Zarouhie Abdalian / MATRIX 249October 23, 2013
An Exhibition, Postpartum is a series that examines the components of making contemporary art exhibitions in order to encourage readers and art practitioners to evaluate an exhibition as a process rather than simply as a finished product. Each installment includes an interview with the curator(s) and/or the artist(s) behind an exhibition, preceded by a review for context and critical analysis. Accompanying these texts is a slideshow of images of the exhibition, from installation to de-installation, as a way of diagramming its true lifespan.
Time and again, Zarouhie Abdalian changes her work in radical yet contextually appropriate ways. While many artists become wedded to the expression of one idea or one medium, Abdalian’s flexibility and inclusively critical engagement with the world around her is emerging as a trademark of her work—and it’s expressed more succinctly with each successive project and exhibition that she does. Number 249 of the MATRIX series is no exception.
Abdalian’s works in the exhibition, all from 2013, are beautifully crafted in their own right and were thoughtfully presented in the space. Ad libitum (If I Had a Hammer) is a delicate installation comprised of a solo brass instrument wire strung against a series of bone instrument bridges that were placed on the long concrete gallery wall. The interplay between the other two works, As a demonstration (a plexiglass, vacuum-sealed cube with a ringing bell inside) and Each envelope as before (an opaque black plexiglass vitrine that issues a heartbeat-like tone)—wherein the former’s sound source is seen but not heard, and the latter’s sound is heard but not seen—is amplified by the choice of exhibition space in the museum’s lower-level; the result of the placement is an effect which Abdalian and MATRIX curator Apsara DiQuinzio worked together quite closely to achieve. Upon first encounter, the works lacked the conceptual punch the accompanying brochure claims on their behalf. But upon leaving the space, the exhibition and artworks started to transcend and play off of their initial shortcomings and come into their own, formally and conceptually.
Much of Abdalian’s previous work engaged directly and critically with the social and cultural context and architecture, or lack thereof, in both outdoor and indoor exhibition spaces.1 Together, the works in Zarouhie Abdalian / MATRIX 249 are a sophisticated form of site-specific and spatial critique different from, yet reminiscent of, institutional critique. The narrative and metaphorical arcs—the history of music as a form of protest against the inadequacies of institutionalized democracy—that connect the three works to one another are deeply grounded in the Bay Area’s rich history of rigorous visual and sound-based Conceptual Art and non-violent protest movements.
The UC Berkeley Art Museum’s building can present a challenge for contemporary artists and curators to work within. The choice of Gallery A—an exhibition area at the lowest elevation of the building’s main galleries—might have been made for logistical purposes, but it sets the works displayed within it aside from the more visible and approachable spaces of the museum. Initially, Abdalian’s three works seem to suffer from and poorly capitalize upon the cavernous echoing space, the scarred wall surfaces, and the remote location—but later this seems superficial. Her acute sensitivity to the space only became fully apparent to me as I was walking up the zigzagging exit ramp from Gallery A while continuing to hear the repetitious mechanical drumming of Each envelope as before. Likewise, As a demonstration’s central image of a bell endlessly and soundlessly ringing is hard to shake. The delicate Ad libitum was almost lost against the scarred and pocked wall that it so gently rested against, further adding to its poignancy.
The works in Zarouhie Abdalian / MATRIX 249 were made specifically for the space, and because they cater to it so directly, they also point to its limitations.
The works in Zarouhie Abdalian / MATRIX 249 were made specifically for the space, and because they cater to it so directly, they also point to its limitations. Just as Abdalian’s art makes palpable the shortcomings of institutionalized democracy by hampering what we can see, hear, and touch, so too do the pieces in MATRIX 249 marshal the physical properties of the museum’s space for their critique: it’s indelibly scarred walls, its uncompromising echo, and the relative out-of-the-way location of the gallery. However, they are also collectible and conservable objects marking an important transition point in Abdalian’s career. Perhaps her work will become more object-based in the future, and, if so, it will be intriguing to see how she maintains the same level of site-and-context specificity and criticality.
