Within the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central and Later South Asia is a permanent collection of contemporary Iranian art, featuring seven works of art by six renowned contemporary Iranian artists.
Parviz Tanavoli’s sculpture, “Poet Turning Into Heech” (view image), is one of the central works within this collection. The image of the ‘poet’ is a major theme in Tanavoli’s sculptures, and a major theme in his art is Heech, alluding to the Sufi concept of “nothingness.” In much of his artwork, Tanavoli writes the word ‘Heech’ in Persian script and places it in different positions and forms.
In a phone interview from Tehran, Tanavoli spoke about the symbolism of Heech in his artwork and the role of the poet as philosopher in modern-day society.
What prompted you to focus on Heech (nothingness) in your artwork?
Not only was it the attraction of this word – the word and meaning of Heech is so beautiful – but it was also the elegance of the figure of Heech. The slope and elasticity of Heech – the way it can smoothly turn around and associate with chairs and tables and walls and cases and any surrounding objects or space is something I like. And besides that, of course, Heech has a rich story and a long history in our poetry and in our Sufism. It is not simple nothingness. It is a nothingness that voices the wholeness of being. This figure – Heech – makes you think about all of this: of being and not being. Heech, to me, is one word that alone tells the whole story of humanity.
Why the poet?
This is a good question because, to me, the poet is the highest (caliber) of humanity, and I very much like to treat the poet, more than any other person, artistically. The poet embodies the last stage to full awareness and is – especially now – the philosopher of our times. The poet is a man who feels everything, senses everything but cannot change anything. Through his work, he becomes very wise and knowledgeable and through his awareness comes to discover that he is really nothingness.
This sculpture, “Poet Turning Into Heech,” shows the body of a man as a poet. His body is becoming the actual word Heech because the poet’s medium is writing. So the upper half of his body (where his heart is) is in writing.
Why do you believe the poet is, especially now, the philosopher of our times?
It has been some time that our societies have had no philosophy. It is now the poet who determines philosophy and makes a statement and criticizes the structures of our societies. It is in fact the poet who looks at everything with his sharp eyes and tries to reflect it in his artwork.
I would like to add that what I mean by poet is not only a man who deals with writing. In my artwork and sculptures, I focus on just the theme and figure of the poet. But the poet is very symbolic of our artists as well. Artists, to me, are also poets. The artist reveals the lack of philosophy in today’s times and has also taken the place of philosophers. Through his sharp motifs and through his art, the artist tries to show all the negative and horrible things we do to the earth and to the environment.
Can you please elaborate on how Heech is related to Sufism and the Sufi idea of nothingness?
Yes, it is related to Sufism to some extent. Sufis are faced with nothingness through the experiences they gain and their awareness is nothingness. This is their philosophy. The two following verses, one from Omar Khayyám and one from Rumi describe this concept the best:
|Suppose what is in universe, is not
|Suppose is not in universe, is. – Omar Khayyam
|Leave that nothing which seems something
|Seek that something which seems nothing – Rumi
However, to me, Heech is so much more than nothingness. It is in fact everything. It conveys hope and is very friendly. It has nothing to do with nihilism.
Each one of the works on display touches on some sort of moral, religious, spiritual or political concept in its own unique way. Why are political themes infused into the works and is this significant?
Artists are touched by the political situation wherever they are. They cannot escape from it, and some artists reflect it more openly than others. They show it more directly while for some it is more personal. My own works, in a way, are also political.
You were among the founding members of the Saqqakhaneh school of Iranian artists in the 1960s, which espoused the influence of raw art created by Iranians in traditional spaces, such as the bazaar. How has the Saqqehkhaneh school influenced younger artists today?
Saqqakhaneh is a general term related to the spiritual pop art of Iran, meaning the art created by ordinary people, such as the art in Iran’s bazaars, which is very expressive. Artists may somehow reflect the ideas from the Saqqakhaneh now, but differently than we did in those days. Today, the people’s art is from the same culture and the same ideas, but we see it now in art galleries, not in the bazaars. Iran’s young artists are very talented, dynamic and creative. When they get close to and convey the pop art – meaning the art of the people – I enjoy seeing it.
In the Iranian contemporary art collection at the MET, there are works by three generations of Iranian artists. What sort of continuity, if any, do you see between these works?
In general, all art is connected. But if you want to narrow it down, I don’t know these artists and they probably don’t know me. These artists are from three generations. They have been brought up differently and in different environments. Some of them are in the U.S. and Europe, and some are in Iran. Each has their own personality and each has their own story to tell in his or her individual way. So how can we be connected?