Tabatabai and Afrassiabi: Seep at Chisenhale Gallery
This exhibition is drawn from a curious premise. Through an installation of video projections, objects and prints, the artists Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi explore two 20th century archives. One is the collection of modern Western art that was acquired by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art during the 1970s and then removed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The other is the archive of British Petroleum (then called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) and their presence in Iran between 1908 and 1951. So what links these two concepts? Both archives were suspended in some way, the collection of Western art withdrawn into the basement of the art gallery, and BP’s archive of film and photography discontinued.
The way in which the artworks are displayed in the exhibition gives precedence to the BP archive, which is more varied in its use of media. Particularly interesting is the reprinted correspondence between the company in the UK and the film crew based in Iran. These letters show a terse dialogue, beginning with playful ideas suggested for a narrative behind BP’s public relations film, and ending with the filmmaker complaining of the “unfilmability” and “ugliness” of the company’s operations in the country.
This is juxtaposed with Seep – 2, footage of a natural oil seepage in southwest Iran taken by the artists. Here the artists capture the strange beauty of oil and the way in which it appropriates and redefines the land on which it is spilt. By filming crude oil seeping naturally, the artists eliminate the socio-political subtext of the images of oil, the video even showing fish swimming peacefully in the sea under a glutinous black layer.
Sloping Corridors and Ramp is a model of the Tehran Museum showing only the passages leading to the basement where the collection of Western art is stored. This model strips the museum of its exhibitive properties, and while the museum is now restored to its place in history as an Iranian collection, Tabatabai and Afrassiabi refocus the attention on the Western art by emphasising its absence.
The interplay between history and contemporaneity and Britain and Iran is an intriguing basis for an exhibition, but there is no discernible narrative between the artworks – they stand alone – and so the two concepts fail to meet fluidly.
Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi: Seep is at Chisenhale Gallery until 12th May 2013. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.
The exhibition is produced in partnership with Delfina Foundation and co-commissioned with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA)