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The Mountain Carver Photograph by Kamil Bialous.

The Mountain Carver

Sculpture has always been a controversial art form in Iran, but that is where Parviz Tanavoli has found his greatest inspiration.

ONE MORNING IN MARCH 2014, SHORTLY AFTER RETURNING TO HIS HOME in Iran, sculptor Parviz Tanavoli awoke to the sound of his daughter’s screams. About twenty men had broken the locks on his front door and entered his house. It looked like the clumsiest art heist in history, but this ragtag group worked for the municipality of Tehran. They were there on strict orders to confiscate Tanavoli’s artwork.

The men ignored Tanavoli’s plea to show some identification or documentation. They carried millions of dollars worth of sculptures to the front door, where cranes waited to lift them onto trucks. One of the heaviest pieces, a bronze rectangle inscribed with indecipherable calligraphy, was hoisted on a rotting wooden pallet. The platform groaned as it cracked under the weight of the sculpture. “Bring it higher,” said one of the men. With a feeble thud, it hit the pavement. The works, many of which were damaged, were driven to city-owned warehouses, places where things go to disappear.

Twelve years ago, Tanavoli partnered with Tehran’s municipal government to create a museum in his name. His work is displayed in the world’s greatest galleries, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but he had always dreamed of having a permanent Iranian home for his sculptures.The city purchased and displayed fifty-seven pieces. The museum was open for nine days. On the tenth, following the orders of Tehran’s newly appointed mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a group of men shut it down and appropriated every sculpture.

Tanavoli took the city to court to get his works back. Only eleven of the fifty-seven pieces were returned and then the municipal court of Tehran reversed its decision without explanation.

From the moment Prophet Muhammad smashed the idols at the Kaaba, sculptures have been a controversial art form in the Middle East. In 2001, the Taliban declared that two ancient Buddha statues carved into the side of a cliff in central Afghanistan were idols. They were promptly blown up with dynamite.

Tanavoli was the first person to mount a solo sculpture exhibition in modern Iran. His sales at auction in the past eight years total over $8 million US.

A decade after Iran’s 1979 revolution, Tanavoli left the country that had inspired his greatest work. The artist, now seventy-eight, spends most of the year in his West Vancouver home overlooking the Howe Sound. He works out of a small studio attached to his house, with posters from his many international exhibitions displayed on the walls. Tanavoli’s hair is still thick, many shades lighter than his dark eyebrows. His is the compact body of a man who has spent six decades on his feet, working with his hands.

There is a system of politeness in Iranian culture called taarof. Iranians protest any compliment and belittle any accomplishment so as to appear humble and meek. Every Iranian knows that it’s all a big spectacle, but they all still play along. In the many hours I spend with Tanavoli, he doesn’t taarof once. His humility is not contrived or manufactured. Reflecting on his life, Tanavoli thinks of himself as both a skilled craft worker and a world-renowned sculptor. One title he has given himself is that of the heech-maker: the maker of nothing.

The heech is depicted in Tanavoli’s most iconic sculpture. It is composed of three letters in calligraphic form which spell “nothing.” He has been making versions for fifty years. Through the dramatic changes that successive regimes have wrought on his home country, Tanavoli and his heech have survived. Artists, Tanavoli says, “are born to analyze whatever is experienced in life. Art is the most honest phenomena of our time.”

TANAVOLI WAS BORN IN 1937, a few years before Tehran’s ancient walls and gates were replaced with wide streets influenced by the gridiron plans of modern cities. The new shah was eager for Iran to catch up to the west, and that meant more than urban planning: he invested in culture, founding Iran’s first arts high school. Tanavoli’s parents were part of an emerging, less-traditional middle class. At sixteen, after reading a book about the life of Michelangelo, Tanavoli became one of the first students at the school. There was no one in the country who could teach sculpture, so a painter was hired instead. By the time Tanavoli graduated, he was eager to learn more. He found a spot on a cargo plane and, armed with two dictionaries (one Persian-English and one English-Italian) he headed to Carrara, Italy. Carrara marble had been used to build everything from the Pantheon to Michelangelo’s “David.” Here, Tanavoli was known simply as the “Persiano.” Tanavoli jokes that no one had seen an Iranian in Carrara since the time of the Romans. It was his first time travelling to the west, and while it opened up countless new avenues for him to learn his chosen craft, he missed Tehran. He found solace in his art and a book by the Sufi poet Rumi.

Within a year, Tanavoli ran out of money. His parents sent him silk embroideries from Iran that he could sell in Carrara, but he soon had to return to Tehran. He arrived home in 1958 with a plan: he would set about creating the country’s first solo sculpture exhibition, and with the money made from the sale of his work, he would return to Italy.

