Abbas Akhavan’s practice ranges from site-specific ephemeral installations to drawing, video, sculpture and performance. The direction of his research has been deeply influenced by the specificity of the sites where he works: the architectures that house them, the economies that surround them, and the people that frequent them. The domestic sphere, as a forked space between hospitality and hostility, has been an ongoing area of research in his practice. Recent works have shifted focus, wandering onto spaces and species just outside the home—the garden, the backyard, and other domesticated landscapes. Akhavan is the recipient of Kunstpreis Berlin (2012), Abraaj Group Art Prize (2014), and the Sobey Art Award (2015).
November 21–January 16, 2016
“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.
ABBAS AKHAVAN, KRISTINA LEE PODESVA, MOHAMMAD SALEMY
September 12–October 31, 2009
Race: Proposals in Truth and Reconciliation
What are the possibilities of talking about race today? It is critical that we continue to challenge the conditions of racism, marginality, exclusion, and xenophobia. But how does one approach talking about a subject whose archaeologies of knowledge have been laden with histories of conflict and contestation? And how does one do this with a commitment to generosity, truthfulness, and reconciliation?
Over the last year, there has been an escalating presence of race in every aspect of social, political, and economic life. Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia became the most popular video in the world, drawing 1.2 million views in the first 24 hours after it aired. Described by some writers as the most important speech on race given by any American politician, it pointed to the fact that racial discord in the US, although entrenched, distracting, and emotional, was not necessarily intractable. It is this disavowal of intractability that forms the core of Speaking Truth to Reconciliation. Is it possible to engage with a fraught subject, but with a commitment to moving beyond questions of accountability or accusation, towards a conversation that both acknowledges the conditions of exclusion, while seeking shared ground?
Through an exhibition and forum Speaking Truth to Reconciliation brings together artists, writers, and curators to consider the possibilities of discussing this contested subject and “speaking out.”
The artists will engage with Artspeak as a site of dialogue and discussion that takes the principle of “truth telling” as a framing device, while considering these concepts poetically, pedagogically, and declaratively.
Curated by Sadira Rodrigues
ABBAS AKHAVAN, KELLY LYCAN
November 21, 2015
Kelly Lycan responds to Abbas Akhavan’s exhibition, on view at Artspeak until January 16, 2016.
ABBAS AKHAVAN, RANDY LEE CUTLER, KRISTINA LEE PODESVA, KEN LUM, SVEN LÜTTICKEN, ASHOK MATHUR, TED PURVES, MOHAMMAD SALEMY
October 23–October 24, 2009
Speaking Out: A Lamentation for Parrhesian Strategies
Emily Carr University Theatre, Room 301, South Building
“My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity… Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth?… What are the consequences of telling the truth?… And finally: what is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? Are they separable, or do they require one another?”
—Michel Foucault, Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia (1983)
In a two-day forum, local and international speakers will consider the possibilities of “speaking out” in the context of cultural production. Speaking out describes adopting a position which is perceived to be oppositional to mainstream cultural production and which chooses to reveal the limitations or structures in the operation of power. Speaking out also implies a consequence to the act of intervening or critiquing these institutions. The act of speaking out is not only intellectual, but extends to the value of the speaker as a social individual, his or her place in society, the consequences on their cultural capital, and the ramifications of talking about things most people do not want to.
The project will include a publication co-published by Artspeak and West Coast Line.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 23
6:30pm / Sadira Rodrigues
7pm / Ken Lum
SATURDAY OCTOBER 24
10am / Sven Lütticken (virtual)
11am / Ted Purves
12:30–1:30pm / Break
1:30pm / Ashok Mathur
2pm / Mohammad Salemy
2:30pm / Kristina Lee Podesva
3pm / Abbas Akhavan
3:30–5pm / Panel: Randy Lee Cutler, Ken Lum, Kristina Lee Podesva, Ted Purves, Sadira Rodrigues
Curated by Sadira Rodrigues