Art and Corona in Tehran
Interview with Hormoz Hematian, Dastan's Basement, 26 April 2020 at Dastan+2 in Tehran
Firouzeh Saghafi, University of Geneva
In the Iranian artistic community, the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic, as elsewhere in the world, has caused the closure of artistic and cultural institutions, such as galleries, foundations and museums. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), one of the most important art institutions in the country, however, had already been closed for more than a year due to renovation, and remains closed until today, cancelling all major events in time of the pandemic. The closure of all cultural venues (across the country) has nonetheless resulted in an overload of data on social networks, the most important of which is Instagram. Cultural spaces and institutions, the majority of which are in the capital, have each pursued different paths to invite the public to keep in touch with artistic events. In the case of Zamineh1, a platform for Iranian contemporary art and content which offers a seasonal magazine, it started to produce a series of videos under the name Sare Forssat (In its time), inviting young artists to discuss their daily life and work routine in their houses or studios, thus inviting the audience to the private spaces of the creators. The Pejman Foundation, also called Argo Factory, which was opened just a few months before the pandemic, saw its doors closed shortly after the outbreak. It created an alternative virtual space by setting up a mobile platform under the name of The Room, inviting artists to upload their video creations on The Room’s website. Other spaces such as Azad Art Gallery have expressed their solidarity by launching book sales and inviting publishing houses to participate, helping artists who have seen their sales decrease or in some cases gone nonexistent. The gallery Dastan’s Basement, which as of today has been widely present in the global art market, and whose artists are increasingly active in the international art scene, juggled between the virtual domain and reality in order to be able to continue its activities and keep creations and art production as their main purpose. In addition to the virtual exhibitions that will remain on the gallery’s website, and the possibility to purchase artworks online, the gallery also organizes private tours, transforming the installations in the gallery space according to the taste of each visitor or, in some specific cases, collectors and buyers. I conducted an interview with the director of Datsan’s Basement, Hormoz Hematian, to get his view on the art situation in the country in times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Firouzeh Saghafi: Can you talk to us about the virtual exhibition “A Season of Work” by Fereydoun Ave, the choices and also the process of making an online exhibition in your gallery?
Hormoz Hematian: In general, in Iran and elsewhere, necessity brings out innovation. And we are always asking ourselves what can a young gallery like Dastan do. So how did we bring the exhibition of Fereydoun Ave online? Actually, we have always been doing this — preparing a digital version of our exhibitions — but not always for our exhibitions in Tehran, only for the ones in which the installations were a bit more complicated, or when our timing was very limited, and mainly for the art fairs abroad. Therefore, we would always make a 3D model of the exhibition before putting up the real show, to make sure that nothing will go wrong. We have been doing this for the art fairs for four years now. But we would never go this far, to put human figures in the renderings and make them walk through the exhibition. Our very first virtual show was for Art Dubai 2020. We have always been doing this, but since the real show was happening, we did not feel the need to put up an online show as well. Also, in cases when having a virtual show is not necessary and you still tell an artist “I want to put everything online”; it becomes questionable for the artist. They might not be open to it and it is understandable. There is no reason for us to put up the whole thing online. But under such circumstances when no one can come in to see the show, the artist’s response is usually more positive. This is what happened in Fereydoun Ave’s virtual exhibition. We discussed this with him and explained that this was what we have been doing for the art fairs, and asked him if he wanted to have his exhibition online so that people would be able to see it, and he agreed. Fereydoun Ave has actually been a source of inspiration. You can see this in his own activities as well, from 13 Vanak Street2 to the swimming pool he used as a showroom in his house in Tehran. So, the technology has been there but what we did with this show was that we tried to improve the quality, so that you can have a better understanding of the material, the scale of the works… etc. It was not a strange thing to do, it was a path that we had started before. Another interesting fact about Fereydoun Ave’s online exhibition was the 3D-printed sculptures: we had their scan already and we could integrate them easily within the [virtual] space. A positive aspect of having an online exhibition is that people who usually don’t have the time to come and see the exhibition can use their devices and see the works at their comfort. You get the chance to make things easy for them. At the same time, you can always get a better quality, and improve these virtual tours to achieve a higher quality.
FS: The Armory Show was also happening when the pandemic started in Iran and not yet in the US and you couldn’t travel for the art fair. How did you manage to send the artworks and organize the exhibition without having your team and yourself there?
