In Residence /

Hills / Tokyo, Athens, Tehran

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the fourth installment.

I started taking long walks about a year ago. By long I mean four to five hours, maybe fifteen to twenty kilometers. Initially it was a way to lose weight. For the first time in my life I’d found steady, lucrative employment with a start-up in Berlin and was able to pay off the massive health insurance debt I’d accrued after three years of trying to provide for myself as a touring musician. The job consisted of sitting in bed and filing through a never-ending stream of user-uploaded vacation photos and rating them on a four-point scale to assess their sales potential as stock photography. I would do this three to five hours — or roughly four to six thousand images — a day, completely stationary except for my fingers as they frantically selected digits, the BBC World Service or Aljazeera running perpetually in the background.

I managed to pay off the debt in two months but decided to build a small financial nest egg for myself. I knew the company was designing an AI that would ultimately replace me, and who knew when I’d find work again. So I continued to maintain the heavy workload while enjoying my newfound middle-classness by feeding back into the start-up economy and ordering Foodora or Deliveroo everyday, only getting out of bed to open the door for the delivery man or to relieve myself.

I’m a slender human being: small skeleton, narrow shoulders, 158 centimeters short, a skull shaved smooth to mask premature balding, but a young face despite my age. Fat doesn’t redistribute around my body evenly — I only gain mass around my stomach and face. Coming out of the shower — after nine months on the job and probably two thousand euros’ worth of Korean delivery in my system — I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and wondered why one of the Roswell aliens was staring back at me. I’m not particularly vain (who, me?), but I’m single and men are horrible, so I knew something would need to change if I ever hoped to one day split the rent.

I despise the gym. Maybe it’s because my father was a volleyball coach. Maybe I can’t stand that it represents a false spiritual center for gay men (Smash the idols I say! Burn the heretics!). Or maybe I just inherited some lazy genes from a distant ancestor who managed to pass on his DNA despite Darwinism’s best efforts. Whatever the reason, it’s always been difficult to for me to find a physical outlet that I consider both ethically sound and spiritually invigorating. And practical. I used to swim as a kid, but public pools in Berlin are too expensive. I bought kettle bells and a pull-up bar, but my apartment is too small do any kind of real workout. I used to dance every night, but I’ve spent too many evenings getting fucked up in dark clubs and now my body and soul groan every time I venture out to those dimly lit concrete playgrounds.

I went on my first ever self-financed vacation to Tokyo last year. I thought I’d do it up proper, so I saved enough to have three thousand euros at my disposal. I wouldn’t have to worry about asking prices or feeling depressed when something felt outside my budget. Turns out three thousand is a lot, but not actually. Like a king fresh from his coronation, I waltzed into the Comme des Garçons flagship and confidently picked out an entire ensemble that looked smart and natural, like a second velvety skin, and asked them to ring it up. I’m not really a shopper so I don’t know what I expected the total to be, but when it came to eight thousand euros I started to cry. Tears of frustration for the nasty capitalist machine I have yet to harness, tears of self-pity because I cared so much, and tears of embarrassment because I was crying at the Comme des Garçons shop in Tokyo.

The luxury industry is mostly for looking, I suppose.

And so I left the store empty-handed and teetering on the edge of a total nervous breakdown in a city that won’t shut up. And I just started to walk.

And walk.

And walk.

And then I tripped.

Then I swore.

Then I walked some more until, after maybe an hour, I was pulled out of my own private hell by the breeze of a motorcycle rushing past me at close proximity. I’d somehow wandered onto one of the city’s elevated highways, where I’m pretty sure pedestrians are not supposed to be. But that didn’t matter because all of a sudden I was walking along the tops of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and I could see the city unfolding before me for the very first time. I was beholden to this elevation because it gave me the perspective to both literally and transcendently rise above everything. All of a sudden, a walk of class shame had transformed into a manifestation of my wanderlust; I forgot all about those silly pieces of fabric so brilliantly haberdashed (A lie! I’ll never forget how handsome they made me.) But this was a luxury I could afford, and I couldn’t find anything objectionable about it.

After I walked back to my sublet in Meguro, I checked my iPhone fitness app. It said I’d burned roughly eight hundred calories. Eight hundred calories from a pleasant walk! After a bath I meditated over my belly, pregnant with neglect, finger-lifted my puffy face in the mirror for a half hour, and Googled questionable health resources about the benefits of walking. It all checked out, and so from that day on I decided my “health thing” would be walking. Because in 2018 it’s apparently important that we identify with a unique fitness routine as much as we identify with an iffy political ideology. You’re a rock-climbing alt-right cis-het crypto-thug? I’m a post-Marxist romance-queer asexual urban walker. Always should be someone you really love. Pop goes the weasel.

