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Barbad Golshiri: Shanghai Biennial 2012 Open Letter

November 2, 2012

via  Barbad Golshiri


A few months ago, the Shanghai Biennial team and its curators, Qiu Zhijie, Boris Groys, Jens Hoffmann and Chang Tsong-Zung, invited me to do a public work in Zhongshan Park Project [Shanghai, China]. My proposal was to build a skinned mutilated cow[1], arranged like a dervish in Sema’ (Sufi whirling) with a megaphone (horn loudspeaker) for his head broadcasting indistinguishable sounds of mourning, whimpers, lullabies, mantras and slogans. It had to whirl on ceaselessly and steadily in one direction by means of a DC machine. The whole object was also supposed to revolve around a center. After hours of ceaseless whirling, the cadaver would start to stink and after days, rot and decay. The Biennial committee had to hand the proposal to a cultural committee or department that I believe is a true descendant ofThe Cultural Revolution Group of 1963. The committee rejected the proposal twice, saying that it was anti-religious. The biennial team of course could not convince the committee that it was not. The piece was not anti-religious, yet it was based on the idea of an antitheist and non-mythical loop, an idea that I have been developing both artistically and theoretically in recent years. Thus, not the slightest thing in that piece was meant to point at any particular religion. But I also wondered that since when has the Communist Party of China started denouncing antitheism?  I was also told that the opening of the biennial was China’s National Day (October the first) and the piece seemed to them too frightening and malapropos for the occasion! All in all, I dare say that the Chinese officials thought that their Iranian counterparts might find the piece provocative or may have been benefiting from their fraternal advice.

As an Iranian artist and thinker who has been facing censorship every day, I have learned to never alter my work and surrender to censorship, thus I decided not to modify the slightest thing in that work of art and proposed a totally different piece and this time not for Zhongshan Park, but as we decided with the biennial team and Boris Groys, for Guangzhou. Perhaps I should have totally withdrawn, as Yuri Albert did; he refused to follow Chinese censors’ ultimatum and decided not to participate in this year’s Biennial.[2]

Engrave, the second piece, in a nutshell, was a stone sculpture – consisting of a mattress, a pillow and an ear affixed to it – to be placed in Lingshan cemetery. By the means of a mechanical lift, when a person lay down upon it, and rested his/her head sideways on the ear, with the sound of an extended inhalation the tumulus would slide down six to ten meters, rest a few seconds on the lowest level and start sliding up with the sound of an extended exhalation. Supposedly It seems that this time the Chinese officials did not find the work provocative, perhaps because I had said that the tumulus only referred to Giuseppe Sanmartino’s The Veiled Christ  [1753] and the mattress Bernini had made for The Sleeping Hermaphrodite. [1620]

I did not eventually attend the biennial, for the Chinese officials did not agree to invite me. According to the Chinese Embassy in Iran, being invited by the Shanghai Biennial was not sufficient; I needed to have an official invitation from PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At first I was told that since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was about to take place in October, the government had decreed a certain visa regime. That is to say, supposedly Chinese government did not have a problem with inviting Barbad Golshiri in particular. For this reason, and for calamities such as everyday massacres in Syria and inhumane conditions of Iranian political prisoners (among them, the human rights advocate and this year’s winner of Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been on hunger strike since 17 October) which render matters such as participating or not participating in a biennial quite petty and puny, I decided not to write an open letter. At first I assumed that the Chinese officials knew about my signing petitions against Ai Weiwei’s detention or about an upcoming exhibition that we will both participate in, but recently we found out that the Chinese government has indeed invited some Iranians artists who like me reside inside Iran to their Tehran Pavilion. A fraternal bond or alliance with Iranian officials made them have Iranian artists only in the official pavilion and not in the main program of the biennial. As Boris Groys has told me [email conversation, 10/22/2012] , all city pavilions were financed and curated by or under supervision of respected city authorities. I do not denounce my Iranian colleagues who participated in Tehran Pavilion and I most certainly do not blame the Biennial team and the curators; I am only protesting against China and/or Iran’s censorship that precluded me from taking part in the main program of a biennial to which I was officially invited.


Barbad Golshiri

October 2012, Tehran


[1] Since I am against animal slaughter, I intended to ask them buy a dead cow.

[2] Read more about Yuri Albert’s decision here.

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