Threatening objects that are suspended or held back; a mysterious door in a vast lake; a pedestrian bridge that leads to nowhere; an ocean trapped in a skewed room; a group of seemingly oblivious swimmers near a giant whirlpool in the sea; crowds of people trapped in uncertain situations; a lone Lego block-like tower in the middle of a somber seascape; broken airplanes that fly into infinity and a cluster of overwhelmingly massive dark seascapes against bright horizons.  These are the recurring themes in the paintings of the Iranian artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo (b. 1981). They appear in a variety of media, from large-scale murals and acrylic paintings to charcoal drawings and miniature etchings.
The eerie scenes take their cue from the surrealist works of René Magritte and the hyperreal paintings of David Hockney. But they are inspired primarily by the artist’s experience of living in Tehran: his childhood memories of the air raid during the Iran-Iraq war, the unsettling geopolitical place of Iran in today’s world, and the architectural landscape of a metropolis that is reportedly the second-most populous city in Western Asia and the third-largest metropolitan area in the Middle East (Figure 1). By the artist’s own account, one particular view into the polluted city, observed through his studio window, has stirred the vision for most of his works. Ghadyanloo’s studio is one amongst the hundreds of identical units inside a tall residential high-rise in the recently-developed eastern suburbs of Tehran. Every day, through his studio’s large glass window, he sees other tall residential high-rises (Figure 2). All erected by the government in the past two decades, these buildings intended to guarantee the population of the growing twenty-five million capital. Although they are attributed to several leaders, most of these structures were built thanks to the erstwhile President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s promise of creating an egalitarian and fair society.  Instead of facilitating homeownership for the economically oppressed, these cheaply-built, characterless buildings are now impugned for the Iranian government’s most pressing economic problems. Many homeowners struggle to pay off their mortgages and thereby continue to keep the government in debt, and the decision to refinance existing loans has led to an upsurge in the price of housing.  Instead of accelerating homeownership, the typical residential high-rises that Ghadyanloo sees through his window have, indeed, become the roots of the housing problem in today’s Iran.  Paradoxically, Ghadyanloo has chosen to title the one piece directly affected by such ominous circumstances, “the City of Hope.” This ironic juxtaposition of despair and optimism is an underlining theme in most of Ghadyanloo’s works.
The story of the Tehran cityscape—as shown by Ghadyanloo—is not limited to the city’s polluted air or the problems related to the housing developments or the recently renewed sanctions by the Trump administration. In its two hundred and twenty years as the capital of Iran, Tehran has existed through many tumultuous phases, including an accelerated growth in population after the Shah’s 1962 White Revolution, which led to homelessness and the emergence of shantytowns, arguably the most pressing dilemma of the Shah’s regime. Afterward, the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 brought millions of people onto the streets. City monuments associated with the ruling elites were destroyed. Once in power, the revolutionaries halted many ongoing architectural projects, most of which were joint efforts between Iranian and Western architects. Throughout the 1980s, the time of Ghadyanloo’s formative childhood years, the city saw a period of intense bombing. For almost a decade, the residents of Tehran periodically sought shelter underground or fled the city in the early hours of the evening to camp in the rural suburbs of Tehran, only to return the following morning for yet another “normal” working day. Soon after the end of the war, Iranians witnessed another tragic moment when Iran Air flight 655, on route to Dubai, was shot down by a United States Navy guided missile cruiser, killing all the 290 onboard passengers and crew. The international community might have forgotten these tense episodes, but they remain active in Ghadyanloo’s psyche (Figure 3).
“Finding Hope” is Ghadyanloo’s latest body of work in Davos, Switzerland (Figure 4). Like his previous paintings, “Finding Hope” evokes the dire economic situation in Iran and elsewhere in the war-torn Middle East and the global south.
