Between hospitality and hostility: Iranian artist Abbas Akhavan at DRAF Studio London

Toronto-based Iranian artist explores conflict and nature in his latest solo exhibition.

Art Radar takes a look at Abbas Akhavan’s creative practice and his exploration of the tension between hospitality and hostility in his latest solo exhibition in London.

Installation view of Abbas Akhavan, "variations on a garden" in DRAF Studio, 2017. Image courtesy the artist, DRAF and Mercer Union Toronto. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Installation view of Abbas Akhavan, “variations on a garden” in DRAF Studio, 2017. Image courtesy the artist, DRAF and Mercer Union Toronto. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

From 20 January to 18 March 2017 Iranian-born artist Abbas Akhavan’s “variations on a garden” will be on display at London’s David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF) Studio. The solo exhibition includes sculptural and video installations that explore the native flora and natural environment of Iraq as well as the impacts of conflict in the domestic sphere.

Abbas Akhavan’s practice ranges from site-specific ephemeral installations to drawing, video and performance. His work often explores the domestic and domesticated space, contemplating the tensions between hospitality and hostility. He has recently began expanding this study of the home to include the surrounds of gardens, backyards and other domesticated landscapes.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Study for a Hanging Garden', 2013-15 (detail). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Study for a Hanging Garden’, 2013-15 (detail). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

In an interview with Jadaliyya, Akhavan explained why he focuses on domestic spheres in his work. He pointed out that the house is a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the world. He explained:

Part of the reason I started dealing with domestic objects is because we all have a relationship to utensils, knives, and beds. It’s a very open access point for people to talk about. I think there are a lot of presumptions about the domestic space that I want to explore. Especially when it becomes a bigger sphere, for example dealing with xenophobia. The house is a microcosm for a much bigger concern. I also deal with domesticated landscapes and parks.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Study for a Hanging Garden', 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Study for a Hanging Garden’, 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Born in Tehran in 1977 and based in Toronto since 1992, Akhavan won the 14th edition of the Sobey Art Award in 2015. He was chosen from a shortlists five artists from the main Canadian provinces and territories and the judges commended him for the “generosity and empathy at play” in his work. Akhavan is also the recipient of Kunstpreis Berlin (2012), the Abraaj Group Art Prize (2014) and the Fellbach Triennial Award (2016).

Abbas Akhavan, 'Study for a Hanging Garden', 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Study for a Hanging Garden’, 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Nature and conflict

In “variations on a garden” Akhavan presents Study for a Monument (2013–15), an installation of bronze plants laid out on white cotton bed sheets. The plants are from Iraq, specifically the area in and around the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. This area is thought to be the location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it was also targeted and mostly destroyed by Saddam Hussein in his campaign against the marsh rebels and in the Iraq war in the 1990s.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Study for a Hanging Garden', 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Study for a Hanging Garden’, 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Akhavan worked with the archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London and with living plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh in order to develop plants on a larger scale. As highlighted by curator Georgina Jackson, Royal Botanic Gardens is one of the largest repository of herbs in the world (with over 7 million species) and the gardens hold over 30,000 plant species from around the world. The collection is not only a scientific endeavour, but it also reflects historical colonisation and territorialisation.

Akhavan drew from the Iraq flora collections in order to sculpt the pieces in plasticine, cast them into wax, encased them within plaster, melted them, cast them into bronze and then charred them. The array of plants on the gallery floor is presented like a scientific experiment where the plants are examined and sterile.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Ghost', 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Ghost’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Another work in the exhibition is Ghost (2013), composed of excerpted YouTube footage of American soldiers returning home to surprise their families. The work continually fades to white, through which screams are heard. This video reflects the trauma and the impact of war on the people involved.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Study for a Hanging Garden', 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Study for a Hanging Garden’, 2013-15 (details). Image courtesy the artist and Abraaj Group Art Prize. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Akhavan uses the garden in this fertile place in Iraq in order to explore space and its functions. The garden in the exhibition is a representative space between territories. As observed in the exhibition text,

The garden often operates as a symbolic territory in the division between the commons and the proprietorial, between one nation and another.

Abbas Akhavan, 'Ghost', 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘Ghost’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Curator Georgina Jackson explains (PDF download) the metaphor of the garden in the exhibition when she states:

Excavating the tales of ancient Babylon, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens which at once exist and are absent, the garden lingers as both a symbolic site of labour and leisure, private and public, nature and humanity, but furthermore, as a site of sovereignty and war. All of these locations, stories and histories are variations on a garden.

Abbas Akhavan, 'and after and after', 2003/2008. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Abbas Akhavan, ‘and after and after’, 2003/2008. Image courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

The unseen interactions between nature and people

In an interview with Canadian Art, Akhavan explained the relationship his work has to nature:

Because I work so much with natural materials, like plants and animals, I think it was also about how any kind of relationship to nature is a kind of trapping of nature for the benefit of humanity, whether that’s resource extraction, or human-centric therapy, or for the “wellbeing” of the human. In the case of Study for a Curtain, the artwork was a trap for an idea about the use of nature as capital.

This relationship between art and human actions was also explored in an article for Art Review in which writer Oliver Basciano saw Akhavan’s work as critiquing agriculture as something that people use to control and exploit the world around them. He comments that

for Akhavan the subjugation of nature is a result not just of man’s love of power, but of the unseen, arguably abstract and immaterial systems that we have built up ever since we stopped being huntergatherers.

Installation view of Abbas Akhavan, "variations on a garden" in DRAF Studio, 2017. Image courtesy the artist, DRAF and Mercer Union Toronto. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Installation view of Abbas Akhavan, “variations on a garden” in DRAF Studio, 2017. Image courtesy the artist, DRAF and Mercer Union Toronto. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

Akhavan prefers to leave his works open to interpretation, encouraging viewers to explore connotations rather than have a set meaning. Rather than being a closed idea, Akhavan sparks curiosity by sometimes presenting work with little explanatory text. This is particularly evident in his site-specific work. The view is involved in the work and interacts with it. Akhavan observed in an article for Canadian Art:

I’m interested […] in making site-specific work that sparks interest in viewers because it relates to their local politics or architecture or culture. You learn about your own work when people come to see it.

Claire Wilson

1549

Related topics: Iranian artists, Canadian artists, events in London, feature, independent art space

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