COMBINING HIS PASSIONS FOR BOOKS AND ART TOGETHER, THE OUTCOME IS A PUBLISHING HOUSE THAT FOCUSES ON COLLABORATION BETWEEN ARTIST AND PUBLISHER
Ali Bakhtiari is somewhat of a highly fashionable guy compared to most of the men in Tehran. But the way he dresses goes perfectly well with his personality and intriguing taste. He was standing in front of his apartment on a street in the Mahmoudi neighborhood. The reason we had to meet him here was because the day of our appointment happened to fall on Iran’s national holiday and instead of his office, we were to be taken on a tour of his apartment.
His duplex apartment is minimally decorated. One of the walls on the ground floor is occupied by a bookshelf while displayed on the remaining walls are some works of art from his private collection. Bakhtiari defines himself as a curator who’s interested in cultural studies, particularly design, culture, visual arts and film. He began his career in 2008 as the director of a gallery in Tehran. But after a year of working, he felt it wasn’t the right job for him. Bakhtiari decided to quit and pursue his interests in one of his greatest passions, history and culture, particularly the modern and contemporary Middle Eastern culture. Being a freelancer, he curates shows and does research for several galleries and museums such as the British Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou or MAXXI Museum with his focus ranging from Iranian pop culture from the 1950s to the Islamic Revolution. In addition to his curatorial and research works, another of Bakhtiari’s lifelong obsessions is books.
“Since I was a child, I have always loved books. It is something about the materiality of books; I love them, just to have them, turning pages after pages,” said Bakhtiari. Working in the art industry, he had been wondering to himself for quite some time about why anyone in Iran had yet to create a good art book be it artists’ monographs or the kind of book that could be used as a medium for artists to present their artistic ideas. He began researching seriously and spent a great amount of time in several libraries in London. It wasn’t until 2012 that he founded his own publishing house, ABBookness, which places its focus on collaborations between the publisher (himself) and Iranian and Middle Eastern visual artists, who have never had this experience of using books as a canvas before. The first book was published in late 2013 and ‘Catching the Moon’ is its name. It’s a documentation of Farideh Lashai’s (1944-2013) studies on her video work, consisting of etchings, drawings and still frames. There were only 50 copies published and the feedback has been highly positive, especially from big institutions in the global art world such as the British Museum and Georges Pompidou.
With the first issue’s overwhelming success, the second issue that follows serves perfectly well as the artist’s artistic medium. ‘The Grand Book of Heech’ is ABBookness’ collaboration with Parviz Tanavoli, the most prominent and highly valued artist of the Middle East. One of the most recognized works of Tanavoli is the sculpture he created for Empress Farah Pahlavi in 1971. It’s a bronze sculpture in the shape of Persian calligraphy for heech (nothingness). In 2014, Bakhtiari invited the legendary artist to rethink ‘heech’ in the form of an artist’s book. All 30 copies were entirely handmade and the project took over one year to complete. As described on ABBookness’ website, “The 15-page book gradually and page by page virtually dissolves from a full shape to nothing… The shape of the Heech in high relief, page by page, gets smaller, and on the last page is just a raised dot (nearly nothing); the sculptural shapes gradually fit into each other.”
On average, ABBookness produces one book per year, but that’s not enough for someone as active as Bakhtiari. ABBookness has a side project, which is called AB Projects, which are the things that he curates, exhibitions that he does, or things that he edits as an editor like books and essays that he writes for magazines.
VISUAL ARTISTS ARE TOTALLY FREE FROM THE BEGINNING. THEY’RE VERY MUCH INDEPENDENT.
As a collector, Bakhtiari has been collecting primarily Iranian and Middle Eastern Contemporary art since 2006 with a number of international pieces. With 200 being the current number of works in his private collection, Bakhtiari said that he’s interested in the idea of putting together an exhibition for it has been ten years since he first started collecting.
“So I think it’s a responsibility for me as a part of this community to support it financially. Because it would be very barbaric I think, very primitive to earn the money from some context or industry and spend it somewhere it doesn’t belong. As a curator, I’m earning my money from this industry and I’m spending it in that industry so it will enrich this very small society of art in Iran or even in the Middle East.” To the question about the fact that Iranian artists and curators have to create works under the government’s censorship and control, Bakhtiari’s answer turns out to be very surprising. “To be honest, it’s working very well. Because let me give you a comparison. If you were working in cinema, it would be very hard because cinema is very much controlled by the government, absolutely controlled. You can’t do anything without permission. But visual artists are totally free from the beginning. They’re very much independent. And one of the reasons might be because the effect of cinema on any society, you can imagine how strong it is. But how many viewers are there at a gallery, say a hundred, let’s say a thousand in the city that is occupied by 8 million people so it’s okay and the government let artists do what they want in galleries.” As our conversation was coming to an end, Bakhtiari gave us a little traveling advice, “To know Iran, it’s a must that you have to travel here, to live with the locals. For example, all of the galleries have openings on Fridays. And if you go to a gallery opening you will be shocked by the quality of the art and what they’re showing, by the audience and their styles and fashion. Galleries on Fridays are the small open spaces that will take you closer to an understanding of the way of life in Iran and in Tehran in a way that you will never see from any public spaces in broad daylight.”
TEXT: PIYAPONG BHUMICHITRA