‘Beacon’ (2012) Installation view at the Darling Foundry: ‘Mortar’, polyurethane foam, mortar, oil and honey, 3 x 2 x 1.5 m. ‘Like a bat working afraid of its own shadow’, stacked sandbags, 3 x 2 x 1.5 m. ‘Envelope’, envelope of hot air balloon, fan, digital timer: envelope inflates for 6 minutes and deflates for 24 minutes. during deflation the gallery is filled with the faint sounds of bird songs
‘Beacon: 6:35/8:03′. Plywood on rooftop of Darling Foundry
By Joni Murphy
Canadian Art Magazine (2012)
Abbas Akhavan’s solo show at the Darling Foundry poses a series of questions into the relationships between war and art, destruction and nation building, human and animal.
Akhavan activates these themes with his signature light touch, allowing the pieces a lot of air to breathe. Materials, titles and references interact and resonate in a way that seems so casual as to be almost accidental, but thinking through the work makes clear none of the show’s overall complexity is such. With just four pieces, one visible only at sunset, Akhavan manages to fill the massive space both physically and conceptually.
The linchpin of the show is the sculpture Mortar. It is a copy of the stone lion of Hamedan, Iran, that Akhavan has reproduced in its current war-, weather- and ritual-scarred state. The actual Hamedan lion is the survivor of a pair that once stood at the city gates. Its twin was destroyed during an ancient regime change and the survivor was knocked off its pedestal and left to erode on the ground with broken legs. In addition to these brute attacks, the lion has also been more slowly transformed by generations of people coating it in honey, milk and wax as part of marriage, birth and fertility rituals. Akhavan’s glossy abstraction of a lion is titled for a substance that refers both to the paste that repairs buildings and to the weapons that destroy them—it succeeds in sensually evoking both centuries of affectionate anointing and years of violent bombing.
Like a Bat Afraid of its Own Shadow is a stack of sandbags that serves as Mortar’s phantom twin. Sand is transitory and soft when left to blow across a landscape, but it can quickly become heavy and absorbent when encased in a bag. If mortar holds together and shatters, sandbags deflect and absorb at least the physical shocks of warfare.
The third piece in the gallery is a bright yellow hot-air balloon resting alongside Mortar and Like a Bat Afraid of its Own Shadow. Its measured expansion and collapse brings the other works’ abstract evocation of historic cycles down to a sensually graspable scale. A loud hiss fills the space as the balloon expands, but when the air blower switches off, the balloon’s slow collapsing is made more poignant by birdsong echoing in the newfound quiet. Though easy to miss for their seeming naturalness, these sounds are just as much a part of the piece as the showy billows of fabric. Birds sing out most at daybreak and sunset, so their repeated return in the gallery at once shrinks the length of a day to a matter of minutes while reimagining the yellow balloon as not just an envelope of air, but the sun itself.
Outside, the actual sun also finds its way into the outdoor piece 6:35/8:03. The title points us towards the time of sunset on the day of the show’s opening in March and the much later sunset on the day of the show’s closing in May. Akhavan’s positioning of a cutout ensures that each sunset of the exhibition spells the words “second nature” in natural light on a wall across from the gallery.
In this piece, as with the entire show, Akhavan puts us between competing cycles. He suggests that, though precarious, it may be necessary and potentially freeing to find our selves somewhere between past and potential, structure and ruin, first and second nature.
by anja bock
Art Papers (Sep – Oct, 2012)
Abbas Akhavan’s installation “Beacon” transforms the cavernous Darling Foundry into a slowly breathing, giant organism (March 15 to May 27, 2012). Lying prone on the floor is an undulating yellow “envelope,” a hot-air balloon alternately inflating to press itself against the brick walls, and deflating to form a flaccid pool of color. It rises up with a promise only to be cut off of its air supply and fall down to the floor repeatedly (Envelope, 2012).
This yellow sun of sorts is guarded by a pair of sculptural gate-keepers, two lions, albeit at the edge of life themselves. One is a mixed-media replica of the partly demolished and deeply symbolic Stone Lion of Hamadan (Mortar, 2012). Hamadan, which dates back to the 7th century BCE, was conquered repeatedly and in 931 CE the ruling dynasty ordered the destruction of the lion gates. They were dethroned and dismembered. In 1949 one of the ruins was raised again but there is no trace of the counterpart it was thought to once have.
Akhavan transports the lion to Montreal by way of mimesis and reunites it with its lost sibling, here figured as a stack of sand bags (Like a bat afraid of its own shadow, 2012). While the former is sensuous and inviting of touch, with a supple spine, wavy mane, and numerous fist-sized dells made from centuries of ritual use, the latter is obstructive, like a barricade or gun shelter. They look in opposite directions as though their clocks were out of synch.
The two sculptures, together with the rising and falling envelope of air, establish a strong visual relationship. Beacon brings to mind cycles of destruction and perseverance, war, nature, Mars and Eros. These layers of meaning are intrinsic to the work, deftly embedded by Akhavan’s choice of material. Yet they seem tangential, as though an attempt at diegesis would compromise the physical empathy the installation elicits, the melancholic sense of its efforted breath and tired organs in states of decay and atrophy.
“I have an iconoclastic relationship to making work. I don’t like creating new images or figuration,” states Akhavan, who would like his artwork to be experienced as though it were just happened upon unexpectedly. Its definition, operation and economy as “art” is subsequent to its discovery in the world of things among other things. When situated outdoors, this interpretive delay is easier to initiate, as in the audio recording of the bird songs Akhavan played outside the Vancouver Art Gallery (Landscape: For the Birds, 2009). But even within the context of a gallery, Akhavan succeeds in slowing down the influx of interpretive tools by deliberately withholding a clear message. This momentary pause in the process of signification allows the material reality of the installation to appear like a semiotically unmanageable monstrosity.
The distinction that Gérard Genette makes between an artwork’s immanence (its physical presence) and its transcendence (the experience it induces) is useful when thinking through Akhavan’s installation. Like the stone lion of Hamadan, the usage and symbolic value of which varied with every new conquest since Alexander the Great, an artwork’s significance is mutable – it exceeds its immanence over time and space, through displacement, replication and adaptation, for example. This “excess” is the “work” that an artwork accomplishes and cannot be separated from it. In the case ofBeacon, it is as if the immanent and transcendent parts of the artwork operate in tandem, rendering the installation mute, then almost magical, battered and broken, and then heroic.
On the roof of the foundry Akhavan installed a large plywood stencil that casts a legible shadow on the facing brick wall at sunset (6:58/8:32, 2012). It reads “second nature.” Herein lay all the dualities Beacon mobilizes: rise/fall, absence/presence, nature/culture, original/copy, empty/full, immanence/transcendence.