Abbas Akhavan: Up, Down and In-Between

Joni Murphy, Canadian Art, May 10, 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 ourselves somewhere between past and potential, structure and ruin, first and second nature.


From the Canadian Art website.