The Gap between Fiction and Reality

Post by Elisa Adami

This is the 2nd part of our May Showcase.

Click here for the 1st part and here for the 3rd

The investigation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company archive revolves around the case of Persian Story, a film commissioned by the company in 1948 to present the oil industry’s modernising effect on Iran. Produced in Technicolour, the film was intended as an idealised account of Anglo Iranian’s activities, in line with the narrative recounted in the company’s archive. Yet, the realization of this fictitious report coincided with political disputes around oil and the closure of the refinery, and these factors inevitably encroached on the film’s plot. Even though the film was eventually made, the gap between reality and its fictional representation in the archive emerged. In fact, this divergence was recorded in the archive itself , as correspondence between the filmmaker, Ralph Keen, and the company.

A number of the telegrams and letters between the filmmaker and his employers have been selected by the artists and moved from the BP archive to the gallery space. This metonymical operation of displacement makes visible what was supposed to remain invisible: the backstage of the archive and the traces which attest its staged essence. One of the documents in particular, a letter sent by the director in date 11th March 1951, is dramatized and set in motion within the video Seep 1, projected on the wall next to the installation of archival documents. The text read in voice-over expresses Keen’s scepticism about the feasibility of Persian Story. The director enlists a series of technical, aesthetic and contextual problems that, according to him, jeopardize his work. The voice laments the “unfilmability” of subjects such as the city of Abadan, the oilfields, and the workers’ activity, which are, in his opinion, “depressing visually”, “flat, empty and characterless”. His words show the resistance that the reality exerts on any attempt of representing it as a univocal and propagandistic image. The constrains of the real seem to inhibit the creation of fiction.

The visual counterpart of the read letter is a series of black and white photographs taken in Abadan during the location search for the film. The images transmit a sense of rational organization, prosperity and social welfare, which contrasts with Keen’s words about the alleged impossibility to represent the same environment in such terms. Set one against the other, the divergent words and images parallel the discrepancy between reality and fiction, between the ambiguous truth and the unidimensional propaganda. Another part of the video visually manifests the made-up nature of the archive through the metaphor of a theatrical stage. While the words unfold and fill the gallery space, we can see a sort of empty film set. In front of the projection, the objects that compose this set are doubled through their physical presence in the gallery space. A piece of traditional carpet covered with a neat pile of clay bricks, two rocks (according to the caption, carved stone and bitumen from the artificial hillocks of Shūsh and the oil fields in the Southwest of Iran) on a console table, and a piece of a wooden desk are arranged along one of the gallery walls to form a rather sculptural installation. With their austere and fragmentary presence, these sculptures remind us of how the art gallery is nothing but a further stage where the fiction of the archive is unwinded and rewinded.

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The exhibition features also a second video, entitled Seep 2, which is projected on an panel at the opposite corner of the room. The film follows the artists as they travel to South West Iran, the geographical site where the British Petroleum archive was produced sixty years before. While re-visiting the environment ‘unfilmed’ by Keen, they document a declining Abadan with few remainders of its modern expansion. The discrepancy between fiction and reality has turned into the distance between past dreams and their present detritus. However, a significant part of the video is constituted of close-ups of natural oil seeps as they ooze from the ground. The absence of oral commentaries in the video stimulates a situation of contemplation, which exalts the aesthetic power of the oil seep and the captivating aspects of this unusual spectacle. The same fascinating image recurs in the installation Untitled – of Natural Oil Seepage, realized this year and on show for the first time at the Chisenhale. The structure suspended in mid-air is made up of a series of direct imprints of the oil seeps, obtained by applying paper to the surface of water where the liquid is floating.

The notion of the oil seep, which materializes naturally, beyond any historical purpose, becomes the metaphor which illuminates Tabatabai and Afrassiabi’s reading of the archive. This natural phenomenon expresses a unique sense of timelessness, irreverent to historical progress and indifferent to its representation in the archives. Beyond its current industrial exploitation and association with pollution and environmental disasters, oil has always existed in a natural and uncontaminated state. Moreover, the modality in which the oil seep works, the way in which it spontaneously pours out from the ground, symbolically illuminates the functioning of the archive itself. Far from being a monolithic structure, the archive has leaks and seeps too. Such leaks can disrupt the overall structure of the collection and disclose different meanings and different stories.

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