In the fall of 2004, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art broke all attendance records with Iran’s grandest art exhibition since the 1979 Revolution. It was called “Gardens of Iran: Ancient Wisdom, New Vision,” and its theme was the history and enduring significance of the ancient Persian garden, a seminal cultural and aesthetic form reaching back thousands of years. This broad survey included an historical study in images and texts, but the bulk of the show was given over to contemporary multi-media interpretations of the garden from over 30 internationally known artists and designers working in various disciplines, including painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, video, conceptual art, music, and film.
Such a show would seem a likely candidate for a tour, and tour it will in a new 50-minute documentary by Bahman Kiarostami called “Persian Garden.” First stop – on an itinerary crowded with galleries as much as film festivals – is San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Tonight’s premiere screening unfolds as something of an art happening itself, featuring as it does live musical accompaniment by Nanos Operetta, the vibrant San Francisco-based new music ensemble that scored the film.
The idea for a cinematic record of the Tehran exhibition actually originated with the Museum of Contemporary Art, according to the film’s producer and Kiarostami’s longtime collaborator Marjaneh Moghimi, of Menlo Park-based non-profit Butimar Productions(“Persian Garden” was co-produced by the Iran Heritage Foundation). Recently in Tiburon for the festival screening of their 2003 doc “Infidels” (on Iran’s nomadic gypsies), she told me the museum was anxious for the show to reach the widest international audience, and approached her and Kiarostami (whose other films include the documentary “Kamencheh,” screened at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival) as deft chroniclers of both the mainstream and fringes of Iranian culture. They may have been deservedly impatient too, given the show’s extremely long gestation period. Originally planned almost three decades ago, the upheaval of 1978-79 set its opening back a good 25 years.
“Persian Garden” suggests it was worth the wait though, chronicling the Tehran exhibition with a behind-the-scenes look at roughly half its 30 or so interpretative pieces, works by renown figures like Bita Fayyazi, Farshid Mesghali, Parviz Tanavoli, Dariush Mehrjui, Shirin Neshat, and the director’s own filmmaker father, Abbas Kiarostami. Along the way we hear from the artists themselves, while glimpsing the execution and installation of specific pieces. Artfully composed, intimate, and beguiling, “Persian Garden’s” visual and aural tour takes the viewer where no docent dares tread, whether scaling the heights of Mesghali’s colorful mobile (a Persian Miniature in three-dimensions called “Shirin and Farhad”); or peering over Fayyazi’s practiced brush, distributing a forest of black strokes over the all-enveloping yellow surfaces of her exquisite, dream-like installation, “Yellow, Yellow Silence of Nargess.”
Kiarostami’s camera stays fascinated and sure throughout, gently entering the mood of each work-an aspect of the film heightened wonderfully by Nanos’ eclectic, atmospheric score, which adds its own layer of interpretation in passages tailored to each work. The six-member ensemble’s inherently cinematic penchant for found-object chiaroscuro and hairpin transitions, stylistic collage, and the blending of Eastern and Western instruments produces just the right moody melange here, ranging from expressionist glee to minimalist rapture.
If the music augments the breadth and diversity before the camera, that abundance ultimately sprouts from the rich terrain of the Persian garden itself. As the show’s curator, Farvar Javaherian, suggests, the exhibition’s far-flung approach squares with the abiding nature of its subject. As both ideal and cornerstone of the built environment, the garden presents an archetype of harmony and beauty arguably influencing, and in turn influenced by, everything from poetry to city planning. Javaherian refers to “this Persian model of paradise” as the “spark” behind all subsequent traditions of art and design, and the sheer range of interpretations on display seem to confirm it. As a space for both earthly and metaphysical reflection, the garden inspires works of delicate serenity, paeans to beauty, playful and radical nonconformity, and brooding existential contemplation.
In different ways, the pieces by the two famous Iranian filmmakers featured here each draw attention to a central theme: the alternately stark and subtle line between modern urban life and the larger nonhuman world. Mehrjui’s filmic garden, “F.M.R.,” comes framed, via a slowly vaulting crane shot, amid the concrete sprawl of Tehran’s megalopolis. Abbas Kiarostami’s gorgeous “Garden of Leaflessness,” meanwhile, moving in a subtler direction, offers a trompe l’oeil indoor forest created from three-dimensional, life-sized photographic images of real trees. “This time we have the fake copy inside the museum and the original outside,” remarks the artist slyly, describing the surprise and fascination his installation gives the museum’s visitors. “It seems that we can connect more to the fake ones,” he muses. “[They’re] more like us.”
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