Exhibitions News United Arab Emirates

A look inside Iran’s sealed embassy in Washington, DC

Photographs by Eric Parnes taken in the abandoned building are on show in Dubai

Eric Parnes, The Lion and The Sun, 2013. Photo: courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery

Dramatic photographs revealing the faded grandeur of the Embassy of Iran in Washington, DC, which has been closed to visitors for more than 30 years, are on show at an exhibition in Dubai. The Iranian-American artist Eric Parnes gained access to the building, capturing the Persian-inspired interiors in a series of photographs on show at Ayyam Gallery, “Custodian of Vacancy: The Iranian Embassy in the USA”, until 30 January. “This was the centrepiece of the Iranian government, and is perhaps one of the most magnificent embassies in the world," Parnes says.

He describes how the building was an integral part of his childhood. “Growing up around Washington, DC, I vividly remember my father driving by Massachusetts Avenue and identifying the unmistakable structure that was the Iranian Embassy, engrained in my memory,” he says. In its 1970s heyday, wild parties at the embassy were graced by celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol. “A clear dichotomy now exists, where the structure is more of a relict of the past, a sealed tomb, sombre and still,” Parnes says.

The derelict site is also a potent political symbol. "Unmistakably there is an innate political and historical aspect to the exhibition. The Iranian Embassy has been closed since the Iranian Hostage crisis,” Parnes adds. On 4 November 1979, militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 American staff members hostage. The Shah of Iran, the country’s last royal ruler, was overthrown the previous January during the Islamic revolution. Although Iran still owns the embassy building in Washington, DC, it is maintained by the US State Department.

“One must remember that Iran and the United States had extremely close ties during the time of the Shah, and the rapid changes that occurred from 1979 to 1981 continue to resonate today on both the American psyche as well as that of the Iranian consciousness,” the artist says.

Crucially, administrative ephemera, which throw light on Iran’s role in the 20th century, are still dotted around the building. "File cabinets are stacked like cast-off monuments adjacent to discarded passports from Iranians updating their information. There is material scattered about revealing Iran’s lesser-known role during the Second World War, alongside former portraits of the Shah Mohammad Pahlavi (Emperor) and Shabanu Farah Diba (Empress),” Parnes says. He declines to reveal, however, how he gained access to the ghostly venue.

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