Iranian Modern

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 10 2014 @ 7:45pm

Bustling scenes from Tehran in 1971:

Hrag Vartanian suggests the Tehran of 45 years ago looked a lot like the Abu Dhabi of today:

It may be hard for us to image the larger cultural renaissance that was taking place in Iran after the Second World War, when the CIA-backed coup in 1953 toppled Iran’s democracy and installed in its place the Shah, who in a major push for modernization invested in culture and tried to open up the country to the world. The internationally renowned Shiraz Arts Festival, one of his regime’s initiatives, welcomed such luminaries as Peter Brook and Robert Wilson from the West, and helped revive local interest in folk music. Epic productions in 1971 celebrated the history of Iran and the Shah’s achievements, and the Iranian elite was not secretive about their huge appetite for luxury and art of all types. By 1977, Iran even had an impressive center of modern art, Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which still contains a fantastic collection of works by Kandinsky, Duchamp, Pollock, Bacon, Warhol, and countless others standard bearers of Western modernism.

There are curious parallels between Shah-era Iran and the Arab Gulf states today, with their investment in culture (replete with global events, Shiraz Festival vs. Sharjah Biennial) and a lurking specter of severe human rights abuses, but what differentiates them is that Iran had a rich network of native institutions and a more developed art history upon which a modern identity was built.

Meanwhile, Ryan McCarthy visits the country’s Kish Island, another relic from the Shah’s rule that was once meant to be a Vegas-style resort:

In 1989, dismayed by the lack of international tourists, the government declared Kish Island a free zone. This new status meant there would be no taxes, no visas required to enter, and a more lax enforcement of moral laws. Women are allowed to wear their hijabs with a generous amount of hair showing, and swimming (although gender-segregated) and dancing are encouraged. All of these activities are verboten in most other parts of the country.

It didn’t work:

The whole island stands as a monument to another era. The closest thing you can get to liquor on Kish is a “non-alcoholic malt beverage.” I thought it would be a good idea to drink one ironically, but after my first sip I realized I would have to be drunk to continue downing the stuff, which tasted like rusty metal and artificial flavoring. Quite the paradox.

The dearth of international tourists created an eerie, abandoned feel to the place. The shipwreck known as “Greek Ship” is one of Kish’s most popular attractions and photo-op sites, just beating out the empty building in the shape of a ship.