I’ve been living in Athens for about a year now, and the walks have become the closest thing I have to a daily ritual. Deadlines and weather permitting, I usually leave my house around 1500h and walk until I reach some elevated plateau, one of the many hills or the surrounding mountains if I feel adventurous, and watch the sunset while getting overwhelmed and weepy. Then I make my way home. It never gets old and I’ve dropped over ten kilograms.

Here in Tehran it’s a necessity; my flat in Niavaran is four and a half kilometers from the nearest metro station. I’m living about three hundred meters from the Tochal Mountains, and I have been walking them every morning to burn off some of the extra energy my newfound sobriety has bestowed upon me. You can see the cityscape coming and going behind clouds and smog if you look south, and to the north nothing but endless mountain range and streams of melted snow trickling down natural and man-made drainage channels. I have to carry rocks with me, for protection. The rocks on the Tochal are deep green. I don’t know why. Yesterday I came across a pack of wild dogs resting under a small barren tree, the puppies feeding from their mother’s emaciated tits. We are all caught off guard and have a quiet standoff twenty yards from each other. I clutch one of the larger green stones and hope I won’t have to use it while worrying about its effectiveness if I do. After what seems like an eternity the mother leads her pups away from me and beyond the horizon of the mountain’s edge as a couple of the pups turn and eye me inquisitively (or maybe hungrily). When I’m confident they are far enough away I make my retreat down the path toward my condo, telling myself the same thing I do every morning when I wake up: “You’ve skipped death once more.”

I’m convinced in some way that recording these minutiae and disseminating them is my best chance at immortality outside of biological means. Melodies are preferable, but I haven’t been able to write a song in almost a year and I don’t know why. Failure can be murder, and poverty constipation for the mind. Stagnancy is a kind of death. Walking is great for the cardiovascular system, and forward motion can mimic the sense of being productive and maybe defibrillate my soul back into action. Like you, I want to live forever, but I’ll need to define my own vocabulary for it.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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Wheat, Sky, and Twelve Stars / Kyiv

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the third installment.

“You look emotional.”
“What?” I snap out of it.
She repeats, “I said: You look emotional.”

I’ve been staring at a star-shaped spire atop an imposing Stalinist skyscraper directly across from me on the other side of Khreshchatyk, the main Soviet-era boulevard that runs through the center of Kyiv. I’m sitting on the patio of a champagne bar on the exclusive top floor of the city’s main luxury shopping center. I’m the entertainment this afternoon for the birthday party of a shop owner/Instagram celebrity who is inexplicably a fan of my music. I’m back in Kyiv to perform as part of a local designer’s festival of young fashion talent, but he doesn’t have the budget to pay me and so has shopped me out to his rich friends as a way of subsidizing my trip. I’m getting paid a thousand euro (cash) for today’s gig and another thousand (cash) next week when I’ll perform during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in an enormous palace near the river. I lost my job doing content management for a stock photography start-up last month when I was replaced by an algorithm I’d been training for the past eighteen months. The laws haven’t caught up with the so-called “gig economy” and I’m ineligible for unemployment, so this money is a welcome lifeline. My audience this afternoon will be mostly children aged three to six, blissfully shuffling along to my songs about facials and Ayn Rand, while an Amazonian woman wearing stilettos and a sleek black sleeveless dress with platinum-blond Ellen Degeneres hair, freshly inked with pitch-black tattoos covering the entirety of both her arms and neck, as if she’d walked directly out of a William Gibson novel, stares angrily at everything and everyone. Champagne flows while the adult guests pose for a nightlife photographer and I help myself to caviar and smoked fish topped with gold flakes while that communist star stands there stoically in the background, quietly judging us all.

It’s not a completely passive ideological relic though; it’s been repainted from its soviet red to the colors of wheat and sky, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Ukraine has become something of an obsession for me since I was first brought here a year ago for the same festival. I was initially invited in 2014 as well, but before I was scheduled to arrive I received word that the situation with Russia had escalated to a point where my safety could no longer be assured.

“Oh, how interesting!” I thought to myself at the time; I’d had shows canceled in the past for a lot of different reasons (money, technical problems, personal vendettas), but war was a new one.

When I was invited again two years later, I hadn’t really been following the situation, knew nothing of the background of the conflict, and was unaware that I’d be playing in festivities related to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. So I wasn’t prepared for the three days of relentless bravado I encountered when I arrived: celebrations of war, of fashion, of flags, of marigolds, of tanks, of dumplings, of history, of identity, of language, of bodies, of revolution, of religion, of music, and, most unexpectedly, of romance. Everything was articulated with such euphoria and vibrancy — with an aesthetic precision so refined it was as if every time I turned my head I was editing a piece of epic cinema in real time. Three days so brilliant and ridiculous and frightening and fragile that I was kick-started into what has now become a seventeen-month-long escape from my adopted home of Germany to reclaim something I forgot I was searching for when I planted myself there twelve years ago. Something I’d ultimately find on a hillside in Athens six months later.

