How Two Artists Meticulously Reproduced a Tehran Apartment Gallery in Pittsburgh as a Way Around the Iranian Travel Ban

With simultaneous shows in Iran and the US, the artists are making a statement about similarity and difference.

The Other Apartment, a project by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin. Photos by Sohrab Kashani (Tehran) / Tom Little (Pittsburgh).

Iranian artist Sohrab Kashani lives in Tehran, but you can visit his apartment—which serves as a contemporary art venue as well as his home—in Pittsburgh, where The Other Apartment is on view at the Mattress Factory.

The project, a collaboration with artist and Carnegie Mellon professor Jon Rubin, features a scaled reproduction of Kashani’s home, and the artists will stage matching exhibitions and events in identical spaces some 6,300 miles apart.

“With the past month of near war between our countries hanging over us, we have been questioning whether what we are doing is a bit absurd,” the pair said in a joint email interview with Artnet News. But the project has a bigger purpose. “By replicating an entire space from Iran in the US, The Other Apartment has functioned as our loophole around the travel ban.”

Before the ban, Kashani visited Rubin in Pennsylvania in 2016. “I was denied a visa in 2017 for my second visit to the US, which was after the ban had taken effect,” Kashani said. “Because I wasn’t able to travel to the US, and in many ways, the project has become the simplest way for Jon and me to continue working together in the same place.”

Despite the distance that separates the two, they have been regular collaborators since first meeting in 2008, the year that Kashani opened his home as a nonprofit art space, called Sazmanab after the street he lives on.

<i>The Other Apartment</i>, a project by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran) / Tom Little (Pittsburgh); Video

The Other Apartment, a project by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran) / Tom Little (Pittsburgh); Video
Arash Fayez (Iran).

When Rubin and Dawn Weleski launched Conflict Kitchen, a stand serving food from countries in conflict with the US, Iran cuisine was the first that was featured. Kashani was an important partner, helping host a dinner party bridging Pittsburgh and Tehran with a live Skype projection.

“We’ve been working on these interconnected projects for quite some time, always trying to bridge space through embodied experiences,” Rubin said.

The two had been considering the project for some seven years. It was first conceived as a sort of sci-fi sitcom, inspired by the fact that they both grew up watching American television. They still might make the show, which would center on a family unaware that its home is simultaneously located in both the US and Iran.

“As friends living inside two countries in conflict with each other, our lack of power and agency is simply maddening sometimes,” they said. “So we decided we would create a world for ourselves where everything that was a limit would became a possibility, and everything that was a political obstacle would became a creative opportunity.”

There were physical obstacles, too, in constructing The Other Apartment. The Pittsburgh gallery was two feet smaller than Kashani’s apartment, which meant scaling everything down slightly. And neither artist had visited the other space, which meant relying on spreadsheets, photographs, and sketches to accurately build the apartment’s facade, its interior architecture, and all the things within it.

The Other Apartment, a project by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran) / Tom Little (Pittsburgh).

The Other Apartment, a project by Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran) / Tom Little (Pittsburgh).

“It took us four months of solid work with a team of builders and fabricators to meticulously recreate the apartment,” they said. “We addressed the challenge of replication in many ways, including hand-making Sohrab’s dining room table, bedroom dresser, office bookcase, even air conditioner and radiator.” Books were scanned, rugs were photographed and reproduced, and other assorted objects were analyzed in Iran and 3-D printed in Pittsburgh.

It was also uncharted personal territory for Kashani. “Going public is never easy, especially if you are an introvert who lives in Iran, but to me this act of sharing is necessary and urgent,” he said. “I hope it communicates who I am as a person, my naked and uncensored truth, and invites others to do the same as well.”

The programming—including a performance in both cities where musicians played covers of songs from a cassette tape that a mysterious visitor left behind in Pittsburgh—is just as ambitious as the building project was.

“With a little research, we discovered that the tape was secretly left on a shelf by the lead singer of a Mexican band,” the artists said. “We immediately loved the idea that a Mexico City band thought that leaving a demo tape in a Pittsburgh replica of a Tehran apartment would be a good promotional idea.”

“The Other Apartment / Sohrab Kashani and Jon Rubin” is on view at the Mattress Factory, 505 Jacksonia Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 27, 2019–September 5, 2020.

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