Although the history is unclear, it is believed that for a brief period between the Iranian Revolution of February 1979 and around April 1980, the Iranian embassy in Washington was controlled by the Khomeini regime. But as soon as the hostage crisis occurred in Tehran, the building was closed to the public – and has remained closed ever since.
Last year, through personal connections whose details he will not reveal, Eric Parnes, a contemporary American-Iranian artist, gained access to the building for “around an hour or an hour and a half” and took photographs, a selection of which will be unveiled to the public tonight in Ayyam Gallery at Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC).
The images reveal a time that has almost been forgotten, when the US and Iran had an amicable relationship and when Eastern culture was revered and enjoyed by the stars of both the cultural and political worlds. Indeed, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck all frequented the building in the 1960s and 1970s and Rudolf Nureyev’s birthday party was held there. All those stories remain only in the dust.
“Entering was like entering a tomb or a crypt,” says Parnes. “A crypt of memories and stories, left hanging there, like a time capsule waiting to be discovered.” From the grandiose entrance of the modernist building that was built in 1959, Parnes takes us on a journey up the main staircase, with its exquisite stained glass windows, and into the ballroom, which is empty and silent, only the chandelier hinting at the jubilance that once occupied the room.
Then there is the basement, which he found completely dark and choked with stale air. There he photographed a pile of battered chairs and the detritus of an old office – bulging filing cabinets and old papers, including an Iranian passport from the time before the Islamic Republic and notes from the conferences at Malta and Yalta from 1945.
“There are really three facets or layers to this work that all came into play as I was standing there in that dark basement,” he explains. “There are the obvious political elements, then there are the neo-Orientalist stories and lastly the very personal search to find answers to my questions about my American and Iranian nationalities.”
Gaining access to the embassy, continues Parnes, meant that for a brief time, he was standing on Iranian soil, in the centre of the American capital.
Ensconced in the silent and withdrawn vaults of the building, still able to hear the hustle and bustle of the city outside, he was searching for closure. “I didn’t get it,” he says, smiling. “If anything, it left me with more questions.”
But what Parnes’s work does is explore the connections between the East and West that are very much ingrained in the American culture but are often overlooked, something that he describes as neo-Orientalism. “The structure in itself, which fuses Western and Eastern design conveys this and, with my fascination with the pop culture of the East and West, I guess it was inevitable I would be drawn to this building.”
The style of the photography also conveys the mystique of the embassy. The main room, a huge turquoise blue dome that was lined with Isfahani-style mirrored mosaics and filled with artefacts in display cabinets, was the place where all the parties took place. It is photographed through small details: the cracked glass underfoot and close-ups of the ceramics.
Parnes did not use a flash. In darker places without adequate natural light, he used only a small hand torch for illumination. This gives the images a grainy texture which, in combination with the angles he chooses, partially obscures the former embassy’s magnificence while also revealing that magnificence through individual details – a very deliberate decision. “I am not a photojournalist, although I know my work has photojournalistic elements. This is a conceptual project and it is was supposed to convey how I was feeling when I was in there.
“I couldn’t help but shoot the images in the same way I was feeling. It was an attempt to convey the emotions I had and the strange feeling of longing for what this once was.”
• Custodian of Vacancy: The Iranian Embassy in the USA by Eric Parnes runs at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC until January 30. For more information, visit www.ayyamgallery.com