Artistic withdrawal or refusal is the central theme of Iranian duo Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s historically-minded installation. In the largest project, they investigate the archives of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (or BP, as it has since become), specifically the aborted attempt in 1948 to film a documentary about the company’s activities. Photocopies of letters and other archival objects are displayed, but the centrepiece is a fascinating film in which the key letter from the original documentary’s director is narrated: cue complaints about the “empty, characterless” landscape, the “dark and colourless” petroleum, as well as the precarious political situation.
As a sort of rejoinder to these claims of “unfilmability”, then, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi show their own handheld film of a recent road trip around Iran, featuring ancient archeological sites, oil derricks in modern city centers, and beautiful, natural oil seepages on the surface of desert lakes. The sense is of civilization perpetually underpinned by oil – but also of disputed readings of the same natural environment and Western assumptions of cultural authority.
A second archival project isn’t quite so effective. The subject matter is certainly promising: Western artworks owned by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art that were removed from public display following the Revolution of 1979. The idea is that it was only through this evacuation that the museum, ironically, could become properly contemporary. But the notion of absence is a difficult one to present visually, and the typed lists of stored works and the architectural model of the museum just aren’t particularly stimulating – the kind of thing ultimately better suited, perhaps, to the English/Farsi publication, ‘Pages’, that the duo also produce.