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Kiarostami at MoMA, Day 1: Riding in Trains with Abbas

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Kiarostami at MoMA, Day 1: Riding in Trains with Abbas

Entering the media installation portion of the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1’s joint Abbas Kiarostami retrospective (entitled “Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker”) is akin, one suspects, to entering the Iranian master’s head.

The décor—minimal; a tenuous series of “L” and “U-shaped” walls newly painted monochrome gray. (Paired with the odor of the gallery’s freshly shampooed carpet, the room all-too-appropriately smells of the sea.) In five semi-sequestered locations, digital projectors play, on a continuous loop, the individual sequences from Kiarostami’s great video work Five, the sounds of one scene (lapping waves, barking dogs, waddling ducks) bleeding over and around the fragile partitions to meld with others. It should be cacophonous, but it feels purposeful, peaceful, and yet simultaneously desiccated, as if we are visiting the remains of a long-lost memory, somehow shellacked and preserved for our voyeuristic purposes. The sounds of the final sequence, loudest of all, continually beckon us forward and, as we round the exhibit’s final corner, it is quite literally a gaze into the abyss—the only noise (constant): the often dissonant warbling of creatures of the night; the only illumination (occasional): a frequently cloud-obscured reflection of full moon over water.

Further through the looking glass: When I first catch sight of Kiarostami (who I’d not even realized would be in attendance) he is at a distance, dressed in unassuming casual wear, eyes eclipsed by dark-lensed, near completely opaque sunglasses (”X-Men. Cyclops,” I think before forcing my synaptic descriptors more intelligentsia highbrow). And yet—speaking to a young reporter, translator by his side—he somehow exudes approachability. But I’m frozen. Awkward. An idolater (critic no longer) rendered helpless before an idol. Or maybe something simpler than that—the moment, perhaps, not right. I return to the exhibit, sitting before the different panels of Five (a personal favorite). At times I move close to the projection, allowing the figures to succumb to edge-enhancement, blur, pixels. Then I move back, sitting on one of the long metal stools (upholstered in what sounds like Tativille leather) for minutes on mesmerized end. Kiarostami dedicated Five to the late Yasujirô Ozu on the occasion of his centenary and, in my half-narcotized reverie, I ponder the parallels: on how, say, Five’s weatherbeaten piece of driftwood reflects and comments on Setsuko Hara’s gaze at the climax of Late Spring.

My mind wanders; thoughts bleed. I walk between gallery and lobby, lobby and gallery—with each cycle Kiarostami gets closer, as if our meeting is not just inevitable, but preordained. What prevents me from breaking orbit, from speeding up our encounter? I try to make sense of my hesitation, even as I stand there feigning nonchalance, conversing with a colleague and glancing (not so subtly, I now realize) out of the corner of my eye while Kiarostami mingles modestly with the small crowd of journalists, publicists and benefactors. Random terms pop into my head: “solipsistic”; “star-struck.” None of them do the situation justice. I’ve learned to live with the inadequacy of words to encapsulate experience, so I let the feeling—this dull, throbbing uncertainty—sit idle as I distract myself with random, indolent stares: at floor tiles; at a distant row of bookshelves; at two floor-to-ceiling canvases slashed with paint and crayon. A quotation from Pascal’s Pensées (demanded by retrospect and hindsight): “All the evil in men comes from one thing and one thing alone: their inability to remain at rest in a room.”

Just as I’m convinced the dance (this Sisyphean beast of burden) will continue ad infinitum, a reprieve. A MoMA representative invites all attendees to a reception at P.S.1 (one of the museum’s many ancillary institutions), where Kiarostami is exhibiting several series of photographs and premiering a new video installation. We begin the brief walk to the subway and it takes me (solipsistic, star-struck me) a few double takes to realize that Kiarostami is coming with us. “Surely I’m mistaken,” I think. (Double take) “He must have a car waiting.” (Double take) “Riding in trains with Abbas?” (Pause) “Damn, what a title!” For purely selfish reasons, I pray I’m not misreading the situation. I emit a small sigh of relief when we pause in the subway stairwell, waiting while Kiarostami finishes up a cellphone call. He resembles, in this instant, the engineer from The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad mara khahad bourd) (1999), who continuously drives to the high ground of a rural Iranian village in order to get clear mobile reception.