But Kyiv wasn’t a real place, was it? Surely my memory was coloring in blind spots with images from films I studied in university or histories I’d read about online to fulfill some deeply rooted desire to experience something supreme. Even the boy I met there seemed like a creation of my deep subconscious: a mirror image of myself distorted by digital filters and liquefied to exaggerate his features, tongue processed through algorithmic translation technologies, his talents tactile as thread instead of intangible vibrations in the air. 

But he was real. I met him again a month later in Paris, a city so self-conscious of its own mythology that it has the uncanny ability to demystify even the most magical of ideas (ever been to Paris Fashion Week?). And if he was real, then I had to deduce that Kyiv was a real place as well. Real places are populated by real people, and real people aren’t symbols, war isn’t theater, and my appraisal of Ukraine as merely an idea was becoming inexcusable to my (likely flawed) inner sense of morality.

And so to the internet I went and spent a year trying to learn as much as I could in an attempt to make sense of the collection of signifiers I saw collide on pavement and cobblestone that weekend. I combed through innumerable news articles, think pieces, wikis, and documentaries trying to piece together a general narrative of Ukraine’s modern history. It isn’t easy, and in my case, dependent on English-language resources, it seemed virtually impossible. Go ahead, try and Google a topic in which both Russia and the West have divergent interests: it’ll make even the biggest cynic believe in fake news and alternative facts. I’d never experienced search results so flooded with such obvious trolling from both sides. Wading through this sludge of unverified news sources, conspiracy theory blogs, “expert” editorials, and official government literature left me more confused than actually watching hundreds of tanks parade down Khreshchatyk that day in August last year; because at least I knew that had actually happened. I was there. I saw it and photographed it. I felt the canons fire.

After months of immersing myself in websites that made me as uncomfortable as the times when I’d wound up in the dark corners of the uncurated internet of the mid-1990s (rotten.com, Mr. Hands, and that first time I asked Jeeves, “What was the holocaust?”), I decided to give up and hope that the few certain facts I’d been able to accrue were giving me a semi-balanced idea of what was happening. I was still a bit disturbed by my willingness to assign the city to a place of fantasy in my memory, but it’d been a year, and the ghost image of Kyiv was finally fading from my retinas.

And then I got a DM in my Instagram asking me to return.

I was hoping that coming back would set my mind straight. That I’d return to find a city that is completely normal, familiar, comprehendible, even if just in part. But on the contrary: this time there’s even more poetics swirling around the air like pollen. Thousands of EU flags have proliferated throughout the city and have mated with the Ukrainian flag into a Frankenstein of wheat, sky, and twelve stars. Everything from backpacks to dumplings have been dyed blue and yellow. Teenagers dress in hoodies with their passports printed over their hearts, and an enormous billboard covering an entire building at Maidan Square defiantly proclaims “FREEDOM IS OUR RELIGION,” the words superimposed over an image of crumbling chain. A young boy has a swastika tattooed on his bicep, while an oligarch’s daughter has brought her defanged pet raccoon to a runway presentation north of the Dnieper River. My hotel room is entirely pink, and I wake up one morning to find the bed sheets covered in blood from a wound “the boy” suffered the night before, after falling into a ditch while trying to force open a bottle of warm Prosecco with his shoe. My trip is extended twice. By the end of my seven days in Kyiv my beard is patchy, my skin is green, my eyes are red, and my heart is in knots.

The veil is lifted once though, ever so briefly, when we take a trip out to an enormous second-hand market in a working-class neighborhood in the north. Large storage facilities and tents, filled with piles of jetsam from Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark as far as the eye can see. This is familiar, painfully normal in fact. Western Europe distributes this very same garbage to Greece, Poland, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, or wherever. Nothing spectacular here. Same old shit. Even the glint of revolution and the radiance of those twelve stars can’t reflect light onto something so terminally gray. I purchase a promotional hat from an obscure Swiss bank. I have a matching one in Athens that I bought from a similar market.

Ultimately, the Kyiv I experienced probably doesn’t exist. I might be able to trust my memory, but I don’t trust my heart with facts. It has the capacity to flower them in lilacs and baby’s breath until they become so saturated with petals that it’s difficult to see what the point was to begin with.

Context is impossible when you’re a tourist.

At a juice bar in Tehran, months later, I’ll pour out my feelings about Kyiv to an engineering professor I’ll have met on the subway.  After my spiel he’ll pat me on the back and, laughing, say, “Yes, conflict is very exciting, isn’t it?”

A week or so following that a group of boys at a large skate park on Tabiat Bridge will practice their English on me. One will eye my Ukraine hoodie with the handsome trident coat of arms.
“Which skate company is that? It looks so cool.”

