It’s not easy talking to Fereydoun Ave. Aside from the poor phone line to his French studio, which gives my every word a disconcerting echo, the artist is being extra careful in what he says. ‘You write the words down exactly as I say them,’ he says, exaggerating each syllable. ‘I don’t want anything said on my behalf that I didn’t say.’
This is a recurring theme throughout our conversation; attributable, we can only assume, to the sensitive political situation in Ave’s native Iran. It’s a misty intro to the latest collection of works from the artist, who last exhibited at B21 with a retrospective assembled in tribute to his mentor, US artist Cy Twombly.
Taken on the simplest level, this new collection of paint-dashed photoshopped images shows a leotard-wearing wrestler ambling his way through a bleak landscape. He’s followed by shadowy hyenas and vultures who circle overhead. A closer look reveals a worn-out feel about the wrestler. He seems to be staggering, ready to drop, and the scavengers will mop up when that happens.
‘It’s in a continuing series based on the Book Of Kings which deals with mythological Iranian archetypes,’ Ave explains. The artist tells us that Rostam, a character in the Book Of Kings – or Shahnameh, the 11th century epic poem that tells the mythical history of Persia and can be quoted by many Iranians – has taken the focus of his research. Rostam, for Ave, represents ‘macho-mystique’ and the cult in the Iranian psyche that has developed around it.
We ask what macho-mystique might be, and dare to use the word masculinity. ‘Please don’t call it masculinity,’ he rails at us, ‘because that’s a whole different thing.’ OK, so macho-mysticism? ‘Not mysticism,’ he snaps. ‘It’s a derivation of all of those words. But the moment you say masculinity and mysticism, they have special meanings. I want to be misunderstood. I want to be subtle. I want to have many dimensions. I don’t want it to be a slogan.’
Rostam is represented here as the Pahlavan, the Iranian wrestlers who Ave has come back to again and again in his career. ‘Rostam is the archetypal man,’ he says, who, like Lancelot or Hercules (two figures of mythos who Ave references as we talk) searches for a chivalrous code of conduct. He does this through a series of Hercules-esque trials, as described in the Book Of Kings. ‘Macho-mystique is the mystery around that search for a code of conduct.’ He pauses. ‘The wrestler is a continuation of the Rostam cult.’
In this collection, we see an exploration, thinly veiled in Persian, Egyptian and flecks of Greek mythology, of where Iran is right now and where it is heading. It poses a ‘great shimmering question mark’ on the matter, Ave says. We see Rostam, the Iranian hero searching for his own sense of chivalry, lost in a shadow-world of Greek mythos between life and death. He’s pursued by scavengers who, in the Egyptian pantheon of gods and demi-gods, relive or resurrect the deceased by feeding on their corpses. Rostam is ‘in the dead of winter’, from where the series takes its name, and appears to be in decline.
The trouble is, you may be able to pick through this elegant medley of mythologies by listening to Ave, but not by looking at the images alone. The repetition of simplistic graphics, the dashes of paint that have been flung across the canvas may suggest a blasted world, but how do we, unversed in the Book Of Kings, take this collection? Is Ave speaking only to fellow Iranians, who, we presume, are so intuitively familiar with this cult of Rostam?
We ask how Persian mythology is dealt with in modern Iran: ‘I think a lot of people, like myself, are looking deep into things that have been written about Iran to find reasons why things develop the way they do. It’s trying to find a chronology.’ Winter is inevitably followed by springtime – does Ave see an optimistic time, a rebirth, ahead for Iran? ‘It’s exactly the feeling I have in these pictures: it is a toss-up, a netherworld. Whether it’s going to happen or not is up for grabs.’ He continues: ‘There’s a moment where you have a choice and freedom gives you that choice. You have the choice to sprout wings or you have the choice not to sprout wings; once you have wings you have responsibility. Freedom is an enormous responsibility, only slavery doesn’t require responsibility.’
Ave closes with a signature sense of epic and, again, a shimmering question mark: ‘It’s absurd to predict, it’s great to hope and be optimistic. But it’s always a fight between the angel of light and the angel of darkness. The yin and the yang, ignorance and knowledge. It’s always back and forth, isn’t it?’
Rostam In The Dead Of Winter is at B21 Gallery. September 29-October 23.