Abbas Akhavan review
The Isis-destroyed ancient ruins of Palmyra rise again in precarious straw and London clay, shaped by the hands of this deeply allusive Iranian artist
|Curtain Call, Variations on a Folly, 2021 by Abbas Akhavan at Chisenhale Gallery. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Andy Keate. Courtesy The Observer.|
The scent reaches you before the sight – an exhilarating combination of evergreen and fresh sap emitting from the gallery entrance. It seems to presage woods in deep summer. And sure enough, the spectacle inside is like a glade of high trees, their dark trunks rising to crowns of leaves, scatterings of soil on the floor. But at exactly the same moment, what you are looking at is also something quite else, immediately distinct and recognisable – the colonnade of a magnificent classical temple.
The trees are both trunks and columns; the leaves might be acanthus on a Corinthian capital. The whole structure is formed out of what seems to be organic matter, possibly straw-strewn black earth.
That is the one-two surprise on arrival: what you see is entirely archaeological – a Greco-Roman colonnade – and at the same time wholly botanical, even arboreal. How can it be both at once? That is the opening wonder.
Each column is in fact a sculpture, formed by the hands of Abbas Akhavan. Born in Tehran in 1977, Akhavan moved to Canada with his family during the Iran-Iraq war and is now based in Montreal. He is an extremely subtle thinker. Anyone who saw his Delfina exhibition in 2013 (he has scarcely shown here since then, alas) may remember the way he brought the outside indoors, letting nature take over a townhouse with high hedges, leaking waterfalls and sprouting floors. With his unhurried cast of mind, Akhavan is constantly pondering our place on earth as contemporary beings living among old buildings, quite often ruins, and the strange relations between people, archaeology and nature.