The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics, 2020

Solo Exhibition, Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA


The exhibition reflects on Karimi’s intensive science training in high school with the aim of becoming a doctor; a goal that she abandoned to pursue an art career.

White and branded footwear, bright-colored socks, backpacks, polished nails, makeup kits, cassettes, and glossy posters of Western celebrities were the forbidden items that kept hundreds of teenage girls—who were otherwise sheathed in full hijabs—at the schoolyard before attending their classes. The long lines and the frustrating process of searching for these items by the school authorities were to assure that everyone conformed to the rules of public life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The story of coming of age in post-revolutionary Iran is accompanied by the pressure placed on the youth for excelling in mathematics, arguably the most esteemed subject of study.

The Unbearable Lightness of Mathematics is Pantea Karimi’s personal story of four years of science education in the late 80s under the Islamic Republic of Iran.

For this solo exhibition at the Mercury 20 Gallery, Karimi has made a series of mock blackboards animated by chalk-written mathematical formulas topped with the phrase In the Name of God in Persian. The black thread formation and marked spots on the floor are reminders of the long lines in her schoolyard and the atmosphere she experienced every morning before class. Ironically these demarcations are also familiar during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with a few “forbidden” objects mounted in the gallery, Karimi reconstructs her Iran’s science classroom of the 1980s. While a personal story, this exhibition connotes a restrictive educational system that did not leave much room for focused learning or personal explorations. This poignant anxiety is captured through the gradual fading of the contents of the mock blackboards. Mathematics was, indeed, too abstract and aloof to stimulate the articulation of subversive thoughts, artistic sentiments, and socio-political views. Unbearably “light” for the “heavy” environment in which it was taught, mathematics is both the agonizing and the celebrated protagonist in this exhibition.

3Dimensional view of the gallery and the exhibition

Videos, 2020

Through video and sound, Karimi remakes the experience and the anxiety she went through attending her science classroom for the viewer.

Come to the Blackboard (Biyaa Paaye Takhteh), 2020, Video and sound (layered voice), 0:47 seconds Karimi’s militant voice in Persian mimics one of her math teachers calling her to the blackboard to solve a math problem. The layering of the voice showcases Karimi’s anxiety and fear.
To Tell My Story, 2020, video and audio, 1:11
Come to the Blackboard, 2020, video and sound, 1:27
Gallery Installation, video, 1:52

Blackboards 1-10, showcases the progression of anxiety through the disappearance of content, animation, 45 seconds

Laser Talk Series: Stanford University