There's enough do-gooding art to suffocate a saint at this year's Bumbershoot: a roving cart encouraging plant adoption by Vaughn Bell, a survey in photographs and words of activists in 43 countries by Katharina Mouratidi, a house made of recycled bottles by Jasmine Zimmerman, a feast devoted to the revolutionary spirit of 1968 by One Pot, a look at how individuals affect the world—including the chance to talk directly with people in Tehran, right there in the gallery—curated by Marita Holdaway.
But only one man, Daniel Smith, traveled to an epicenter of American fear and ignorance in order to create his exhibition. He went to the Iranian capital, Tehran, as a follow-up to the show he cocurated at last year's Bumbershoot, which paired silk-screened posters by graphic designers from Seattle and Havana. His exhibitions are more than poster shows; they're trips to place where Americans do not—or cannot—go.
"I was looking for another place that wasn't easily accessible for Americans," he said in a phone interview. "As far as we can tell, this is the first exhibit of contemporary Iranian graphic design in the United States since the revolution."
Smith got his visa to Tehran, which he visited last December, through a peace group based in New York. When his in-country movements were restricted at the last minute, prohibiting him from keeping his scheduled studio appointments, graphic designers came to his hotel to meet him.
The final pairings are not necessarily flattering to the Seattle designers, of which Smith is one. "In a lot of cases, the Iranian work just blows the Seattle work away," he said. The Iranian designs are based in—and playing with, sometimes precariously—the long tradition of Persian calligraphy. By contrast, the American imagery is nonchalant, profane, modernistic. Each city's design renders the other's newly unfamiliar. In the gold-and-black logo for the show, the two sides are united. It's not just a disco-fied mirror image, it's a full-throated dual-language announcement, full of tensions that reach far beyond design.