A Well that Connects Sweden and Iran
Cultural Discourse or Government Censorship?
The city of Gothenburg, Sweden is currently hosting an exhibit by Iranian artist Mandana Moghaddam, called The Well. In an innovative approach, this Iranian artist who lives in Sweden uses her art to connect opposite sides of the earth by allowing random people residing in distant cities and speaking different languages to lean over a symbolic well and talk to each other.
Drawing from the mythological and symbolic meaning of the well shared by a variety of cultures, the well in this piece is used as a means to connect, just as in the past when it lay at the heart of cities and villages. The well then was not just a source of water but also a focal point where passers-by could gather and interact. In her piece, Moghaddam uses this concept in a modern way: by employing technology, she makes the well a place where people from different parts of the world can come together and talk.
Recent events forced Moghaddam to make unplanned changes, however. Her original intention was to connect a well in the heart of Gothenburg to another one in Iran, whose construction in the House of Artists had long been approved. But a few days before the project was scheduled to open, Moghaddam was notified that Iran’s Center of Visual Arts had opposed the plan.
She said, “A letter from the House of Artists said they would cooperate, but the work was stopped as soon as it started. They were verbally told that no permit would be issued, because the well was regarded as a ridicule of Imam Zaman, and there was also some concern about the kind of conversations that might be exchanged through the well.”
This unexpected incident brought another dimension to the work which the artist had not initially planned on: the piece wound up highlighting a dialogue between two cultures, one of which was confronted with censorship and a government that is shutting down communication with the West. People in Sweden now find themselves in front of a well through which they were supposed to converse with Iranians, but which is being blocked by censorship in Iran.
“Censorship silenced the well and communication was blocked,” said Moghaddam. “We wrote these words and placed them by the well in Sweden: ‘In silence and censorship, we open this art work and call it Free Art.’ This message became part of our project…Of course, I would still like to accomplish the communication aspect of this work, too. I talked to Afghanistan and China and both countries indicated an interest.”
The Well is a continuation of Moghaddam’s ongoing projects, some of which have been exhibited in the Venice Biennale, the biggest international biennale in the world. She said, “I had an exhibition in 1998 in Gothenburg and then in Tehran. That exhibition was called Exile. There was a telephone that rang every few minutes and randomly connected someone in the gallery with someone in another part of the world. There were other artworks in that exhibition, but the common theme was connection; showing how people are disconnected from each other and how everyone in some way lives in exile. The media has taken over communication in the world and people are losing interest in human interaction. I, then, expanded the idea of making a connection, which resulted in the idea of the well, a well that randomly puts people in contact with each other.”
Questions of identity and connection pervade Moghaddam’s work. In her brilliant three-part installation piece, Chel Gis (“forty braids of hair”), she examines a society’s definition of the concept of ‘woman.’ One of these works was exhibited in Venice. In the installations, Moghaddam portrays today’s women and their world, taking a profound look at the condition of Iranian women in particular. Moghaddam borrows the braids of Chel Gis and uses women’s hair as a metaphor for the female, focusing in particular on the meaning and treatment of women’s hair in Iran as a vehicle for expression. While the piece is inspired by an ancient eastern archetype, it derives its meaning from the position of women in contemporary Iranian society. In the field of installation art, it is the first real feminist work of art illustrating the historical and cultural position of Iranian women.
The fact that women in Iran have to cover their hair sets the ground for the first installation of Chel Gis. In this piece, the figure of a woman is made entirely of hair, which spreads all the way to the ground and gives meaning to her existence. This installation is 170 centimeters tall, the height of a human being. The subject is in confinement, reminding the viewer of the myth of Chel Gis and her captivity. However, a few strands of hair reach out of the cage, symbolizing the spread of love on earth, in a reference to Nahid or Anahita, mother of the Earth and the female guardian of fertility and growth.
The second Chel Gis piece is a more direct illustration of the same concept. In it, four braids are attached to a block of cement. The heavy and harsh surface of the cement is a symbolic reference to a male-dominated society that has been shaped throughout history and is seemingly impenetrable; simultaneously, it is a reference to the undefeatable ghoul in the Chel Gis myth. But these delicate braids of hair have penetrated the hard cement, just as Chel Gis found the ghoul’s goblet of life and traversed an otherwise impassable route. But this block of cement is also suspended in the air by the invisible power of the braids, illustrating that the hair, symbolizing women’s power, has not only fractured the hard cement but is also supporting its heavy weight.
The third Chel Gis installation is a video of a girl standing in a bathtub and cutting her hair. The video shows just her legs and her black hair falling in the tub. There is silence; the only sound is that of the scissors at work as they symbolically denounce femininity. Here, too, the hair is pivotal in the work, but in a broader sense than in the other two pieces. The hair is separating from the body of a woman, either by force or in defiance of an intolerant society. The scene uses the contrast between the dark hair and the white tub beautifully, and the historical significance of cutting a woman’s hair adds meaning and dimension to the work. This video gives viewers an insight into the various historical perspectives of women’s existence and it accomplishes this in only thirty minutes.
 The much debated 12th Imam in Shi’a religious doctrine.