October 22, 2019
by Yunzhi Pan
Located near the center of the Grey Art Gallery’s Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Weed Grey Collection exhibition, Parviz Tanavoli’s bronze sculpture Heech is hard to miss. Drawing inspiration from Persian calligraphy, the work reflects Tanavoli’s approach to Iranian modernism. As a young artist, he studied sculpture at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrara, Italy. Returning to Tehran in 1960, he helped found the Iranian modern art movement known as Saqqakhaneh. The movement is named after the ubiquitous devotional fountains in Iran, which represents the local culture that helps inspire the artists. Along with artists like Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi and Faramarz Pilaram, Tanavoli was particularly interested in exploring and reinterpreting the visual traditions of Iran in the context of modernism.
The title and composition of this sculpture draw from the Persian word “heech,” which translates to “nothing.” The word is composed of three Persian letters, he, ye, and če. The solidity of its bronze material combined with the mystic elegance of its form, however, provide clues that the work should not be interpreted literally. While at first glance the sculpture’s connotation appears vague, several layers of meaning can be derived from Tanavoli’s representation of “nothingness.” The first, as stated by the artist, is associated with the belief, in Persian sufism, that “God created the universe out of nothing” and that “nothingness is everywhere.” In this sense, the notion of nothingness embodied by Heech can be interpreted as a celebration of the endless possibilities and mysteries within the world we inhabit, rather than an epitomization of emptiness. Tanavoli also imbued the sculpture with a notable degree of liveliness in its twisted, curvilinear form, which suggests movement in three-dimensional space. As such, Heech transgresses the two-dimensionality of traditional calligraphy, moving the art into a new realm of possibilities. In fact, Tanavoli suggests something akin to a personality in the physical shape of Heech, stating that “it has a head, eyes and a very beautiful body” (qtd. in Johnston)
Throughout his career, Tanavoli has created a long series of works based on the concept of heech. Also featured in Modernisms is his Heech Tablet, the form of which recalls ancient monuments like the stele of Hammurabi. The tablet’s surface is partially covered in square patterns, which resemble lines of ancient cuneiform text as well as grillworks found in traditional Iranian devotional fountains, while the undecorated areas, along with the protruding tail, trace the letter of heech. Furthermore, the three decorative locks on the right side of the sculpture may reference the three dots contained in the letter “če”. Compared to the supple and vigorous figure in the Heech sculpture, Heech Tablet possesses a more solemn and profound presence, as if suggesting an invisible link between the monuments of human civilization and the chaos and void within the universe. Thus, with his Heech series, Parviz Tanavoli transformed traditional Iranian symbols and religious practices to explore modernist expressions and concerns.
Johnston, Sholeh. “Heech – Poems in Three Dimensions.” SUFI Journal, 25 May 2016, https://www.sufijournal.org/parviz-tanavoli-heech.
Yunzhi Pan is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive a B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication and a B.A. in Art History from New York University in May 2021.