Abbas Zahedi on the Rituals of Grieving

On the occasion of his show at Anonymous Gallery, the artist speaks to Jamila Prowse about using art to attend to personal and collective loss

BY Jamila Prowse AND Abbas Zahedi in Interviews , Opinion | 29 JUN 22

Jamila Prowse: Your current exhibition, ‘Metatopia 10013’ at Anonymous Gallery in New York, manifests a space for healing by creating a soundscape intended to mirror the experience of pain and grief. Central to this is Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype [2022], which attracts water molecules from the surrounding environment, including visitors’ breath, and filters them into a bowl where the accumulated liquid changes the tone of the instrument.

Abbas Zahedi: I collaborated on the waterphone with Saul Eisenberg, who has a workshop in north London where he builds instruments from recycled materials. We had this sense of coming across an instrument that already exists in a very different way and then thinking: how can we further elaborate its features and bend it towards this purpose of being able to hold space for a ritualistic practice of grieving?

Abbas Zahedi, Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype (10013), 2022. Custom made waterphone, brass and stainless-steel, with animal hair bow and polystyrene

base. Courtesy: the artist and Anonymous Gallery

JP: Such practices have been a recurring preoccupation for you – a means of attending to the personal and collective grief you have experienced in your life, including personal losses you faced caused by London’s Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Here, you revisit the tragedy of Grenfell in relation to the 2022 Twin Parks fire, local to the gallery in New York, revealing that these are not standalone events but part of wider, state-sanctioned negligence. Do you consider making and viewing art to be a means of understanding, living with and healing from grief?

AZ: For me, this sense of grief comes out within the white cube: my training as a medic gives me this idea that sterile spaces connote sickness, dying and death. White cubes have that kind of sterility and artists are tasked with filling the space with something meaningful and generative, something that can overcome the archival death drive the space seems to serve so well by creating a passage into the art-world afterlife of collections and canons. For me to overcome that, I’d have to reformat the space in quite a grand gesture. And, oftentimes, I don’t have the energy to do that. Instead, I resort to more minimal interventions, finding a way to accentuate what the gallery’s already doing to create time and space at the point of this palliative threshold.

The [highly flammable] cladding was put on Grenfell Tower as an aesthetic feature in order to cover up what was seen as an eyesore by the developers of new luxury housing being built nearby. This idea of erasure, of rendering invisible the undesirable aspects within society, is relevant to me because that’s an aesthetic decision and, in the arts, we deal with aesthetics. We fight for visibility in the arts, but what does that mean for people who have their visibility – even their lives – erased in these ways?

Abbas Zahedi, Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype (10013) (detail), 2022. Custom made waterphone, brass and stainless-steel, with animal hair bow and polystyrene

base. Courtesy: the artist and Anonymous Gallery

JP: The soundscape opens with harmonic, meditative sounds before moving through heightened, ecstatic moments of release or relief. What journey do you hope the audio will take people on?

AZ: I’ve been working for a while with guided meditations and sound-based therapy. The soundscape relates to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage model of grief from her 1969 book On Death and Dying, the last stage of which is acceptance. There’s a more recent extension of that model by David Kessler from his 2005 book, co-authored with Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving, where the sixth stage of grief is the production of meaning. I think because my own practice comes out of being in therapy for an extended period, my work relates to that pursuit of meaning. And so, with the waterphone journey, I wanted the sound to mirror that process; it’s almost a form of support. During both takes when we were recording the waterphone, Saul would start crying as he was playing because it became such an emotive, generative piece. We kept all those sections in, where you can hear him sniffling and shuffling about and trying to wipe his tears, because they’re really part of the process.

JP: The waterphone is powered, in part, by rosewater – a substance you first explored during your 2020 South London Gallery residency and show, ‘How to Make a How from a Why?’. Whereas there, the rosewater was dispensed in the space and thus emitted a scent, here the infusion is enclosed in a plastic bag on the floor [Scent of the 10013, 2022]. What keeps you visiting the subject of rosewater, and can you talk us through the evolution of the work?

AZ: In this case, the rosewater doesn’t offer that much of a scent to the space because it’s enclosed; here, the work is more about the process of its infusion being laid bare in a very DIY way. These roses form the basis of a ritual: every ten days or so, when the flowers start to turn brown, some of the rosewater is emptied into the waterphone, and then the roses are discarded in a performative manner by the gallery staff. Up until now, that’s been outside the gallery in the street, where the dead roses are left by the stump of a tree and the remaining water is fed into its roots. That discarding process allows the show to take in some of the energy of grief. The water becomes mouldy and brown and the pouring out is another way of making the space cry – this cathartic quality of release from the objects themselves – and then the process restarts. Even the dripping sprinkler works like a dehumidifier; collecting vapour from visitors and mixing it with other bodies of water, to then shed a tear every so often. So, it’s treating the space and the objects within it as alive and part of a system in which we are all implicated.

Abbas Zahedi, ‘Metatopia 10013’, installation view. Anonymous Gallery, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Anonymous Gallery

JP: And that isn’t immediately apparent when walking through the space; the placement of the roses initially seems aesthetic. But, as you’ve said before in our previous conversations, you’re inherently interested in process, as opposed to creating objects or outcomes.

AZ: I don’t feel like I can just create something static, because I’d find that really hard to justify. Even the arrows on the floor are based on Qiblas, which point towards Mecca in Muslim households or spaces to signify the direction of prayer. Here, the Qiblas point to the two housing projects – Grenfell Tower and Twin Parks – to create some sort of meaningful engagement out of those tragedies. Socially, how can we respond? Is there a prayer or some sort of ritual that comes out of holding space for these events? Even the seemingly static elements are an invitation for you to do something, as opposed to just being objects to look at.

Main Image: Abbas Zahedi, Scent of the 10013, 2022. 11 long stem red roses cut accordingly, thick clear plastic bag, local tap water, 45.7 × 35.6 × 2.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Anonymous Gallery

Jamila Prowse is an artist, writer and researcher. She holds a studio at Studio Voltaire and was a studio residency artist at Gasworks from January to April 2021. Prowse has written for frieze, Dazed, Elephant, GRAIN, Art Work Magazine and Photoworks.

Abbas Zahedi is an artist. In 2020, he had a solo exhibition at South London Gallery, UK. He is currently working on a commission for Becontree Estate, London, in collaboration with Arc Theatre’s Raised Voices, a female-leadership and peer-mentoring project for young people. He lives in London.