“I said: You look emotional.”
My host’s assistant, who’s accompanied me to this birthday, is waving her hand in front on my face on the shopping center rooftop patio.
“Oh, ha, no. I’m just tired I guess.” And I return my gaze to that star.

It’s bullshit though. I’m completely emotional and I haven’t felt more awake in a long time. And I love it.

And as I sit there hating myself for loving it, that blue-and-yellow commie star looks on.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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Forty Tomans / Tehran

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the second installment.

I show the driver the address from my phone. “Niavaran? Forty tomans, ok?!”

I’m moving today. I’ve caught a taxi on the street in Central Tehran, in a working-class area near a military university where I’ve been living for the past week in a shared flat with five male art students in their early twenties. There was some miscommunication with the embassy, and they thought I wanted to “live close to local artists.” When I explain that this is a somewhat inappropriate setup given that I’m thirty-two years old, my host looks at me shocked and exclaims, “You ARE?? But you look so young, like a teenager!” It’s an exchange I’ve grown so weary of by now that I avoid discussing my age whenever possible. My neoteny, something I once considered a secret weapon, has made me increasingly insecure with age, as I wonder how it might actually be affecting my emotional and professional growth. Forever cradled in kid’s gloves, will I remain soft?

The toman is a unit used by locals for transactions instead of the Iranian rial because it divides the price by ten. So forty tomans (which actually means forty thousand tomans, because the “thousand” is already implied) actually means four hundred thousand rial. I’m told the math will quickly become second nature, but by the time I leave Iran I’m still just handing piles of colorful banknotes over to vendors and letting them take their pick. It’s a considerable time saver.

The taxi driver throws my suitcase in the back seat and instructs me to sit in front with him. He’s a pleasant man and is very excited to be driving someone from outside Iran (though I can’t help but detect a sliver of disappointment when I tell him I’m Canadian. “Oh… So no America?” Nope, sorry.) This curiosity about Westerners is something people had prepared me for prior to my arrival; it is very true that strangers will come right up to you on the street and ask where you are from, welcome you to Iran, and in some cases invite you to dinner with their family. My second day in the city, while waiting outside a restaurant with a friend, an elderly lady in full chador walks up to me with the kindest smile on her face and, translating through my friend, tells me how happy it makes her that foreigners are visiting Iran again. I don’t know if I’ve ever made anyone this happy before. I can honestly say that none of the guys I’ve dated have ever looked at me so lovingly, and most would be happy to maintain a moratorium on my presence in their lives. I’m genuinely touched. 

The taxi driver weaves his way through the thicket of Tehran’s notorious rush-hour traffic. A trip that on paper shouldn’t take more than a half hour will run into the ninety-minute mark. I feel safer driving during rush hour though; it feels less likely we’ll end up in a serious accident while driving at a snail’s pace in a tide of cars almost uniformly colored white or black, speckled with green and yellow taxis and large blue municipal pick-up trucks from another era. The blue trucks, I’m told, are to be avoided at all costs because they don’t have brakes. No brakes?
“Other cars are the brakes.”
(I assume this is a joke until the very next day when I see one slam into a parked white passenger vehicle and no one seems to pay it much attention.)

Tehran has a metro population of over fifteen million, and it seems like everyone has at least one vehicle. Despite efforts from the government there is still very little in the way of enforced traffic regulations, and the only time I see people heeding traffic signals is when two highways, at least eight lanes deep, are required to intersect. My first day, wondering how exactly I’m supposed to cross the street, my friend grabs me firmly by the arm and drags me directly into the flow of traffic and waltzes me calmly to the other side. Like jumping into the ocean, the worst part is the first step; once inside you give yourself over to the current and come out refreshed (except when you don’t).

As a result of all this driving in vehicles with mostly outdated engines, Tehran is terribly polluted. It’s my first experience with heavy smog, and I can’t help but be impressed with the way it inhabits the city, floating through everything like animated mist in a Disney film, softening the details of faces, consuming the mountains and cityscape at will. On days when there is no wind and the pollution stays thick within this city flanked on three sides by mountains, the sunset becomes a spectacle of gorgeously diffused, all-embracing amber, gold, and champagne pink you can see between your fingertips. The director at Mohsen Gallery asks if I’m handling the air quality ok.
“I actually quite like it,” she tells me. “To me it’s a part of the city.”
Beautiful but unfortunately breathtaking in the most literal way; it’s a major public health issue, the cause of many deaths annually and a contributing factor in the government’s plans to move the capital elsewhere.

While winding up along an elevated highway I notice a tattoo of a fish on my driver’s arm, peaking out from beneath his T-shirt. I remove my hat to show him the protein enzyme my friends tattooed on the back of my head as part of a viral marketing campaign. He’s thrilled by this.
“Tattoos, SO good!” In Farsi and gesticulation he tells me he has an even larger tattoo on his back. Of what?
“Also Fish. BIG fish.” At which point he plugs his phone into the car speaker and starts to play Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” at full blast. He says her name aloud and puts his hand to his heart in total admiration.