HH: We had planned our Armory Show3 presentation before. We knew exactly how it was going to look like. The renderings that we had submitted for the application turned out exactly the same in the final installation. Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s works have representational elements in them, and we knew exactly where everything was going to be and how it was going to look like. We did everything in advance, when shipping artworks was still possible, we were a bit ahead of the time. One of our colleagues travelled some days earlier, when it was still possible. I could not be there because I was flying at the last minute. Luckily, we have some associates in New York after going there for five consecutive years. Basically, we have a kind of a set up there now. Corona did hurt us in some ways in the selling process, as it surely affected everybody else as well. But what New York is experiencing is not comparable to what we are experiencing here in Iran. New York is panic-stricken. But here in Iran our economy is isolated, and because of this, it is never very well or very bad. When the economy is exploding worldwide, we are not doing so well, and in time of global crisis, we are not affected that much. Our economy does not follow the same lead.
HH: Teer Art is going to have an online platform, hopefully, and we are pushing it to September. I think it will be viewed by many people. We had many visitors for our current online exhibition, we hope it will be the same for Teer Art.
HH: Aartmaart has always been around, but we decided to make it part of Aassttinn6, and it functions better, they actually sell. This is how I got into the art world. When I was a student in Canada and I wanted to have an art piece from an Iranian artist, I could not find anything where I lived. Either I could not afford an original work or I did not have access to it, no prints and posters or limited-edition works were available either. And think about the diaspora, how many Iranian students are out of the country? It would be amazing to put artworks at their disposal. Especially if you get into partnership with different parties so you can actually print it on site. At the beginning, it was not easy to convince the artists to put their works on the website for sale. But now that there is actually no alternative, they are more open to it. And the more artists do that, the more will follow.
FS: You said the platform sells. Has there been any sale in the current exhibition “A Season of Work”?
HH: Yes, an artwork by Fereydoun Ave has been sold. We used to sell prints more than anything else before, but nowadays we also sell original works. This is an achievement for us.
FS: A lot of people compare this situation with war. We also know that the least we can say is that it is a crisis. What is or what should be the role of art in this situation? And we are talking specifically about Iran.
HH: I would rather not comment on the role of art in this type of crisis. I am just trying to do my part. Galleries are not a new invention; we are service providers for the artists and the collectors. Right now, even more so than before, we have to make sure that we are doing our job well. I have to make sure to be on the artists’ side, be sure of keeping the staff, and this is my part in this crisis. I am not in the position to talk about the role of art and I am not going to comment on that. From where I stand, I just try to stick to what I should do. What I know is that people nowadays have more time, so we get to reach them better and we can have a more personal relationship with them through technology. If they actually want to spend their time in the gallery, we put up works for them in our exhibition spaces. As for the artists, they didn’t have much time to come to the gallery and discuss some issues related to their work. It is so enjoyable that they can do it now. We are also producing a series of videos7. The artists are opening themselves and their studios to the public. So, generally speaking, we are going through some changes, things that we had to do but did not have the time to. And it is sad that we did not do this before, we had a lot of material and had no time to share it. Why were we not giving these types of services before? Yes, we are sorry, but now we know. You also said that they are comparing the pandemic to war. Actually, we have been at war during these past couple of years, before the pandemic. At some point in time, we (Dastan) went to seven different cities in six different countries in a span of three weeks, talking about carbon footprint! I was of course providing services, introducing artists and the gallery’s program all around the world, but now we have the opportunity to work on things we had absolutely no time for.
FS: So, you call the previous period war and not the one we are experiencing right now?
HH: This is also a war in a way, but before this we were at a different war. From August 2017 to September 2018 we had 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks at Electric Room8 in Tehran. We also had other curatorial projects at the time. When I calculated, I noticed that we had done 67 or 68 exhibitions in just one year, this is more than one show a week, in four spaces! There were also international exhibitions, and handling this was a war in itself! Was it necessary? I don’t know but at the time we thought we needed to do this.
FS: How will Dastan get along with the digital era in this time of trouble? In what ways is it going to modify your (the gallery’s) working process?
HH: Technology is going very far and we are aware of it. For example, this is a 3D print [referring to a sculpture by Mohammad Hossein Gholamzadeh]. He is going to have a virtual show. He insists that he wants the audience to have the control on their visit. He told us he does not want our cameras to turn and decide on the path the visitor should take. He said he also wants this virtual tour to connect to a real thing at the end. For example, that one [showing a small version of “Farewell to Proserpina” by the same artist] is actually a huge work, it is around 3 meters. And when we think of different ways of linking the virtual exhibition to reality, we have different possibilities. One of them is the projection of a hologram, but this can only be possible if the technology gets there, and it will. Or eventually you might be able to print your own version of the sculpture if you have the necessary devices. So, we discuss these kind of possibilities with the artists. But the virtual world doesn’t give you the same feeling. You can read as much as you want on a kindle, but it still won’t be the same feeling as holding an actual book. But we consider all these possibilities.
