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Kiarostami's Walls exhibit resonates with regime's rigid hold

Celebrated Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami has a Toronto exhibit of still photos titled The Walls.


Art works created by celebrities, especially film world celebrities, are hard to unpack, to read as objects in and of themselves minus their special, personality-driven status.

While I have never subscribed to the "mastery" success theory (that an artist should find one thing she or he does well, then do nothing else), it is still true that when confronted by works in a new (to you) medium created by an artist who is celebrated for works in a different medium, your star-struckness can change how you read them.

But Abbas Kiarostami, director of such contemporary world cinema classics as Taste of Cherry, Ten, The Wind Will Carry Us and Certified Copy, has always been a multitasker. His poems have been translated and published internationally, his moving-image installations have played at major museums, and he has been taking photographs since the 1970s.

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A new exhibition of his photographs, The Walls, currently on display at Pari Nadimi Gallery in Toronto, prompts unexpected responses. Once you get past the curiosity factor, you begin to find other, more resonant readings - to share Kiarostami's vibrant appreciation for overlooked textures, the possible loveliness of mould (yes, mould), and how the blinding light of midday can inspire a conversely dreamy, heavy-headed state.

As the title alerts, The Walls is a series of images of grey concrete walls surrounding homes in Kiarostami's native Iran; walls he appears to treat as found paintings. Photographed from a distance of a few metres, the walls are celebrated for their flaws - their cracks and scratched paint - and for how small, untidy interruptions, pock marks and mud skids, gently mar their intentionally banal, blandly pale surfaces.

Evidence of the natural world such as emerald green mould, muck from blooming trees and red dirt washed up by heavy rains is photographed as if each splotch and smear is a bold brush stroke on a bare canvas. Furthermore, Kiarostami frequently captures walls that are foregrounded by bare, skinny trees - natural fences - or in the process of being consumed by vines. Nature is both a decorator and a conqueror.

But where these works excel is in their depiction of hard, clear light versus deep pools of shadow. Many of the walls are striated by silhouettes of straight-as-a-soldier trees, tangles of branches and solid blocks of dark, dense foliage.

All of which leads, of course, to the big but unspoken idea in the room: Kiarostami lives and works in Iran, an autocratic, abusive state.

To look at these images and not acknowledge the built-in metaphors (walls both contain and conceal, can preserve secrets or shroud misdeeds) would be silly. And while the quiet presence of nature - a spot of lichen here, a root breaking through cement there - can be taken at face value, it can also be read as a comment on the ever-present reality of state domination, and how it gradually becomes naturalized, as inevitable as the turning of a leaf to the sun, the slow thickening of mould.

Speaking by phone with Kiarostami, who lives in Tehran, I had to tread softly with my metaphorical meanderings, as the artist has had difficulties with the authorities in the past.As Kiarostami tells me, he's more than fed up with politics.

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Tell me about the difference between your very fluid films and these very still images.

I started my career with movies. But immediately after the revolution in Iran, it was difficult to make movies so I started to take photographs. And I learned that there are many similarities between movies and photographs - and some things that are totally different.

The similarity is that both are storytellers. Now, however, I feel that I am much more interested in taking photographs, because with photographs I am totally free. A movie tells a specific story, but with a photograph the people seeing them make the stories themselves. In the cinema, the director must be a storyteller, but I feel that when I am taking a photograph I am totally free; I don't have to be a storyteller, fulfill any expectations.

Maybe some people will have the exact same feelings as me from the photographs, but they are more free too, to feel whatever they want, to find something new that was not in my mind. The photograph is now much more enjoyable for me.

Why did you chose to photograph walls?

I took my first photograph over 30 years ago. My early photographs were all about nature, trees and landscapes and snow. I did two albums about trees and snow. Then I did windows, then I did doors. Each four years I focused on one subject, and each subject comes from the previous subject. When I took the photos of doors, I found many strange walls, beautiful walls. So walls became next. My camera moved, and I moved with it.

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The photos in Toronto, I think there are 13 in the show, but I made around 62 over four years, and I focused my camera only on the walls, and I took no other types of photos.

But I know what else you are asking.

I had an interview a while ago with an Iranian journalist in Canada, and the journalist wanted to know if there was some political message in the walls. But I told the journalist no, that was not in my mind. I was not thinking about prisoners, about people being surrounded by walls. I saw the walls as landscapes.

But if somebody wants to see a political message they can, because I think maybe they need to feel that or think that. What I can I do? Nothing. Also, I don't want to be a liar. For me, the walls are beautiful and they come from all situations. All I can do is share with people the beauty, because I am very tired of my situation in Iran, the politics and the future.

For me, to take pictures is personal freedom. It makes me happy, it's a break, and I want to share this break with other people. Next, I am going back to take pictures of snow. Snow is the most beautiful thing for a photographer. Snow makes nature into a painting.

After 20 years, I am back to the snow!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Abbas Kiarostami's The Walls is at Toronto's Pari Nadimi Gallery until May 28 ( as part of the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.

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