Nasrin Tabatabai & Babak Afrassiabi at Chisenhale Gallery
When contemporary art theorist Irit Rogoff introduced 'relational geographies', she proposed the idea of taking two seemingly disparate things and drawing out connections between them that may not have been immediately apparent. It is a view that invokes, to a certain degree, French philosopher Gilbert Simondon's view of an 'associated millieu', in that individuals and technical objects are to be understood in terms of a certain field of pre-individuality and a subsequent emergence from that. In this, a field of relation is potenialised, with any tensions between such associations tempered by the mode of being itself. In the end, the 'associated milieu' is a connecting force – like a geography mapping out what was once a gap.
Such are the ideas that are ignited when stepping into Seep (5th April to 12th May 2013), an exhibition by Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi at Chisenhale Gallery produced in partnership with Delfina Foundation and co-commissioned with the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona (MACBA). The artists present two very particular archives and the gulf between them. The first comes from British Petroleum (BP), known in this particular period of focus – the mid-twentieth century – as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and a film the company produced to present the oil industry's modernising effects on the country. The second archive is the collection of modern, western-focused art acquired by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art during the late 1970s. It was withdrawn from display following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The exhibition is divided into two sections separated by a dividing wall. On one side, sheets of paper marbled with crude oil – Untitled – of Natural Oil Seepage (2012) – rest on two lines of wire rope stretching from one side of the space to another, well above head height, as if they were drying. The work is a statement on the theme this exhibition examines – namely, oil and its seepage into the frame of cultural representation. On the other side of the dividing wall, in the second space that comprises this exhibition, is a series of A4 photocopies pinned in two neat rows: wires sent between a number of figures involved in the production of 'an original Anglo-Iranian Oil Company film' – Persian Story. Described as a 'moving impression of Southern Persia', the film's aim was to present Iran's 'people', 'modern developments', 'ancient monuments', 'national economy (including the Company's operations and installations)' and 'something of cultural heritage'. It was a project in Anglo-Iranian relations. A form of oil diplomacy that met with serious obstacles by the production team.
In this collection of A4 letters is a telling gap. A message written on 11th March 1951 by writer and director Ralph Keene. It forms the text narrating a video projected onto the same wall – Seep – 1 (2012), in which Keene describes the issues he observed just days after landing in the country. There was political unrest, 'an epidemic of strikes' and martial law had been declared. (Only a few days earlier, Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara had been assassinated.) Keene called the film 'unfilmable'. As his letter is read aloud, the camera trains itself on a series of props: a modern, brass and glass-topped console table on which a carved stone and a bitumen – petroleum rock – are placed; a small stack of bricks resting on top of a Persian carpet; a wooden frame covered with a tarpaulin-like fabric; and a series of wooden parts – a table leg, a drawer for instance, composed into a sculptural assemblage. In the video, these props frame a series of archival images taken from the oil fields of south-west Iran – pipelines, the natural terrain, smoke billowing in the distance, factory buildings, men working and even a cinema screening of some kind, though the screen is blank.
The objects that appear in Seep – 1 are also positioned in the gallery space, between this video and the one that follows – Seep – 2 (2012), in which a group of people drive through the same geographical area outlined in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's remit. It is filmed with a hand held camera – moments of driving through expansive desert plains are interspersed with various scenes. There is an archeological museum, displaying Persian glass and ancient busts and a shard that dates to between 4500-4000 BC. Then there is the Khorramshahr Holy Defense Cultural Centre, which commemorates the battles of the Iran-Iraq war (statues of soldiers abound in this strangely desolate heritage ground). Between these frames, water is filmed – rushing over white pebbles, as oil naturally seeps out of the earth. At first, slithers come in light ink-like wisps. But gradually, the oil thickens into sludge. Transparency is gone.
Seep – 2 essentially retraces the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's original film over contemporary Iran in 2012. This re-visiting of a certain politically-loaded moment in history is repeated in the second archival reference in this exhibition: the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art's collection of western art. But there is a reversal here, in that rather than a film by the British about Persia, this is Iran's treatment of western culture. Pinned to another wall is a list of works contained in the museum's collection printed on A3: art by Man Ray, Duchamp, Beckmann, Debuffet, Klee, Moore, Hockney, Warhol and Giacometti; James Rosenquist, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana and Chuck Close, amongst others. To accompany these extensive lists is a scale model of the museum, Sloping Corridors and Ramp, suspended in the air and painted in black. It is a ghost-like structure. The model only shows the passages leading to the basement where these works have been stored since 1979.
In this arrangement, the temporal spectrum produced in Seep is complete. The exhibition has effectively expressed how oil has fed into the cultural, historical and physical landscapes of both Iran and Britain. But in thinking about the opposing Anglo-Iranian forces presented in these two archives, the distance between these two countries – that gap – is also tempered by oil. It is the connecting force – the seepage. In exploring how its history has impacted on cultural representation and relation, the complexity of globalism and its social and political legacies are made visible despite a certain erasure or removal on both sides of the divide.
Seep was produced with the support of the Caspian Arts Foundation and the Mondrian Fund and is on view at Chisenhale Gallery to 12th May 2013. For more information visit www.chisenhale.org.uk. An online catalogue for the exhibition is viewable here.