“Novelty and naivety are two close friends.”
“Iranian design” as a visual idea was first mentioned by Reza Lavassani in Rouyesh magazine. In that collective interview with illustrators, he explains why the montage of traditional elements must not be used as a basis for Iranianization and he points to the necessity of innovative design in the Iranian visual world. In fact, what Lavassani cautioned turned into a plague in Iran’s artistic environment in the next decades. Graphic design based on playful lettering, ornamental illustration, exotic photography, and Islamic geometrical sculpture were all caused by the lack of design –as creation– in the Iranianization of the visual fields.
The idea of becoming or making things Iranian emerged with the discovery of the significant ideological relation between national and cultural identities. Thus, the complicated history of this idea among Iranians must date back thousands of years ago, when people found themselves exposed to the cultural threat of others. The interesting point is that the feeling of being harassed by other cultures was formed when Iranian cultural identity was recognized as an independent phenomenon. Therefore, this question was raised at the same time with the formation of the Iranian national identity. Many believe that the Iranianization dream is a collective illusion formed to establish political systems and consolidate a centralized authority. However, they have often overlooked the question of whether the ideological mechanism has given rise to this cultural claim, or in reverse, cultural productions have eventually led to such nationalistic demands. At any rate, the necessity of returning to oneself has frequently been present as the Iranians’ mental foundation through various historical periods and even today, in the globalization era, this requirement is pursued as a collective idea by the Iranians.
Farshid Mesghali belongs to a period when the Iranianization of modernity –in particular, localization of modernism– was the mainstream cultural tendency; at that time, we were supposed to have Persian cinema and ritual theatre, painting and sculpture had to take on local characters, even the Iranians were expected to have their own national automobile, wear their national shoes, and open accounts in their own national bank. However, apart from the political process, this “hypernationalism” led to no discernable national result; in practice, the idea of Iranianization moved towards reproduction of and exaggeration of meaningless symbols. The local modular clichés hindered creativity and turned into merely decorative phenomena.
The role of great artists in creating the national identity begins from this zero point in culture, which can be considered as a certain era. Naum Gabo had once written that Alfred Wallis “was an artist, although he did not realize it himself.” In the same manner, Farshid Mesghali may be described as “a great artist who is unaware of his greatness.” This is an important point that might be forgotten through the rest of the text; so I emphasize now that he is a great artist without exerting any effort. His influence on modern illustration and graphic design (and later on Iranian sculpture) is undeniable. Even Mesghali’s photographs –which have not attracted a large audience— have followed a different path from contemporary Iranian photography. I do not intend to further discuss the role and status of Mesghali in modern Iranian art and culture, since I believe that much has been and will be written about it. However, two of his important contributions are less noticed. First, his extraordinary humanity and modesty which is uncommon among his peers and people of his generation, and second, his papier-mâché sculptures, which have challenged and scorned the sentimental and often trivial role of modern Iranian sculpture during the past two decades. The first contribution may only be proved through friendship and keeping his company. Hence, I will write about the second contribution.
Dealing with non-sculpture as sculpture, particularly the use of dolls, trinkets, garbage, and scraps in a mainly Dadaist arrangement is considered as a significant tendency in the history of modern sculpture. Aside from the evident anarchy in art discourse, these structures have lead to a complicated totemic-allegorical allusion which associates thematic references with the psychoanalytic aspects of a work of art. For example, the modern works of Hans Bellmer, Yves Tinguely, Méret Oppenheim, Eva Aeppli, and Niki de Saint Phalle and those of contemporaries such as Jimmie Durham and Isa Genzken must be explored from this viewpoint. If one delves into these sculpture-decorations, he/she will find that in this type of art, ideas are replaced by play – which mean forbidden activities for adults. As soon as a person is deprived of playing, he/she is no longer a child. An adult who plays denies his/her self and declines external relations. An artist seeks to create archetypal objects through this forbidden game which sometimes resembles ritual practices; crafting these structures is often very easy for those who make it. So, anytime you see an artist who makes things effortlessly, notice that he/she is playing and that playing is a great art in itself. Artists who diverge from their language are doomed to turn creation into a complicated technical process, while an autonomous artist’s paradise is easy creation, when he/she improvises and visualizes absolute dreams with tools and equipment. The papier-mâché sculptures of Farshid Mesghali are a strange combination of innovation and triviality. This insouciance constitutes the lively spirit and the childish identity of his sculptures. They are childish because they shoulder no duty and have had no godlike creator. These sculptures are the fruit of the peaceful life of a hermit old man at the end of Youssef Abad Hill.
Let’s ask what creates the essence of Mesghali’s works, and what makes them Iranian despite objecting decoration and exaggeration in the use of ornaments. In my opinion, Mesghali has realized that a certain hasty, opportunistic view lies at the heart of Iranian art that turns the melancholic lamentations of Marsiya elegies into a performance. The word performance reminds us of the puppetry and marionette tradition of Mesghali’s hometown, Isfahan, which has been recounted by Chardin, Tavernier, and Della Valle –a great tradition and heritage that prevailed as folk culture in Isfahan until the last years of the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Farshid Mesghali also makes his puppets with the same materials prescribed in the puppet making tradition of the Persian Iraq. These are great tools for narrating everlasting tales and thus many of Mesghali’s sculptures — or rather, puppets — tell the tales of Attar of Nishapur, Omar Khayyam, and Rumi. In defining the concept of the Iranian idea, Gherardo Gnoli believes that Iranians have characteristics that originate in the past, have endured to present, and appear in divergent forms in different periods. Likewise, Mesghali is the embodiment of a divergent form. The difference between him and the traditionalist artists lies in this very point. Rather than the formalist and superficial use of historical and religious forms or the mass art, he pursues the emotional visualization of folk stories in his works. Moreover, since he has been in close contact with the concept of literary narration all through his professional career, he had the opportunity to employ the storytelling decoupage and timing, layout, decoration, and emotional structure into sculpture. However, through clever and artistic minimization of forms, he frees himself from the whirlpool of grandiloquent patterns and the common Iranian decorations and establishes his personal rules and principles of Iranianization. Thanks to this strategy, Mesghali has generated his unique, innovative mechanism, rather than assembling cultural elements –including patterns, letters or ornaments.
Although sculptures are portrayed in two dimensions in his works, their other dimensions are structured through the conceptual linkage between the elements, and the objects are formed before the eyes of the audience, like a solution for finding the unknown perspective in a miniature equation.
Nevertheless, the static approach of artists such as Bijan Nemati Sharif, Mehdi Sahabi, and Farshid Mesghali has significantly changed the perception towards Iranian sculpture. Undoubtedly, subsequent generations will rely more on the humorous, comic, and, most importantly, craft-like spirit of these sculptures than on the ambitious forms whose meaning, if any, is lost beneath their bronze allure.