Abbas Akhavan visited by Nicholas Brown

Abbas Akhavan

Hi Abbas,
I’d like to start by asking about the fireworks, which I notice you have in a box on the floor alongside numerous drawings from the Exposures series. I wonder if you could describe your relationship with fireworks? It seems that, between the drawings and the DVD projection, fireworks play out on two different registers: the large-scale, spectacular level seen at festivals, and the small-scale domestic level-the backyard fireworks (although both commemorate special occasions, frequently in the service of nationalism). I’m particularly interested in the ways that fireworks register violence in your work in a mimetic sense (on the large scale), but also on the small scale have the capacity to physically harm and to scar. I remember seeing a picture not long ago of a security guard at a basketball game having his hand blown to pieces by a firecracker that had been thrown onto the court. It seems significant that the small-scale, domestic fireworks are what you use to mark and burn paper-they leave a literal trace, whereas the large-scale fireworks are documented on camera.

My work with fireworks is partially autobiographical and partially a fascination with the national and celebratory connotations of fireworks. On a biographical level, I am dealing with what I consider a kind of muscle memory – the jolt that war refugees feel when they hear fireworks. But it is more than that. The video piece titled August 2006 was filmed during the national fireworks competition in Vancouver, BC. I found the similarities between the news footage of the attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon and the sounds coming through my window in downtown Vancouver, uncanny and alarming (to say the least). So as a Vancouver resident and a war refugee, I was thinking about this temporal and geographical fold that was happening between war and celebration, here and there, us and them, destruction and decadence and so on.

The video resembles a tourist’s home video, documenting the breakout of a war of some sort, maybe a site of aerial bombings. As it progresses, the footage provides a sense of relief when the viewer realizes that the sounds are from fireworks. The video ends in silence. The image becomes less cohesive as the camera zooms in, depicting a chaotic constellation of fires and explosions, something beautiful and threatening — a violence that is inherent in the sublime, especially in the post-war contemporary sense.

Abbas Akhavan I try to show my video pieces within an installation or with objects that relate to the footage. I think that some sort of tactility is usually needed when viewing video. For this piece I was interested in drawings or sketches. While editing the footage, I was thinking a lot about the smoke in the sky as a temporary residue of the fires. I was also thinking about the act of documenting flashes of light and its relationship to photography and film. The way light burns into the film, the way fire burns into paper, the way fireworks leave a residue … and so on.

So I started to look at fireworks that are made for home/domestic use – the smaller stuff for the backyard – and the answer were all there. Majority of the fireworks made for home use have patriotic and/or violent names like “Patriotic Boom Blast,” “Air Bombs,” “Ground Bombs,” “New York Harbor Fountain,” “Rockets,” “Missiles,” and so on.

Abbas Akhavan A lot of my work focuses on the domestic sphere and how it can act as a microcosm of the greater society and/or nation. I am interested in how the family, especially the war stricken ones, can grow to re-enact the violence and traumas of nationalism and war within the walls of the home. So the violence and nationalism implicit in large-scale fireworks is re-enacted by parents and kids in the backyard. Just as trauma and systemic violence enacted upon civilians can be learned and re-enacted within the family lineage – parents against parents, parents against children, children against children, children against pets … and so on.

Abbas Akhavan The implied violence in the Exposures series seems to run through a lot of your work. Your piece recently exhibited at the Western Front resembled a site of public mourning, your Makeshift Objects series offers some menacingly creative uses for everyday materials, and your Vacate exhibition suggests more of an uncanny domesticity that has unsettling implications. What draws you to scenes of violence, literal or implied?

As I mentioned before, what interests me is the conversion of the family home into a war zone. I am thinking about the trauma and violence that develops as the aftermath of war and exile. I am interested in the unreliability of the domestic space. The way the inhabitants are transformed as a consequence of national or civil wars. An internalization of external violence, rehearsed in the household.

