A contaminant sensibility runs through the collaborative and participation-inducing work of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. The three Iranian artists, “known for their immersive, surreal projects, performances, paintings, and animations”
had their latest show open on March 1, kicking off the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery’s 2022 season. Ramin, Rokni and Hesam have called Dubai home for thirteen years
, living and working together, as exiles from their native land.
In Parthenogenesis, the Art Gallery turns into a capsule for their subversive, permutative practice. Poetry sticks to the walls, thick with loss and longing. Philosophy molds and tears holes in raw clay. Self-made machines bask in the atrium. We also see movement scores, models, photographs and sculptures. Peppered in-between are flatscreen TVs playing back a host of footage, from queer dances to newsreels to documents from behind-the-scenes clips.
My attempt to list every medium activated by Ramin, Rokni and Hesam is doomed to failure. Suffice to say, their choice of words—when describing this overarching mode—is right on the money. This kind of making easily escapes the conventional frame of installation. These textures evince a special name, that of the “landscape.” Working together, and with a range of interlocutors, they create a multilayered, expansive site that invites the audience to immerse themselves in a story.
The centerpiece of Parthenogenesis is on the floor. It is a large painting, a square platform, where the figural and abstract collide. As you walk upon it, the work swirls and swooshes, a watery refraction through shiny varnish. You gaze at a potpourri of pattern, organs, fish and solid paint.
This work is a pull, an obvious bait for a first-time visitor. Its detail and immensity make it magnetic, an effect heightened by a series of curving sculptures-cum-plateholders along its edges. A bold statement of dense significance and aesthetic delight, the floor sets up a number of dynamics. First, there is the general unconventionality of an art object off the frame, re-placed underneath your feet. Second, the piece congeals a number of thematic concerns that recur on other walls (holes, patterns, nonhuman life). And third, it trips a participatory wire, forcing the audience to maneuver, in-duet, on a painted surface, surveying a topography of their making.
If you like the floor, if you dig the picture, Parthenogenesis will be a ball.
In conversation after the opening, the artists described their work as “negotiation fields”
. This framing device, steeped in what curators Maya Allison and Wafa Jadallah refer to as a “call and response” aesthetic, helps situate the overstimulated audience member. To engage with Parthenogenesis
requires the conscious abandonment of an objective—that we can take it all in.
The negotiation field calls for a conspiratorial spirit. Faced with a flood of images, a viewer must sift through the overwhelm, picking out resonant strands from the exhibition’s dense skein. Differing from person to person, what you select becomes your lens for seeing the show—unless you stake this personal, emotional claim, the exhibition remains muddled. Ideally, you respond to their call involuntarily. You see a section and everything clicks, you are caught unawares by the sub-psyche’s patterns and cares. And this is the slipperiness of Parthenogenesis, where trying to make sense of Ramin, Rokni and Hesam’s practice helps you make a better sense of yourself.
For me, it was their most recent work, on fictile hole theory, that triggered a sea of change in how I assessed the show. In tandem with an extract from Judith Butler on grief, the idea of perforation, of material deformation, mutation and becoming inscrutable to oneself reattuned everything else I had seen. Suddenly, historical specificity faded as an excuse for halfhearted engagement. The rippling traumas of war, undulant displacement and lacerated communities on display would be heightened if I knew the particulars, yes. But even without it, seen through the holes, this was a shared grief, a common guilt. A vast difference in degree but none in kind.
Ramin, Rokni and Hesam reach out to you, and then the question is whether you will let it touch you, then (g)rip apart your pretenses of independence. In their vision, bodies melt and reform, turning into animals and birds, monsters and creatures from myth. In their method, “imperfect cop[ies]” proliferate. On the one hand, identities and containers are constructed and distorted by apparatuses of absencing and harm (state, media, cisheteropatriarchy). But the approximate need not be brutal or displacing. There is a practice that can recuperate the copy, replacing a violent logic of the original or pure that too often births inarticulable, ever present suffering. This is what I believe Parthenogenesis hints at on the floor—redemption via imperfection, via contaminant care, via art.
To walk through Parthenogenesis, past works that the artists say are never truly finished, is like tracking the sediments on a river floor. It is to see the cross-section of an ever-evolving mélange. To begin to process the indiscrete and fluctuant capacities of matter on display means to become, yourself, a little less discrete, opened up to other modes of cohabitation, other possible worlds.
But even as the show subtly manipulates your mind—moving you through explicit surface curations and implied viewer choreographies—there is, to me, a sense of a thwarted architectonics. Ramin, Rokni and Hesam’s int(er)ventions rely on the “alchemical power of play”, freeing up, speculating upon, painting over and having fun with the (often unpalatable) leftovers of a past that is not yet past. This unobstructive, ludic imagination necessitates a faith in the audience. The messy work of recontextualization needs space to breathe. That headroom is inconsistently distributed over the gallery space. There are too many walls and too many rows; a logistically-necesissated neatness perhaps, but we are left with an over-calibration that grates against the philosophy of humorous transposition that the artists encourage.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on an otherwise enlivening experience. My minor disappointment vis-à-vis curation only underlines how much I enjoyed Parthenogenesis
. Doubling the playful layering on the pieces in the very structuring of the exhibit, I think, would have helped me love it more and sooner. As to the problem of spatiality and the limitations of walls—there are no quick fixes to that. Suffice to say, I am happier with a cramped showing of Ramin, Rokni and Hesam’s work than none at all. And for hosting their “first institutional solo exhibition in the UAE”
, I have nothing but the highest of praise for Maya Allison and the team at the Art Gallery.
Do not miss a chance to see this show. And while its spectacularity is hard to move past, the real reckoning comes in the rooms beyond the central floor.
We desperately need more exhibitions of this alter-nature, that perform disorientations, plumb histories and give language to our implicatidness in each other's lives, human and nonhuman alike. So passions can flare and passivities fade. This is Parthenogenesis—time to negotiate.
Karno Dasgupta is a Columnist. Email him at email@example.com.