Some pieces were withdrawn including two that featured a wheelchair and rubber crutches, because they were considered offensive to victims of the Iran-Iraq War.

But surprisingly for some, they allowed Mona Hatoum's Deep Throat - an endoscopic film of a journey through the artist's own body, projected onto a dinner plate.

"This is not art," said an elderly man, as he looked incredulously at the video.

"But I told my friend it reminds me of a restaurant here, where we eat just the head of the sheep, it's a dish with ears and eyes."

Damien Hirst's Resurrection
Damien Hirst's Resurrection
On show for the first time in public is Damien Hirst's Resurrection, a human skeleton suspended in a crucifixion pose.

Bill Woodrow, one the artists invited to Tehran to open the exhibition, said he was amazed at how much Iranians knew about him.

"I wasn't expecting the level of knowledge they have about this work which hasn't actually been here physically," he said. "It's very humbling."

One piece, by Scottish-born Anya Gallacio features 10,000 red roses laid out in the shape of a rectangle on the ground.

The piece took 2 days of back-breaking work to assemble, with the roses being brought from a small town on the Iran-Iraq border.

Moore renovated

The exhibition includes pieces already owned by the museum. Sculptures by the late Henry Moore have been slowly going green in the museum's garden for the last 25 years.

Now, thanks to careful cleaning by Michel Muller, Moore's former assistant, they now stand shiny and proud.

"After the Shah's wife bought them in the 70s, we lost trace of them. It's great to have discovered them again," he said.

"Of course they've been a bit neglected, but not too much. I've tried to out them back to their original look."

Turning Points could not have come at a more sensitive time.

It opens just days after Iran held the most controversial elections since the 1979 Revolution.

Artists determined

Some fear this kind of exchange could be restricted in the future.

Piece by Henry Moore in Tehran
Pieces by Henry Moore were brought to Iran under the Shah
After four years in power, reformists led by President Khatami who favour a more culturally open society have lost control of parliament to the conservatives, who believe that cultural exchange with the West should be limited.

"Whatever happens politically, the art scene in Iran appears to be determined to continue its path," said Ali Reza Sami Azar, the Museum's director.

"I can accept that the conservatives are not in favour of this kind of exchange project, but this doesn't mean they can change overnight the society. The artistic community would not allow a setback," he said.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is seen as a haven for Iranian artists who like to push the boundaries of self expression.

Built in the 1970s under the Shah, it has an impressive collection of Western art including works by Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock and Gilbert and George.

Due to their suggestive nature, all are now in storage, kept away from public gaze for 25 years.

Shakespeare returns to Iran
22 Jan 03  |  Arts
Timeline: UK-Iran relations
03 Sep 03  |  Middle East

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