Conceptual artist Eric Parnes on neo-orientalism, Middle Eastern culture and the relationship between America and Iran

Eric Parnes

"I do think it's important for people to see that there was connectivity between Iran and the United States. My hope is of course that by seeing that and the fact that there is this embassy that still exists, that it sort of builds hope to the possibility that there will be any return to communications between the two parties. I think it is a stepping stone in that sense."

Iranian American artist Eric Parnes believes that the concept behind his new exhibition has been burrowed deep inside his psyche for the greater part of 25 years. Born in 1979, just after the Iranian revolution, he grew up around Washington DC; here his father would regularly drive past the Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue and explain that the building was now closed. In 1980, dozens of Americans were taken hostage when Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Iran. After the crisis the two countries cut relations.

All these years later Parnes has revisited these memories, and the embassy itself, and created a series of photographs of the interior - 'Custodian of Vacancy: The Iranian Embassy in the USA' - which is currently showing at the Ayyam gallery in Dubai. "Entering it like this was like entering a time capsule" Parnes says on what it felt like going inside. But he won't reveal how he actually got in.

The now deserted building once played host to lavish parties with an impressive guest list including the Shah and the Shahbanu, Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Kissinger, Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol. But these days the embassy smacks more of faded grandeur, the outside dotted with old-fashioned, large CCTV cameras from the 70s, whilst the inside has a "pungent staleness." Parnes' photographs capture portraits of the Shah and his wife, a stack of abandoned chairs and discarded documents and passports that litter the inside.

It was like a "tomb that no one has looked at" he says, and in this sense what he found there lived up to how he imagined it to be. Nothing is really left to become derelict any more, he points out, unless it is too dangerous to enter.

Still, there were parts of his experience that he wasn't prepared for emotionally: "It plays with you when you go inside a space like that because I'm standing somewhere and next door is the South African embassy, across the street is the Brazilian and then next door to that is the British embassy. It is a very populated area but again you hear the cars on Massachusetts Avenue, you can hear the life but at the same time you're in a space that's totally dead. From the smells to the creaking to the sense of looking around and seeing something that's dark."

Being there also raised personal questions for Parnes on how it felt to be in a place that is technically Iran, inside the United States. "For me it certainly had a symbolism as far as my identity and others in terms of trying to figure out exactly what you are. In my case being Persian and being American, what exactly does that mean?"

Parnes chose photography to convey his ideas as he believes this medium best invokes what it was like for him to see and feel the interior. "The photographs have a slight grain attached to them that I developed so it just kind of creates this element of mystique and also this emotional connection that I was feeling to it. I thought again that it made sense in terms of the darkness. If I could convey a sense of old factory or a sense of smell I would. So the photographs just made perfect sense for this particular piece."

When you're using a camera, you're able to create distance, he adds later; "once you take a breath and step outside you have a chance to internalise and think about what you have experienced."

The embassy is a mixture of the classical elements of Persian architecture and 60s modern aesthetic. "It's a perfect melding between the two" he says. This combination of styles reflects a central concept in Parnes' work: neo-orientalism or east meets west and how they interact and merge. There is a tendency to lump the Middle East together as a region associated with politics and not much else, a taboo this exhibition in part hopes to address. "Sometimes in the west we have a tendency to overlook the contributions of Middle Eastern culture" he says.

"I want people to take a look particularly at some of the pop culture elements, particularly from the United States, and see how they have welcomed and integrated elements from the Middle East. While certainly there are a lot of negatives, there are many positive and brilliant artistic associations that are being overlooked. So when you use art and when you use it in the conceptual format you can try to look at those things and have people reflect upon them."

As well as the personal, reflective quality of his work, and the aesthetic elements, the exhibition has also brought a historical and political perspective to its audience that they may not have otherwise been familiar with, particularly those of his generation. "A few people didn't even know there was an Iranian embassy" he says. Given the fact that the two countries have been enemies for as long as people can remember, it is hard to imagine it was once a place for socialites from both countries to rub shoulders.

"I do think it's important for people to see that there was connectivity between Iran and the United States. My hope is of course that by seeing that and the fact that there is this embassy that still exists, that it sort of builds hope to the possibility that there will be any return to communications between the two parties. I think it is a stepping stone in that sense" he says.

It is the political element to the show and how it has "morphed from the exhibition opening, on its own" that by his own admission makes it significantly different to his previous body of work. "It's interesting to just see how people have overall reacted to the message and it's nice to see how they have connected to it from how I viewed it" he says, recounting a story from the opening of an American Persian poet who approached him to explain that he had been to the embassy. "These little tiny details are what makes it fascinating for me" he says. "It has people describing places they haven't been to in over 33 years and with such intense, emotive qualities that you can't escape that this has really moved beyond just simply something that's aesthetically interesting in terms of art, to the individual who's viewing it."

Against the backdrop of a developing Middle Eastern art scene, Parnes explains that though he is from the region, he has western sensibilities in terms of the way that he creates and constructs his art, with a specific focus and reference to Middle Eastern conceptual aspects. Just because an artist is from the Middle East, it doesn't necessarily mean their art is Middle Eastern. "I do feel that my work is not specifically intended for, at all, a Middle Eastern audience but is intended for the global reach" he says.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor