Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s current exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, negotiates two archives.
One produced by British Petroleum (then known as the Anglo Iranian Oil Company) between 1908 and 1951; the other, the archive of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art that contains Western art requisitioned in the Seventies, hidden from view following the Islamic revolution in ’79.
Via these archives, ‘Seep’ explores themes of ‘modernisation’ and the dislocated relationship to a wider historical narrative.
Probing the role of the archive within historical discourse, the artists illuminate its function to both document a withdrawal and perpetuate existence by the same stroke.
In this way the archive functions like a footnote, it indicates the subject’s removal from the central narrative at the same time as guaranteeing its continued relationship with it.
This sense of simultaneous presence and absence is an important theme – the modern Western collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is described as having a ‘non-presence’, its removal paradoxically underlining its historical importance.
We talked art, history and the advantages of an Iranian/Dutch outlook with the two artists.
Archives seem to represent a presence/absence, a sense heightened by your characterisation of the archive as a withdrawal. What does the archive represent to you, and how does it relate to your conception of history more broadly?
Archives associate us with history.
They are tools with which we retain a sense of historical continuity. But archives are also affected by the cracks in this continuity. In the case of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company’s archive, our focus was specifically on the very last object produced before the company was forced to close its doors due to political disputes with the government and the push for the nationalisation of oil.
This was a film produced by the company with the aim to show its role in modernizing south-west Iran. Its making was of course affected by the political disputes around oil. The final additions to this archive register a discontinuity, but more importantly a representational breach within the archive. The same is true of the modern Western collection at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Just two years after its launch the collection was put into storage during the 1979 revolution in Iran, where it stayed for almost twenty years. In time this withdrawal became something inherent to the collection, even when exhibited.
These archives are about industrial modernization and modern art. What interested us in them was the kind of relationship to (art) history and what notion of contemporaneity they engender precisely in their representational breach and withdrawal.
The current issue of Pages [Tabatabai and Afrassiabi’s collaborative magazine], ‘When Historical’, states:
‘Still something remains of past events that, although conditioned by history, is irreducible to it: a surplus that finds way to our time, something out of time that forces us to actively anticipate a renewing in past events’
To what extent do you see the objects in the exhibition – I’m thinking particularly of the objects from the film set, the model of the museum, as autonomous art objects and to what extent is their meaning determined by your narrative?
It is maybe precisely this ambivalence between ‘autonomy’ and ‘context’ which defines these objects.
The objects from the film set could be read both as autonomous ‘sculptural’ pieces referencing contemporary sculptural tradition, or a mise-en-scène of objects with an undefined role. They could simply be props from the video placed in the space, an undecided constellation of random articles. Aesthetically, this ambivalence underlines the experience of the exhibition as a whole, as well as commenting on the museum collection.
Their relationship to context, in the end, remains open. It is the same with the architectural model of the museum; it clearly depicts an existing structure but one that is abstracted in its spatial function.
The relationship between Iranian history and culture and Western interests is important in ‘Seep’
What key differences do you see between the period in which the archives were produced (let’s say 1950s-70s) and today?
Does this relationship continue to inspire your work?
We wouldn’t say that Seep is about the relationship between Iran and the West.
That relationship is a preoccupation of the media in the last decade or two. It is not something we share.
We are basically interested in the relationship between art and its historical condition. These two archives speak of modernity, where oil plays a significant role. It is important to delineate this role, which is not geographically bound.
Your magazine, Pages, is published in English and Farsi and you work between Tehran and Rotterdam. Is this dual perspective important to you?
You can say that it has affected the way we work.
It helps us to be able to step outside of things and talk about them with a different angle. Sometimes this might enforce a kind of ‘schizophrenic’ engagement, but hopefully a productive one.
In the case of Pages we experience this in the translation process which creates an altogether different mode for practice and thinking.
All images: Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassaibai, Seep, 2013. Chisenhale Gallery, London. Photo: Andy Keate.