He then goes on to rattle off a list of things he thinks are bad or good, indicating bad by crossing his forearms in front of him, good by giving a double thumbs-up (though traditionally this has the opposite meaning in Iran). These gestures, as well as the fifteen or so words of English he knows and the three words of Farsi I’ve learned, will constitute a pidgin we’ll use to communicate for the remaining hour or so.

The highways through the northern neighborhoods of the city are lined with chenar trees, and represent one of the few unifying features of the city. They look ancient, but I’m informed by a friend that in fact most were placed there in the mid-nineties by Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Tehran’s reformist mayor who oversaw a number of large urban-renewal projects throughout the city before being tried and convicted on corruption charges viewed by many as a politically motivated attack by conservatives and hard-liners who opposed then President Khatami’s reformist agenda. Is that what my friend thought had happened?
“Probably, but he was probably also a bit corrupt as well. There’s a lot of corruption in Iran. It’s not like it’s a secret.”
Ah, “corruption” — the unifying vice for peoples everywhere.

As we pass the Imam Khomeini Mosalla, a monumental but unfinished mosque/conference center under construction for well over a decade and still nowhere near finished, my taxi driver sighs and his tone changes to something a little dourer.
“Canada, good. Germany, good. Iran, good.” He pauses for a moment.
“Iraq, bad.”
I’m caught off guard by this and don’t know how to respond. I just look at him confused.
“Iraq, very very bad.” He repeats.

At this point our made-up language fails us. I’d like to pull out my phone and try communicating with Google Translate, but it’s not good enough yet, and besides, the Silicon Valley dreamers have yet to develop an app to simulate the empathy needed in conversations like this. (And the fact that they might not be that far off from actually developing such a tool fills me with dread.)

In the West (maybe everywhere) I feel it’s more common to assume that the defining event in Iran’s twentieth-century history is the 1979 cultural revolution; which might be true in some ways, but after visiting it’s pretty clear that the wounds of the Iran-Iraq war cut far deeper than is usually expressed abroad. More than a small percentage of the streets in Tehran are named for martyrs, and the faces of young men lost in war are printed all over the city, at small street-level shrines or blown up the size of office buildings. While a lot of this is obviously an extension of the country’s impressive propaganda machine, the grim realities of the war are pretty difficult to ignore here, and I’m disappointed in myself for not knowing more about it before arriving. It makes me a little sick to acknowledge that atrocities might actually require their own PR division.

If the revolution was a spiritual triumph, the war was a human catastrophe. 

I hesitate.
And then carefully reply, “I don’t know, I’ve never been.”
Oh, how Canadian of me.
He doesn’t understand, but looking at me I think he realizes he’s making me uncomfortable and immediately waves his hand in the air as if to wash the slate clean.
“Ok, ok ok. But tattoos? Good!” he laughs and shares more of his favorite pop music.

We finally break free from the traffic gridlock and wind our way up the foothills, above the clouds of yellow-green smog and toward Niavaran, one of the wealthiest areas in Tehran. Located just at the base of the Tochal Mountains in the east of the city, Niavaran had been the retreat of shahs for centuries before Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made it the official residence of he and his third wife (whose French art school training is on full display here) in an exquisitely decadent modernist palace (complete with a motorized retracting roof) ten years before he would be ousted in 1979.

The area surrounding the palace is now home to some of Iran’s most elite in a dense concentration of high-rise luxury condos fabricated in a faux neoclassical style. They’re horrifying but impressive, similar to Ceausescu’s palace in Bucharest, with huge marble columns, baroque detailing, and gilded gates. I’m surprised that there is little of the “Gulf Futurism” favored in other Islamic capitals and wonder if this has anything to do with Iran’s complicated history with both Europe and the Arab Peninsula. To make the trip from the center to here, to witness that dramatic of a shift, that level of clear inequity is as mystifying as it is frustrating. When I send a photo of my building’s opulent front entryway to my friend he replies, “You totally manifested this! How do you feel?”
Conflicted.

While taking a walk through a nearby park my friend asks what I think of the neighborhood and I tell her I think it’s “pretty crazy this exists” and it makes the revolution even more difficult to understand. She tells me to read a poem by Mehdi Akhavan Sales, a well-known revolutionary poet, titled “Inscription.” In it, a village of people all chained together read a message carved into a large stone that tells them the answer to their woes is written on the other side. Collectively they flip the stone, only to find the same message inscribed on the other side. 

If I wake up at 6 AM, from the window of my tenth-floor condo I can see the sun rise over a magnificent view of the city. Over the course of the next hour it will slowly disappear into a cloud of exhaust. Beautiful, toxic gas wraps the city up for another day, but I’m mostly safe from that up here.

