In the turbulent atmosphere of post-election Tehran, does an exhibit by Damien Hirst have any meaning? Not a lot, to judge by the reactions of some of the Iranians attending the opening of the first major exhibition of contemporary British art since the Islamic revolution 25 years ago.
One local artist - who would not be named - started railing against the regime rather than the art as soon as she realised she was talking to a journalist from The Independent. "It's hopeless - we did not even vote, but they said we did," she said, referring to the dispute over turnout in last Friday's parliamentary elections where moderate politicians were excluded from the ballot. "In Iran, many people find it very hard to live, but for artists it is doubly so because we have such limits on expression," she said.
The curators of the exhibition have done all in their power to damp down controversy. To their relief it has not even drawn fire from hardline conservative groups such as the Basij Islamic militia or the Ansar-e Hizbollah, who make it their business to disrupt such "depraved" events. Last June they beat up students demonstrating in the streets and park around the Modern Art Museum. "They are too clever to start things against modern art exhibits - it would only work against them," the artist said.
For the British sculptor Richard Deacon, the chance to exhibit his work alongside Hirst, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Anish Kapoor and other leading contemporaries was an opportunity in itself. To do so as part of the first major exhibition in Iran was unique. "What this brings to Iran that it couldn't bring to other places is there have been problems with dialogue with Iran and it's to do with ways of trying to open a dialogue, without directing where that dialogue should go," he said.
His abstract sculptures drew plenty of attention, as did the opportunity to speak to the man himself. Standing between a concoction of large purple rings, like a mass of poisonous doughnuts, and a smallish lime-green blob, he was surrounded by curious local artists and students.
"This was such a great opportunity to meet Mr Deacon, he has very keen eyes and looked at some of my pieces, which is a great help to my career," said the local sculptor Amir Moabed, whose own works have been displayed in the museum before.
The exhibition, which opened yesterday, has been careful to avoid controversy in its selection of works by some of the Brit Art generation who so shocked the public with the Sensation exhibition in London and New York. This time, delicacy was the order of the day. A work by Mona Hatoum, featuring a wheelchair and rubber crutches, was withdrawn because it was considered offensive to those killed or injured in the Iran-Iraq war.
In Iran, political clangers are easy to drop. One of Hirst's works, a crucified skeleton, was hung directly beneath pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's present spiritual leader. The error was speedily rectified with a carefully positioned banner that altered the unfortunate juxtaposition.
In public, words are carefully chosen to avoid politics. But everybody is very aware that such a high-profile exhibition of prominent British artists signifies an unprecedented closeness between the two countries since the revolution. For Iranians and the British artists, this was all about dialogue.
So far, there has been no negative comment in the local press, which since the closure of the two main reformist newspapers last week has gained a more conservative slant. Modern art is hardly big news in Iran, which boasts a strong and rich local scene. The works were also chosen carefully to avoid images depicting sexually graphic or obviously religious scenes.
Hirst seemed to draw less attention than many of his contemporaries. A series of works showing Warholesque enlarged food labels was mainly ignored by patrons, who seemed to think they were posters advertising coming events. At the bottom of the spiralling ramps of Tehran's modern art museum, a group of students stood a little bemused by a Hirst cabinet displaying lines of cigarette butts. Behind them a larger crowd had gathered to ponder the long rectangle of 10,000 real red roses laid out by the Scottish-born artist Anya Gallaccio. The pleasant odour of fresh rose petals will soon start to turn to the malodorous whiff of rotting vegetable matter.
Most of the Iranians visiting the exhibition were artists, students or critics, well acquainted with Western art. For many of them it was the first opportunity to see works with which they were already familiar from books and photographs.
Behrooz Danesh, a local sculptor who has exhibited in the Venice biennial art festival, said: "We have seen pictures of the pieces before but you can only really feel it when you see the material itself - that is the spirit of the art."
For many, the fact that the exhibition was happening at all was a truly momentous occasion in a decades-long history of artistic isolation. Helia, a student studying for a postgraduate degree in art, said: "In a country like Iran where everything is really limited politically, art is something without boundaries. And having relations with other countries and cultures is too important to me to speak about. It is having an enormous effect and I want it to continue."Reuse content