The scent reaches you before the sight – an uplifting combination of lingering and fresh sap emitted by the entrance to the gallery. It seems to presage woods in deep summer. And of course, the spectacle inside is like a clearing of tall trees, their dark trunks rising up to crowns of leaves, scatters of earth on the ground. But exactly at the same time, what you are looking at is also something quite different, immediately distinct and recognizable – the colonnade of a magnificent classical temple.
Trees are both trunks and columns; the leaves could be acanthus on a Corinthian capital. The whole structure is made up of what appears to be organic matter, possibly black earth strewn with straw.
It’s the double surprise on arrival: what you see is entirely archaeological – a Greco-Roman colonnade – and at the same time entirely botanical, even arboreal. How can it be both at the same time? It is the marvel of openness.
Each column is in fact a sculpture, formed by the hands of Abbas Akhavan. Born in Tehran in 1977, Akhavan moved to Canada with his family during the Iran-Iraq War and is now based in Montreal. He is an extremely subtle thinker. Anyone who saw his Delfina exhibition in 2013 (he has hardly shown here since, alas) may remember how he brought the outdoors inside, letting nature take over. a townhouse with tall hedges, leaky waterfalls and growing soils. With his calm state of mind, Akhavan constantly reflects on our place on earth as contemporary beings living among old buildings, often ruins, and the strange relationships between people, archeology and nature.
You may, for example, recognize the shape of this colonnade: the first line leading to the Monumental Arch of Palmyra, the 2,000-year-old ruined city in Syria, much of which was destroyed by Isis in 2015. . What is believed to be the body of Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist who tried to defend Palmyra was only recently found in the rubble, beheaded. At the very least, Akhavan’s sculptural installation is its own kind of monument to this tragic story – to those ancient buildings and possibly this man, all gone. From earth to earth, dust to dust.
Syrian citizens have attempted to recreate Palmyra in miniature in their own devastated homes. And it is said that Syria has signed a contract with Russia to rebuild the old buildings on the site. But there is already a facsimile of the legendary arc, through which travelers have dealt with more than two millennia. It is based on the aggregated data of countless photographs, transformed by 3D printing into a cut version of Egyptian marble. This is the work of the Institute for Digital Archeology, a joint project between professors from Harvard and Oxford, in partnership, among others (and you may be wondering why), the Dubai Futures Foundation and the Arab Emirates. United.
The Repro Arch was first unveiled in Trafalgar Square in 2016 by Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, with a posture-defying speech in which he throws two numbers – ho ho – to barbarians. He then went on a European tour. There is no doubt that Akhavan is referring to this curious circus and the illusion that we actually see or meet the ark. His installation is set against a sardonic landscape, in the form of a vast green screen with chroma inlay, such as it is used in cinema and television to isolate a subject from its background and transport it elsewhere. Its colonnade is, so to speak, neither here nor there.
And the absurdity of both the marble accessory and its ceremonial unveiling is the subject of another work in this exhibition. An image of the scene where the glossy white sheet covered the 3D facsimile before revealing itself is itself printed on another glossy white sheet, roughly the size of a magician’s silk handkerchief. Now you see it, now you don’t see it anymore.
A vast painting on the roof of the gallery is more impenetrable, not least because it can only be seen from the surrounding towers and the birds in the air. It is the expression “cat’s paw”, taken from La Fontaine’s fable, in which a monkey flatters a cat so that it burns its paws in a fire to provide it with roasted chestnuts. Nowadays, it designates people who become the dupes or the tools of others.
My feeling is that it may have something to do with the institutions, including galleries and museums, which continue to follow the auctions of politicians and patrons. We can make versions of ancient Syrian architecture but block the asylum of Syrian refugees; we can display sacred objects in our museums without liability to the companies that made them or the civilians who tried to defend them. We can play for the sponsors but avoid the restitution.
What is so wonderful about Akhavan’s central installation is its dense poetry of ideas and allusions. The sculptures come from the earth itself – in this case, that old organic building material, cob, mixed with London clay. We are there, after all, even imagining Palmyra. And as the classic columns move away from the eye, they cease to represent columns, reverting to the composting of nature itself. The uprights are columns, then trunks which fall apart, then bodies which fall. Yet the idea remains, and the vision of humanity remains.
Abbas Akhavan is at the Chisenhale Gallery, London E3, until October 17