As for the Make-Shift Objects, they are based on images of shivs (weapons made by prisoners) that I found on the internet and in books. But I wanted to relate them to the domestic space of normalcy and routine. The objects that I have modified are all things and tools for self care and sustenance — they groom, clean, assist, feed: teaspoon, comb, eyeglasses, plate, soap, toilet paper, chair, toothbrush, fabric, razor, paperclip, fork, a sock, coat hanger, newspaper, a pen and other things I could find around my apartment.

I was thinking about them as objects that have been shifted from tools to weapons — objects of use for misuse — belongings and assets into garbage — detritus into art … and so on.

They are desperate objects, wary of the reliability of the everyday. Deep distrust and skepticism towards the very chair one sits on, or the spoon that feeds, and other objects that help assist and further humans in their daily lives. So before these objects of assistance became disloyal tools and weapons against the occupant, the occupant has weaponized his or her surroundings — a pathetic attempt at self-preservation … a prisoner mindset beyond walls … like living in a mega closed prison…

Abbas Akhavan The work for the show called Vacate was based on the body in relation to objects within the household. I was thinking about circulation, skin, and heat — fountain, clothing, and heated chair. It deals mostly with absence: Vacate, vacancy, vacation, vacuation, vacuum…

But it was also a bit about all the art history stuff … you know, Duchamp and Beuys. But that’s all secondary.

Abbas Akhavan Could you tell me about the work propped up on paint cans, with the enlarged text?

The text pieces are not complete yet. So far they are unsuccessful. I need to figure them out. I really like paintings by artists like Jasper Johns and Gary Hume, but over all I am not a fan of painting. Unfortunately, like many artists, every so often, I return to paint. And more often than not, I think of it as a boring medium and a lazy space for practice. There is a kind of false certainty about painting, something so self-congratulatory yet empty.

Anyway, I am making these paintings because I think that painting is one of the few surfaces left that audiences pay attention to and carefully look at, and text in painting is interesting because of its capacity to interrupt the mute and contemplative relationship between the viewer and the work.

Abbas Akhavan The texts in the paintings are drawn from email exchanges between my immediate family members. The email correspondences read in phonetic Farsi but are written in the Latin alphabet rather than the Perso-Arabic alphabet. They resemble mangled English, making the rules and conventions of language irrelevant and impossible. In our attempts at correspondence, the roots of communication have broken down. My mother’s Farsi is better than her English, my mother tongue is rapidly fading, and my sister cannot read Farsi. Furthermore, any attempt at expressing emotions, further dilutes our sincerity and affection, giving way to expressions like “I luv u. boooooooooooos ta vanncouver” [I love you. Kisses all the way to Vancouver].

As I said, they are not working.

I was also wondering about the Correspondences series. I understand that you did that as part of a residency at a conflict resolution centre. Could you explain how that came about and what it entailed? I wonder how you see your work in relation to conflict resolution. I’m also interested again in this theme of violence, but also of love-that is a love letter in the Molotov cocktail bottle, right? And a carrier pigeon destined to bring a message through a lover’s window?

Correspondences was done at the end of a one month long residency. Craig Noordmans and Tyler Greentree asked me to be a “working artist” at the Stratagem Pacific Consulting office. I had full access to an office space for about a month or so. It was a great experience. While I was there I was thinking a lot about the idea of negotiation and correspondence. The work itself, aside from the invites, consists of three pieces … and each piece is a combination of two contradictory ideas. A homing pigeon (carrying a letter) tied to a brick, a Molotov cocktail that contains a letter (message in a bottle), a photograph of smoke signals that resemble mushroom clouds, and the invites to the show were all handwritten. I wanted the pieces to be contradictory. In some ways the work cancels itself out. They are meant to address a particular recipient and a general anonymous population. They are both acts of violence and calls for help. They are weapons and tools used by the military and guerilla fighters. And sometimes they can read as gestures of love or affection — failed gestures of love and affection. In a sense all three pieces deal with failure.