FS: What else have you (the gallery) been doing in these confinement days, beside the digital innovations?
HH: We have also been organizing our archives. For example, we had this 50-projects in 50-weeks program in 2017 at the Electric Room and we made videos of all the exhibitions. We are now editing them in order to post them on our social media and website for the public. We are also working on this new series of videos in collaboration with the artists represented by the gallery. Another thing we did for Fereydoun Ave’s virtual exhibition was to mediate between the artist and the art critic Sohrab Mahdavi who wrote a text on the exhibition. He worked with us to make a video where he explains his method for “seeing the artwork”, which is a meditative way of looking at art. In this video, he de-conceptualizes the work, breaks apart all the elements of it and lets his eye rest on one part of the painting, making it a distinctive visual experience. We also had a live session on Instagram with the director of Aartmaart, Bahador Adab, and Shahrooz Nazari from Homa Art Gallery discussing Fereydoun Ave’s online exhibition and the virtual platform. It could have been better, but we are starting and we are learning as we go and we will improve little by little. This is a work in progress.
FS: What can you say about the changes in the art world and the engagements of the artists in this crisis?
HH: Well, apart from the videos about the artists and their workspaces that we already talked about, there is also Sam Samiee who is having an exhibition in Holland. The catalog of this exhibition is a newspaper and they will send it to Iran so that we will have the experience here as well. The contribution of artists as social actors has been, in my view, the fact that they are sharing and opening up more to the public. I have also mentioned that galleries have more time to take up new measures nowadays. A gallery based in Beijing called Tabula Rasa, suggested we participate in an unconventional online magazine they are publishing along with five other galleries. The galleries included are Stevenson in South Africa, Mehdi Chouakri in Germany, Project Native Informant in England, Instituto de Vision in Bogota and Dastan in Iran. It is very flattering to be among them. Since there are different countries involved in this project, the content will be first published in English. But the interesting part is that each gallery should translate everything in their own language afterwards, so the whole magazine will be also published in Farsi. The good thing about the current situation is that everyone seems to be engaged in more local projects, projects that are related or beneficial to their own country.
FS: Have you planned the next exhibition of Dastan?
HH: I cannot announce it at the moment because we don’t have the confirmation yet. By the time this interview is published we will have the show’s confirmation9. I am also very excited about the Frieze Art Fair in New York10. We will be presenting Iman Raad’s works on their new digital platform and this will be our third year of participating in Frieze. Since Iman lives in New York City, the works are already on site and we will not have shipping problems. I am really looking forward to this.
FS: My last question is directly linked with the situation that we are living in today. If you could name an artwork that reminds you of this Corona situation what would it be?
HH: It’s Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s “The Joy Factory”. Have you seen it? It is a closed concrete box where the light only comes through a hole above and there is an amusement park inside of it. And this is what we are all doing now, trying to make living inside our confinement box joyful, because there is nothing else we could do.
 In 1995 Fereydoun Ave created an alternate exhibition space, named “13 Vanak Street” in Tehran where he used to exhibit many Iranian artists. The space was closed in 2007.
 The Armory Show was held from 5 to 8 March 2020 at Javits Center, New York. Dastan Basement had a solo presentation of works by Mehdi Ghadyanloo at booth number P16.
 Teer Art is a private-sector initiative to promote modern and contemporary Iranian art through two sister events: Teer Art fair and Teer Art week. For more information on Teer Art, see the website.
 Dastan Gallery is also working on a series of videos with artists where their work space is shared with the public and they take part in the working process. The project was proposed to the gallery separately by two artists, Alborz Kazemi and Mehrdad Mohebali. The videos are available on the gallery’s website.
 From 22 May through 5 June 2020, Dastan presented a virtual exhibition of works by Parsa Mostaghim, Sadra Mirsharifi and Sepehr Hajiabadi titled “Face, Visage, Look”. The exhibition is available on the gallery’s website.
 Frieze Art Fair took place from 8 to 15 May 2020 with a preview on 6-7 May. For this year’s edition, the gallery presented major artworks in a virtual gallery space.
How to cite this exhibition review: Firouzeh Saghafi, "Art and Corona in Tehran", Midan Blog: Swiss Platform for the Study of Visual Arts, Architecture and Heritage in the MENA Region, published online 23 June 2020, https://manazir.art/midan/reviews/art-and-corona-tehran-hormoz-hematian-saghafi