Tanavoli compares his discovery of south Tehran’s blacksmith and welders’ workshops to El Dorado. But it wasn’t gold that Tanavoli found, it was scrap metal. Using the materials, he began weaving together historic figures from Persian folklore. One piece re-imagined King Darius the Great in irregular dimensions. When Tanavoli mounted the works, patrons became enraged at seeing beloved characters depicted like broken robots. Heated debates filled the exhibit halls. Some of the sculptures were smashed. “Iranians believed in fine art, fine silk and fine carpets,” Tanavoli says. “They did not expect me to take their heroes and love stories and present them using junkyard metals.” He only sold one or two pieces, but to Tanavoli, the exhibit was a success. His work had provoked the conservative cultural scene.

Tanavoli fell into debt after the exhibit, and there was little hope he would return to school abroad. But a few days later, some optimism appeared on the front pages of Iran’s newspapers. The Shah decided that his mission to modernize the country required a new strategy. Scholarships in one hundred fields from medicine to liberal arts would be offered to Iran’s brightest students so they could attend elite universities in the west and return home to educate an entire generation. Sculpture was one of the areas of study considered essential for the country’s future. Tanavoli received a scholarship and went back to Italy, this time to Milan.

Brera Academy, where Tanavoli would study, was home to some of Italy’s finest sculptors. But the city lacked the excitement of the workshops in south Tehran. “In Iran, I had access to all sorts of resources: the bazaars, the mosque, the shrines. And every day I came back with some ideas,” Tanavoli says. During this period, there was one character he kept recreating. It was a man, stretched out horizontally, stiff and motionless.

The subject would remain with Tanavoli for many years. His name was Farhad the Mountain Carver.

THE TALE OF FARHAD, a young sculptor who worked in the court of King Khosrow II, is one of Tanavoli’s favourites. Farhad was hopelessly in love with an Armenian princess named Shirin, who also happened to be the King’s love interest.

When Khosrow learned of Farhad’s love for Shirin, he sent him to Mount Behistun and struck a deal. If Farhad could sculpt a tunnel through the mountain, he would be allowed to marry Shirin. For years Farhad chiseled his way through unyielding rock. When it seemed he may actually complete the challenge, Khosrow sent a messenger to fool Farhad into thinking that Shirin had died. Farhad climbed the summit of the mountain and fell to his death. Shirin was heartbroken when she learned of the sculptor’s fate. “Farhad is a lover who remained faithful in his love,” says Tanavoli. “He is also a man of resistance who made the impossible possible.”

Not long after the sculptor’s fall from the mountain, the King received a letter from a man who claimed to be a messenger of God. The missive asked Khosrow to embrace a new religion called Islam. Khosrow, a Zoroastrian, tore the paper to shreds and commanded his governor in the province of Yemen bring this messenger, Muhammad, before him. Muhammad refused and, instead, predicted that Khosrow would soon lose his throne and his empire. The words came true. “Farhad falling off the mountain was the death of the art of sculpture in Iran,” Tanavoli says. “After Farhad’s passing and the spread of Islam, all sculptures were banned.”

Tanavoli began to see himself as a resurrected Farhad, risen from the grave to revive an art form that had been lost for a millennium. By sculpting the Mountain Carver over and over again, Tanavoli was chiseling off the influence of every teacher and government official who had ever criticized or tried to direct his work. He was creating a new tradition of sculpture in Iran, and finding his own unique voice.

AT THE TEHRAN BIENNALE IN 1960, Farah Pahlavi, Iran’s young and glamorous new queen, took notice of Tanavoli’s sculpture of Farhad, and he made his first major sale. Pahlavi was an architecture student living in France when she first met the Shah in 1958. “Art for me was very important,” says Pahlavi, who now lives in exile in Potomac, Maryland and Paris. “I believed that a country could not move ahead without culture. Our poets, painters, sculptors and filmmakers were just as important to modernization as our economy or infrastructure.” While her husband went about building roads and the military, the Queen brought back thousands of historic Persian artifacts from private collections and galleries and built scores of museums to house these recovered artifacts.

In the 1970s, when the country’s oil revenues increased, Pahlavi founded the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Here she displayed what would eventually become the most expensive collection of modern art outside Europe and North America, estimated to be worth over $2.8 billion US. It included over one hundred works by artists such as Bacon, Gaugin, Johns, Lichtenstein, Magritte, Picasso and Pollock. Most important for the Queen, however, was that the works of the great artists of the west should sit next to those by Iranian artists such as Tanavoli.

The Queen’s eight-thousand-square-foot private library at Niavaran Palace was home to a collection of twenty-three thousand books and more than 350 paintings and sculptures from her personal collection. One of her favourite pieces sat in the corner: a two-metre-tall bronze heech sculpture by Tanavoli.

Tanavoli has compared his heech with the blank canvases of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. When asked about his images of the cans, Warhol replied, “I wanted to paint nothing. I was looking for something that was the essence of nothing, and that was it.” For Tanavoli, heech is the nothingness through which life and ideas come to be. “Great poets like Rumi, Khayyam and Hafez had all looked at heech, and it is not a concept to underestimate,” Tanavoli says. “Nothing is the other side of everything.” Over seven hundred years ago, Rumi wrote, “Become nothing, And He’ll turn you into everything.”

