London

Mahmoud Bakhshi, The Unity of Time and Place (detail), 2017, vintage cinema chairs, found objects, carpet, ink-jet prints, two HD video projections (black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 23 seconds; color, sound, 4 minutes 15 seconds). Installation view.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, The Unity of Time and Place (detail), 2017, vintage cinema chairs, found objects, carpet, ink-jet prints, two HD video projections (black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 23 seconds; color, sound, 4 minutes 15 seconds). Installation view.

Mahmoud Bakhshi

narrative projects

Mahmoud Bakhshi, The Unity of Time and Place (detail), 2017, vintage cinema chairs, found objects, carpet, ink-jet prints, two HD video projections (black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 23 seconds; color, sound, 4 minutes 15 seconds). Installation view.

Mordad, the fifth month of the Iranian calendar, is the hottest time of year in the country. As it happens, both the coup d’état of 1953 and the start of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 occurred on the twenty-eighth of Mordad, or August 19, according to the Gregorian calendar. Mahmoud Bakhshi’s gallery-filling installation The Unity of Time and Place, 2017, evoked this chronological overlap and a place central to these events: Abadan, an oil-producing city in southwestern Iran.

The artist approaches his story about revolutions by way of Gavaznha (The Deer, 1974), a film directed by Masoud Kimiai. It tells a story of two school friends who see each other years after they’ve parted ways only to discover that poverty and lack of perspective have pushed both men toward crime and drug addiction. Their civil disobedience is punished by the police, who ambush the pair at home, killing them. Showing the grim side of the Shah’s regime, the film was banned for a time.

Shortly after it was finally released in 1978, a fire broke out at a screening at the Cinema Rex in Abadan. More than four hundred people died. This event, initially blamed by the public on the state secret police, SAVAK, was one of the biggest terrorist attacks in the country’s history and is seen by many as the decisive trigger of the revolution. In fact, the fire was caused by Islamic fundamentalists, who were later found guilty of the crime.

Bakhshi used the symmetrical spaces of the gallery, consisting of two identical rooms, to contrast two minutes of footage from Gavaznha with a fragment of his own interview with Kimiai. The videos are screened in separate rooms, each arranged as an impromptu cinema with rows of vintage wooden chairs. The scene from Gavaznha takes place in a theater. We see a play unfolding on a stage and an enthusiastic audience watching, the situation unsettlingly similar to the one at the Cinema Rex just before the fire started.

The interview shows the director’s pained reaction, without sound, to the question of what he felt when he found out that more than four hundred people burned alive watching his movie. The question itself feels cruel. But it addresses an important issue. With so much talk today about the relative ineffectiveness of socially engaged art practices, the director of Gavaznha is confronted with the opposite problem—how to deal with the heritage of a work that is tied in the collective memory to the beginning of a revolution. Over the image of the director, the artist has imposed two columns of text. The left column describes the events of 1953, and the right column the fire at the Cinema Rex.

The images of the public, the text rolling on the screen, and the face of the director all evoke strong feelings about an event that, to a Western audience, is almost phantasmic—part of a history we may never have learned, and whose emotional resonance for Iranians we cannot fully grasp. Instead of approaching the narrative as if it were a bunch of objective facts, Bakhshi focuses here on the subjectivity of available historic sources—on an emotional truth that can only be approached intuitively, through strange overlaps of time and space that we have yet to understand.

Sylwia Serafinowicz