Heech Tablet, 1973
Tanavoli conceived this work as part of his ongoing investigation into the relationship between word and image. As the artist has recounted, Heech Tablet was inspired in part by the famous Babylonian Hammurabi stele in the Louvre in Paris—of which there is a replica in the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran. In addition to mimicking the cuneiform script used widely in pre-Islamic Iran, Tanavoli’s surface markings also resemble the grillwork protecting saqqakhaneh (Persian sacred water fountains), while the closed locks resemble those attached by worshippers to the grilles surrounding these holy shrines. Although the Farsi word heech in this sculpture’s title means “nothing,” here it is not meant to express despair or emptiness. Instead, for Tanavoli, the heech might represent creativity itself—the void filled by the artist’s imagination.
Close examination reveals that, interrupting the march of “cuneiform” script, is an undecorated area tracing a flat, shadowy Heech—with its head at the top, featuring two eyes and a quiff, then its sinuous body, and at the bottom, its upturning tail. In addition to referencing saqqakhaneh, the three locks at the right may mark the spot on a page where, in writing the letter “he” in the word heech, a Farsi scribe makes three dots.