Today I’ll teach myself to deseed a pomegranate like a professional. With a knife, score it along each membrane, pull it open, then smack the shit out of it with a wooden spoon.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

 

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Drinks at the Ambassador’s House / Tehran

Dan Bodan spent November 8 to December 8 in residence at the Goethe Institute in Tehran. Flash Art invited him to write a travelogue during his time there. This is the first installment.

“Well, the thing about the Greeks,” he says between sips of his crystal-clear German pilsner, “is that there’s not much to them beyond the first impression.”

“Oh, I don’t think I agree,” I reply and quickly take a long sip from my glass of Riesling, the first drink I’ve had since arriving in Iran nearly three weeks earlier. I’m speaking with the director of a Landesmuseum somewhere in Germany, and the already forced conversation is turning from polite to caustic with each new sip of wine.

Tonight I am a guest at the German ambassador’s residence in Tehran, a Mies van der Rohe-style villa in the center of an enormous fortified private garden in the Tajrish neighborhood in the north of the city, a short walk from the Tajrish Bazaar with its glorious view of the Tochal Mountains (whenever the clouds and/or pollution allow for it, that is). It’s directly neighboring a similar enclave for the Turkish ambassador, and I’m told that the two are actually connected to each other via an underground passage in case the Iranians take it upon themselves to occupy either structure like they did with the US and Saudi embassies (in 1979 and 2016 respectively). I haven’t been able to confirm this, but if it’s true it would be one of the few instances of German-Turkish collaboration in recent memory. My presence has been requested to celebrate the arrival of two German cultural delegations: one from Baden-Baden and one from Berlin, as well as “top decision-makers in arts and culture in Germany.” At this point in the evening I’m still one of the only “art-makers” in the room.

Upon my arrival I’m greeted by the ambassador himself. An imposing man, tall and stern, the archetype of a German bureaucrat. His handshake is so firm it feels like it could shatter my tiny Canadian hand as he grabs it demanding to know who I am. He doesn’t let go for the rest of the conversation, eyes never blinking, his stare burning into me as if trying to catch me in a lie. I realize in this moment I wouldn’t have the stomach for real diplomacy.

“I’m the Goethe resident.”
“But you are not German.”
“Uhh no I’m not —”
“And what is the purpose of your residency?”
“Ehh, well research I guess —”
“For what project?”
“Oh uh, well lots of them, music I suppose, and, ummm I was asked to write a column about the residency for a magazine.”

His wife, a friendly looking woman about my size, standing beside him and smiling pleasantly, takes particular interest in this. “Oh, how exciting! And what will you write about?”
“Oh, I’m not sure yet —”
“And WHERE is the money for all this coming from?” he interrupts, at which point my host from the embassy jumps in: “From Berlin! All the money is coming from Berlin, don’t worry, sir!”
“Well then, young man.” And with that he lets go of my tender hand and pats me on my shoulder. “Enjoy your stay in Iran, and tonight, please, enjoy some German beer!”

I’ve spoken more German in the past three weeks in Tehran than in almost twelve years in Berlin. Part of it is the residency and my hosts from the German embassy, but as I travel throughout the city meeting strangers I’m surprised by the number of people eager to practice their German-language skills with me.

“They’re very generous with visas for Iranians, it’s one of the easier places for us to visit,” a man at a local cantina-style restaurant tells me. “But they want to see how much you have in your bank account first, of course. HA HA.”

I remember applying for my first German freelance visa.

“They’ll want to see about eight thousand euro in your bank account,” everyone is told, though I’ve never actually seen this written down anywhere official. In most cases parents are called to do a momentary infusion of wealth (or permanent, depending on your creed). I wonder how much Iranians are supposed to have in their accounts and if they also have to take out an expensive national health insurance plan if they want to visit? Every time I pass the embassy in downtown Tehran there’s a crowd of at least fifty Iranians congested around the door waiting for visa services, waving application forms and passports above their heads. To me it looks like a scene from the fall of Saigon, but this is actually just the way Tehranese citizens line up: an orderly congregation of pushing and squeezing and politely explaining why one needs to go first. Amazingly, it seems to work, and everyone (mostly) has a good sense of humor about it. A ride on the subway at rush hour works in the same way. On my first day I’m told that I shouldn’t be afraid to really push my way on, that everyone’s used to it. Unfortunately no one tells me I need to push my way off as well, and I find myself on more than one occasion finally disembarking several stations after my destination. But otherwise the system works.

“Yes, it works,” I’m told, “except when it doesn’t.”

I try and imagine the same scenario except with Germans. I nearly faint.