The work includes three monumental murals, spanning 186 square meters of walls inside the central atrium of the World Economic Forum’s Conference Centre. While focused on global economic affairs, the forum often hosts art and design exhibitions, including this year’s commissioned murals by Ghadyanloo. The theme of the 2019 annual Alpine forum, which took place from the 22nd to the 25th of January, was Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With more than 3,000 leading voices in politics and business, the not-for-profit forum aimed to project new agendas and highest standards for the governance of local and global corporations and industries. However, despite the claims that the institution sensibly combines and positions both the public and private sectors, international organizations and academic institutions, the World Economic Forum has been criticized by some as “an overpriced, ineffective talking shop,” that only appeals to the elite.  With the unprecedented absence of major world leaders such as Donald Trump, Theresa May, and Emmanuel Macron, this year’s forum faced even more criticism.
Mindful of this context, Ghadyanloo decided to embark on a project that would simultaneously project hope and cast doubt on the future of the world’s economy. “Finding Hope,” employs the same “Trompe-l’oeil’ style with which the artist painted his double-edge scenes on the walls of Tehran throughout the 2000s. Ghadyanloo’s Tehran murals contrast tranquil scenes with uncertain and surreal subjects. For instance, in his 2007 mural, titled “Portrait of the Sky,” a seemingly broken pedestrian bridge is suspended between a vast, clean blue sky and the mirror extension of the residential building front façade, on which the mural is painted (Figure 5). This whole surreal tableau is meant to be viewed against Tehran’s polluted sky. Regarding this ironic juxtaposition, Ghadyanloo asserted, “I want to attract the attention of the passersby, but not in a way that commercial advertisements or political propaganda do. I want my audience to stop and think.”  Ghadyanloo’s emphasis on the sky is also an indirect commentary on Tehran’s polluted air and the failure of the government to address it.
Similarly, the Davos tryptic conveys ironic connotations. It portrays blue skies and blissful objects against gloomy settings. At first glance, the prevailing airy blue sky seems to merely enhance the optimism of the ensemble. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. By the artist’s own account, the triumphing sky is a nod to Gerhard Richter’s “Wolken” (Clouds, 1970), a dramatic hyperreal sky rendered in delicate sfumato brushwork. In making “Wolken,” Richter himself was indebted to an established art historical tradition that harkens back to the sublime landscape paintings of the age of the first Industrial Revolution.
The concept of the sublime in the nineteenth century was meant to incite an unsettling sense of fear and awe. Recall how William Turner famously gave the viewers an unsettling feeling when he depicted smoggy natural settings that were interrupted by fastmoving trains or steamships. The vast blue sky in Ghadyanloo’s Economic Forum tryptic can likewise be interpreted as an unsettling component when perceived from the confines of the ostensibly plain walls that are meant to evoke typical shelters occupied by millions of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide.  In other words, the world depicted by Ghadyanloo remains as unhinged as the world on the wake of the first Industrial Revolution. By evoking a multi-layered and rich semiotic legacy, going as far back as the first Industrial Revolution, Ghadyanloo suitably situates himself in age of the fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this year’s forum.
Ghadyanloo’s views on global economy are partially shaped by what the Trump administration has dubbed “the toughest sanctions ever imposed” on Tehran. Soon after reinstating the sanctions in 2018, the Iranian rial collapsed by more than two-thirds since Trump declared he would pull out of the nuclear agreement earlier that year. Meanwhile, Iran’s oil exports plummeted from 2.7 million to 1.6 million barrels a day.  The economic sanctions are meant to target the regime and the countries that do business with it. But most of all they have affected the Iranian people.
Indeed, Ghadyanloo’s tryptic is a metaphor for the obstacles that await the future generations of Iranians and others who experience similar recession. Turning her back to the audience, the protagonist of the central mural is a young girl holding a red balloon. According to Ghadyanloo, “the girl’s pose is intended to encourage the viewers to ponder the future of the world for the next generation.”