ONLY TWO YEARS after Tehran’s world-class museum was inaugurated, Iran was in the throes of a violent revolution. The Shah’s regime was seen by Iranians as oppressive and corrupt—overly ambitious programs had also led to economic bottlenecks and inflation and stories of torture at the hands of the secret police were common knowledge. As demonstrations against the monarchy continued and riots became more frequent, the Shah and his wife fled the country. They would never again return, and before the end of 1980, the Shah was dead. Pahlavi’s home in Potomac has none of the art that once adorned Niavaran Palace.

On her finger, however, is a ring. A gold heech, designed by the sculptor whose career she helped launch. It rests on her left ring finger, touching her wedding band.

For Tanavoli, the Islamic Revolution meant a different form of exile. Public works of art, including his own, were torn down and destroyed. At the time, he was teaching sculpture at the University of Tehran, but art schools were soon shuttered. “The revolutionary artists took over everything,” Tanavoli says. “They were making art which glorified war and blood. It had no value artistically, but politically it did, so it was encouraged.” Tanavoli refused to begin repurposing his art for political aims. His studio closed and he was banned from exhibiting and selling his work. Tanavoli describes these years as the darkest of his life. Because of his former connection to the Queen, Tanavoli was blacklisted by the new regime. In many ways, he was lucky that it wasn’t worse for him following the revolution. Many Iranians with ties to the royal family were thrown into prison or executed. By 1989, Tanavoli was almost broke. He could no longer make a living as an artist in Iran. He sold most of his collection of art and many of his properties and, with his wife and three children, immigrated to Canada. Once in Vancouver, he started all over again, from nothing.

Gradually, wealthy Iranians, many of them also living as expatriates in the west, began purchasing Tanavoli’s sculptures, and soon were inviting him to show his work in New York, Paris and London. In 2008, a sculpture by Tanavoli set a new auction record for a Middle Eastern artist at Christie’s international art sale in Dubai. The piece, titled “The Wall (Oh, Persepolis),” was nearly two-metres tall and covered in figures that look like hieroglyphics. It fetched $2.84 million US. After the sale, his work was in such high demand that he had to unplug his phone for a week.

In 2013, Tanavoli’s pieces were displayed as part of the Iran Modern exhibit at the Asia Society Museum in New York City. Spanning three decades, the works on loan from the United States, Europe and the Middle East told the story of the modern art scene and its pioneering years. Dr. Layla S. Diba was one of the curators of the exhibit. She describes Tanavoli as a “cultural impresario” in Iran. Beyond his own art, he was a devoted collector and teacher who worked tirelessly to push forward government support of the arts. “Parviz is also a patriot. He loves his country, but as much as one loves Iran, whether in the past or present, you are under a state-controlled art scene,” she says, speaking of the country’s museums. According to Diba, Iranian art has always been an “art of allusion” that one must learn to read.

Though Tanavoli’s work seems to be about subjects based in the past, such as Farhad, it is a reflection of the present. Tanavoli’s Wall series, large bronze monoliths that commemorate Persepolis, were created in this vein. “I have seen this beautiful country deteriorate day by day,” says Tanavoli. “Picasso said ‘art is a lie that makes us realize truth,’ that is a nice way of putting it.”

Tehran City’s Cultural Organization, which supervises many of the municipality’s museums, announced recently that it would “cleanse venues of works that do not comply with the spirit of the museums.” One target, according to news reports from Iran, is the Imam Ali Museum, where a number of works by Tanavoli are currently on display. In a recent interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency, national arts expert Asghar Kafshchian Moghaddam stated, “I think what the Imam Ali Museum managers mean by cleansing is just the elimination of Tanavoli’s works from the museum collection.”

IN AN OPEN LETTER to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in May 2014, Tanavoli wrote that “in accordance with civil, religious and customary laws,” the artworks taken from his home should be returned to him. “I will fight for them with all my power as long as I am alive,” Tanavoli wrote. “And after I go, I ask my children to keep after them until they are returned to their rightful owner.”

Tanavoli’s bronze heech still sits in its same spot in the Queen’s library in Niavaran Palace, which is now a museum. It has been fifty years since Tanavoli produced his first heech. When he began making them, he imagined that one day a heech would adorn every home in Iran and be accessible to anyone, regardless of financial status. It was never his intention for them to be exclusively exhibited in palaces and the world’s best museums. He wanted his creations to be sold in supermarkets, and held the dream of one day opening a factory that would mass-produce heeches. This never came to pass, though poor-quality knock-offs can be purchased on the streets of Tehran. Instead, in his small studio ten thousand kilometres away from the place of his birth, the sculptor continues to make nothing.