Abbas Akhavan’s works enact broader social conditions while simultaneously expanding the purview for actions indexed by the architecture of the piece. His site-specific installations and videos delve into the social realm to produce or recreate meaning, and in a larger sense reality. From this perspective, the dynamic and performative aspect of his work operates by challenging the limits of the significatory potential of language.
This link between art and language was explored in John Langshaw Austin’s seminal lecture series “How to Do Things with Words” (1976) in which he discussed the performative, or reality-producing, capacity of language. A stated utterance enacts or produces reality; “I do,” stated in a marriage ceremony within the proper legal context creates a legal union between two people. This idea of language as a crucial element of our material environment was later applied to visual art practice in Dorothea von Hantelmann’s “How to do things with art?” (2010). In her book, Hantelmann argues that the interaction between the space and the body foregrounds the artist’s role in enabling a work’s performative elements and it’s impact on an audience (83). Abbas Akhavan’s work achieves this reality-producing capacity of art by manipulating architectural space and the condition of the observing body to reveal the social and economic conditions inherent to his work.
To further elaborate, Akhavan’s work offers a material illustration of how an artwork “acts;” not in spite of, but rather by virtue of its integration in certain conventions (or spatial locations). How, for example, the space it occupies can sustain or collaborate to produce a certain notion of history, progress, and development. The model of performativity that Akhavan articulates through his work points toward these fundamental levels of meaning production and places the conventions of art production, presentation, and historical persistence into sharp focus. Such conventions become co-produced by an artwork, and it is precisely this reliance on context and thematics that opens up the possibility of re-articulating and shifting them.
An example of how Akhavan’s work produces yet challenges social and artistic conventions and redefines them is visible in Variations on Guests and Ghosts (2011): a site-specific installation at House 44 in the heritage neighborhood of Al Bastakiya in Dubai – where Akhavan resided for three months to undergo a residency. The installation, comprised of four works Well, Curtains, Rest, and Untitled (Laundry) and uses architecture and the vernacular to create palimpsests, intervene upon, restructure, reorganize, and re-categorize the legacy of this particular space.
The first installation, Rest (2011), displays remnants of a 48-hour performance in which two European tourists were commissioned to rest in a bed in Akhavan’s studio at House 44. The second installation, Well (2011), is a functioning fountain made from a stack of dishes situated in the building’s internal courtyard, where the house’s water well would once reside. Well draws the viewer attention to a alternate reality outside the art fair context of Al Bastakiya by referencing mass labor practices within the hospitality industry that lies just beyond House 44 where textile shops, restaurants and laundry services cater to neighboring hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
Situated above Well is the third installation entitled Curtains (2011), which comprises over 30 bed sheets that hang delicately yet freely on a clothesline. The sheets vary in size as the clothesline shrinks slightly to fit the courtyard’s warped measurements. Laundry is a common theme in Akhavan’s work as a signifier of class and status. The sheer number of sheets that have been washed and hung in the internal courtyard alludes to mass labor and the disparity in classes between the giving and receiving end of its products and services. Curtains is also a visual reference to the neighborhoods of lower socio-economic standards, where people often dry their laundry outdoors.
Paradoxically, the works here reference labor and social class disparities by positioning the viewer as privileged and foregrounding the work as belonging to a base economic class. The tension laden in the work comes from the piece’s own status as a rarefied art object understood as having value that exceeds its individual parts while remaining to others just laundry. Not ironically, House 44 echoes this paradox by being itself once a residence to locals of the area, which was then claimed by the government as a heritage site and subsequently given to artists (guests) for temporary residence, catering to the other side of the coin – tourists. Much like House 44, Abbas’ installation exacts both its meaning and its critique by holding two seemingly opposing sides in direct tension with one another.
The installation extends to the courtyard just beyond the House, where Akhavan develops the idea of class and labor with Untitled (Laundry) (2011). Here bundles of laundry placed in trees are visible from the windows of House 44 and are reminiscent of clothes and linen left outside bed-and-breakfast establishments in Al Bastakiya to be collected by laundry services. Returned clean and ironed, often without the guest’s awareness or acknowledgment of the labor involved in the laundry are seemingly, rendering the laboring bodies invisible. For the duration of his residency, Akhavan’s status oscillated between guest and resident having to perform labor tasks – from daily household ones to producing artworks. This prompted his focus on the labor/class dynamics at play in House 44, Al Bastakiya, and the tourism industry at large. His installation piece brings awareness to the intensive processes involved in running a bed and breakfast and renders visible a range of actors implicated in this economy, from the “invisible laborers” to the “guests” that require them, thus creating an alternate socio-economic condition and expanding the conscious reality of House 44 visitors.
