I had no idea that I would be driven (pardon the pun) to review a film so early into the new year. More so by a foreign documentary, focusing more on the subtitles to stay up to speed. However when it came to Taxi Tehran (2015) watched at a time when protests in Iran have gone on for nearly a week now after promises of reform have not gone away in the memories of the voters who brought Supreme leader Khamenei, who will do anything to suppress the public from having a voice. It was the voice of a single director in 2010 was given a 6 year jail sentence and a 20 year film-making ban that includes distribution, promotion even a travel ban unless of religious grounds. In the eyes of the West this was against all that it means to be a filmmaker, the agency to express oneself creatively, in the case of Jafar Panahi cinematically. He has since made a few films under the ban that have been made in very unorthodox yet still very creative, first releasing This is Not a Film (2011) on a memory stick to Cannes before making, an extended home video of him under house arrest, at times jumpy and confusing, Panahi is owning the camera on this film set and prison. Before moving onto Closed Curtain (2013) a brief return to conventional film.
That same year Taxi Tehran was released, filmed from a number of camera positioned in a taxi he drove around. Documenting the passengers and the lives that they bring with them to the car. The aim to help expose the suppression of Iranian film censorship tries to cover up the realities of life in the country. I could give an overview of the film but I feel that would not really do it justice at all. Even at its short length we seem to spend at lot of time some passengers. We’re thrown in the deep in with two very different passengers, a man and a woman from different parts of society, the man very vocal on capital punishment for most offences whilst the teachers in the back is willing to listen to the criminal in order to understand them, looking at the root causes. Coming from a profession that nurtures and listens before passing judgement. Whilst the man, who we learn is a mugger – or so he says, sees that as fair and just to kill thieves. These two passengers set up the clear differences that are in Iran, opening out eyes to those living in the country, who aren’t representative of the oppressive government.
With the arrival of a smaller passenger, a DVD bootlegger who in the West we wouldn’t think about encouraging his crimes of piracy. However Panahi has another take on it all. The bootlegger doesn’t take before he blows the drivers cover, talking opening about his “business” to the director who does nothing to stop him. What he sees and we learn is that the bootlegger is bringing in culture, films that are otherwise banned, ideas and images that would have to be censored if they came in through official channels. For a while the two “work” together to help the distribution of Western culture reach the masses. Interrupted by the wife who hopes that her injured husband doesn’t die. In tears he records his last will and testament to ensure his wife gets everything, not left homeless. For a few moments I wonder if the gentlemen has died in that backseat, has he ensured his wife security. I have to reminded myself none of this is scripted, only the end credits come close to that.
Things lighten up with in the form of two elderly ladies and a bowl of goldfish. They must reach their destination of a spring before noon, they lives literally depend on the fish making it to the water. They are delightful to listen to as they bicker and worry over a superstition. Even in Iran you can find dotty old ladies, showing wherever you are in the world, somethings are universal. They soon leave us to spend time with the drivers niece, a very precocious young lady who knows her own mind and is not afraid to tell everyone. She wants to talk to her uncle, who she clearly admires, yet doesn’t understand his situation. Her class has been given a month to make a movie. I thought he was going to give the same advice he gave to the bootleggers film student customer – not much except to find his own material. Instead we have this wonderful perception of what film is, the film censorship that she clearly doesn’t understand (blames it on her teacher). Wanting not to end up like her uncle her direction with the camera is more inline with government policy, without understand it’s origins or meanings. We learn how contradictory they are, ties for bad men, not depicting reality, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, depicting a fantasy that escapes everyday life, instead of responding to it. Now I know why Panahi was banned.
He takes time out to talk to a man whom he grew up with, who hopes will be able to assist him. It’s disturbing how close people are in this part of Iran. It’s not so easy to send people you know to a possible death sentence. It reminded me of how quick justice can be dealt with as we saw in A Separation (2011) that sees a man almost wrongly convicted of murder, when all the facts are stacked against him. All he wants to do is look out for his family. His next passenger is a flower-lady, a soon to be disbarred lawyer, whose as open-minded as our driver, they share each others pain. Both know what is going on the country, they are more than aware of what goes on behind closed doors. I wish we could’ve spend more time with her. Instead picking with the niece whose eyes are slowly opening to the complexities of life in her country.
We see that even in the space of just over an hour, life in Iran is rich and diverse. Filled with laughter, joy, great pain and sorrow, as it is in any other part of the world. Panahi is shining a light on that world that his country would otherwise not like us to see. It’s an eye-opener, yet at times not surprising. After seeing Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy a few years ago I was left speechless at times. Himself fighting the suppression of his own government that wont allow him to speak. Both artists are fighting their own wars on the different fronts. Maybe the protests might one day lead to the directors ban being overturned. He’s clearly loved by all that know him as he once against risks it all for his passion and believe in breaking with censorship that only inhibits him to make films. It’s a refreshing film that doesn’t shy away for a minute from the truth, something his government shy’s away from.
I feel this exhibition needs more than a single post, it’s so vast even for a few pieces that got my attention. As I moved through I could see his humor coming through, rather dark as it turns out. I was drawn to a piece in the corner of the room, where loads of porcelain crabs had been piled up. I was reminded of the images of concentration camps such as Auschwitz which have museums that act as an important reminder to the massive loss of life. Thinking of the piles of shoes, bags etc that are behind walls of glass. OK not half as many as the concentration camp but the effect was just the same, a reminder of the food that was eaten at an opening and closing ceremony of his studio whilst he was under house-arrest. Seen as the remains of the last creative and wanted destructive act by Ai. At the time River Crab in Chinese (Hi Xie) meaning “harmonious” was a word used by the government as propaganda. A massive middle finger, something we see quite a few times in the show.
Moving onto the next room I was confronted by a single piece that consumed the space, looking much like the trees in the Academies courtyard. Fragments (2005) was like a constructed forest which you could get lost in. Again a lot of craftsmanship and carpentry has gone into this piece which you are in awe of.
The next room I was surround by pieces made from Marble – Marble Stroller (2014) beautifully constructed pieces. I had never seen the soft rock used in such a way. Usually a material for more classical sculpture which you’d rarely associate with modern art, reinvigorated here in the brutal forms we have here. Depictions of security cameras which were originally fixed inside his studio when he was under house-arrest. He has also created a world out of the rock which is both harsh and delicate, a balance that is hard to achieve in the context of the objects he has made,
And finally the piece S.A.C.R.E.D (2012) in the final room that blew me away, 6 identical scale models of the prison cell he was in for 80 days during 2011 (from April 3 2011). Ordered to never talk of his time there, he hasn’t really broken that so much as issued drawings and sketches to be made in order to recreate 6 moments during that very testing time that would have otherwise broken anyone else. You can see from the images he was not left alone for a second. If he wasn’t being questioned he was being watched as he slept, went to the bathroom and even shower, he had no freedom. I wish I took a photograph of the room, these 6 metal boxes which view finders on two sides, one along the wall, another in the ceiling. He has invited us the go in with cameras to take photo’s. He’s letting the work do the talking. The idea that an image can say a thousand words is being taken literally as we can make up our own, share these images of our own. I have captured the moments as best I could below.
If before I wasn’t aware of the power of his work I well and truly have woken up to what he is saying and want encourage you to view this very powerful work that rounded off a days gallery gorging in the capital.
Its not like me to take loads of photographs at an exhibition, unless I’m documenting my own work. I find the practice rather sad really, even today before I returned home, in the national Gallery, phones were being used to capture the smallest details of great classic paintings. I feel this takes something away from the work, it loses its power to have an impact on you when you are in it’s presence. Memory and first hand-experience of the work – the Aura is very important. If you can see it in the flesh you have strong reaction to the work then just a snap-shot of if which doesn’t really do it justice.
However with Ai Weiwei an exception was made. (I always ask permission of the gallery before taking anything) Knowing that this was something special. I was encouraged to take photographs if anything, at the artists request for the work to go viral, spreading his message on social media. A tool he has used as part of his practice rigorously to his advantage. I’m going to share a few highlights with you and my thoughts of the show, even after having a few beers I was soon sobered by the power of the work.
The first one we have a selection of pieces including Grapes (2010) and which uses a number of stools which are fused together with craftsmanship to create this geometric shape. Ai is celebrating his countries heritage for the pieces it has produced, the material at their disposal and making something new here. There were others in the space which really got you looking at the workmanship which is flawless.
The next room was like nothing else I had seen that day. I knew he had previously investigated the aftermath of an earthquake on 12th May 2008 that destroyed 20 schools. A tragedy that was practically ignored by the government. They did attend but no thorough investigation was carried out. This compelled Ai to carry out his own, which has been documented, which could be watched on a screen. I was more drawn to the physical work. First a carpet of steel rods that had been laid out carefully on the ground. On the walls eitherside a canvas list of the dead children, some not even given completed dates as they could just not be found. I had entered an investigation that was to prove the countries own negligence. Looking at the various widths of the rod that had been straightened out by hand, you could see the evidence was not in the governments favor, it was appalling and devestating to see such evidence. It took a while to leave this space.
In the next room was drawn to a model of the his old studio which was once funded by the government before it was later demolished. This acts not just as an architectural model but also a memento and artifact of his recent past. Made from wood, delicately crafted from what appears to be a single block.