Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s exhibition at Chisenhale, produced in collaboration with the Delfina Foundation and MACBA, Barcelona (from where it toured), was a surprise in the gallery’s programming. Having solely presented shows by London-based artists in 2011 and 2012, this one from the Rotterdam-based, Iranian-born duo represented a welcome shift in temperament and focus.
Titled ‘Seep’, the exhibition comprised a body of work that the artists – who, since 2004, have operated under the moniker Pages, which is also the title of their jointly edited Farsi-English magazine – began in 2011 and centres on two archives. The first is that of British Petroleum and covers their formation in Iran from 1908–51 (when BP operated as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company), before the multinational was forced to withdraw when Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the oil fields. Tabatabai and Afrassiabi’s investigations led them to a series of documents surrounding the production of what was to be the first Technicolor film shot in Iran – The Persian Story – which sought to capture the history of the country’s modernizing project. Shown alongside facsimiles of letters relating to this unrealized film was the video Seep 1 (all works 2012). Photographs of what the director, Ralph Keene, called the film’s ‘unfilmable’ locations appear sporadically, cutting up the aural description with visual prompts. For Tabatabai and Afrassiabi to unearth the term ‘unfilmable’ within this archive was quite a find, the artistic equivalent of digging down and discovering oil, so closely linked is the notion of the ‘unfilmable’ to the problems of displaying an archive. Their unpacking of the notion subsequently became the conceptual underpinning – as well as the slippery decoy – for the various incarnations within the exhibition.
The second archive came from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) and relates to the institution’s rapid acquisition of a slew of Modernist works in the 1970s. The TMCA itself was inaugurated two years before the revolution of 1979, when the works were scurried into the basement – only to resurface in recent years. Like the BP archive, this history chronicles an aspect of Iran’s relationship with Western modernity and its abrupt caesura due to nationalizing forces. A model of the museum, Sloping Corridors and Ramp, was suspended from the ceiling, highlighting the corridors leading to the gallery’s basement storage. Adjacent to this was a list of the works that the artists have compiled from various exhibition catalogues and articles (no official inventory exists). Again, the duo focus on both withdrawal and incomplete information. And, like the BP archive, their interest is not so much in investigating the context of this withdrawal. Rather, these archival explorations were choreographed as a finely poised, closely guarded act of withdrawal itself, one in which the focus is the study of the archive. As such, it left me clutching at straws, constantly diverted from clue to clue via different aesthetic registers but with my investigative searches ultimately thwarted. As Tabatabai and Afrassiabi’s delicate dance seemed to imply, such is our inability to render or comprehend a coherent archive.
Aptly, non-archival works provided some missing links. One was a film shot by the artists in Abadan, Iran, showing natural oil seepages, with blobs of crude oil suspended in water and fish swimming past nonchalantly. By returning to the barren landscape of southwest Iran, unfussily documenting the country’s landscape as well as demystifying (or de-demonizing) oil by showing it in its natural state, the artists again sought to make visible that which had lurked in the historical shadows of the BP archives. At the other end of the gallery were a series of print-like works, made by placing paper on the surface of these pools of water and then left to dry, their swirls of black and yellow conjuring the AbEx works that remain hidden in vaults in Tehran. Circling back around the gallery, I rediscovered a series of installations – that had featured in Seep 1 – consisting of bricks, a dismantled desk and wooden sticks balanced precariously against the wall. It was then I realized my frustrations: I was being seduced by the aestheticization of a history that deployed the language and display devices of Western Modernism (Jackson Pollock’s splashes, Carl Andre’s bricks) but that tacitly refused to take a position in relation to the history within which it was operating. I then decided to withdraw myself from the gallery, stuck in a conceptual, historical and aesthetic impasse – impressed but reluctant, unsatisfied by what wasn’t shown.