From ancient artistic splendours to modern political upheavals, this exhibition tells a long and rich story through a design based on the architecture of a city
Gort Scott’s first major exhibition design commission – Epic Iran at the V&A in London – is something of a baptism of fire. Tasked with creating the scenography for 300 objects telling the story of some 5000 years of Iranian art, design and culture, perhaps it’s not surprising that the practice decided to approach it as it would any other architectural project, immersing itself in the context, spaces and artefacts. The result is an exhibition design concept inspired by the architecture of a city, from huge sweeping hemp block walls to a soaring evocation of the dome of a mosque. All this is realised in a rich colour scheme of hues chosen to complement the vibrancy of the subject matter – from turquoise blue to saffron yellow.
The strong design concept is effective in guiding the visitor through the ten sections, given that to many, the content will be largely unfamiliar – indeed the exhibition is the first in 90 years to take such a wide historical survey of Iranian artistic culture. As such the exhibits – ceramics, tiles, calligraphy, art, textiles, film, architecture – are a revelation, especially the earlier sections that easily pre-date the far better-known marvels of the Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds.
At the entrance, Gort Scott sets the scene with a large-scale video showing the topography of Iran before we enter the next gallery, which shows the earliest work dating back to 3200BC. This gallery, which is full of exquisitely made artefacts, includes the time when the first Iranian-speaking people arrived from central Asia in 1500. The space is defined by a monumental wall of Hempcrete blocks, chosen to reference buildings of the time that were often built into hillsides and ‘very much of the earth’, says director Jay Gort. The hit and miss arrangement allows views back and forth through to the next exhibition space.
Using the blocks gave the architect an opportunity to showcase the sustainable new material, which it hopes will be able to be re-used in some way after the exhibition. This circular approach is demonstrated throughout the show – Gort Scott has retained the floor of the previous show and has, where possible, made use of exhibition display cabinets from the V&A’s stores rather than design new ones – a sustainable, and cost-saving approach that hasn’t been detrimental to the visual effect.
The third gallery focuses on the artistic culture of the Persian Empire, which from 550-330BC was the largest in the world. Here, Gort Scott’s design loosely references the surviving columns of the Palace of Persepolis in a gridded arrangement of tall cabinets, and uses projections onto plaster casts of stone reliefs to show the original brightly painted colours of the sculptures.
The city concept comes into its own further into the exhibition, where display spaces are inspired by a walled garden, library, workshop, gallery and – most spectacularly – the dome of a mosque. Gort Scott also designed a ‘town square’ space with seating and an alley-like back route to cut-through between the spaces. While the linear circulation required in Covid times has meant this can’t be used as originally planned, layered views are still possible through the various spaces. After a section on the end of the Persian Empire and the establishment of the Zoroastrian faith, we learn about the rise of Islam in the mid-seventh century AD, with displays of beautiful calligraphy showcasing the importance of writing to Islamic Iranian culture. There’s a section on the architectural splendours created through Royal Patronage from 1300-1900 such as those of the city of Isfahan in central Iran. The 15m-high mosque dome space is the most spectacular, with soaring segments of dome covered in 19th century paintings of intricate Isfahan tilework, ingeniously kept in place using a host of small magnets. A dome centrepiece is evocatively created with the help of film projection.
‘Isfahan was the hi-tech architecture of its time, really pushing the boundaries,’ says Gort.
The exhibition covers the influences of the wider world on Iranian culture, and comes up to date with a gallery-style presentation of modern and contemporary art made against a background of political change (Islamic Revolution) and conflict (Iran-Iraq war).
The Epic Iran experience has given Gort Scott a taste for more exhibition design work. According to Gort, the biggest challenge was coping with the wealth and breadth of exhibition material, and finding a way to guide people through the show in a way that captured the qualities of the subject. The practice has also relished learning how to use film (working with moving image studio Luke Halls) sound and artificial lighting. Graphic design is by Polimekanos.
‘I love the idea that you can play with materials and colour to influence how people can respond to artworks – a whole new field has opened up,’ he says.
Epic Iran, until 12 September 2021, Gallery 39 and North Court, Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7