For ‘Pulling Walls’, her first UK solo show, LA- and London-based artist Mitra Saboury has delved into the heart of the British post-industrial landscape. The exhibition is the result of her two-week residency at Grand Union last July and demonstrates her understanding of the surrounding area of Digbeth, formerly the industrial heart of Birmingham, now host to much of the city’s artistic activity. But rather than providing a history lesson, Saboury plays with our perception of space and place, resulting in absurd, visceral and often disgusting displays.
Acting as a prologue, the film installation Cavities (2015) showcases the work produced while the artist was in residence. In a neatly intimate act, Cavities sets four short films into gaps within a brick wall, forcing the viewer to stoop down and peer inside, re-creating the sort of urban curiosity that Saboury demonstrates throughout her work. Cavities is dryly humorous: in one instance, the artist washes herself and brushes her teeth in a puddle, the simple leap of logic creating an absurd juxtaposition.
In the main gallery space, the rest of the exhibition unfolds as though a single installation. Push On (2016) serves to contain the exhibition, with Saboury coating the gallery windows in a viscous layer of silicone, appearing like smeared Vaseline on the glass. This gesture transforms the experience of the show into something that feels almost illicit, the semi-permeable layer of silicone allowing light to pass through, but keeping the viewer hidden from external onlookers. In the corners of the room are four identical film installations with television stands and chairs coated in thick, rough layers of concrete. The concrete implies a degree of longevity but, as this summer’s notable demolition of Birmingham’s iconic, brutalist Central Library attests, permanence is always illusory. Saboury’s work addresses Birmingham’s troubled relationship with concrete: heavily bombed during World War II, much civic infrastructure was rebuilt using the material, but the recent destruction of the Central Library as well as the original Bull Ring centre (the UK’s first indoor, city-centre shopping centre, which opened in 1964), reflect the contemporary city’s discomfort with this self-image.
Saboury’s films play like bizarre jokes: in Hag (2016), the camera is focused on a hole in a brick wall, which the artist proceeds to fist, but not before coating the rim with lipstick. Clocking in at one minute and 35 seconds, Hag comes off as a quick and dirty one-liner: a laugh at the unexpected anthropomorphization of this seemingly innocuous structure. The built environment similarly comes to life in Blister (2016), in which Saboury squeezes and presses various surfaces – from holes in walls to loose layers of cladding – releasing oozing substances resembling pus or blood, giving life to the image of urban decay.
More of Saboury’s work is shown in a radically different context in a second, off-site display. In the cavernous atrium of the multi-purpose venue Millennium Point, a selection of her films are displayed on non-descript monitors, occasionally taking their turn centre-stage on the huge suspended screen that dominates the room. Unfortunately the scale of the space leaves the work stranded – added to which, there is no schedule for the films on the main screen, which may frustrate those who have visited specifically to see them. By scaling up in terms of space and audience, Saboury finds herself in a much more restrictive environment and, until she is able to claim authority over such
a venue, her work will function more powerfully when exhibited in the gallery.
Main image: Mitra Saboury, cavities, 2015, film still.