Technically speaking, it’s not actually the Goethe Institute hosting me. The Iranian chapter of the cultural institute was shut down in 1987 after an unaffiliated German television comedy series made fun of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then they’ve only been allowed to open a German Language school and host events at a small German-speaking Protestant church established in the 1950s. Under the impression that I’d be attending a traditional Armenian Christmas market I find myself at this very church for a Lufthansa-sponsored Weinachtsmarkt. It’s packed with excited Iranians and expats lining up for Bratwurst and waffles, purchasing oddities normally found in the discount section of German grocery stores and handmade crafts by little old omas who have been shuttled in from the homeland to sit quietly behind their booths sipping warm punsch. There’ve even got stale brötchen sandwiches and a non-alcoholic Kölsch beer (“Would you like one?” Nein, danke.) A choir of children in Santa hats from the local international school begin singing Christmas carols and the entire room erupts into a sea of smartphones trying to capture this spectacle so familiar to me but probably a novelty to them. At one point they launch into a rendition of Ode to Joy and it strikes me that a mixed-gender choir singing the European national anthem in a Christian church feels like a show of German soft power more genuinely subversive than anything I could hope to achieve here performing songs about gay sex.

One of my Iranian hosts, a German-language teacher, asks why I make so much fun of the Germans. “Because I love Germany,” I tell him. Which is true, insomuch as I care deeply about the welfare of wherever I am. And I’ve made Germany my home for over a decade, participating in its culture, paying my taxes, inhaling its clean air, staking my claim, and I’ll be eligible for permanent residency soon, or even full citizenship. I see it as my duty to keep critical, lest the country turn itself into something nasty and embarrassing, a real possibility at this particular moment in time. I have invested a lot into Germany. My voice has a place in the conversation of its future.

“And what artists did you meet in Athens?” the museum director continues, as I eye the floor-to-ceiling abstract paintings adorning the walls back at the ambassador’s house.
“Oh, I mostly hung out with skaters.”
“I see, well…” and with that we’ve had enough of each other and in tandem quietly turn and walk away.

The Berlin delegation has arrived, led by a collective best known for their impressive street-art interventions, and the mood softens a bit. Later they’ll take me to a private party opposite the Lebanese embassy, where I’ll partake in some of the infamous Armenian “vodka” served in an unmarked two-liter plastic bottle and then decide the next morning not to drink again for the remainder of the trip.

As I’m leaving and the ambassador’s wife says her goodbyes, I compliment her home. She excitedly grabs my arm and pulls me to a small photo hanging on the wall. “THIS was the original building.” An impressive classical Persian mansion. “But it wouldn’t survive an earthquake so they needed to rebuild.” She gives me a tender hug.

I ask for a photo with the ambassador. I post it online with the caption, “Who’s the real ambassador though?”

It’s not rhetorical.

Dan Bodan is a musician who lives in Berlin. He has spent the past seventeen months traveling.

Next installment.

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In Residence /

Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Promised Land

For the last installment of this series I talked to Yves Pedrono, a historian of western movies. According to him, westerns were essential in re-defining the “western conquest” and American history.

“The first movie was a western [The Great Train Robbery, 1903],” says Pedrono, “which says a lot about the impact of the genre in the American psyche.” Interestingly, he defines the real western era as spanning from 1946 (with Ford’s My Darling Clementine) to 1964 (with Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn), “because these movies carried an epic mission, which was to create, to embellish, but also to revise the foundations of American history.” After WWII the US was the leading nation in the world. Nevertheless, many directors, who themselves fought on European soil, such as Howard Hawks and John Ford, noticed that their country didn’t have testaments to a glorious past like European countries did. “They had a complex. They wanted to fill the void and chant the original glory of their nation. But which glory? It was yet to be created,” Pedrono says. Cinema would be their most powerful tool to project their fantasized glory to the rest of the world.

“From a historical perspective — and it starts with the Mayflower — the American people see themselves as the New World’s Chosen Ones. This is also true in their westerns, where striking parallels with the Bible can be drawn,” adds Pedrono. As a reference, we can go back to the nineteenth century, when Alexis de Tocqueville described, in his classic Democracy in America, that “religion […] must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country.” This relationship with the sacred would therefore be at work in the movie industry.

As the Bible states, God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham. Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, were led by Moses to find and conquer the Promised Land. While in the desert, God meets Moses and delivers the Tablets of Law to him. The desert was a test of their faith through which the Israelites would find their promised land. “This is why the desert is so present and symbolically important in western movies: it is where the Law is fought and forged. This happens before anyone can find the Promised Land, which is California,” says the historian. “The Promised Land is the reward and the goal of the western conquest. A good example is John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), but there are other biblical parallels. For example, the opposition between extensive and intensive farming is recurrent in this genre, which is the problem of land distribution. How will the conquerors live: as nomads or settlers? It is the same biblical confrontation of Abel and Cain.”

Besides, violence in westerns movies is often expressed and resolved through duels. Two antagonistic characters face each other as mirror reflections, mirages, nemeses and fatal enemies. The duel is a mimetic form of killing: the protagonist must move faster than his enemy. The ideology specific to westerns is that luck is on the side of the lawful. According to philosopher René Girard, mimetic rivalry, or mimetic desire, is the gate humans use to enter the vicious circle of violence. Hence violence might be a central key to understanding the culture of the west.

