Culture shock in the ‘garden’

The College’s art gallery opened its latest exhibit titled “Parable of the Garden: New Media Art from Iran and Central Asia” last Wednesday as part of the “Religion, Culture and Identity” program.

In the exhibit’s catalog, Sarah Cunningham, the College art gallery coordinator, Deborah Hutton, assistant professor of art, and Leeza Ahmady, an independent curator from New York City, described the concepts behind the collection.

“The exhibit thematically explores not only the traditional garden and the contemporary sense of place, but also notions of paradise lost and found, lessons learned and forgotten, and traditions cherished and rejected,” read the curators’ introductory statement inside the gallery’s brochure.

When the artists were chosen for the exhibit, the students of Hutton’s fall “Arts of Iran” course were charged with researching their assigned artists and the cultural and historical elements that served as influences of the artist’s work.

As a member of the class, Malorie Meshkati, sophomore biology major, communicated in Persian via e-mail with Iranian artist Khosro Khosravi. Khosravi’s piece, a video titled “Fifth Grade,” begins with blurry images and voices of girls giggling and talking.

The images change into shots of fifth grade girls in hijab (Islamic covering) shot from behind so the viewer never sees their faces. The innocent giggling and chatter turns into voices reading textbooks and speaking of politics, patriotism and martyrdom.

Meshkati, who is still in contact with Khosravi, did not expect to work on creating an exhibit for a semester.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “We got the opportunity to break cultural misconceptions on campus.”

“Happy Meal,” a video by Shahram Entekhabi, an Iranian artist now living in Germany, is a work that takes an interesting perspective on the exhibit’s theme. The video shows a Muslim girl devouring a Happy Meal in a German McDonald’s. After completing her fast-food feast, she removes the plastic wrapper from the Happy Meal toy.

In the panel discussion that took place before the gallery opening, curator Sarah Cunningham related Entekhabi’s video to the exhibit’s exploration of paradise.

“One interpretation is a commentary on consumerism,” Cunningham said. “McDonald’s would like you to think that you’re reaching paradise.”

Two chillingly powerful pieces in the collection are Iranian artist Simin Keramati’s videos “Earth” and “Water” from her project called “The Four Elements.” Keramati’s videos are a response to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. An excerpt from sophomore and “Arts of Iran” student Jilu Jacobs’ final paper described the videos in the exhibit’s catalog.

“The video ‘Earth’ opens with the image of a woman played by Keramati, sitting and leaning on the wall of an enclosed space. Sand slowly falls on the woman, eventually burying her entire body . her facial expressions are devoid of any emotion.”

Jacobs went on to describe Keramati’s video “Water.”

“The video begins as a hand puts a handwritten note with Persian words into a glass of water. Slowly the words disappear as the blue ink begins to dissolve and the silently vanishing words juxtapose with the dissonant sounds of falling rain and crashing thunder.”

Keramati’s work conveys a sense of hopelessness, but what is even more haunting is the implication of passiveness and misunderstanding on the part of humanity.

The exhibit features nine artists, and one pair of artists who collaborated on their piece. “Parable of the Garden” runs at the College’s art gallery until March 30. The gallery is open Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.