by Amanda DelaCruz

As you walk into Doors Without Keys in the beautiful Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, you first encounter a bit of poetry from Abbas Kiarostami:

“How comforting/That each goes his own way.”

This is Aga Khan's first solo exhibition featuring Abbas Kiarostami, the acclaimed Iranian poet, artist and filmmaker and the quote is fitting. The exhibition consists of 50 life sized photographs displayed in a maze like configuration of closed and locked doors from over two decades of his  travels in Iran, France, Morocco and Italy. 

The digital photographs printed on canvas are amazingly crisp and tactile looking – I wanted to run my fingers across them to see if the peeling paint and wood grains were actually something I could touch and feel. As you walk through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the exhibition, you can hear audio overhead of low chatter, soft knocking, doors creaking and closing, locks turning, and birds chirping – all sounds courtesy of Kiarostami’s films. It brought some needed context to direct your thoughts in regards to the origin and story behind each doorway. Without the sounds of people laughing and dogs barking, the 7-8 foot high doors may seem only desolate, and abandoned, locked and beyond reach. Because I heard these things before I even made my first turn in the gallery, I feel as if I had a more positive outlook about the rest of the photographs.  Though one long hallway, that seemed almost like a back alley, with a door with no apparent way to open it looked particularly foreboding to me.

Kiarostomi purposely gives no context to the photographs. There are no titles, no dates, no details beyond the image itself. While it’s clear that the doors are inaccessible, and from an older time and from a foreign place, those are about the only things the viewer can be certain of.

As I walked around with another Culture Toronto team member, we questioned what kind of places these doors were barring. Another perspective made me appreciate how different interpretations of Kiarostami's work could be. For my team mate,

"Nothing is more terrifying than a labyrinth of locked doors, both literally and symbolically, but walking this labyrinth makes me realize that surely some of the doors could be opened, maybe by force even... there are many possibilities in life, many seemingly locked doors that we could pass or even crash through if we only try."

Could they really be doors to homes? How could a simple pad lock be enough to safeguard a family? I barely trust one to guard my work locker. Seeing a pad locked door or old style keyhole just proved to me that these images must come from decades ago. It would never be enough for the present. How could I sleep at night with such a door? It made me think that these doors must be located in relatively safe places, since these locks seem to be enough to deter people from thievery or worse.

The general lack of ornament is also telling. When I studied ancient art and cultures in both high school and university, I learned that you can tell a lot about a society by their arts or lack of ornament. A culture with no ornament is normally a culture at war, or suffering from plague or hardship. While one that invests in the arts is one at peace with an excess amount of time for leisure. These doors are interesting in that there is very little embellishment or even upkeep, much unlike a door I saw in the permanent collection of the museum with inlaid mother of pearl. At the same time, the owners of these doors don’t appear to need much safeguards, so is the apparent neglect simply from time?

The most embellishment I saw were small studded pyramid type studs on two different doors like the one to the right below.

Because of the lack of context I found myself drawn to small details – the layers of different woods to patch up and cover holes, the peeling paint lit by sunshine or hidden in shadows, the colours that seemed to have changed by weather and time, doors that had once been turquoise that have transformed into various shades of green, blue, and rust. There were no doorknobs, no peepholes or windows.

I was pleasantly surprised when I looked into the corner of one of the paintings and saw the image of a cat crawling into a break in the wood, an inadvertent cat door of an older time and the only sign of life beyond the soft voices heard overhead.

My favourite door was overlaid with a soft, wash like painting of a balcony overlooking the ocean and green life. While a lot of doors appeared to deter entry, this one seemed to beckon it. It was like I was able to see someone’s dream of being in another place.

One door in particular was interesting in that it was housed in way that walls surrounded it on all sides so you could only view it through breaks in the window gratings. It was physically inaccessible while also being locked and chained.

Many exhibitions I’ve been to have been curated in such a way where you’re almost completely directed in how to view the work and understand it in relation to its time or media. Kiarostami has left it so open that our own world views are what affect our perception of the photographs the most. While I looked at the beauty of the texture and the small details, like rays of sunlight, transitioning colours, and the patterns of shadows, my team member saw inaccessibility, closed off opportunities and abandonment.

At the end of the exhibit is a quote from Kiarostami stating:

“We are not able to look at what we have in front of us,

unless it is inside a frame.”

The frame of your experiences and outlook on life are what will dictate what you take away from the wonderful textures and nuances of Doors Without Keys. No written placard could do that for you.

Doors Without Keys was curated by Amirali Alibhai and Peter Scarlet. It will run at the Aga Khan Museum until March 27th, 2016. Kiarostami's shorts and films will also be running alongside the exhibition in the Aga Khan Museum Auditorium and TIFF Bell Lightbox.


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