The Venice Biennale has begun, this year running under the theme "All the World's Futures", which the event's Director, Okwui Enwezor, explains as "a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things."
While Venice is now home to the works of over 50 Iranian artists, Iranians need not travel to Italy for a dose of art as social commentary; that very theme is being played out on the streets of Tehran, where 1500 billboards have turned the city into an open-air museum.
The "A Gallery As Big As a Town" project, headed by the mayor, Mohammed Baqer Ghalibaf, is geared toward encouraging people to visit museums and talk about art (unofficially, the potential boost to the ambitious two-time failed presidential candidate's popularity did not go unnoticed). The latter goal has most definitely been accomplished: Tehran's temporary transformation into a giant canvas has garnered positive attention from the city's inhabitants, as well as local and international media.
Thirty per cent of the images are highly recognizable to the Western world--Monsch's The Scream is here, as is Magritte's The Son of Man. But around 70% of the billboards feature Iranian artists, most of whom, whether they have woven rugs or painted canvasses, have at least one thing in common: they are dead.
Modern art is likely to run afoul of the country's censors. The majority of Iran's top artists live in exile, and Tehran's own Museum of Contemporary Art boasts a remarkable collection of modern art, all of which are languishing in its basement, some under classifications such as "pornographic", "un-Islamic", or even "too gay".
Tehran's citizens are right to be thrilled to find advertisements for dishwashers and banks replaced by Rothko's multiforms and Mahmoud Farshchian's miniatures. Hopefully the initiative will also spur them on to discussions about why there are so few living Iranian artists lining the streets in this town-sized gallery.