November 21, 2015–January 16, 2016
Opening Friday, November 20, 8pm
“After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”—Fanny Howe, Bewilderment
We have no doubt that art has the capacity to assume a pedagogical role, one that can be stretched and bent to fit into endless tributaries of thought. More nebulous, however, is its position within emotional labour, as its effectiveness is measured through a viewer’s subjectivity. Emphasizing the emotional intelligence of these objects is not a disservice to its historic, academic, or political significance. We have much to learn from these things, but at the fore is that they are a lesson in empathy. There is no immediate recovery from the deep well of loss that comes from acknowledging the intimate and everyday forms of violence that dehumanize our existence. There is only process, and within that, finding words for what is beyond language.
The materialization of not-making—as in all the activities that surround or are instrumental to artistic production, but not production itself—is a business of false vacancies. There is no absence in not-making. It is filled with banal but consuming activities such as paying bills, doing laundry, napping, working for pay, more sleeping. But not-making is also bodies—from the hidden labour that supports our privilege, to the ecological and individual survivors of cultural and topographical ruin, to the generative and collaborative friendships that are the foundation of our social relations. Artistic creation and political action are derived from similar spaces, and the boundaries of life and work for Abbas are elliptical. He is, much like his work, equal parts generosity and sorrow. And his work, much like he, is a willful rejection of making for not-making.
What can be determined from the curtains, the sheaths of dying palms, the precarious towers of dishes that have formed his lineage of not-making? They trace invisible lines of exclusion, of impermanence, of colonialism, of loneliness. Endangerment and invasiveness appear, again and again. As does our unease. To better navigate, we rely on facts. In this room alone, two hundred and twenty-seven kilograms of plants cast in bronze, dispersed amongst these white bed sheets. The sheets are remnants of not-making, used to wrap the plants during transport. This is an incomplete archive of the artwork, but also of the plants themselves, which originate from species endemic and native to the region around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Conflict has ravaged these banks, from the destruction of the salt marshes by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government to the scars of the Iraq war. The heaviness of this not-making leaves no space for apathy, a response so often engendered by geographic distance.
The scale is misleading and powerful. A thistle becomes a head, imperfect branches become scorched arms, and our well of loss is no fuller. It is humbling to be amongst these things, as caretaker, as friend. There is so much to be learned. During the time we have known each other, Abbas has taught me a great deal, about vulnerability and the integrity of not-making. About the importance of leaving. And for this, I am fortunate.
To begin and end with Howe: “The politics of bewilderment belongs only to those who have little or no access to an audience or a government. It involves circling the facts, seeing the problem from varying directions, showing the weaknesses from the bottom up, the conspiracies, the lies, the plans, the false rhetoric; the politics of bewilderment runs against myth, or fixing, binding, and defending. It’s a politics devoted to the little and the weak; it is grassroots in that it imitates the way grass bends and springs back when it is stepped on. It won’t go away but will continue asking irritating questions to which it knows all the answers.”
1 Of the many things that one can learn from the indomitable Jeanne Randolph it is that “long-term loyalties and tenderness are what preserve an art scene from functioning like a corporation.”
2 You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.
Abbas would like to acknowledge the support of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and in particular Dr. Sophie Neale and Shahina Ghazanfar, Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council. Special thanks to Georgina Jackson, The Abraaj Group, and The Third Line.