REVIEW "One single picture could be the mother of cinema," one of our leading auteurs has observed. Apichatpong Weerasethakul would have said saint, Jean-Luc Godard death, and Quentin Tarantino motherfucker, but only renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami could glimpse in a lone image the maternal nurturing of reel life. With remarkable films such as Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (1991), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Kiarostami has put his country on the world-cinema map in the uneasy decades following the plucking of the feathers from the shah’s Peacock Throne. Faux-vérité documentation, unscripted drama, and deceptively casual construction characterize Kiarostami’s complex narratives, most of which eschew the overt nationalist critique of his more politically trenchant peers (Samira Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi) in favor of to-be-or-not-to-be philosophizing and a quasi-spiritual appreciation of fleeting pleasures the lengthening of late-afternoon shadows across a park bench, confessional conversations with jovial strangers, ditching homework to watch soccer on TV.
Now approaching 70, the creatively restless and keenly observant Kiarostami has recently refocused on photography, with which he has been intermittently engaged since the 1970s. In conjunction with a retrospective of both his widely celebrated and his lesser-known works at the Pacific Film Archive, which runs through Aug. 30, the Berkeley Art Museum has mounted a bracingly stark exhibition of Kiarostami’s photographs, culled from four distinct series. Sporting the disappointingly generic title "Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker" one of his film titles, such as The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), would have sufficed the show fortunately far transcends its unpromising nomenclature and, like a Kiarostami film, slowly and indelibly reveals its aesthetic mastery, meditative rewards, and picturesque wanderlust.
In his introduction to the exhibition which benefits from handsome, unadorned installation in BAM’s airy upper galleries Kiarostami notes that still images, unlike films, are not weighed down with viewers’ expectations of narrative progression or conventional entertainment. Stripped of sustained storytelling and freed from the need to posture or pander not that his films ever stoop to such commercial demands Kiarostami’s photographs are nonetheless imbued with dramatic arcs, panoramic vistas, hints of intrigue, and a rigorously intellectual yet unrepentantly earthy moviemaker’s sure, sensual approach to framing, sequencing, and characterization, even if the scene-stealers are all blackbirds.
Camera in hand, Kiarostami regularly embarks on long walks across his homeland, frequently crossing hundreds of miles on epic treks on which the journey truly is the destination. Iran’s war-torn topography, haunted by the ghosts of dissidents and withering under the ceaseless gaze of enemies real and imagined, is for the ever-inquisitive Kiarostami a locus of geographic wonder and emotional extremes. Guided only by a moral compass, he traverses desolate roads and loses himself in his country’s seasonal secrets. Kiarostami keeps to himself on these outward- and inward-looking road trips, but as Scottish troubadour Roddy Frame who for years memorably viewed the world through his Aztec Camera once noted, loneliness and being alone aren’t always the same. "Not being able to feel the pleasure of seeing a magnificent landscape with someone else is a form of torture," Kiarostami confesses in the exhibition intro. "That is why I started taking photographs. I wanted somehow to eternalize those moments of passion and pain."
Kiarostami fully explores the dichotomy of these heightened instances in a quartet of works unified by the artist’s steady perspective (nothing seems to disturb his calm) and ability to appreciate the hushed prescience of transformation in mind, body, and physical surroundings where preoccupied passersby might only see oil slicks and burkas. In the Roads and Trees series, Kiarostami depicts in grainy, high-contrast black-and-white photos the byways and trunks that stretch onward and upward forever, bisecting his country vertically and horizontally into socially segmented fields of ground and sky. Whether smoothly paved or roughly pebbled, the roads are nearly empty, bereft of the comings and going that typically signal industrial progress and limitless options. Stasis defines the stunning Snow White series as well. Absence is palpably present in these bleak yet beautiful images in which anthropomorphized trees are starkly silhouetted against unending fields of pure white snow.
Winter’s monochromatic chill thaws into vibrant color in the Trees and Crows photographs, all taken on the verdant grounds of palaces in Tehran where flocks of birds have taken up residence as the winged heirs apparent to ousted royals. Crows are highly valued in Iran as a special species that lives longer than most and bears witness to national history. Kiarostami reverently views them as birds of pray, pecking and genuflecting on deep green lawns that appear freshly painted.
Kiarostami is back on the road in the Rain series, now behind the wheel of a car and looking through the windshield at patterns of water on glass and raindrops falling on yet more tall trees. ("If I were not a filmmaker, I would have become a truck driver," he told Deborah Solomon in a New York Times interview earlier this year.) Careening across flooded two-lane blacktops, these gorgeous, pictorialist photos drive straight into abstraction.
Many of Kiarostami’s poems begin with the lines "The more I think<\!s>/ The less I understand," an admission of epistemological uncertainty and unfettered emotional sincerity that informs every image in this show. Like the archetypal wanderer who quests for a life worth living in his award-winning 1997 film Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami concludes in these photographs that the search for meaning is an affirmation of time well spent on the road to nowhere.<\!s>*
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: IMAGE MAKER
Through Sept. 23, $4<\d>$8 (free first Thurs.)
Wed. and Fri.<\d>Sun., 11 a.m.<\d>5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.<\d>7 p.m.
UC Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.