Where is the American Promised Land today? Is it all broken up into individual, bourgeois properties? Frank Gehry is one of the principal imagineers of LA neo-boosterism in the 1990s. As Sam Davis writes, “[Gehry]’s work clarifies the underlying relations of repression, surveillance and exclusion that characterize the fragmented, paranoid spatiality towards which Los Angeles seems to aspire. […] Yes paranoia could be a misnomer, for the adjacent streets are a battleground. […] Gehry’s [architecture] is a kind of architectural fan-base, a beachhead for gentrification. Its soaring, light-filled interiors surrounded by bellicose barricades speak volumes about how public architecture in America is literally being turned inside out, in the service of ‘security’ and profit.”

Many layers compose the imagination of the American West today: an initiatory trip, a personal adventure, a place to revisit American history or to experiment with new boundaries between faith, contemplation and intellect… Or a window on the starry vault of humanity’s greatest desires. The American Dream gave birth to a religion of success. To be successful is to be a Chosen One. The Desire behind the Dream taps resources of the imagination — a source of wealth perhaps greater than the land itself. Go West, become sacred or die trying.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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In Residence /

Heaven, Fortune and the West / Mysticism

Zoe Crosher’s work explores how Los Angeles shapes our subconscious. One of her photographic series, “Transgressing the Pacific” (2008), captures various beaches where famous characters, real or fictitious, were seen for the very last time.

Crosher refers to scenes in movies — such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Coming Home (1978) and Falling Down (1993) — in which a main character disappears into the ocean. In these photographs, the ocean is the enigma that remains unsolved, and the character walks into it to surrender, desperate for an answer. Still going west, but broken hearted. Still aiming at the golden direction, but dangerously lost. In this series about disappearance, Crosher also alludes to real-life characters such as the most publicized evangelist of the ’20s and ’30s, Aimee Semple McPherson. Where Aimee Semple McPherson Disappeared at Ocean Park (2008) depicts a pearly ocean with a meerschaum delicacy reminiscent of Semple’s lace embroidery dress. “Nobody knows about her, and they should,” says Crosher. “She was this really important figure in the ’20s who was the first person to bridge theatricality and religion. In the ’20s people would go to LA to get healed, for diseases such as tuberculosis, arthritis and so on. There were a lot of healers and religions of different kinds. Aimee Semple McPherson would do these things called “narrated sermons.” She built a beautiful lake there called Echo Park, as well as a big temple to narrate her sermons. She would have a giant needle and a camel on stage, or she would dress up as a cop and ride a motorcycle up and down the aisles and pretend to be like God pulling you over to the side of the road. Or she would have a hundred virgins on stage… She collaborated with Charlie Chaplin to do all these really extensive religious performances.”

Belief and make-believe, faith and talent were tied and growing together in the Echo Park scene. The church was a theater, the blessing was an act, and the performance was sacred. Did the entire Hollywood industry inherit this spiritual bond? Crosher adds: “At the height of her popularity in 1926, she faked her own disappearance at this place called Ocean Park Pier, which is no longer there. The history of LA is also a history of forgetting.”

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and rocket scientist Jack Parsons really hit it off, probably because they shared the same goals in life: becoming masters of the intellect. They met through their friend Aleister Crowley and his Pasadena group in the ’50s, who initiated them to Thelema, his complex system of occult beliefs. Looking for a key to the cathedral of intelligence, they were hoping to ignite unknown forces of both rational and irrational realms.

Magick was, as Crowley defined it, “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Just like with cinema, the fiction door could lead to a path of lush and real golden apples, and vice versa. “The important thing to realize is every act is a magical act,” said Brian Butler, Kenneth Anger’s collaborator. Anger, also a part of Crowley’s Pasadena circle, may have used this magick mostly for his art, hoping to make aesthetic talismans. In his movies, the mise-en-scène recalls a ritual, the silent scenes evoke a sacred respect, the disconcerting enigma suggests a holy message, and Crowley’s symbols ground the imagery in the occult. But is that the reason why Anger’s films are so powerful? After the recent release of the last and definitive version of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Brian Butler commented: “The film was shot in Samson de Brier’s House (in Pasadena), a very small house, believe it or not. But it’s Kenneth’s genius of camerawork and his expressionist set that created perspective and depth. And it looks like a huge space.” When asked if this movie is a piece of occult work or a piece of art, Butler says, “In my experience of many years of seeing the film, there is a lot to decipher. But it’s like a dream where it’s your own personal interpretation. That was the film where he really began to introduce these symbols of Aleister Crowley. But I guess, as with most art, it is for the viewer to interpret what it means.”

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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