Post by Alessandra Ferrini

This is the 3rd and last part of our May Showcase.

Click here for the 1st part and here for the 2nd

What ties together all the different elements that make up the installation Seep is a concern with modernism. It is western modernism, with its obsession with industry and progress and the colonisation of ‘exotic’ lands and cultures, to be under scrutiny. In particular, the exhibition highlights the way in which this process has been imported, forced on and made sense of in Iran, leading to failure and disruption.

In this post, I want to focus on List in Progress and Sloping Corridors and Ramp, the two elements of Seep which investigate the collection of Western, modernist art belonging to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA). In doing so, I will consider three main concepts: withdrawal, un-acknowledgement and materiality.

List in Progress consists of a growing list of artworks that are part of the collection of Western modern art of the TMOCA, which is the largest of its kind outside of the West. These works were acquired prior to the 1977’s inauguration of the museum, under the supervision of Empress Farah Palavi and following a consultation with a Western curator. Overall, the collection was considered to represent Iranian modernity and internationalism as envisaged by the shah and the queen. However, following the Islamic revolution of 1979, these artworks were withdrawn from public display and confined to the museum’s cellar, where they were hidden for over two decades. Since 2003, the collection has been progressively recovered.

The physical withdrawal, nevertheless, was also matched with an attempt to forget and erase the artworks from collective memory. The collection was not only hidden, but it was also never indexed. The public was (and still is) to remain oblivious to its existence, as records of the TMOCA’s holdings of Western art have never been fully acknowledged and made available. Thus, in order to document this collection and to create List in Progress, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi had to work outside of the institutional frame of TMOCA. This has meant that, as new artworks are discovered and acknowledged, the list keeps growing. For instance, between the first display of Seep at MACBA (Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona) in November 2012 and the following exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery (London), in April 2013, over twenty five previously unknown artworks belonging to the collection were discovered by the artists and added to the list.


Although this indexing process could be associated with a ‘naming’ procedure, the artists have organised the works in terms of size, firstly listing the dimensions of the works and thus highlighting their materiality. By doing so, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi demand the viewers to consider the space that these artworks occupy and as such, the spatial connotations of archives. As pointed out by the artist while in conversation with Polly Staple (director of Chisenhale Gallery)*, this is what links the TMOCA’s with the BP’s archives: it is when both collections went into storage that the archives stopped to grow and came to an end. In order to stress this element, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi have included a model of the TMOCA’s building, which is titled Sloping Corridors and Ramp. This work is like a diagram of the space, materialising the main skeleton of the museum’s building. The elements included in this rendering are the corridors that link the public space of the museum to the storage that houses the collection of Western, modern art. In doing so, the artists stress once again the materiality and the spatial dimension of this archive.

In addition to this, a process of materialisation also takes place in the medium chosen for Sloping Corridors and Ramp: wood. Suspended from the ceiling, as floating, this sculptural piece also highlights the suspension in time and space that the withdrawal of the collection implies. At the same time, the minimalistic, geometrical composition is reminiscent of modernist art and architectural models, stressing the overall concern with modernism. This aesthetic reference, in fact, pervades the whole exhibition and can be noted in Untitled – of Natural Oil Seepage, which draws on both Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, as well as in Bricks on Carpet, an arrangement of bricks which recalls Carl Andre’s Minimalist compositions.

In drawing the conclusions to this post I would like to point out how Seep raises questions about the nature of archives, even though Tabatabai and Afrassiabi claim to be more interested in questioning their contents and historical references. These issues can be narrowed down to four main points:

1- notions of truth: is the archive fiction or not fiction?

2- notions of value: what is the archive worth, both in terms of capital and space?

3- notions of presence and absence: what is left out of the archive?

4- notions of memory: can an archive help forgetting rather than remembering?

*this conversation took place on Tuesday 9th of April 2013 at Chisenhale Gallery. You can listen to it here.


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

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