In Persian legend, Mount Damavand was the site of fantastical battles, immortalised in the national epic, the Shahnameh (c. 977–1010 AD). Its white peak dominates the Tehran horizon and is even found on the back of the 10,000-rial banknote. Safe to say that the mountain is a fundamental part of Iranian cultural identity.
One can only imagine how the Iranian artist Shahpour Pouyan felt, then, when he noticed that a billboard welcoming visitors to Tehran airport was not, in fact, emblazoned with an imposing image of the aforementioned Damavand. Rather, in what can only be described as an epic fail, it depicted Mount Fuji, iconic symbol of another country entirely. In Pouyan’s painting-meets-installation (a canvas hung by one of its edges perpendicular to the wall, entitled Damavand, all works 2018), he explores this amalgamation of Iranian and Japanese national iconography by painting Fuji upside down, thus inverting it into a valley, before ripping it in half – exposing the framework of the canvas, and transforming the hanging part once more into mountain peak.
Damavand acts as both thematic and physical entry point into Pouyan’s second show at Copperfield, in which he continues an ongoing investigation into the role of landscape, and its ability to carry various political and social metaphors. As such, the conflation of Damavand/Fuji continues in Sunday Painting, in which he takes on another cultural icon – Winston Churchill – to examine the power of landscape painting through the lens of Persian miniatures (which, historically, were purely narrative – the ‘landscape’ merely background filler).
Sunday Painting features Churchill’s home in the English county of Surrey, a corner of the house breaking out of the edge of the picture plane, as it would in a Persian miniature. It is accompanied by After ‘Ruhham carries away the severed arm of the Turanian sorcerer’, a reworking of a sixteenth-century traditional miniature in which the hero (a star of the Shahnameh no less) has been scrubbed out of the flat, stylised landscape. In both pieces, the removal of the national icon, or ‘hero’, imbues the landscapes with a power of its own.
Pouyan pushes this further in After: ‘Portrait of Fath Ali Shah Qajar’, another miniature appropriation. Where his depopulated backgrounds previously appeared flat and two-dimensional, Pouyan has here chosen a work from the early nineteenth century, when miniaturists were increasingly influenced by Western painting and its depth of field. And so the removal of the highly stylised traditional depiction of the Shah in the original reveals something close to a European landscape painting of the Romantic era: deep, bruised pools of colour evoking the kind of inky moor on which William Wordsworth or Percy Bysshe Shelley might have found themselves at home.
This slipperiness between meanings is embodied by the show’s title, Wūshuǐ, or ‘polluted water’ in Chinese (a play on Shan Shui, ‘mountain water’). The Chinese connection emerges in the final installation, Authentic. At first the story told in the work seems incongruous: a painting commissioned for the Beijing Biennale that the artist created by picking an image off Google (based on keywords the biennale used to describe Pouyan’s own practice) and then outsourcing its fabrication to a painting workshop in China. The painting, displayed in its crate, is presented with certificates and shipping papers all attesting to its ‘authenticity’. Like that Mount Fuji billboard, it is government-sanctioned as a work of art, a slightly unnerving testament to how fiction can become fact.
Shahpour Pouyan: Wūshuǐ at Copperfield, London, 31 October – 15 December
From the December 2018 issue of ArtReview