Grey Room

Loquacious Objects: Contemporary Iranian Art, Autotranslation, and the Readings of Benevolence

Foad Torshizi

Amir Mobed. Tekrār (Recurrence, also translated as Repetition), 2013. Mobed (center) buried in cow dung and soil. Performance view, Azad Art Gallery, Tehran. Photograph by Zarvan Rouhbakhshan.


The debates stirred up by Amir Mobed’s artworks, among others, bear witness to their effective use of performance as a means to advance a didactic sociopolitical criticism. From readings of his performances in light of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil to critiques of apathy and inaction as complicity with violence, Mobed’s performances are usually interpreted as successful renditions of sociopolitical positions and seldom, if ever, discussed as works of art and imagination. His works, I contend, are characteristic examples of how moral and sociopolitical messages have found an ever-increasing currency in contemporary Iranian art since the early twenty-first century. They epitomize the works of a generation of young Iranian artists who present readily available messages to their viewers. The delivery of particular political messages becomes the primary function of these works of art, which has important ramifications beyond the instrumentalization of art for political mobilization. One such implication concerns the burden placed on works of art to present a legible—meaning, “universally” legible—message. This message must include few vernacular nuances and complexities, its transmission guaranteed by heightened visibility. The terms and horizons of this legibility, on a “global” stage, are primarily set by the language of metropolitan art criticism and the curatorial discourses that permeate the prominent art institutions, located largely in the West. The pressure on non-Western artists for hypervisibility is directly associated with a readership, a consumer base, that relies heavily on identitarian stereotypes; therefore, it is more persistently operative among artists from the margins. When displayed in Euro-American centers, works of art from the non-Western world are frequently deracinated from their historical contexts and reduced to legible surfaces charged with representing the cultural alterity of their ethnogeographic origins in a language palatable to the Western public.