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C&EN talks with Ziba Ardalan, art curator

The Iranian art-world leader discusses how her science background shapes her creative work

by Katharine Sanderson, special to C&EN
April 2, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 11


An image of Ziba Ardalan in a gray wool coat stands smiling, her hands in her pockets, in front of a tree.
Credit: Ted Chin
Ziba Ardalan

Ziba Ardalan is an Iranian-born art curator. She cofounded and was the first director of the art organization Swiss Institute in New York. In 2004, she started the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art in London. The not-for-profit contemporary art institution and educational charity operated from 2004 to 2023. But before becoming a voice in the art world, Ardalan was a chemist. She has a PhD in physical chemistry and worked in nutrition research. Her scientific background and curiosity have enormously influenced her work in the arts.

Katharine Sanderson talks with her about how science has shaped her art curation and why she chose entropy as the theme for a show at the Venice Biennale in 2022. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Hometown: “I grew up in different cities, but when I graduated from high school, I was in Tehran,” Iran.

Education: Master’s, chemical engineering, and PhD, physical chemistry, University of Geneva; master’s, art history, Columbia University

Current position: Independent curator

Ziba, tell me about your education in Iran and Europe.

It’s very hard to imagine now that women had so many possibilities, but before the revolution we did have a lot of possibilities. All parents wanted their children to go abroad because they would learn languages, they would meet people from other cultures, and hopefully make the bridge. A connection between Iran and those countries.

Science was always very important because science seems to be the modern language to connect us to the rest of the world and progress. I had an admission to study chemical engineering at Berkeley, California. But the first step was to come to England to improve my English. This was the time of Twiggy; it was the time of the Beatles. It was a glorious time. In the 1960s we sent a man to the moon; we wanted to connect. And it was in that spirit of connecting to the world that I was brought up: Persia—Iran—was being extremely open and wanting connection with the world.

During this time, I decided I wanted to go to Switzerland and learn French in Geneva. My parents didn’t hesitate to accept my decision to move to Switzerland instead of going to Berkeley. So I studied for a master’s in chemical engineering at the University of Geneva.

Once you studied science, you could do anything.

How did you enjoy chemical engineering?

I liked it. I liked organic chemistry because it gave all kinds of possibilities for the future. I remember we had all these models of molecules, three-dimensional models for organic products. And organic chemistry was the future. For me, maybe the attraction was those molecular models that we saw everywhere. And that, in a way, was my opening for the art world.

I then did a PhD in physical chemistry, which was on quantum mechanics. It was fascinating.

Ultimately you didn’t stay in chemistry. What changed, and where did you go next?

Once you studied science, you could do anything. Because science, quantum mechanics—all those things—push your intellect so far. When I went to high school in Persia, there was a lot of pressure to study science or become a medical doctor, especially for women. But I always had in my heart a special love for creation. I didn’t use my creative side really until I was in Switzerland and I would visit Kunsthallen. In any town in Switzerland, there are small art institutions, and they brought together the most recent art. It was an exciting time.

Meanwhile, I got married, and we had our first child. And then we moved to the United States, to Boston, in 1974. My husband was at graduate business school at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

Even when I did my PhD, I was interested in the humanistic side of the world, and at that time what was so important was nutrition: we need to feed the world. MIT had a nutrition department, and the professor hired me. I worked for a year and a half for her. There was no money for anything because it was a new area, but we did some work on how we can improve hunger in the world.

How did you segue into the art world?

In the ’70s and ’80s, we went back and forth between Switzerland and the US three times. I always was more keen to go to America. I was fascinated by the advanced experimentation and the love of the advances in science. There was so much energy there.

We went back to America, to New York, in 1981 when I had two baby children. Women were supposed to be at home no matter what they had studied. There were so many limitations in society.

Science was always very important because science seems to be the modern language to connect us to the rest of the world and progress.

And then one morning, I went to the Whitney Museum [of American Art] and just gave my CV to the receptionist. I’ve done a lot of bold things in my life, and I don’t know still today what led me to do that.

I was not expecting anything, and then 2 weeks later I received a phone call from the Whitney. A curator was asking me to go for an interview. It’s incredible, but you always need that element of magic. New York was the only place in the entire world you could do that.

You later trained in art history. How did that work?

I had a PhD, but I had no formal art history education. And in order to go to graduate school, I had to have a number of credits from an undergraduate class. And once I got that, I could apply to graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City.

At the same time, I was working for Lisa Phillips, who is now director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. And she always had this interest in science. When I had an interview with her, she told me, “You have a PhD, and I am at the middle of a project that requires some research. And if you have done a PhD, you know what to do.” So I worked for her on an exhibition. I then attended the Whitney Museum independent study program: a year program that really pushes you forward into contemporary art. I was not interested in tradition; I needed the challenge of contemporary art. And as I said, those molecules are important.

Uncombed, Unforeseen, Unconstrained, a show you curated at the Venice Biennale in 2022, was inspired by entropy. Why entropy?

Entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics, was the question of my exam when I graduated. And then it just stuck to me. I saw that entropy is happening in the world around us. I became attentive to the world, and it really came from that.

Have you returned to Iran?

No, I have not been back in Iran for quite a while. When the revolution happened [in 1979], I dropped a curtain on my country, my culture, everything. It was too painful. It was a horribly painful moment. To imagine that people of my country accepted, that people believed in, the Islamic extremists. It is a horrible situation.

I gave a couple of talks. Not directly against the regime, but it makes it impossible for me to go back. I am in contact with people, and I know what’s happening. There is encouragement, and I am trying to help as much as I can, but it’s not easy.

Katharine Sanderson is a freelance j­ournalist in Cornwall, England.


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