As such, Akhavan’s House 44 project, Variations on Guests and Ghosts, successfully intervenes with not only the architecture of the house – by being strategically placed to fit the house’s design and plans – but also with the social environment and history of the Al Bastakiya neighborhood. This careful arrangement of the works in the house to create a distinct narrative is a contributing factor to its performative effect. The artist’s ability to capture the local essence and engage with the venue, through this effect, makes his installations relevant and deeply embedded in local culture.
Performativity in also evident in Akhavan’s Islands (2010) – a large wall mural depicting an aerial map of Dubai executed in gold leaf directly on The Third Line gallery walls in Dubai where cut out sections of the walls were for sale. In this instance, the wall cut-outs perform the role of not just a souvenir or art object, but more so as a piece of Dubai’s architecture that has embedded within it real estate value plus cartographic details, making it a piece of Dubai’s (newly made) geography. But who’s Dubai? Much like the House 44 installation, this piece is charged with undertones of class privilege that interrogates who is permitted to own real estate in the city. Islands (2010) asserts that this class of people are the very same individuals who can afford to purchase this artwork, a symbolic piece of Dubai’s map.
Akhavan explains that in a place like Dubai where there is rapid development – so rapid in fact that the man made islands of the world began selling at ludicrous prices years prior to their completion – there is value in non-existing architecture. Despite dreams of real estate utopia, many building and site plans have been left unfinished, rendering them worthless without any viable buyers. Those buildings that have been half built and left as something that resemble ruins are themselves symbolized by the ruins left in the gallery after the gold leafed walls were cut out. Despite the dust left on the floor causing the gallery space to look progressively half done or ruined, it is only through this ruin as a result of its destruction that the cutout wall pieces gain their existential value as an artwork and a piece of “real estate.” Similarly, much like the gallery wall, mushroom cities like Dubai have a conflicted relationship with ruins as there is a great deal of erasure happening to feed an accelerated urgency to become a city. In this manner, Akhavan enacts a critique of the debilitating rate of urban development.
Performativity and symbolism is also at play in works like Landscape: For the Birds (2009), a site-specific audio installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Audio speakers are strategically placed to produce the sound of and thus act as invasive bird species in order to shift the audience’s reality of the familiar setting of the city to an alien and potentially hostile one. The chattering of invasive British birds, installed in two tall cypress trees at the entrance of the gallery serenades the audience while at the same time drawing attention to Canada’s history of colonization.
Similarly in Untitled Garden (2008-9), a long row of tall cedar trees confront the audience inside the Video In/Video Out gallery in Vancouver as they resemble a row of soldiers that barricade the unobstructed view and make the space a potentially inhospitable environment. Joni Murphy highlights in his article “Better Homes and Gardens” that the cedar hedge, commonly used as a natural form of fencing, has played a symbolic role in the contentious battle for the privatization of common lands. Hedges have been, and still are, used as a way of controlling animal and human movement, and as a way of rendering grazing and gleaning as trespassing and theft. In these installations, Akhavan highlights the entrance of the gallery as a site of significance, where the emphasis lies on the ritualistic nature of (art) spaces and art viewing but, more importantly, on oscillating the audience from active viewer to potential trespasser and back. The performative here lies in the shifting roles of both the space and the viewer – both intrinsically and in relation to the other – and how experiencing one’s reality becomes dependent on the nature of the other.
The relationship between space, the body and architecture as the core of the performative in Akhavans’s oeuvre is also illustrated in his Study for a Garden (2011) series. In this body of work, Akhavan is responding to the work of Adolf Loos, an Austrian architect who was very influential in European Modern architecture in the 20s and 30s – particularly with his essay Ornament and Crime in which he repudiated extravagant ornamentation – be it the florid style of Art Nouveau or oriental carpets. In this essay, Loos posited that the progress of culture is associated with the deletion of ornament from everyday objects.
In response to such claims, Akhavan applied loose gold leaf on top of Loos’s floor plans – that represent the epitome of reductionism – transforming them into ornamental objects. Once architectural plans, they now perform the role of ornamental art objects (much to Loos’s disappointment). By doing so, the blight of ornamentation is directly questioned and played with as the loose gold leaf itself evolves and morphs throughout the life of the work. Abbas was interested in defacing Loos’s floor plans while beautifying his work in response to his remarkably righteous statements in regards to ornament and cultures that create them and his dismissive writings on Iranian carpet weavers and Asian painters which suggested racial prejudice. The works literally perform and “put on a show” as the gold leaf leaps off the pages and vibrates with the slightest movement of the walls it sits on – no doubt caused by the movement of the body of the viewer. But more so, the analysis of race/racism and how it emerges through the work highlights that race is not color or subjectivity, but performance of oppression/elision.
