BARCELONA.- MACBA, the Museu dArt Contemporani de Barcelona
, presents Seep, the first solo exhibition in Spain by the Iranian artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi. Illustrating the Museums interest in contemporary art from North Africa and the Middle East, the show explores the introduction of modernity to Iran, from the British intervention and the industrialisation of oil extraction to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Presented for the first time, the installation includes two video projections and a series of objects and images inspired, for the most part, by archival materials kept at two institutions: the archives of British Petroleum (BP) and the western art collection of Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA). Seep was produced by the MACBA Foundation in cooperation with the Delfina Foundation and the Chisenhale Gallery (where the work will be exhibited in spring 2013).
Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi, who work both in Iran and Holland, have been collaborating together since 2004. The result has been several joint projects and the publishing of the bilingual magazine Pages, in Farsi and English. Both their projects and the magazine's editorial approach are closely linked, and often focus on specific moments in the modernisation of Iran, which they materialize as into meditations on art and contemporary artistic practices. Their works have been seen in solo exhibitions in South America, the US, the Middle East and Europe, including, amongst others, the 6th Seoul International Media Art Biennale (2010) and the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2012). At present, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi are working as researchers at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Rotterdam.
The inspiration behind Seep are materials from two archives related to the modernisation of Iran. The first is the archive of British Petroleum (BP), related to the companys origins in Iran between 1901 and 1951, from the discovery and operation of the first oil fields in the Middle East to the nationalisation of the oil industry. The second dates to a quarter of a century later: this is the western art collection of Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA), which includes works from the late-19th century to 1979, when the museum was closed following the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The starting-point: two archives
The British Petroleum archive contains photographic, text and film documents dating to the early-20th century: from the early days of oil prospecting to the construction of one of the worlds biggest refineries in the city of Abadan, which became a model for modern industrial cities in the Middle East. This section devoted to the BP archive not only forms a meticulous record of the company's development and growth in Iran, but also tells a story of modernisation. However, by around 1951, workers' strikes, political demonstrations and the determination of Muhammad Mosaddeq, Irans newly elected prime minister, to nationalise the oil industry, brought work at the refinery to a halt and forced the evacuation of the British from the country.
The archive on the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts western art collection dates to a quarter of a century later. The market crisis and the increase in oil prices during the 1970s, which generated an economic boom in Iran, made it possible to quickly build up a large collection of European and American art. The works forming the collection were acquired parallel to the construction of the museum, over a period of just a few years, and was inaugurated, along with the museum itself, in October 1977. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the collection was withdrawn and stored in the museum cellars until, twenty years later, a careful selection of works was once more shown in public.
What the two archives have in common is that they were both eventually suspended. And it is precisely in this state of discontinuation (in the case of the BP archive) or withdrawal (as with the TMOCA collection) that Tabatabai and Afrassiabi position the two archives through their works. The artists propose a subtractive notion of the archives, emphasising their impossibility and lack of resolution. According to Tabatabai and Afrassiabi, the archive plays an active role in producing historical significance, and their installation shows how such materials can be restored to their place in history, and how they can influence artistic practice as a rewriting of history.
Seep, at MACBA
The show presented at MACBA comprises exclusively new works related to these two archives, arranged in a discursive line like words in a sentence. One of the central pieces in the installation is a 6-minute video projection. In it, a male voice (that of a film director) reads a letter (dated 11 March 1951) about the 'unfilmability' of a 'worthwhile Technicolor film of the Abadan oil fields. In a series of close-ups, the camera moves amongst various objects arranged like a theatre set. Twice, the film cuts to an overall shot of this set, which takes the shape of a silhouette on a projection screen. This is coupled with pre-recorded shots of a hand going through a series of black-and-white photographs of what could be the location of the film in question: the oil fields and the Iranian city of Abadan. Beside the video projection is a series of printed correspondence between the director and the oil company officials involved in the making of the film. From these letters, we deduce that, in 1951, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (later BP) had commissioned the director, Ralph Keene, to make a film about ancient Persian cultural heritage and the oil industry's positive effects on the modernisation of Iran and the Iranian people. The films title was to be Persian Story. However, a series of practical difficulties forced the director to abandon the project. In the end, only a short colour film, devoted only to the oil company and its facilities, was made. The film was an unsuccessful attempt to produce a seamless Technicolor story in line with the narrative of modernisation that the company had projected since it was first established. And it is in this 'unfulfilled fiction' that the artists identify the possibility of another kind of archive of modernity.
The second video projection in the installation, Seep, documents the artists' visit to southwest Iran, particularly to areas where oil seeps out from under the ground and floats on the water, giving the show its title. With a wholly different temporality to the archive, and almost a disregard for history, oil seepage was, curiously, one of the subjects that turned out to be 'unfilmable' for Persian Story.
The installation also includes a sculptural model of part of the TMOCA building, focusing on the interior passages, which begin on the ground floor and descend to the lower levels. Today, the museum has only one floor above ground: the exhibition rooms, offices and storage space are all located in the basement.
Although the museums Western art collection has come to embody a historically and culturally misplaced and disputed experience with modernity and modern art, is it possible, today, to imagine a historical arrangement? This is the question that the installation Seep poses. When it was first acquired, the collection was supposed to fulfil the desired goal of association with the West and to generate a sense of contemporariness in 1970s Iran. But this pursuit of contemporariness entailed a deep-rooted denial of the collection's immediate socio-political and historical conditions. In other words, the collection a stranger in a strange land became truly contemporary only when it was withdrawn into the museum's cellar, re-entering history, albeit by an inverse route.