“it’s a folly” — an excuse to exist.

Abbas Akhavan image courtsey of the artist 2021

curtain call, variations on a folly

14 August 2021–17 October 202. Chisenhale Gallery London. Webinar August 19th 2021.

Abbas Akhavan is still recreating ruin and making his audience into actors in a kind of play across time. In his words, we “enter as an audience and leave as an actor.” He is showing his new installation at Chisenhale Gallery London. Curtain call, variations on a folly is a stage, or a set, of 19 columns made of cob arranged in front of a green screen. The columns are actors. They themselves, self-conscious. They play out an homage to the fallen Arch of Palmyra, a former 2,000-year-old heritage site in Syria destroyed by Islamic State rebels in 2015. Adding to the notion of the installation being a theater and accurate to the photo on which it was based, columns sculpturally rendered in higher quality and accuracy were placed toward the front of the space. Moving to the back, columns are sculpted in lower resolution.

Abbas Akhavan joined in conversation with Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford.

The webinar was a typical deconstruction of the artist’s intentions and an eventual decomposition of language. The language feels reductive in its inability to grasp that which the artist alludes to. Abbas has a unique technique of positioning time-based, photo conceptual work, and atemporal sculpture to impose a moment as evidence. For better or worse, art stands for something that has just happened, standing the test of time, or some activity that occurs “pre-image.”

Like his previous installation, A cast for a folly, he works from a single photograph to recreate a captured moment. In the case of Cast for a folly, it was a photo taken of the museum in Bagdad after it was looted. Martha Rosler and Mona Hatoune’s time-based works are an inspiration to Abbas. What does “enter as an audience and leave as an actor” mean?

Perhaps it means that the audience is part of the representation of the material spectrum in the installation, the material of humanity, and out implication in the ruin of cultural artifacts. Abbas Akhavan presents us, westerner art consumers, to ourselves as a player in the continual dismantling of foreign culture. He does this by creating a living cinema scape, implied by the green screen, where we can impose ourselves into the photo he recreates.

In 2016, the Palmyra Gate was rendered by 3d printing and installed in Trafalgar Square. A kind of technological anastylosis, a perfect restoration of ancient architecture. Akhavan was present for the unveiling and commented to Dan Hicks that he saw the Gate, perhaps as it was seen by British archeologists, as an eventual inheritance to the west. Heritage and inheritance are illusionistic and merely representational. Spaces, if we believe in them, it feels real. He said this while recalling a painting from 1751 by Micheal Press that he saw in Hyperallergic. The article presented a painting of two leading British archeologists dressed in Arabic clothes, one of them pointing toward the Arch of Palmyra. They were Robert wood and James Dockens. All as to say that Britain believed “one day, the Arch will be ours.” as a would-be inheritance.

The conversation between artist and interviewer picked up after Abbasss mentioned that care can be a weapon. A reference to past artworks that present everyday household objects transformed into implements of violence. Useful tools intended to help, a caring act, can have a reverse intention to commit acts of torture.

Generatively, archeologists, and museums operate under the “Illusion of care,” as Dan Hicks put it. Curtain Call, variations on a folly is installed in a building formerly an armory, appropriate to the overall subject matter of the art. Hicks added that the military world has understood arts and culture and their weaponizable power. This is because “you’re controlling the narrative through reproduction.” Archeologists set out to care for precious and ancient objects inadvertently “maul [them] to death by their affection.”

After the recent fall of Afghanistan and take over by the Taliban, museums and archeologists were chastised for wanting to save the historical sites and artifacts, willing to take objects [out of harm’s way]

but not people.

When taking a question from the audience,

an audience member asked Akhavan to explain his repeated use of the word “folly” in the titles of his latest two installations.

The word evokes a notion characterized by Victorian Era paintings where people’s fates were built up only to later have their demise contemplated with a kind of irreverent whimsey.

The word is of French origin for the word fool. Akhavan commented that he’s “not nostalgic for his own future,” and it’s our future he’s more interested in, “somebody else’s nostalgia.”

“it’s a folly” — an excuse to exist.

One last question was about the part of the installation where Akhavan painted the words “CATS PAW” on the roof of the former armory, a place visitors were unable to go. The querier pressed the artist further when he gave an ambiguous response.

Abbas has said before that he avoids being a teacher at all costs. Still, he did say that he likes for his art to retain a kind of privacy into and of itself, giving part of the work a respectable distance from viewers. Saying that this part of the work is not about “secrecy, which by imperative is a false hype; but about a truth delayed, a slippage of info — yet delayed.”

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Alejandro Elias Perea

MFA and MA Writing Visual Critical Studies Candidate - California College of the Arts 2023