Suspended Archives

Post by Elisa Adami

This is the 1st part of our May Showcase.

Click here for the 2nd part and here for the 3rd

Until the 12th of May, the first UK solo exhibition by Rotterdam-based Iranian artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi will be on show at the Chisenhale Gallery. The exhibition is produced in partnership with Delfina Foundation and co-commissioned with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA).

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The Illuminating Intensity of Ruptures

In Seep, the artists Tabatabai and Afrassiabi unfold a suggestive and compelling reflection on what they define as the unresolved condition of Iran, a country suspended between different ideas of modernity and modernization. The series of works on display are the result of the artists’ long-term, ongoing research on the archives of two apparently distant and unrelated institutions: the British Petroleum, then known as Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Besides playing a key role in the modernization of the country, both organizations also recorded the failures, disruption and suspension of this process. It is precisely the element of suspension that constitutes the main focus of the artists’ research, as well as the interpreting key to read the overall project.

Anglo-Persian Oil Company was the first oil exploitation industry established in the Middle East in 1918. Increasingly criticized for serving British interests against Iran, the company was obliged to abandon its activities in the country due to the nationalization of the oil industry by the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in May 1951. Accordingly, the archive of the company’s activities was temporally interrupted, so that it came to embed the element of discontinuity in its very structure. Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was inaugurated in October 1977 to sustain and propagate the ambitions of cultural modernisation and internationalisation of the Shah’s regime. In accordance with this programme, pieces of 20th century European and American art had been acquired in the previous years for the collection. The Islamic revolution of 1979 radically broke with this narrative, including the Western canon, and entailed the displacing of the collection from the exhibition space to the cellars, where it remained for two decades, until its contemporary progressive recovery.

In the artists’ reading, the suspension of the archive, being it either a discontinuation or a removal, becomes more important than the documents that make it up. This interruption or anomaly in the normal functioning of the archive reveals its interconnection with a broader historical context. As Afrassiabi explains in his interview with Katie Guggenheim, “there is a moment in the existence of an archive where it becomes intensified through its relationship with the immediate socio-political context”, in this case the Iranian context. The impact of external contingencies, such as the nationalization of the oil industry in one case, and the Islamic revolution in the other, impresses indelible, yet cyphered traces on the surface of the archive. The historical event is accidentally recorded in the shape of a rupture. Combining very different approaches and diverse media which include video projections, a suspended architectural model, display of archival documents, sculptural installation of objects, and prints, the artists enact these interrupted archives and, in such a way, they also illuminate the unresolved and suspended history of the country.

Click here to download the exhibition handout which includes the press-release and an interview with the artists.

Click here to download the press coverage of the exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery.

All links, sound and pictures are from the Chisenhale Gallery’s website.

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