Interview with Zarouhie Abdalian and Apsara DiQuinzio2
A. Will Brown: How did you choose Zarouhie for this exhibition?
Apsara DiQuinzio: I have been paying close attention to Abdalian’s work for several years now, ever since her breakthrough contribution to California College of the Arts’s (CCA) MFA exhibition in 2010. I was also quite impressed by the site-specific installation she made for the Eleventh Istanbul Biennial—one of my favorites in that sprawling exhibition. Her engagement with Ryue Nishizawa’s architectural design stood out as being powerful, yet understated. Knowing her approach, I was very interested in seeing how she might engage with the austerity of BAM/PFA’s Mario Ciampi building. In the end, her solution was incredibly elegant and subtle, and yet speaks volumes.
AWB: What are some of the key differences between a group show and a solo show?
ADQ: The group shows I have done emerge from a specific theme or concept I want to explore, while solo exhibitions are about presenting one artist’s work in the best way possible and in a supportive environment. I enjoy working on both kinds. When I work on solo exhibitions, I appreciate the rigorous dialogue and sense of focus that comes from working with just one artist. It enables a much richer understanding of the work—I really cherish that engagement. And with group exhibitions, I enjoy developing provocative conversations or juxtapositions between many different artists’ works and the ability to play out specific concerns or ideas. Group exhibitions are the place for curators to experiment and realize a unique vision.
Zarouhie Abdalian: All of the group shows I’ve been in have had some sort of theme that ostensibly ties anywhere from three to a couple hundred artists together. I don’t always pay attention to the theme, but when I’m specifically commissioned to make a new work, I might try to think about the theme or curatorial framing during the process of developing my piece. For a solo show, I have more control over the context in which the artwork appears. Rather than be surrounded by the artworks of other artists, an artwork can be seen in the context of the space in which it exists and in relationship to other artworks I have made. Showing multiple works in a solo show, I can build relationships between pieces in the show and even with other pieces composing my larger body of work. Of course, a curator might still propose her own framing during the process, but generally there is an opportunity for an artist to have more of a voice when it’s a solo presentation.
AWB: What are some exhibitions that have changed how you think about art and exhibitions?
ADQ: I just saw Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in the Bronx, and thought it was one of the best artworks or museum projects I have ever seen. It struck me as a remarkable antidote to the increasingly commerce-driven art world that now seems to define too much of what we do and the way we work. The generous, inclusive, and educational spirit that Hirschhorn and [the] Dia [Foundation] cultivate in this work is profoundly important for us all to consider and hold close going forward.
ZA: Seeing Prospect.1 in New Orleans in 2008 was formative. The exhibition included many works that were made for specific sites within the city at the very specific moment in which the exhibition occurred. There were some works I found really important and moving (Nari Ward’s work, for instance), while others “failed” in sometimes interesting ways (like Robin Rhode’s piece). The exhibition itself and many of the works in it taught me a lot about how I want to deal with context when conceiving works. It was also one of the rare times when I felt a highly orchestrated exhibition had some value that could not be measured merely by the art world.
AWB: How does the work in the MATRIX exhibition differ or align with your other work?
ZA: The sculptures are specific to the museum exhibition context and, though they would work in other museum spaces, they are particularly well suited to the BAM building and also the context of the MATRIX program because of its historical relationship to both conceptual art and experimental sound. I think of these works as describing and addressing different types of spaces. In previous works, I’ve focused on the interaction between an interior, art-viewing space and the space outside. The three objects I’ve made for this museum consider different types of interior and exterior spaces. Also, the works in the show, which is in a rarefied museum context, should be considered in relationship to the outdoor, public installation that will happen towards the end of the run of the BAM show.
AWB: What exhibitions have you seen at BAM/PFA that were important for you to see before having your own?
ZA: When I moved here, Trevor Paglen’s MATRIX show was up and it made me really excited about art in the Bay Area. There was a show for which I’ve only seen the catalog that was important to me while I was doing research, even though I took a different direction from the artists in that exhibition: Space as Support (1979), which happened throughout the galleries of BAM.
AWB: What do you want this exhibition to accomplish for both yourself and your audience?
I’d like people to consider the objects and the public installation on their own terms and in relationship to one another.
ZA: I’d like to continue building a context within which spectators consider my work. I’d like people to consider the objects and the public installation on their own terms and in relationship to one another. I hope people spend some time with the work.
This show allowed me to not only consider the space of the museum, but because I chose to make semi-autonomous sculptures, also think about space on the level of the object. Finally, with most exhibitions, I’ve focused on developing a single work, often building everything from the ground up. In contrast, this show afforded me the opportunity to work through and articulate my ideas as a network of objects—as an exhibition, in other words.