Abbas Akhavan

Read our feature on the Tehran-born, Toronto-based artist who discreetly memorialises the impact of geopolitics and urbanisation on the natural world

By Oliver Basciano

Fatigues, 2014, taxidermy animal, dimensions variable. Photo: Paul Litherland. Courtesy the artist and Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal Study for a Monument, 2013–15, bronze on cotton sheet, dimensions variable. Photo: Dawn Blackman. Courtesy the artist and Third Line, Dubai Study for a Garden (detail), 2012 (installation view, Delfina Foundation, London). Photo: Christa Holka. Courtesy the artist and Delfina Foundation, London

From tributaries trickling among the alpine heights of the Taurus Mountains in southeastern Turkey, the rivers Tigris and Euphrates are formed within 80 kilometres of each other. They travel southeast alongside and through Syria, into Iraq, to combine beside the small town of Al-Qurnah, 70km northwest of Basra, eventually flowing out into the Persian Gulf. The once-marshy land surrounding these great waterways is Mesopotamia (the name coming from the Greek: ‘between rivers’), long held as the cradle of civilisation for the Western world. The environment predates the first forays into empire building and territorial division, of course, just as it puts into perspective the military battles, dictatorships and self-proclaimed caliphates that have come to define the region more recently. And yet the natural world is not exempt from the havoc wrought in the area during the last 60 years. Saddam Hussein’s government drained the marshlands below An Nasiriyah in Iraq, enabling the dictator to hold control over the Marsh Arabs indigenous to the region. The result: between 84 and 90 percent of the marshes have been destroyed since the 1970s.

It is this juxtaposition of the macro history of ecology and the relatively micro history of politics that can be read through, and was influential in the production of, Abbas Akhavan’s series of sculptures Study for a Monument (2013–15), originally produced for the 2014 Abraaj Group Art Prize under the title Study for a Hanging Garden (with a version shown at the Gwangju Biennale the same year). Laid out on white funerary sheets are a series of slightly oversize bronze (the material alludes to the time period in which Mesopotamia was established) casts of plants that are native to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates but, as war has further wrecked their habitat, have become rare in this region. There is Iris barnumae, recognisable by large petals that fold in on each other, architectural in form. With a similarly tarnished metal finish is the cocoonlike milkvetch Astragalus lobophorus. In nature, the alpine Campanula acutiloba is so very pretty, with delicate purple petals and nodding, arched stem. In Akhavan’s sculptural facsimile it is frozen – somehow it does not feel dead – but memorialised with the uncanny sense of life that haunts the figures of Pompeii. In this fashion it feels that the plants have come to exist outside time; or at least ‘time’, in the sense that man can fully comprehend – the time of human civilisation. Looking at this quiet, poetic work, it is as if, fancifully, the artist has found a way for his botanical specimens to bow out of the here-and-now and return to a wild that existed long before the miniscule human-dominated era – which, in the context of geology, rolls the rise of ancient Babylon and the toppling of Saddam into an instant.

The work is frozen, not dead, memorialised with the uncanny sense of life that haunts Pompeii

Akhavan is Tehran-born and technically Toronto-based, though for all intents and purposes he is nomadic, splitting his time among various cities around the world. We first meet to speak about his work in a hotel bar in Istanbul this past spring, then later in a café in London, and he has upcoming residencies on Fogo Island, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and in Bogotá. His work studies the systems that human societies build around themselves – the borders and political infrastructures – pointing to their corrosive dominance over our lives. The artist’s sculptures and installations take in big conceptual themes while critiquing the similarly steadfast framing devices – traditional installation methods, for example – that surround the presentation and distribution of art. His work Fatigues (2014) for the 2014 Biennale de Montréal at the city’s Musée d’Art Contemporain is a case in point. Throughout the galleries, the artist distributed taxidermy in locations that might be easily overlooked, or perhaps only glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. The eight animals – all species native to Canada’s vast boreal forest – were installed without spotlighting or signage and in positions that hoped to engender ‘encounters’ as opposed to the premeditated relationship one might have with an artwork more traditionally placed. A screech owl lay slightly twisted on its side against the wall of a gallery that was otherwise given over to a large installation work by another exhibitor; a red-eyed vireo songbird, supine, legs in the air, appeared in the corner of another room empty save for the monitors that showed a videowork, again by another biennale artist.

In his 1986 essay ‘The Case Against Art’, the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan wrote ‘art anesthetizes the sense organs and removes the natural world from their purview’, affirming later in the same text that art essentially affirms man’s aggressive tendencies towards nature. ‘Art provided the medium of conceptual transformation by which the individual was separated from nature and dominated, at the deepest level, socially.’ Akhavan’s Fatigues can be seen as an effort to exit the paradigm of art through its nontraditional installation – to reverse the anaesthetic – which attempts instead to confront the viewer with something outside the realm of manmade society. While taxidermy invokes traditional natural history displays, and the collection of specimens is historically linked to the ‘ownership’ of the land, in subverting the orthodoxies of the specimens’ presentation, Akhavan’s installation acts as a form of institutional, and societal, critique, one that runs parallel – in the legacy of Joseph Beuys’s performances with animals (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, for example) and ‘as’ an animal (A Party for Animals, 1969) – to a wider questioning of our relationship with animals and the natural world, and of the ‘civilising’ systems – most obviously, but not only, urbanisation – that are in place to keep humans and nonhuman animals separate unless they are either dead or domesticated.

If the sculptural elements of Study for a Monument feel like memorials, then there is a similar sense with Fatigues. The animals that Akhavan uses are not endangered – many are quite common – and instead here the memorial is to the freedom of these ‘wild’ animals. Contained in the sanctified borders of the boreal forests, they are there by the grace of humans only – their habitat ‘protected’ by manmade legal strictures. Akhavan tells me that he believes nature, as we commonly understand the term, is metaphorical only. I take this to mean that the thing we understand as ‘nature’ is merely a stand-in for the long-lost natural state that existed pre-civilisation: the ‘nature’ we have now is a construction of man. Nowhere is this better demonstrated in the artist’s work than through his longstanding interest in gardens (it is worth noting that the specimens that formed the basis of Study for a Monument were not from the wild, but found stored away, heavily documented, in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh). In 2012 Akhavan undertook a residency at the Delfina Foundation in London just before the private institution began renovating a neighbouring property into a new gallery space. In the entrance Akhavan installed a row of leylandii trees, a hybrid species often used, at least in English landscaping, to mark property borders (Untitled Garden, 2012); ivy growing through an existing floral carpet (Variations on a Garden, 2012); a ‘leak’ in the roof (Leak, 2012); and a sprinkler system on the first floor that sprayed directly onto the existing linoleum (Fountain, 2012). There was something disturbing, manipulative almost, about the work – it felt apocalyptic, of course, the stuff of countless films and popular books – but it posed the very serious question of why we find the invasion of nature so disturbing.

For Akhavan the subjugation of nature is a result not just of man’s love of power, but of the unseen, arguably abstract and immaterial systems that we have built up ever since we stopped being huntergatherers. Perhaps turning to Zerzan again, the theorist’s 2003 description of agriculture as something that ‘encloses, controls, exploits, establishes hierarchy and resentment’ could by extension be used to describe politics and statehood. By forcing us to confront nature, and championing it in its preagrarian sense, it is these systems of governance that Akhavan is damning as illiberal and divisive.

Abbas Akhavan’s Variations on a Garden is on show at Mercer Union, Toronto, through 31 October. His work is also included in Art In The Age Of… Asymmetrical Warfare, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, through 3 January, and Regarding Spectatorship, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 21 November – 17 January