8. Questioning Everyday Life: Alluvium by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian at OGR Torino in Venice
By NiccolòAcram Cappelletto
Published on September 5th, 2022
A door to the East, Venice. A door to the West, Abu Dhabi. The first has always been a familiar place to me, while the second became my “home” for the past five years. On the occasion of the 59th International Art Exhibition - Venice Biennale, I am experiencing these two worlds meeting each other for the first time. For this reason, I chose to review the exhibition Alluvium curated by Samuele Piazza for OGR Torino at the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto, featuring Ramin Haerizadeh (b. 1975, Tehran), Rokni Haerizadeh (b. 1978, Tehran) and Hesam Rahmanian (b. 1980, Knoxville). The Iranian trio of artists has been living in Dubai for thirteen years and recently have been interviewed by GAD’s Editor-in-chief, Sophie Arni, on their first institutional retrospective exhibition, Parthenogenesis, at the NYUAD Art Gallery closed on June 12th, 2022.
Alluvium represents the third collaboration with OGR Torino, a contemporary art exhibition space, as well as an international hub dedicated to culture, innovation and start-ups in the city of Turin. After the prize awarded to the trio at the 2017 edition of the international art fair Artissima and the 2018 exhibition at OGR, Forgive me distant waters for bringing flowers home, Alluvium brings together again the artists with the Italian foundation in an encounter that invites visitors to “make their own way through the landscape created by the structures, entering a happening of molecules and negotiating their presence inside the constellation of works” - courtesy of the exhibition wall text.
The exhibition includes a series of artworks also present in Parthenogenesis. It features painted terracotta plates inserted in iron sculptures, produced by local craftsmen in Dubai, where the artists reside. In fact, the painted plates present images from all over the world divided into wide topics from current events in metallic structures. The plates follow the same idea as the ones present in Parthenogenesis and represent a ‘rewriting of the images coming from the news’ from all over the world and spanning themes and tones. Particular attention is given to the pandemic with references to COVID-19 coverage but also climate change, animal abuse, heritage, technology, politics, culture, migration movements, and wars, among many others. The theme of the everyday is recurrent: everyday objects, such as plates, everyday news, such as the images used, everyday materials, such as the iron structures, and so on. Yet, each plate tells a unique interpretation of the event. In that act of focusing, the news stops being “one of the many” in the constant flow of mainstream media, but rather they request my attention as a viewer and consumer of those images.
The theme of the everyday is recurrent: everyday objects, such as plates, everyday news, such as the images used, everyday materials, such as the iron structures, and so on.
The exhibition in the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto is a white-walled room with neon lights running across its contours. The artists are able to imbue stratifications of meanings as much as they accumulate stratifications of media and techniques. The iron structures are shaped according to choreographies thought for the Venetian space and passed to the craftsman. Then, the trio inserts the plates painted over real images mixing realities and fictions. If the images from the news are already representations, painting above them makes the process of seeing those images more evident. In the plates, contemporary everyday news is edited, reworked, corrected, obscured, and highlighted through the paint. The press release cites the tradition of Persian miniatures to make a reference to the artists’ Persian heritage and the ability to show virtuosity in such a small flat surface through images. The visitor can spend time connecting to the news that is most relevant to them, or focus on the artists’ paintings, and in any case, there are a myriad of other possibilities available for the plates’ interpretation. The variety of the plates is stunning: some have captions, others are painted in the back, some reference other plates, others are just slightly painted.
The news stops being “one of the many” in the constant flow of mainstream media, but rather they request my attention as a viewer and consumer of those images.
The Venice exhibition is very different in terms of scale and purposes compared to the Abu Dhabi one but it was interesting to notice the differences that space can do to an artwork. In Venice, during daylight, the space is very bright, which slightly overwhelms the iron structures and make the plates appear as scattered clay dots. The presence of two busts belonging to the building of the Complesso dell’Ospedaletto may distract the viewer from the plates. Nevertheless, paying attention to the artworks greatly rewards the visitor, who needs to move and look at the plates with their own set of dance gestures to grasp the iron structures.
2. Installation view, Alluvium, OGR Torino. Installation view. Andrea Rossetti for OGR Torino.
The Venice exhibition is very different in terms of scale and purposes compared to the Abu Dhabi one but it was interesting to notice the differences that space can do to an artwork.
