22.08.2013 | The Environmental Artist in Iran

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An Interview with Ahmed Nadalian

Since the 1970's, Iran has been in a propaganda war with the West. Ahmed Nadalian has been making environmental art there for 15 years. What contradictions confront the environmental artist in an undeniably critical period for the environment, in a country elsewhere occupied?

Foto: © Ahmed Nadilian, 2013

Von Richard Pettifer (Australia)

THE ENVIRONMENTAL ARTIST IN IRAN

An Interview with Ahmed Nadalian

Ahmed Nadalian is from Iran, and has been working for the last 15 years as an environmental artist. He has centres in Tehran, Polour, and on Hormuz Island in the Persian Gulf.

I stayed with Ahmed on a residency in March, 2013. I was traveling overland from Australia to Germany, performing in Indonesia, India, Iran, Turkey and Romania. Alarmed by languidness and ‘doublethink’ shrouding the dire snowball of environmental data, I wanted to ‘practice what I preach’, or at least to fail trying. Public transport emits, at most, one third of the four tonnes of carbon per person used by a one-way Sydney-London flight.

What did I find? The surge in popularity of air travel has led to much of the infrastructure which used to exist – ferries, immigration checkpoints, train networks – being retired or ill-maintained. Together with tightening regulations, the freedom of movement of people on the ground is becoming tighter at a time when flight is simply disastrous.

During my time with Ahmed, I noticed that our ideas on the environment were extremely different. At the end of the residency, I asked if I could interview him to compare our perspectives.

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Just before the interview, I smashed one of Ahmed’s artworks – a fish carved of stone.

As the fish surrendered to the concrete of his gallery’s courtyard, Ahmed responded with a shocked yelp, but then filmed the event on my phone. Afterwards, I realised the phone was not recording. The only surviving document is a short video directly after this moment, taken by accident, where you can hear me laughing in an embarrassed way, and Ahmed asking “really?”, and some photos as he tries to piece the fish back together. “I can sell it for double now”, he told me.

After the interview, he charged me ten thousand Iranian Rial (three U.S. Dollars) for breaking the fish. The performance in on my blog, theatre4every1.blogspot.de/2013/04/persian-broken-fish-project.html

Interview date: 4.9.2013

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RP: You aren’t able to provide any direct government criticism and nor should I… we have to be very polite in our conversation – is this correct?

AN: Yes.

RP: You are an environmental artist working in oil-rich Iran – does this create an absurd situation for you?

AN: There is a lot of impact from oil because we are rich, it was cheap, now much more expensive but still it’s cheap. Since it is cheap it created a lot of local and global problems for my country. People use their own car for their daily trips. The rail or other transportation have not been developed so well.

RP: I should add that you could also ask the same question of an environmental artist working in Australia, which is a coal-rich country, or perhaps Norway, which is also rich in oil.

AN: Because of the richness many people don’t think about how they use it. I remember when I lived in the UK we had to be very careful how we used gas for example. Here, we are rich in gas or oil, I don’t care about turning on the heater, because we are rich, because it is comparatively cheap. On the other hand the Iranian navy is in the Persian Gulf because there is oil and in any conflict they target the platform of oil, in the Iraq-Iran war or when Saddam Hussain attacked Kuwait, later when the counterstrike attacked Iraq, a lot of oil went into the sea, and this created environmental disaster.

RP: What is the attitude of Iranians to the environment?

AN: To be honest it’s not very serious. Because we do not have very developed industry, they do not see the advantage. They involve themselves if the crisis is very obvious. I remember for example when I was a child they closed the school because of snow. But in this past year they closed the school because of pollution of the air, because the dust moves from Iraq, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia to Iran and in that situation they say the air is not safe for breathing. So in that situation, they say something. But you cannot see fundamental action for preventing in the future. In some situations environmentalists protest or are active. So maybe if you go to some institution, they present some studies… not enough in my point of view. It’s not so good.

RP: Your work seems to me to focus on direct interventions with nature, at a time when the environment is increasingly politicised. Do you feel like your work is lost in this increasing politicisation? It becomes meaningless or futile, doesn’t it?

AN: Regardless of the impact of my work I feel this is a beauty, this is a pleasure to do it, it gives me a good feeling, and politically, socially, and culturally, I see a lot of impact and outcome in society or it can become a medium for acting against ignorance. In many occasions it happens that those who give the permission to the people I am fighting are from the government or the people in power, but personally I don’t care, I keep going with my work, I carry on, I don’t think it’s worthless or it cannot have any impact. I know compared to the global problem I’m just an atom, but I’m sure I can change the world on an atom scale too. I’m not responsible for others, if everyone will do what they have to do everything will change.

I go to Hormuz, I have a social or environmental action, I know that maybe I cannot change them, but I can change myself. Now I have a better life. I have no bad feeling. I feel healthy and good. I don’t add to the problem. If I can change myself that is enough.

RP: Iran is one of the countries set to suffer the most from climate change. It’s an arid region, with low rainfall, and already has low agricultural output, and now also economic sanctions restricting trade so that it becomes harder to trade with nearby food producers like Pakistan or India. In your view, should art reflect the urgency of this, or is it better to stay calm and educate?

AN: Some people in my country are hungry. So far, I haven’t seen the impact of sanctions on this – the people who are starving are generally starving for the same reason that people in New York or Tokyo are starving. Of course life is difficult – in my travels I have not found any place where people say life is very easy. I think regardless of that political situation, I have to do my artistic and social actions. If, one day, I came to the conclusion that there is an impact on nature from political consequence, or course I refer to that political consequence too. For example they say Iran might be able to make a nuclear bomb, but in many international journeys I see governments already have it and already use it, who can prevent them? Why should I bother myself in my country, where they might be able to make it? In many countries they make it, they try it, still they have their own right to have it. I think the problem is not here, it’s somewhere else. Even the politicians here say ‘nuclear energy for everyone, bomb for no-one’.

RP: You are an environmental artist but you are not a vegetarian, you eat fish and meat, you also flew to Tehran from Bandar Abbas when it was possible to take the train. Can you explain how you resolve these contradictions?

AN: I have not been convinced that as a creature I should eat only vegetables. I grew up in a nomadic society, and learned that my ancestors ate mostly meat. Like an animal, I cannot be a good fox and never think about the chicken. It is natural for the fox to eat the chicken. I cannot say, ‘you are an environmental fox, you should eat carrots’. Suppose I am an animal, I am a wolf, what should I do, forget about sheep? I can still be a good wolf and eat sheep. The bad thing is if I just attack 10 fish and eat just one of them. The bad thing is that humans do not regard that balance. In the U.K I know that they make some attempts not to harm rabbits, but rabbits can be found everywhere. So who should make this balance? Why should I prevent the snake from eating the mouse? If they don’t eat the mouse, then the mouse eats the, I don’t know, the wheat, and then I starve. This is how the world works. I think, even if I a good environmentalist, imagine for example that I don’t use a car, I use a donkey, imagine in Tehran how many donkeys we would need, how much planet they need – there would not be any grass left on the mountain. I think now the meaning of environmentalist can be that you try to harm the nature less. If you use a donkey or whatever – I’m not living in a cave or the middle ages. The city is too large. We need to use machines. But there are many ways to harm earth less than now. Just imagine the money spent on the army, or other unnecessary actions. In many rich countries they have additional food they just destroy.

RP: How important is it to have a connection with nature given the human tendency to behave in one way and believe another?

AN: People who live in nature don’t see that they lose it. Those who live in the big city, they are far from the beauty of nature, and they understand and feel when they lose it. That’s why they feel this emergency more. In the mountain, I have trees – apple, cherry, or vegetable trees, I consume the dry fruit of my own garden. So partly in a way I would say I am connected to nature, and I know the point of view of nature from a citizen point of view. So in many occasions, people who come to meet me just encourage me, sometimes it’s very difficult to live with less possibilities in a remote region. When I had a heart attack last year, I realised how it was so serious and dangerous for me to be there without any facilities.

RP: We had a conversation about archiving while I was on residency with you. With scientists describing great change to the environment, if you are archiving environmental material, the perception might be that because it has been preserved, it will stay this way in the future. We talked about the importance for the artist of archiving – what about its capacity to lie, in this circumstance?

AN: I think when I document an artwork or ask another artist or a student to document, I just pass this message to a larger audience. In my statement I just face them and say “what is the point, what is the problem, what is the crisis?” and there is just two ways, either you create an awareness, or you create an imaginary ‘it can be like this’, it can be this source of life or solution. To be optimistic and create a new world, or to criticise the situation.

RP: When I approach the environment, it is with the baggage of thousands of articles going through my mind, especially depicting the end of the universe, human life as we know it. In my work I have spoken with scientists who have cried describing their research to me. The environment has become an apocalyptic narrative, and I think for many people of my generation. (Ahmed asks me to define ‘apocalypse’, and I reply ‘end of the world’). You seem unburdened by this – is this a conscious decision, or a matter of generational difference, or perhaps a result of your direct contact with nature?

AD: For me, I think about my life, I know in the future I will not exist, so I do not care about the world maybe in the medium term years. The whole creature will change. When in the top of the mountain I find a fossil, I know a million years ago a creature lived there, and now they do not exist, so why should I care about others? In this moment I try to improve myself. This improvement doesn’t come from outside – it comes from inside too. So I just think about the moment or this duration and I enjoy what I’m doing.

RP: Yes but isn’t that hard? Say for example you accept this apocalyptic narrative, and like I tell you scientists have cried describing –

AD: I’m not sure. The shape of existence is changing. Now you know, compared to the galaxy, the whole universe is like a small atom. Because of this humanistic idea, we think the existence of humans means everything. But we are not everything. Even without us, there is love and movement, maybe we cannot conceive it.

RP: Yeah but my concern is that the coal and oil companies would also say this. That human beings are insignificant so we can do what we want – it releases us from moral and ethic-

AD: Not from that aspect. When they talk they talk about million years later. In our culture they believe in renovation too. They think the whole history is like a different season. Because ‘season’ in Iran makes sense. They always think there will be a saviour or something. They think about it not like a line, but like a circle.

RP: I’ve avoided talking about religion during the interview…

AD: No that is part of culture – it’s not a matter of religion. It is not Islam. Our New Year starts with blossom – why? The trees wake up and the flowers come out. It means that you believe in circle – it’s a pre-Islamic tradition. From some religion even people say ‘ok, the world will be ended’, even in Iran, in monotheism. I’m not sure. So far, it didn’t happen. For me it is like this news that you will die. Of course one day I will die. But now I am alive. I cannot always think “I’m dying, what should I do. Should I prepare my funeral myself?”

RP: Well you wouldn’t think about this. If you think you will die, you will not think about the moral and ethics.

AD: About the world – I know the situation will change, as it changed before. When you study these things, all the evidence shows the world is not like it was before. Maybe from the moral aspect, we don’t know whether to care about this issue or not.

RP: Thanks for your time and for hosting me on the residency. I’m sorry I broke your fish.

Ahmed’s website is www.riverart.net.
Richard Pettifer is a theatre director and performance artist, now based in Berlin, Germany.

Thanks to Tom Doig

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