Correspondences (2008): three sculpture made during a residency at Stratagem Pacific Consulting, a conflict resolution firm in Vancouver, Canada.
brick/ pigeon: taxidermy pigeon, brick, silver letter carrier, ink on paper.
molotov/letter: glass bottle, cloth, electric tape, gasoline, oil, ink on paper.
smoke signal/mushroom clouds: digitally altered photograph.
Works in Progress: Abbas Akhavan
Correspondences offers an unlikely inventory of objects and images: a dead carrier pigeon, a brick, a Molotov cocktail, a message in a bottle, smoke signals, and mushroom clouds. Developed as part of a Visiting Artist series loosely exploring the subject of communication, Correspondences represents the culmination of a month long residency undertaken by artist Abbas Akhavan at Stratagem Pacific Consulting, a conflict resolution firm in Vancouver, Canada.
Through the work, Akhavan proposes a kind of weaponized communications system in which mediums and modes of transmission are at the same time a means of destruction, explosion, and annihilation. Within the trio of objects that comprise Correspondences, a dead carrier pigeon lies on its back tied to a weathered and gouged brick, white, braided rope encircling its body. Eyes half closed, neck bent, and feet folded, the bird’s posture signals death, but it is a death not without dignity for it appears to rest in peace and in grace, its iridescent violet and teal plumage evoking the majesty of peacocks. A metal capsule clings to one of the pigeon’s curled legs and inside this miniature container a paper roll is revealed to carry a message informing the recipient of a potential target and vulnerability – their home.
Here, the carrier pigeon, otherwise known as the homing pigeon, signifies the impossibility of both communication and of return. Used by the military during the World Wars as a way to send messages from the battlefield back to headquarters, carrier pigeons, driven by the instinct to roost, delivered important details to Allied forces based on a desire for family and home. Thus, the pigeon in Correspondences, as a dead and bound object, suggests that communication breakdowns may provoke a range of responses including violence, exile, or death.
Placed alongside the pigeon, a Molotov cocktail sits, its pink stew soaking the inky pages of a letter. A clean, white rag drapes the bottleneck like a cock’s comb, and in this state the object is purely sculptural, an inert presence that is activated as a weapon only by fire. The words on the letter appear indistinct, and the implication is that these details will forever remain unknown as they will be destroyed upon delivery. However, in another sense, the object resembles a message in a bottle, a desperate S.O.S. Whether used as a weapon or a plea, the object expresses a last-ditch attempt at being heard.
Known as the poor man’s anti-tank weapon, Molotov cocktails have become a common sight in contests against militarized power. Utilized by groups that are denied representation in state sanctioned channels and discourses, these weapons may provide one of the few forms of communication available to the stateless and disenfranchised. On the other hand, they may also inhibit or prevent communication from taking place for they are seen as an illegitimate means of expression, or worse still, are written off as acts of terrorism. It is perhaps this paradox that lies within the Molotov cocktail that Akhavan presents, compelling us to consider not only the form and function of the weapon, but of the message contained within it. By inserting a letter in the bottle, the artist conjures the image of the castaway, who lives without the comforts of home, community, and society, frantically sending out messages in hopes of being rescued. Thus, Akhavan’s cocktail acknowledges the desperate condition of the abandoned while simultaneously recognizing the (improbable) possibility of being found, taken home, and spared the death sentence of desertion.
The final object shown in Correspondences is a colour photograph divided into three sections: a slice of sea, a mass of mountainous land loosely populated by residential architecture, and an expanse of blue sky that provides a backdrop to an apocalyptic drama in which mushroom clouds appear to dissolve into smoke signals. While smoke signals constitute an age-old language and practice of communicating over vast distances, the mushroom cloud represents a more universally recognized form of smoke, sending one of the most horrifying messages known to humanity – extermination. Like the pigeon and the Molotov cocktail, the picture underscores the degree to which forms of communication can influence the meaning and reception of content.
Occupying a bright patch in Stratagem’s main office,Correspondences greets visitors, who have ostensibly arrived with grievances and differences to air and settle. As a form of reception, the work warns the firm’s clients of the potential failures and catastrophes inherent in miscommunication while concurrently articulating the need for open channels, legitimacy, and exchange. Ultimately, what the work puts into play is a series of questions about the relationship between conflict and communication in which the correspondences between conflicts across time, space, and situation transforms the tug-of-war between “I said” and “You said” into…“We say.”