Iranian artist Shirin Sabahi probes into tautology and fabrication in a solo exhibition at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art in Oldenburg.
On view from 5 July to 30 September 2018, “Borrowed Scenery” offers a contemplative archive of Sabahi’s emerging filmic career.
“We immediately agreed this would be the location”, a woman signs. Behind her, cast in a pixelated black and white, is a swimming pool surrounded by trees. The private spot, though familiar – familial – is shroud in silent mystery, the only contextual offering being a silent, sign language narration. In its eerily domestic composition, Iranian artist Shirin Sabahi’s film We Came Here to Swim (2012) is a celebration of aesthetic determinism and extra-sensory communication. Though void of sound, one becomes fixated on the story, not knowing where the pool lies, who its owner is and why the deep, mossy pit requires an external raconteur. The piece is a feast of subtle imagery, nodding to the artist’s later experimental films.
Now on view at Oldenburg’s Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art, Sabahi’s solo exhibition “Borrowed Scenery” is a peculiar, enigmatic exploration of self-expression. The films on display, jumping off from We Came Here to Swim, derives from the artist’s research into detached communication, the “minimalist dictum” of individualism and the various contradictions that lie with creativity. Confronting head on the problems of removing the “artist’s hand”, Sabahi demonstrates how tension erupts from film, willingly or not, driving her characters, settings, storylines and audiences into a whirlwind of confusion. But, in some places, it is a comfortable confusion, her works being saturated with household figures and relatable scenes. Here poignant pieces of history and personal accounts are fused together, providing an unnerving, disconnected, within-reach-but-not-quite-graspable reminiscence.
Currently based in Berlin, Sabahi is the 2017 recipient of the Media Art Grant from the Foundation of Lower Saxony at the Edith-Russ-Haus. “Borrowed Scenery”, on view until 30 September 2018, brings her back to the German institution in an experimental survey show. Her seemingly disparate works – dealing with the challenges of filmmaking, maths, love affairs, travel and machinery – somehow come together in a spare but evocative manifestation of Sabahi’s growing interest in history and its fabrication. More specifically, the exhibition follows the artist’s curious attention to archives and artefacts and the way both are manipulated or staged, ultimately obscuring memory, stressing certain characters or rewriting entire tales. Her ongoing practice, as elucidated by “Borrowed Scenery”, gathers activities that are stuck in an infinite present, a cycle where communication is disrupted, doubt is looped and chronological events meander on without ever coming to an end.
As in We Came Here to Swim (2012), Sabahi’s We Fell Into the Water Staying Dry (2013) toys with a swimming pool as a metaphor for aesthetic determinism and interpretation. In both inaugural videos, the artist plays with contradiction, providing viewers with imagery that is just as elusive as her narratives. And because both are silent films, requiring the utmost visual attention of her audience, it becomes clear that speaking audibly or loudly do not necessarily help with being heard; it is just as effective to deliver a piece of artwork without forceful commentary. As a consequence, Sabahi’s films implicitly suggest that staying (momentarily) silent and contemplative sparks “communicative qualities that are also worthy of our time”.
In conjunction with her video work, Sabahi also brings the installation Muted Fanfare for the Shy (Prop) (2013). Titled after a film of the same name, the motorised object exhibits a quiet, automated drive, restaging the film’s detached setting in the gallery. In both, viewers see a greenhouse and its mechanised blinds, seemingly disavowed of any human labour. The folding canvases play off the serenity and stillness of the plants they shade, their continuous opening and closing being the only respite from an otherwise still locale. Yet upon further inspection, one notices a human figure lingering in the background, perhaps re-enlivened through Sebahi’s spectators.
Witnessing the dry mechanical language of the machinery gives the object a certain agency; it begins to form an unsettling language of its own, a form of communication that viewers cannot quite operate. The muted presence of these works demonstrates the “suspension of disbelief” that, Sabahi argues, is required of audiences in order to “buy into” the idea of a truly autonomous art object. Such artworks ask of themselves: Why are we here? For the exhibition, Norwegian artist Mikael Brkic writes:
Becoming self-aware is taken to be a sign of maturity and of interaction with the surrounding world, signaling an ability to engage in complex reflection. However, without the human component, the mathematical purity of the gesture becomes simply self-referential and tautological, revealing nothing of its potential content.
In her more recent work, Sabahi again focuses on pools, now approaching them as metaphors for the deeply transparent practices of many contemporary artists. Her two films Mouthful (2018) and Borrowed Scenery (2017) derive from the same project, leading her to invite Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi to Tehran to oversee the restoration of his 1977 sculpture Matter and Mind. The large-scale piece consists of a steel basin filled with used engine oil that has been permanently installed at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art since the sculpture’s creation. Throughout the past four decades, the oil pool has transformed into the object of vernacular ritual: the glossy, opaque pool has become an accidental wishing well, prompting passersby to throw coins and other objects into it.
The story of Matter and Mind directly shows the kind of unintended consequences that can arise from “attempting an aesthetic programme”; though an artist is ignited by a certain intention, his or her piece is inevitably transformed into a foreign object or setting beyond their control. Mouthful and Borrowed Scenery are a critical look at this phenomenon. Studying the various objects fished from the pool, viewers can only speculate as to what feelings or actions drove people to ‘pollute’ the pool. Were they acts of defiance, refutation, protest, confrontation or apathy? Brkic provides a possible explanation:
One particular story in Borrowed Scenery is especially telling of the hypnotic effects of the pool: upon seeing it in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, the former Shah was so perplexed by it that he reached into the pool and got the dirty oil all over his hand. He in fact did not even recognise the material he had sold out to all along.
In scrutinising the potentials and limits of art production, Sabahi also looks to redefine the sui generis of “stoic objects”, or what the Western art canon calls Arte Povera. Arising in the 1960s as a reaction to the then-dominating abstract expressionism, the movement quickly propelled artists to develop practices defined by a “programmatic thinking and seriality”. Sabahi seeks to rearrange this thinking beyond its canonical borders, theoretically attaching it to the similar aesthetic of Japan’s Mono-ha (School of Things) aesthetics, of which Haraguchi was part.
From this, viewers can see a pattern emerging in Sabahi’s work where certain styles or methods are maintained, yet their content and connotations are entirely altered. The title of “Borrowed Scenery” is taken from the Japanese shakkei, a type of East Asian garden design in which background landscapes are incorporated into the floral composition. There is fluid connection between a constructed or created ‘space’ and its outside, its surroundings. As with botanical gardens and Haraguchi’s work, Sabahi frames her films and installations like her own shakkei.
Sabahi’s “Borrowed Scenery” undoubtedly continues in her career’s investigative and deconstructive approach, but is also a moment of pause. She addresses the interpretations and identifications encouraged by language and image in relation to the different temporalities that employ translation and transformation. In doing so, she plays with formatting and the ritualistic processes of fabrication and recognition, supplementing her works with an unsettling otherworldliness that is somehow, undeniably, familiar.
Shirin Sabahi’s “Borrowed Scenery” is on view from 5 July to 30 September 2018 at the Edith-Russ-Haus, Katharinenstraße 23, 26121, Oldenburg, Germany.
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