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Looking west from Iran

An show of apolitical art mounted in London displays the same energy that took protesters to the streets in Tehran.

For the past two weeks, Asia House in London has been home to Made in Iran, a group show of works by young Iranian artists. Although the exhibition has been planned for months, it's no coincidence that it opened at the same time as protesters were taking to the streets of Tehran. Eglantine de Ganay, who co-curated the show along with Arianne Levene, is anxious to emphasise that they deliberately included only apolitical works, but says that the art is driven by the same energy that informed the protests.

Rather than any didactic political message, the show throbbed with a kind of slick worry: aesthetically pleasing images, interwoven with or undermined by the constrictions of life in Iran. It practically punched you in the face in the gallery from the start in the form of Shirin Aliabadi's wall-sized photographs. Born in 1973 (making her the second-oldest of the seven artists in the show), Aliabadi chooses as her subjects women wearing hijabs yet slathered in make-up, flashing watches and licking lipstick-red lollies, the scars still showing from their new noses. (Tehran is apparently the rhinoplasty capital of the world.)

Women were a dominant subject in Made in Iran. But just as tangible was a fascination with western imagery and, simultaneously, a mockery of it. Some of the strongest works in this witty and emotionally charged, if slightly patchy, exhibition were by Behrouz Rae, whose mother had an opportunity to emigrate to the US when he was a child. She took it - and left him, too. His response, Gulliver, is a kind of diary series thrumming with what De Ganay candidly refers to as "issues of the mummy". In each work, Rae has digitally inserted himself into a western setting, many of them described by his mother in her letters: standing in the sand on a beach in California, loitering in the background at the Guggenheim in New York, waiting in his mother's Manhattan apartment for her to return from the shops. The pain of loss is moving; the works are obviously a form of therapy. But what they share in common with many of the other pieces in Made in Iran is that Rae could, at any time, decide to move back to the US, to reunite with his mother. He doesn't. He chooses to stay in Iran.

This conflict blurts also from Vahid Sharifian's jokey cookbook images of the American film star Sophia Loren. The young Sharifian, born in 1982 and influenced by the work of Jeff Koons, projects Loren on to holographic paper as a silly, westernised dream of his parents' generation - baking European cakes in the dream kitchen - and as a boyhood fantasy. The title makes the ironic joke clear enough: My Father Is a Democrat and Through His Chimney There Are Always Hearts Flying to the Sky.

"Running away but choosing to stay" is how De Ganay describes this paradoxical attitude: Iranians focused on the idealised version of western life, yet ultimately happiest in the country of their birth. All but one of the artists in this show have had the opportunity, like Rae, to leave Iran. They have all chosen not to, remaining to work in Tehran. This is a decision that Levene and De Ganay say they wanted to celebrate.

Levene runs an art consultancy advising collectors on contemporary art from the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, and De Ganay specialises in Chinese art. Both China and the Middle East have received high-profile group exhibitions in the past year at London's flashy new Saatchi gallery; both shows were praised and derided in largely equal measure for their glossy, catch-all approach to a vastly complicated culture. De Ganay jokes: "We thought after the Saatchi show there was room for something a bit more subtle."

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