the shock of the not-so-new

Over the past year-and-a-bit, we’ve visited a lot of cities that seem stuck in a bygone era – Luang Prabang has strong elements of 1920s France; Bombay is stuck in the last days of the Raj; Saigon has a definite whiff of the 1950s; and the swinging 70s are still alive and well in Tehran – a little like Perth, really. It’s a little strange to gaze upon rows of soulless concrete buildings and feel pangs of homesickness. But to see Tehran’s showpiece architecture is to get a small idea of where things were headed before the revolution. The bold Azadi monument and contemporary Pahlavi-era museums and palaces all meant to convey that Tehran was a modern, European city – so much so that scholars have accused Tehran of forgetting its Persian-ness altogether.

The undisputed highlight of our stay in Tehran was our day on the town with the lovely O & N. We met O, she of the pink-sequinned Cons, at our beloved Esfahan tea-house and she kindly offered to show us around, with her friend N, when we were in Tehran the following week. Before abandoning sightseeing to higher pursuits, such as eating icecream, we ducked into the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

The former Empress Farah spent much of the last 15 years of her reign prodigiously buying and commissioning modern art and most of this collection is housed in this fascinating (although for unintended reasons), modernist gallery with a wonderful Guggenheim-esque spiraling interior. On the outside it actually bears freakish resemblance to the Art Gallery of Western Australia – there’s a giant Henry Moore piece out the front, although O & N were perplexed when I pointed out that even the air-conditioning vents are the same. The collection housed here includes all the big dudes of modern art: Duchamp, Degas, Warhol, Pollock, Monet, Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Van Gogh – and just about any other late 19th and 20th century artist you could think of. It’s widely regarded as the best collection of modern art outside of the United States and Western Europe and reputedly worth something approaching US$3 billion.

You would be right in assuming that all of this is pretty incongruous sitting in present day Tehran, the capital of a regime not exactly well-known for its tolerant approach to, well, much at all but least, the arts. Well, the catch is that none of the treasures I’ve mentioned are on display. Instead, the museum chooses to exhibit embarrassingly amateurish contemporary religious art mostly depicting the martyrdom of various Shi’ite Imams – O eventually stormed out in disgust – and the main collection has been boxed up for much of the last 30 years. A bit of research reveals that the museum telling visitors for the last decade that the main collection will be back on display “in two weeks”… and they’ve sticking to this line for about a decade.

Without getting carried away, the museum ends up coming across as a giant installation in itself – a metaphor for Iranian history and cultural outlook. At least it hasn’t been destroyed, although you do have to wonder why the regime hangs on to the collection when they could probably build a couple of nuclear facilities with that sort of money.

We also spent a few days exploring the former palaces, which lie nestled in Tehran’s leafy northern suburbs and are preserved at pretty much the exact point in time at which the Shah and his family abandoned them. While the buildings and art are fantastic, we couldn’t help but feel a little ill at ease as we sticky-beaked at so many of the personal effects, obviously left behind in the rush to flee the country – the same sort of awkward voyeurism we felt at the royal palace in Luang Prabang. The Pippy Longstocking decals in the princess’ pink bathroom sent us both over the edge and we had to scurry out. As palaces go, they’re actually pretty modest – although when we visited the National Jewels Museum later, it was easy to understand why Iranians eventually got fed up with generations of royal excess; there’s enough bling in there to supply a lifetime of PDiddy clips.

Some parting words from the wise N: “You know what Australia’s biggest problem is? You don’t have any religious leaders! We’d be happy to give you some of ours!” Thanks for a great days, guys – O, we owe you the cost of your traffic infringement 🙂


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