For the purpose of this review, I want to mention some plates that were particularly fascinating to me. The first is a simple gray painted plate with the words: ‘Fog is no sign, no message just a passing cloud.’ It reminded me of the first time that I saw the fog in Abu Dhabi and how familiar it felt with the fog that I have at home. Before moving to the UAE, I had no idea that there was fog there too, and for me, that was a surprise that made me feel a connection between the old home and the new one. It was interesting to notice this plate among the many others from the exhibition because of its opacity, not only of the paint but also of the meaning compared to the density of all of the other plates, some of which are critiquing something or showcasing a personal intention. The ‘passing cloud’ has no higher message than being itself.
A powerful group of plates is dedicated to the theme of war depicting scenes of bombing and destroyed cities. As Judith Butler reflects in her 2010 Frames of War, a life becomes ‘grievable’ only when it is recognised as such, and the media have a fundamental role in determining this recognition (Butler, 2010). The shock value of images in the news has always been one of the main components of media to raise attention but it also caused habituation, and addiction, to pictures of violence. In the plates, painting over the images of destruction conceals the reality represented and at the same time highlights their dramatic element. It makes the viewer not ignore the picture but rather activates it, renewing its meanings. A similar technique is used in a piece that depicts images of immigrants from the Middle East at the Belarus-Poland border, in which the people become mythical creatures of fantasy with animal traits. The interpretations of these artistic gestures are open and left to the viewer but serve to construct counter-narratives of these images. The visitor is asked to pay attention again to the images and is not able to just scroll them away or ignore them from a screen.
I felt privileged in the Venetian space to be part of the exhibition by looking at the different plates with the awareness of what I saw in Abu Dhabi, would the opposite have happened?
The artists also make use of irony to treat some of the difficult topics of the plates. The images of a tiger outside a window car in Dubai and a hippo taking a stroll in the streets of South Africa are in contrast with another plate dedicated to a mouse engineered to have the same condition of autism as Jake, a 16 years old boy (more about this story). The “funny” comparison is another way to build a network among the plates and read events that may be far in space, yet they actually belong to the same constellation of relations between human and non-human actors. In this case, the relationship between humans and animals is thus questioned: to which extent can humans control other species? Should a tiger live in the urban frenzy of Dubai? Are hippos just common pedestrians in South Africa? Is it ethical to engineer a mouse with autism?
If contemporary art has the goal to ask questions, the Alluvium of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian is able to disturb the quotidian qualities of life, making the visitor pause and reflect on the narratives portrayed. The news accumulates narratives, or rather fragments of reality and history, that deposit is like the Alluvium. The exhibition puts on display what can be done with these sediments and how those narratives can turn into something else, something other. As the trio describes in the GAD interview: “our work is about historical witnessing, with images that are documented and collected from the media over time. We work together in a Field of Negotiation: either as a trio or with other collaborators, we draw different positions, and allow for multiple angles of thoughts into one surface in order to debate.” These angles take shape in their practice mixing media and techniques but also players and actors in the production, from craftsmen and dancers to the audience themselves. Yet, how can this active participation fulfill in the exhibition space? I felt privileged in the Venetian space to be part of the exhibition by looking at the different plates with the awareness of what I saw in Abu Dhabi, would the opposite have happened? I doubt it would as Alluvium only partially addresses the aspects of the artworks presented, especially on the production side rather than the narrative one. Nevertheless, it represents a snippet into the artists’ practice and for the careful visitors, the plates become mines of meanings and themes to arrange and play with.
If contemporary art has the goal to ask questions, the Alluvium of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian is able to disturb the quotidian qualities of life, making the visitor pause and reflect on the narratives portrayed.
The artists’ quest for looking into news media and artistic media results in an encounter among practices. From the blacksmith Mohammaed Rahis Mollah, who produced the iron structures, to the inspiration from dance for their shape, the trio mixes and matches arts in that process of meaning stratification and sedimentation that is part of the concept of Alluvium. The process is documented in a video in the exhibition that showcases the creation of the sculptures based on dance movements replicated into iron. In Parthenogenesis, the relationship between the structures and dance resulted in a performance by dancer Kiori Kawai, who choreographed a piece based on a sculpture in the Abu Dhabi exhibition, which then inspired a new artwork by the artists. Continuous evolution in flux is at the base of these pieces.
