Reflections on mise en abyme in Tehran by Sohrab Mahdavi

Mise en abyme

by Sohrab Mahdavi, Tehran, September 29, 2012

Looking at the canopy of leaves outside my window in late summer Tehran is a dizzying experience. This is only partially due to my first cigarette of the day. Having attended mise en abyme a week earlier, I now see how a plethora of patterns and shapes can meld in a way that their borders and limits are not lost. It is indeed the play of background-foreground, the back and forth movement, that leads to the dizziness, especially now that the blanket of green leaves is interrupted by dried-crinkled-brown configurations, bringing you back to their leaf-ness. My eyes try to make out what’s before them. Any attempt proves to be futile. I butt my cigarette out and go do something else.

“Visual noise,” that’s how I can start describing mise en abyme, the totality of it, not individual works, not the dried-crinkled-brown leaves or the lush green ones, but the blanket, presented to us as a sequence of three dozen videos without interruption. This much curator Sandra Skurvida tells us, albeit in relation to the appellation “Iran”: “Increasingly void signifiers of identity draw us into the spiraling abyss of an absence.” Here we are, sitting in a claustrophobically small, white room in western Tehran, watching an array of video art pieces meant to be shown in a gallery, those longer than 30 seconds inevitably drawing yawns, and wondering what “Iran” means, really, this term filled with malaise and, at least for middle class Iranians, self-loathing.

Sitting next to me is film editor and filmmaker Maani Petgar. A few seconds into the showing, he begins offering critical pieces of his mind to me. Amitis Motevalli in her Love Letters to Jeremy/Let Them Eat Yellowcake has divided the screen in two. On the left, a woman blows hot air against a window, writes a word with her finger, and wipes it seemingly endlessly, pointlessly; on the right a (another/the same?) woman smears a window-reflecting-street with cake icing, writing words like “atom” on it, and laps it up with suggestive relish. The idea is catchy and mind-provoking. For me it is accompanied, in the beginning at least, with a smile of recognition. Maani is saying that most Iranian filmmakers have problems editing their films. He is probably right and at first I see how a video that uses a creative idea can end in indifference once it goes overboard. But, I reminded myself, these are not films per se, they are video art. Perhaps the way the curator has arranged the presentation makes it difficult to distinguish between the two. These are pieces intended for a gallery space, where viewers are free to roam and ignore or stand and engross. To be fair, Sandra does mention at the end of her introduction and just before getting the videos rolling, that people are free to move about. In short, she foresees boredom and allows for freedom, but viewers still feel that they are to sit still in chairs for almost half the show, with the exception of Maani who ignores the by-now tedium of even an interesting work like Yellowcake, let alone Shahroudi’s OU, Eskandarfar’s The Olive, or Nosratian’s Fistula.

As there is a something to be gained with every patient sitting (“A mine of suffering, if you are, a treasure-trove, with patience, you shall become,” says Rumi); Maani notwithstanding, my mind starts to make connections between freedom and boredom. Video arts that I have seen are by nature not something to sit through. They aren’t meant to tell a story in a way that makes you follow. They are bland in terms of plot and at best obscene in terms of visuality. So, what’s there that makes them worthwhile to produce and/or watch: They defy being entertaining. One definition of a video art piece, it occurs to me, could be that it didn’t restrict on-looker freedom, even to blah. It called for it at every turn, even required it.

We are increasingly invited to get rid of boredom with means of entertainment available to us. It is not necessary to spend a moment without something to do or enjoy. We are told that it is a joy to be alive… and it can be entertaining too. We are given to believe that a world without boredom is possible. But boredom and freedom have an affinity beyond positive and negative. They are interrelated. Freedom thrives on boredom and boredom is a sign of freedom.

mise en abyme in Tehran was a reminder that political statements need not be bombastic or outwardly political. One can let works of art from one part of the world add to the richness of the symbolic order, bring people together in a collective setting, and let them stare boredom in the eye, to think through personal expressions and interpretations. This is precious.

We must always trust what we are doing as another fiction, another image, another sound, added to the wealth of the world. Whether the story is good or not can be decided later.

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