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Living with the monster

A season of contemporary work from Iran shows that the country offers its artists rich inspiration -

A dark-eyed woman wrapped in a black chador steps from the roof of her house and drifts, as slowly as a leaf, to the street below. She lies by the side of a dead man, her 1950s-style skirt spread neatly around her. She is buffeted by a white-shirted mob of protesters shouting, "Down with Britain!" and sees them brutally forced back by motorcades of royalist troops. She rises from the place where she died and walks away.

Shirin Neshat's absorbing short film Munis (2008), featured on 5 December in the Iran: New Voices in Film and Video Art season at the Barbican in London, is the tale of a woman caught up in her country's struggle for independence during the western-backed coup of 1953. Like much of Neshat's work, it has a heroine who is chador-wearing; like all of it, the film is self-consciously beautiful, its contrasts heightened and its colours shaded into hyperreality. Even the shouts of the mob are kept at bay by a dreamlike piano score. Munis is an inheritor of the grand tradition of Iranian cinema: a lyricism made famous by the "poet of the cinema" Abbas Kiarostami, whose experimental short Roads of Kiarostami (2005) also runs in the Barbican season (7 December).

But have oppressed, black-clad women and decorative melancholy become an artificial shorthand to convey "Iran" to the west? Neshat, who left her country in 1974 at the age of 17, has built her reputation as the best-known Iranian contemporary artist on such imagery. In her Women of Allah series of 1993-97, Farsi calligraphy flows elegantly across the hands and faces of militant veiled women posing with guns.

"Her work relies on heightening cliché," says Vali Mahlouji, the season's curator, arguing that Neshat has elevated the chador - now largely the preserve of poorer, conservative women rather than the headscarf-wearing urban elite - "to stardom". Neshat herself simply says that "in Iran, the chador is reality. That's just the way people dress. Or at least some people."

Some artists from a younger, post-revolutionary generation disagree. "Neshat's videos have aestheticised a façade . . . an exotic product," says 26-year-old Barbad Golshiri, one of eight video artists who participated in the season. Four of them live outside Iran, and all exhibit in the west. But no matter how international their experience or progressive their outlook, they make work that reflects a society entirely preoccupied with Iran and Iranianness. "This is our central conflict," says Mahlouji. "Are we modern or traditional, secular or religious? How do we relate to the west and to the dominant global culture?"

Golshiri's approach to these questions could not be less lyrical. In 2006's Jxalq - a Farsi verb that implies both masturbation and creation - the artist's lower body appears amid an intricate trail of toilet paper, the free end of which passes between his legs. The scene is revealed by a single light bulb that flashes increasingly frantically as he tugs on the end of the paper. Aporia (2007) shows him crouched, flasher-like, in an overgrown patch of wasteland, right arm working furiously, occasionally turning to shout, "I don't know what 'aporia' means" at the camera. This is YBA shock art, Iran-style, aggressive and slickly produced. Two of his pieces, The Portrait of the Artist as a One-Year-Old Child (2005) and Where Spirit and Semen Met (2008), have just been bought by Charles Saatchi.

Despite his verve, the works in which Golshiri turns his attention to the ruling regime are sober and moving. His father, the writer and critic Houshang Golshiri, survived the "chain murders" of the 1990s, in which more than 80 Iranian writers and intellectuals were abducted or killed in their own homes.

Civil War (2005) imagines the faces of Saeed Emami, the senior intelligence officer blamed for the murders, and one of his victims, Houshang's friend Mohammad Mokhtari, replacing the usual ayatollahs or politicians in towering urban murals. One of a cluster of giant roadside billboards promotes "potassium suppositories", a favoured method of assassination (they cause rapid cardiac arrest). In a gruesome reversal of the opaque workings of the Iranian state, its dirty secrets are advertised, storeys high, to its citizens.

The Iranian Establishment does not warm to this kind of work - any more than to scenes of masturbation. "There was only one gallery in Tehran that dared show certain works of mine," says Golshiri, who describes Iran as "our paranoiac state". The perceived threat to artists and other "undesirable elements" is grave: he mentions the execution in August of the blogger and journalist Yaghub Mehrnehad, a critic of the regime accused of associating with militant groups. For artists forced to look to international galleries and audiences, video is an ideal medium: accessible, affordable, and easy to duplicate or upload and share online. "There's a real yearning and demand for connection, for any new medium that enables it," explains Mahlouji.

Shahab Fotouhi, a 28-year-old artist based in Tehran, is the champion of this DIY approach. His videos are rickety, hand-held affairs, far from Neshat's cinematic sweep or Golshiri's gloss. They are also, unusually, very funny. For Repeat After Me, filmed this year in Switzerland, Fotouhi asked ordinary Swiss people to learn a Farsi phrase phonetically and sing it back to him. He then revealed that it was a line not of an old Persian lullaby, as they had thought, but of the official anthem of the Islamic Republic. Anyone who wished to withdraw their contribution could. The result is a patchwork of burghers solemnly quavering their way through the anthem (in apparently unlovely Swiss accents), with silent interludes representing their outraged countrymen. It is ideologically blameless and entirely ridiculous, a kind of revolutionary mini-Borat.

Working under the intolerant gaze but with the literal-minded approach of Iran's ministry of culture and Islamic guidance has honed Fotouhi's roundabout wit. In Direct Negotiations (2007), the camera watches from an empty room as a cat batters its front paws against the window, hoping to be let in. Its efforts become frenzied. Then, discouraged, it walks off. It tries again, half-heartedly, and then with increasing determination. Fin ally it slinks away, its tail trailing off-screen behind it. As a comment on Iran's dysfunctional relations with the international community, it is at once comic and dispiriting.

Whatever their attitudes to veils or production values, Iran is hard on its artists. From Kiarostami's poetic minimalism to Golshiri's postmodern pranks, the works in this mini-festival, which ends on 7 December, demonstrate that the country offers unfailingly rich inspiration - but reserves the right to charge an unaffordable price. "You raise your hand to scratch your forehead," says Golshiri, considering the perils, for all artists, of speaking too freely, "and the irrational monster jumps and eats you."

To see films by Shahab Fotouhi, go to:

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror