VANCOUVER — Parviz Tanavoli’s Poets, Locks, Cages at the Vancouver Art Gallery is a rare opportunity to explore the sculptor widely admired as Iran’s greatest. His last retrospective took place in 2015 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. After several decades of living in Vancouver, his adopted hometown museum has finally mounted its own tribute.
The show focuses on three recurring motifs in the sculptor’s oeuvre, as indicated in its title. Each symbol holds a special meaning in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that has inspired the artist. Critics usually frame Tanavoli within the contours of the mid-20th-century Saqqakhana movement, which fused idioms of modern art with traditional Persian styles. Although that reading describes his stylistic hybridity, it can obscure the Sufi symbolism articulated throughout his website and in interviews.
In “Heech and Hands” (1965), the Farsi word for nothingness (“heech”) glows above a pair of hands clasping the bars of a cage. It alludes to the Sufi maxim, which is challenging to attribute to a specific author, “Sufism is to possess nothing, and to be possessed by nothing” — in other words, nothingness as freedom from the passions and appetites that leave us wanting more, and perpetually dissatisfied. In Sufism, these destructive desires are compared to a cage that traps the soul.
The cage also appears in more recent works, like “Happy Within” (2010); nearly a half-century after “Heech and Hands,” Tanavoli is still devoted to finding new and fresh ways to depict the cage that entraps the soul. And in numerous Sufi poems, the soul shackled within the body is likened to a caged bird, which he illustrates in glowing neon in “Bird and Cage” (2004). In other sculptures, Tanavoli plays with the lock’s meaning in Sufism. For example, in “Locks and Cage” (1967), a sculpted pink heart encloses several locks above a cage with a bird.
This metaphor of the locked heart traces back to verse 47:24 of the Koran.
Mossin Kahn translates this verse as “Do they not then think deeply in the Quran, or are their hearts locked up (from understanding it)?” The locked heart is a Sufi metaphor for refusing to integrate, to change, to learn. Unlocking the heart is major theme among Sufis that this sculpture materializes.
When Tanavoli creates figurative work, he usually portrays prophets or poets, as the artist has come to describe them in English. But these titles may summon an incorrect mental image, like the prophet Jeremiah unheard by King Josiah, or the poet Emily Dickinson tinkering with words at her desk. What is actually intended in “Bronze Prophet” (1963) is the Sufi mystic seeking purification and spewing out poetic verses, and leading others in prophetic ritual that might inspire the heart to unlock.
Like many museum displays of art with theological or religious content, this exhibition treads too lightly around the artist’s Sufism. Its reluctance to discuss religion more extensively is rooted in a long standing anti-religious bias in modern and contemporary art. For all the talk of unlocking the heart, more specific and extensive Sufi content would have truly unlocked the meaning of these works.
Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks and Cages continues at the Vancouver Art Gallery through November 19. The exhibition was organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) and guest curated by Pantea Haghighi.