“The girl is also a metaphor for the innocence of the world’s most deprived populations,” the artist adds.  Since the Iraq war, we have seen a surfeit of images featuring children of war-torn areas. From the iconic 2003 photograph of the armless Iraqi Ali Abbas, snapped shortly after an aerial missile attack, to the 2015 widely distributed photograph of the three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi whose lifeless body was captured on the beach in a Turkish resort town, the global media has presented children as emblems of broader persecuted populaces’ innocence. These images have come to humanize the victims of war and violence and in some ways have even managed to reverse the xenophobic views that render Iraqis as terrorists and Syrian refugees as “swarms.” It is in this context that Ghadyanloo’s child protagonist is an apt choice for a venue in which novel ideas for the future of the world economy (and thereby politics) are presented. The two other murals that flank the central piece are equally thought-provoking. One showcases a large needle suspended over a campground setting, a fitting image for the growing perils surrounding the future of global economic policies.
Throughout the forum, numerous prominent world leaders and CEOs presented their views in front of hundreds of reporters beneath the gigantic panorama. Al Gore, for example, warned that global warming now traps the equivalent heat energy of thousands of Hiroshima-class atomic bombs every day. These alarming words were pronounced against Ghadyanloo’s tryptic.
Although subtly suggestive of a failed economic policy, Ghadyanloo’s “Finding Hope” manages to convey the optimistic message that change can be affected, despite all odds. The mural speaks with delight of what remains glorious in dark times. Above all, following its viewing in Davos, a smaller-scale version of the work was sold at Sotheby’s for 32,500 British Pounds to fully benefit the Lotus Flower Charity, a female led Kurdistani NGO empowering women and girl refugees displaced by ISIS in the Middle East.  In its capacity as both an artwork and a charitable product, Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s “Finding Hope” succeeds in offering a reflection on the future of world economy, reverberating the core value of the World Economic Forum at its best.
1.) To view more works by Mehdi Ghadyanloo, see, his website https://www.mehdighadyanloo.com or check out the artist’s portfolio on Howard Griffin Gallery website: http://howardgriffingallery.com/artists/mehdi-ghadyanloo/ (accessed February 5, 2019). Earlier versions of some of the present content regarding Ghadyanloo’s background were produced by the author in an entry for Mehdi Ghadyanoo’s solo exhibition, “Remembering the Oblivion,” at the Rod Bianco Gallery in Oslo, Norway (May 5th – 27th 2017).
2.) There are several publications in Persian that are dedicated to Ahmadinejad’s most important housing project, Maskan-e Mehr. See, for example, Research Department of Rahpou Sakht-e Sharestan, Arzyabi-e tarh-e maskan-e mehr, [The Assessment of the Mehr Housing Scheme] (Tehran: Azarakhs, 2013).
3.) Marketa Hulpachova, “Iran’s Economy Struggles to Support Ahmadinejad’s Ill-Conceived Housing Vision,” The Guardian, January 30, 2014. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2014/jan/30/irans-economy-struggles-to-support-ahmadinejads-ill-conceived-housing-vision (accessed January 20, 2017).
5.) For more on the idea of the World Economic Forum, see, Christina Garsten and Adrienne Sorbom, Discrete Power: How the World Economic Forum Shapes Market Agendas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018). For criticisms of the 2019 forum, see, for example, Holly Ellyatt, “Is Davos nothing more than an overpriced, ineffective ‘talking shop’?” in Consumer News and Business Channel, January 22, 2019. Available at https://acronyms.thefreedictionary.com/CNBC (accessed January 25, 2019).
6.) Personal interview with the artist, April 2007. Also cited in Pamela Karimi “Imagining Warfare, Imaging Welfare: Tehran’s Post Iran-Iraq War Murals and their Legacy,” Persica 22 (Brill, 2008), 47-63.
7.) Personal interview with the artist, January 18, 2019.
8.) Ben Chapman, “Iran Sanctions: How Will They Affect the Global Economy?” The Independent, November 2, 2018. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/iran-sanctions-donald-trump-how-what-it-means-world-economy-a8615036.html (accessed January 30, 2019).
9.) Personal interview with the artist, January 18, 2019.
11.) For more information, see, The Lotus Flower Editorial, “World Economic Forum Paintings Auctioned at Sotheby’s for The Lotus Flower.” Available at http://www.thelotusflower.org/news/2019/3/17/world-economic-forum-paintings-auctioned-at-sothebys-for-the-lotus-flower (accessed March 17, 2019).