It seems an eternity before we start moving again. My mental state vacillates between restless, fearful anticipation and that inimitable, multilayered sense of calm that Kiarostami’s cinema so frequently volunteers. (East meets west in more ways than one, with all the resultant emotional brouhaha.) Another meeting of the minds: As we round onto the subway platform, it’s Kiarostami turn for a double take when he catches sight of a poster advertisement for David Fincher’s Zodiac. For a moment he seems taken aback; then he leans in close, studying the ad’s black-on-black shadings briefly, but intently. I recall Manny Farber’s anecdote about Jean-Luc Godard (“You had the feeling that here was a guy in contact with the paintings.”) and am simultaneously thankful that we didn’t come across a poster for Zack Snyder’s Frank Miller adaptation 300 (wherein various Persian characters, so a colleague informs, are gleefully, fascistically tossed to their deaths), though I remain tickled by the explosive possibilities of such an encounter. The train, of course, is taking its sweet time, so much so that even Kiarostami participates in an age-old New York ritual, stepping heedlessly over the yellow line and casting a wistful, semi-annoyed glance into the pitch black tunnel. Impatience affects even the best of us. As he looks my way, I nearly muster enough courage to comment: “There’s never one when you need one.” But my voice chokes at the last second. The moment, c’est la vie, still not right.

As suggested by its moniker, P.S.1 is a converted schoolhouse, though the entranceway more resembles a prison yard, what with its thick high-rise concrete walls and loose gravel underfoot, everything colored a discordant, sickly shade of off-white. I’ve kept a distance from Kiarostami since my subway platform freeze-up and I maintain that detachment even now as he examines a large metallic garden sculpture, a particularly loose-limbed monstrosity that might have once graced the deck of the rusted tanker from the wonderful Iranian film Iron Island. After a few minutes we move inside, ambling along lime-green hallways (circular EXIT lights, resembling topsy-turvy streetlamps, dangling overhead) to the first of two rooms on the main floor. One of the reasons Kiarostami is here, so I’m told, is to approve the layout of the exhibition and as we enter the first space (which houses the photographic series Snow White (1978-2003) and the video installation Summer Afternoon (2006)), it’s clear that he’s inordinately pleased.

As with the Five installation, what initially strikes about the gallery is its sparseness. Room has been left for contemplation, hence interpretation. Sunlight, streaming in through cathedral-sized windows, makes for an evocative emotional complement, not to mention a striking corporeal contrast with the 13 x 23 foot blow-up (of black tree trunks protruding out of pure white snow) adorning the wall to our immediate left. The P.S.1 program notes describe the thirteen black-and-white photographs in the Snow White series as “produc[ing] sharp contrasts akin to woodcuts”, though to my eyes they resemble charcoal or matchstick drawings, rigorous in conception, elemental in execution.

The darkest area of the first gallery is reserved for Summer Afternoon, where Kiarostami leads us next. Picture it: In front of us, a DV projection (set to loop every ten minutes) of a large window, curtains in front, trees beyond. Behind us, at shoulder level: an oscillating desk fan, running continuously. Kiarostami, schoolboy giddy, takes one of our group by the shoulders—a small elderly woman, bespectacled and beaming—and moves her in front of the fan, then stands back, allowing nature (or its facsimile) to take its course. “What?” the woman asks. Kiarostami leans in gently, pointing to the fan and then to the projection, which billows with the rhythm of the mock breeze. An audio track (featuring the familiar sounds of summer) complicates the illusion, as do the layers of the projection itself, which alternate between still and motion photography as in Kiarostami’s short film Birth of Light (Tavalod-e noor) (1997). The woman laughs. Kiarostami nods. There’s something profound in such simple gestures of recognition.

Over to the second gallery, even more low-key, which houses three series of photographs: Roads and Trees (1978-2003), Rain (2006), and Trees and Crows (2006) (see above). Walking in Kiarostami’s wake (he’s alone, not two feet in front of me), I take a quick survey of the photos before awkwardly stepping forward to introduce myself. Such weakness is easily sensed and trod upon—someone else gets there first, so I do a graceless Klaus Kinski about-face, trying my best to cover the inelegance. I immerse myself in the photos and decide I like Rain best of all, each image taken from a favored Kiarostami vantage point (the inside of a car) during a rainstorm. What strikes me most about all of these images, regardless of the series to which they belong, is their implied sense of movement whether actual or metaphorical. Stasis, true unfettered stasis, doesn’t seem to exist in Kiarostami’s worldview, and I remind myself to ask him about that should the opportunity arise (which, happily, it would).

But for now: I close my notebook and walk towards the gallery exit (topsy-turvy streetlamps beckoning). On my way, I catch sight of Kiarostami standing in front of one of his road photographs. He’s mimicking steering-wheel motions, posing for snapshots, and occasionally letting out the kind of subdued chuckle that suggests all is right with the world. For this moment at least, instinct says to allow him his space. And so I oblige.

Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications. The media installation of Five runs until May 28th, 2007 in the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery at MoMA. Click here for details. The Kiarostami film retrospective runs until March 19th, 2007 at MoMA. Click here for schedule information. The P.S.1 photography exhibition runs until April 29th, 2007. Click here for more information.