“Why are you in Tehran?,” people in the capital continuously asked me. “Why are you going to Tehran?,” my friends wondered. Well, come to Pittsburgh in October 2013, visit the Carnegie International, and you will know. Until then, travel to Tehran, don’t believe what you read in the papers, or what they tell you on TV and other media. It’s absolutely stunning, it’s way too isolated, it’s not dangerous, it’s big (the metropolitan Tehran counts more than 15m inhabitants), the youth is great, as is suspicion, knowledge, curiosity, and hospitality.
Okay, there is some really bad stuff going on there, and there are not many tourists around, either. So, the first thing I did was walk to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art built by Iranian architect Kamran Diba and opened in 1977. According to Wikipedia, this great building hosts “the most valuable collection of Western modern art outside of Europe and the United States. It is said that there is approximately £2.5 billion worth of modern art held at the museum.” Entering into the main hall, you could see a mobile by Alexander Calder floating in front of portraits of Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Hosseini Khamenei (see image above). They had their collection of Giacometti, Hamilton, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Vasarely, and Warhol on display (see images below). While visiting, you were surrounded by a gentle sound (as in many of Tehran’s art galleries) which let me drift away into melancholia. You couldn’t help but wonder what this kind of high-end Western contemporary art was doing in today’s Iran (read here why contemporary art is indeed important in Iran). Out of this bluesy mood I sent a message to Sam Keller, the director of the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland, who initially wanted to travel to Tehran with me. He texted me back that that it was Ernst Beyeler who had sold some of these works to Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, and responded to my melancholy with “Warhol had the blues.” A few hours later, I learned that there was not too much reason for playing the blues.