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Issue 228

The Vacant Swimming Pools of Tehran

At Green Art Gallery, Dubai, the Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia reimagines the city’s urban decay in various shades of blue

BY Nadine Khalil in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 12 APR 22

Nazgol Ansarinia’s latest solo exhibition at Dubai’s Green Art Gallery, ‘Lakes Drying, Tides Rising’, marks the first time colour – specifically blue – has featured so prominently in the Iranian artist’s work. In the two-channel video Dissolving Substances (2020), for instance, Ansarinia retouches an empty swimming pool in Zafaraniyeh – a neighbourhood in northern Tehran – with a vivid oceanic azure, while the small architectural sculptures of Connected Pools (2020) are made with cerulean plaster. Elsewhere, the drawings in the series ‘Lakes Drying Tides Rising’ (2022) swirl between inky petrol blues and sun-drenched aquamarine, while the sculptures in the same series are faded, based on satellite imagery.

Perspective is important in Ansarinia’s work. In Dissolving Substances, she juxtaposes the viewpoint of being at the bottom of the Zafaraniyeh pool, submerged by blue walls and slopes, with a more diffuse, rippling frame of overlaid images of spiderweb cracks and damage. The rest of her work in the exhibition, however, begins with a top-down view of the metropolis, inspired by the artist’s own experiences of flying over Tehran, a city full of desolate pools.


Nazgol Ansarinia, Connected Pools, 2020, blue reconstruction of pools
Nazgol Ansarinia, Connected Pools, 2020, blue plaster, 28 × 29 × 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai

If David Hockney’s vision of Los Angeles from an airplane in 1964 famously marked his formalistic fascination with painting pools as sites of fluidity, desire and a neoliberal optimism, Ansarinia’s swimming basins – emblematic of Tehran’s prosperous, pre-revolutionary 1960s – speak to a former utopia and, perhaps, a collective fantasy that remains unfulfilled. This is best articulated in the stunning simplicity of Connected Pools, which comprises complex amalgamations of receding stairs, tiled floors and several fountains and pools as sunken tops. Their visually pleasing curvilinear outlines are drawn from a municipality map of Jordan, an upscale three-km2 area of Tehran that boasts 1,100 pools marked as ‘private waters’. The sculptures intimate architectural models for structures-to-be in a compelling manner, while masking the urban decay that has long preoccupied Ansarinia in her practice.

Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Lakes drying tides rising’ (detail), 2022
Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Lakes drying tides rising’ (detail), 2022, plaster and pigment colour, two pieces, 53 × 39 × 3 cm and 25 × 25 × 3 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai; photograph: Anna Shtraus

In this new body of work, the artist goes further in her deconstruction and reconstruction of Tehran’s urban fabric to delve into concerns of environmental precarity. For instance, in the drawings and sculptures from ‘Lakes Drying, Tides Rising’, Ansarinia again creates compositions of Jordan’s pools, though this time they form geographic outlines of lakes as whole and as separated, diminishing bodies of water. With this distinct reference to endangered lakes in Iran – Lake Urmia, in particular, which has dramatically dwindled to a fraction of its size due to drought and dams – the artist links the mismanagement in the built environment to scarcity in the natural world. 

Yet, this is more compelling in concept than execution, especially in her sculptures where these pools-as-empty-containers become layered earth beds upon which the water flows – except it really doesn’t. The poured wax on cut-out wood materializes as a semblance of fluidity within a constrained and regimented mould. The effect is forced. Perhaps that is the point. Either way, the gesture of filling cavity-like pools with the colours of earth and water is meaningful, envisioning another use of land and space.


Nazgol Ansarinia, Lakes Drying, Tides Rising, Installation view
Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Lakes drying tides rising’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai; photograph: Anna Shtraus

Although ‘Lakes Drying, Tides Rising’ doesn’t succeed in sculptural form, the abstraction of ink gushing like water in Ansarinia’s drawings is perfectly matched with the precision of the lake-like assemblages, where the totality of people’s private pools approximates a displaced body of water. By carving her own architectures out of Tehran’s outdoor pools, Ansarinia reimagines a terrain in which the excesses of the private realm can become nature’s surplus – a rather auspicious vision.

Nazgol Ansarinia’s ‘Lakes Drying, Tides Rising’ is on view at Green Art Gallery, Dubai, until 7 May.

Main image: Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Lakes drying tides rising’ (detail), 2022, ink on film, 1.2 × 1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai; photograph: Anna Shtraus

Nadine Khalil is a writer, editor and researcher based in Dubai, UAE.