Experiencing both exhibitions was enlightening for me in the practice of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. I immediately considered one as an appendix to the other and generally mirroring events. Parthenogenesis offers a comprehensive survey of the trio’s practice, while Alluvium showcases only a fragment that may not be enough to contextualize the artworks as representative of marginalized narratives. If in the artistic environment of the UAE, the trio is renowned and the audience is probably more accustomed to some of the themes and techniques used, in Venice the references were not always clear enough to offer a lens to be understandable. From the press release of Alluvium, Venice is mentioned to be ‘a natural bridge towards the Middle East,’ but is the evocative power of a city enough to build actual bridges? The selective attention of the media impacts the audience’s exposure to certain news, and thus worlds. In a very Westernized, or rather North Atlantic, context such as Italy and its visitors, Alluvium can attempt to create a dialogue among geographies that may live in different times by being in the same space. Through the global reach of the news represented, the audience can easily find relatable to their experience; yet, the risk is to put any kind of current events on the same priority without deepening what I am looking at when I visit the exhibition. As a visitor I am tempted to believe that I know what I am looking at, i.e. everyday news. Yet, what Alluvium successfully accomplishes is that every layer of medium used, from the news to the artistic media, constructs a new version of the events, and hence a new reality on top of other realities.
Parthenogenesis offers a comprehensive survey of the trio’s practice, while Alluvium showcases only a fragment that may not be enough to contextualize the artworks as representative of marginalized narratives.
This aspect of the trio’s practice is much more clear in the larger and richer Parthenogenesis at the NYUAD Art Gallery, which displays a retrospective of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian’s practices. Here, I want to highlight how the single piece becomes part of the installation of the exhibition. The curatorial practice is a significant part of the artistic one, and they can hardly be rescinded. The huge floor painting in Parthenogenesis brings to the large scale similar techniques to the terracotta plates and offers an imaginary of subjects that with time became recurrent in the trio’s artistic path. Another series of artworks present in the Abu Dhabi exhibition are paintings dedicated to migrants towards Europe that become creatures of fantasy with recurring motifs dear to the artists (such as animal heads, geometrical patterns, and mythical creatures). The similarity in the motif used with the painted plates in Venice showcases how these people are commonly dehumanized already from the news images. Painting over those photographs frees these people from their being static and passive players in a narrative in which they do not belong.
In Alluvium, I like to believe that it is part of the artists’ intention to make the visitors perform movements instead of having the gaze as the main way to access the artworks. In the act of “dancing,” one of the themes of the series, the body becomes active and generates meaning that enriches the sole visual interpretation. This aspect could be highlighted to make the visitors more aware of the shape of the iron structures and their artistic value. Walking inside both Alluvium and Parthenogenesis made me a more careful reader of the events and spaces around me. In a time so heavy with moments that are defined as “historical” (not only pandemic, wars, and climate disasters but also scientific and artistic advancements), Alluvium becomes the site for under–, or over–, represented narratives to thrive and shapeshift.
In a time so heavy with moments that are defined as “historical”, Alluvium becomes the site for under-, or over-, represented narratives to thrive and shapeshift.
I would like to conclude the review on a personal note. I usually avoid calling Abu Dhabi or Venice home; yet, they represent two familiar places. I consider them as temporary gravity centers, eyes of storms, in which I have been pulled and pushed. Visiting both exhibitions Alluvium and Parthenogenesis was a privilege as an aspiring cultural professional and probably my analysis is more personal than professional. However, I am coming to the realization that emotional attachment is a powerful tool for constructing narratives that may or may not bring a change when needed. The plates in Alluvium or the paintings in Parthenogenesis are beautiful art objects that convey political messages with many different sources of inspiration, starting from the personal life of the artists. The message of ‘we are witnessing history’ belongs to everyone and it is an encouragement to look beyond the events as they are proposed to our eyes. Paying attention to those events is already the first step to becoming actors in history, as the art of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian showed me that it is possible to do.
Alluvium by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, curated by Samuele Piazza, is on view until November 27th, 2022, at Complesso dell’Ospedaletto – Barbaria de le Tole, 6691 Venice.
Visit OGR Torino’s website to learn more about the exhibition.
NiccolòAcram Cappelletto is an Editor at Global Art Daily. After completing his B.A. in Art History with specialisations in Political Science and Heritage Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, he was conducting research on the connections between heritage and contemporary art in the context of postcolonial Italy as a Postgraduate Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, based in Treviso and Abu Dhabi. Niccolò previously worked as a gallery and curatorial assistant with galleries in Venice, Paris, and Abu Dhabi. Interested in decolonial and demodernising practices, he believes in the need to translate into an accessible practice the heavy theoretical frameworks of the present.