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Issue 219

How Abbas Zahedi Turned an Exhibition into a Mutual Aid Group

In collaboration with a team of neurologists, Abbas Zahedi transformed a cancelled exhibition into a therapeutic space for frontline workers

BY Róisín Tapponi AND Abbas Zahedi in Opinion , Roundtables | 19 APR 21

It is rare for the fallout of a show to become the show itself. But this is exactly what happened for London-based artist Abbas Zahedi. His latest solo exhibition, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, opened last November in the old Chelsea Sorting Office, a semi-derelict warehouse across the road from Royal Brompton Hospital in west London. For reasons unrelated to COVID-19, the exhibition was abandoned by its organizers in the run up to the opening. This motivated Zahedi to rebirth the show, forming a new alliance – Sonic Support Group – that made the piece accessible exclusively to individuals working on the pandemic frontline. 

Zahedi developed Sonic Support Group in collaboration with Neurofringe – an organization founded by a team of neurologists working in the UK. Taking the cancelled ‘Ouranophobia’ as its pilot exhibition, Sonic Support Group granted NHS staff and other public-sector workers special access to the dormant show upon referral, between December and February. Zahedi and his collaborators released the work’s innate therapeutic potential to individuals in need of a retreat from their day-to-day efforts aiding the public, which were ultimately increasing their own vulnerability.

Sonic Support Group, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, 2020.
Sonic Support Group, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, 2020, exhibition view, Chelsea Sorting Office, London. Courtesy and photograph: Abbas Zahedi

A former medic, Zahedi combines sculpture, sound and performance to create immersive installations designed to have a therapeutic effect. This is encountered most prominently in his work with Rumi’s Cave, a community hub in London’s Carlton Vale, which was inspired by the legacy of the 13th-century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. The physical location of ‘Ouronaphobia’ is reparative to Zahedi’s personal history: he grew up nearby in Ladbroke Grove, and lost his brother to a failed transplant at the hospital. In many ways, Zahedi sees the show as a failed transplant – an ouroboros in modern-day Chelsea.

Zahedi introduced no new materials into the space; instead, his intervention involved moving various elements of the building around in a series of autografts. For the artist, these acts of change and renewal have deep spiritual significance: an element that permeates his practice. In the basement, Zahedi incised the bar shelves and transplanted the excised material upstairs to ground level. The resulting installation evokes a minbar – the pulpit from which the khutbah (sermon) is delivered in Islamic tradition – with 11 steps leading to a window, a number significant in Islamic numerology. Elsewhere, Zahedi sees the four pillars in the basement as two 11s, and an Aquarius symbol on a tag upstairs, resembling an 11 when rotated, is the artist’s own astrological sign.

The fluidity and mutability of the space is central to this notion of transplantation, where the body is in flux. The building itself has repeatedly shape-shifted, acquiring a cyclonopedia of identities over the years: from sorting office to architecture firm (still upstairs) to art exhibition to therapy site and, inevitably, redevelopment. The exhibition is cradled in a state of limbo or barzakh in Islamic tradition – a liminal place of non-identity that holds the soul between life and death. This is best demonstrated through the staircase, which connects the dark basement to the clinical brightness of the upper rooms. Painted a deep red, the staircase serves as a metaphorical birth canal through which the body passes between the states of pre-existence and life. Zahedi relates this to the Ancient Greek myth of Kora, or Persephone, who, having been abducted by Hades, king of the underworld, is permitted to return to the Earth each spring, bringing with her new life.

Sonic Support Group, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, 2020.
Sonic Support Group, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, 2020, exhibition view, Chelsea Sorting Office, London. Courtesy and photograph: Abbas Zahedi

Through its curative and sensorial approach, ‘Ouronaphobia’ offers an aesthetic and mindful experience with ‘thera-poetic’ potential. In the basement, a lamentation prayer by musical group Saint Abdullah reverberates from where a mirror previously hung, through surface transducers inlaid on the wood panelling. Emitting sounds of lamentation, the environment provides an ideal framework for alleviating escalating levels of workplace trauma. In fact, the space used to serve as a bar for workers in the sorting office. Using sound to relieve grief, trauma and suffering, ‘Ouronaphobia’ evokes the practices of Islamic meditation and murāqabah.

The Sonic Support Group has temporarily disbanded, due to the project’s forced evacuation from the building in February. But therein lies a possibility for further renewal: the work’s ‘thera-poetic’ nature is sustained in araf – the Muslim state between heaven and hell – which holds the potential for privation without suffering. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘Sonic Support Group’.

Main image: Sonic Support Group, ‘Ouranophobia SW3’, 2020, exhibition view, Chelsea Sorting Office, London. Courtesy and photograph: Abbas Zahedi

Róisín Tapponi is a film curator, writer and academic. She is the founder of Habibi Collective, SHASHA Movies, Independent Iraqi Film Festival and ART WORK magazine, as well as a recipient of a PhD Art History Scholarship at St Andrews University, Fife, Scotland.

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.