NEWFOUND TREASURES valuable art hidden in plain sight By Alyse Emanuel
shadows of campus buildings, valuable sculptures have lurked for decades while passersby have remained unaware of their origins and meaning. The discovery of the monetary value of Hamline’s three sculptures by Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli brought them into the spotlight, but it cannot compare to the value that the history and meaning of the sculptures brings to the Hamline community. It wasn’t until six months ago that any of this information was illuminated. “Up until last summer we had no idea that the work was this valuable,” said Studio Arts Professor and Director of Exhibitions of the Soeffker Gallery and the Hamline Permanent Collection John-Mark Schlink. Though the exact price is confidential, the value of each of the sculptures is in the six figure range. Some of Tanavoli’s other sculptures have recently been sold for as much as seven figures. Peggah Navab of KFAI radio station contacted Schlink last summer wanting to know more about Tanavoli’s sculpture, the Heech, located next to Bush Student Center. Once a highly trafficked location on campus, the building is far less frequented by students since the construction of the Anderson Center. According to Schlink, it was Navab’s interest in the Heech that sparked an investigation into all three of the Tanavoli sculptures owned by Hamline. “We had someone come and look at the work to do an appraisal, because we discovered that…the prices on his work have gone way up recently,” Schlink said. “So when the guy was doing the appraisal, he said that anything that Abby Grey has collected you should really be careful with and look at, because apparently a lot of the artists that she worked with, their work is very valuable, and [Tanavoli] is one of them.” In 1970, Tanavoli was invited to Hamline as a visiting artist for six months. He had taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design from 1960-63 before returning to Iran. What he discovered there inspired him to contribute to an art movement and led to the conception of a lifelong motif. “When I returned to Iran, the art environment was very fake and it was, you know, the galleries and the artists, they were kind of following European art and Western art and I
didn’t like it. I couldn’t approve of what was happening. And I decided to do one single word that expresses me better than anything else,” he said. Tanavoli, one of the foremost contemporary Iranian sculptors, was a founding member of an art movement that started in Iran in the 1960s, which focused on bringing symbols from their own culture into their work. For years, one of his motifs has been what is called a “heech,” a word in Farsi meaning “nothingness.” “Most people think that nothingness does not exist, but here this one exists. So people communicate with it very easily,” Tanavoli said. “It’s a nothingness that is.” Hamline students almost fifty years ago are among the people who communicated easily with the work and the concept of making “nothing.” When Tanavoli began the Heech, which was commissioned by Hamline in 1970, the atmosphere on campus was ripe for engaging with the piece. “Those days, there was still the Vietnam War and the students were very much against it and they, as a sign of protest, did not attend their classes and mainly hung around. But when they heard I was making this monument, they were very happy to come and watch it and help me because they liked the subject,” Tanavoli said. “Instead of doing ‘things’ they wanted to do ‘nothing.’” Tanavoli began his first Heech in 1965 and has made hundreds of variations, which are located all over the world. At twelve feet tall, the Hamline Heech is the largest one yet. Tanavoli recalled the campus’ enthusiastic response to this sculpture in the atmosphere that surrounded the Vietnam War. “It was like a negative attitude toward what was going on because [the students] didn’t agree with it. And that was just the perfect time for me to do this and it was like a consolation for the youngsters,” Tanavoli said. “Once they saw [the Heech], they related to it very easily and they loved it in those days. I remember in those days many of them would lie down on the sculpture and take pictures; they loved it.” Though a university campus in the 1960s proved to be a receptive environment for the Heech, Tanavoli said that his heech sculptures are not designed for any particular time or place.