Notions of performativity extend beyond site specific installation to the medium of video in Hawkers (2011). Created during Trinity Square Video’s semi-annual Artist-in-Residence program in collaboration with Images Festival, Akhavan’s Hawkers, is a video installation that occupies two spaces within the gallery. The video was shot in Dubai, U.A.E where falconry, a traditional part of desert life, has been practiced for centuries. The work is a quick glance at the relationships between locals and visitors, humans and animals, tradition and new economies.
In the first space lies a low plinth where various objects are displayed including scarves, postcards, hats, date boxes and other objects reminiscent of tourist souvenirs. Dispersed amongst them are other objects such as leather gloves, ropes, rocks, and even a taxidermy pigeon. Accompanying this is a video projection. The beginning of the video shows two men, dressed in traditional Emirate clothing, training a falcon with a dead pigeon, used as a lure. As the video progresses, people start to approach and circle the falconers. It becomes increasingly obvious that all the other participants are tourists and what at first seemed like a traditional activity is indeed a theatre for a resort audience – suggesting two symbiotic economies (local and global) performing their roles in tandem.
As a video installation Hawkers mirrors the gathering of the tourists around the falconer by staging a circle of viewers around the video in the gallery space. This situates the viewer in a similar position as the tourist, where he functions as an outsider not just to the economy and tradition represented by the falconer in the video, but in a broader sense, art itself. The audience of tourists in front of the falconer in the video validates, justifies and ensures the existence and continuity of his tradition and its associated economies; much like a spectator is to an artwork and art. The video highlights and touches upon the age-old relationship of audiences to art’s raison de vivre – so to speak – and its tradition and economic repercussions.
After having seen the video, one notices that the objects on display are similar to those carried and worn by the tourists in the video. Hawking – as the title suggests – is the act of selling goods on the street. This is materialised in the installation by the low plinth in the gallery space, which depicts a hawker’s display, reminiscent of nomadic hawkers in Dubai that haphazardly sell fake goods on blankets to tourists such as counterfeit designer handbags, and their subsequent economies. The installation is used as a way to create palimpsests or traces, to intervene upon or restructure, reorganize and re-categorize the legacy of a particular space and time, in this case, the falconer in Dubai.
To take this relationship between Hawkers and the tourist economy a step further, Akhavan was actually hawking goods at the artist run centre where he was selling 24 carat edible gold covered dates, which is against the artist-run centre’s policy that prohibits the sale of art or commercial goods. The gold and dates here no doubt act as signifiers to tourists’ preconceived notions of Dubai. Similar to what tourist economies are based on in general, Akhavan was selling the idea of Dubai.
Furthermore, the strong symbolic presence of the falcon in Akhavan’s video subtly references how the act of hawking interrupts mainstream economy with issues ranging from hawking goods to ‘Falcon Passports’. Falcon passports are said to be a mechanism of falcon black market trade in the UAE and Saudi Arabia with a similar administrative system implemented in the United States responsible for ‘laundering’ countless thousands of contraband falcons into the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia₁. The system was implemented – despite the strong rejection of environmental groups – largely due to the strong economic ties between the nations. So, with something as seemingly unassuming as a falcon, Akhavan skilfully evokes multiple allusions: economic, social, political and art historical.
As such, Hawkers cleverly deals with the idea of ‘lures’ – whether it’s the dead pigeon as a lure for the falcon, the falcon as a lure for tourists and by extension tourism and economy, sculpture as a lure for video, video as a lure for art and more significantly art as a lure for capital. It can be said that the notion of luring is the essence of the performative in Akhavan’s works at large.
Akhavan’s works address the seminal question of art’s relevance to society, and map a trajectory of performativiy that carries throughout his works. His works demand that art become politically and socially significant, and asks how artists can create and shape social relevance; in other words, provide what could be called a pragmatic understanding of art’s societal impact. The answer becomes clear in Akhavan’s installations which integrate themselves within their architectural surroundings to signify some other thing, place or individual while relying on the viewer’s perception and physical relationship to the work. The viewer is not merely situated physically, mentally and emotionally in the work, but also in its social context, thus ensuring the artwork as socially significant and the artist as indeed shaping social relevance, ensuring the artist as the ultimate social force.