Doors are very important in our lives. They separate inside from out, permit access from outside to in (and vice versa); they can welcome or dissuade, create privacy and hide secrets, protect and prevent, admit or block. Yet we don’t seem to pay very much attention to the doors of our lives – unless, say, the code on your pass card to the office has expired or you notice at breakfast that your feckless teenager failed (once again) to lock the front door upon returning from a late-night carouse.
Visit the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto any time in the next four months, though, and you’ll find yourself thinking a lot about doors, and then a lot more about doors. The museum is hosting its first solo exhibition since officially opening (its doors, of course) to the public in September, 2014. It’s a showcase of 50 or so large colour photographs by the award-winning Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, famous here for such films as Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. And what are these photographs of? They’re photographs of doors.
Seems Kiarostami, 75, has been photographing doors, or at least doors that have interested him, for more than two decades. The Aga Khan show, which is a world premiere, features portraits of doors from Iran, Morocco, Italy and France. All the doors are closed, many padlocked, chained or bolted, mostly made of wood, mostly old, mostly attached to uninhabited homes. Have I said the exhibition, Doors Without Keys, is mostly fascinating?
Actually, calling it an exhibition is not entirely correct. It is, in fact, an installation, part labyrinth, part funhouse, part set, the doors printed life-size on canvas supports and positioned on a configuration of free-standing walls. Six speakers scattered around the ceiling of the darkened display space pump out a barely audible potpourri of sounds – of children playing, doors creaking, crickets chirping, cars passing. Every now and then the wanderer comes across a haiku-like poem by Kiarostami neatly stencilled to a wall. Reads one: “The key falls/Silently/From her neck in the rice field/In the kitchen/The boiling kettle on the stove.” Reads another: “Today/I will stay at home/And open the door/To nobody but/The house of my mind/Stays wide open/To contradicting friends/To inflexible acquaintances.”
Initially, the experience is rather confusing, akin to what almost any pedestrian feels upon setting forth in a foreign town without a street map. (None of the doors is labelled.) But eventually one realizes the maze is quite orderly, its alleys divided more or less in half, like a mirror image of one another, with each half centred on a courtyard with a chaise and faced by six photos. (Just outside Kiarostami’s maze, installation co-curator Peter Scarlet has set up a small screening area with seats where Kiarostami shorts and features run on a loop.)
Being in an art gallery, the tendency upon encountering an artifact is, of course, to start making art-world comparisons. Certainly this is what I did at first with the Kiarostami exhibit. One door’s white quilt-like surface, for instance, got me jotting down “Christo” in my notebook. Another’s blistered exterior reminded me of the peeling surface of a Giacometti sculpture, another the flayed skin in an Egon Schiele painting; while another’s colours flushed from the craters of my mind the cover image of the wooden student desktop on Alice Cooper’s School’s Out LP.
Soon enough, though, this approach proved less than fruitful and I started to look at the doors as, well … doors. Why did I like that scored, patched-up, bleached-out door more than that other scored, patched-up, bleached-out door? What distinguishes an Italian door from a French one? What makes one door more melancholy than another? Do two knockers on adjacent doors indicate separate entrances and exits for males and females, and therefore are either Moroccan or Iranian? Oh, look: Surely that must be a French door, because it has a faded trompe l’oeil-like painting of a Mediterranean seascape! See the colour of the mangy fur on the cat nestled in that door’s bottom-right corner? It blends so perfectly you’d swear the cat’s in camo-wear.
There’s a definite taxonomical character to the experience. Indeed, fans of those umpteen pictures of the word HOTEL that Arnaud Maggs photographed in Paris in the early 1990s will feel quite at home here. Ditto devotees of that rigorous inventory of blast furnaces, coal bunkers and water towers lensed by Bernd and Hilla Becher over 50-plus years. Finally, though, the installation is about looking, about pausing to look, about using closed doors as a medium to heighten perception and stimulate your own imagination.
Just what is the story behind this door?
Abbas Kiarostami: Doors Without Keys is at the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto through Mar. 27, 2016. The museum also is showing many of his feature films in its auditorium, starting in late January, 2016. Details: agakhanmuseum.org.