Rift: Shahrzad Kamel

8 July - 4 August 2016

Ab-Anbar presents ‘Rift’, the first solo exhibition of American-Iranian artist Shahrzad Kamel at the gallery and her first presentation in Tehran.


The artist’s work, rooted in a practice closer to post-minimalism than to contemporary photography, turns to the photographic material and process instead of mere observation of the external world. Treating the photogram as an object imbued with the physical traces of time rather than a neutral medium of representation, Kamel is returning to the most elementary components of analog photography as an art form, in a subtle transgression of our current digital reality in which photographs are no longer part of the grammar of culture and have become seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the visible. Shahrzad Kamel’s universe of forms is an approximation to alchemy of the image: Photographic paper and chemicals conjure up a world dominated by primal light and oblique perception.


The exhibition ‘Rift’, denoting a crack, split or an internal break within something, is a study on the endless possibilities of sameness as the starting point for variations in perspective. Kamel’s aim was to create a series of photographs that while being all different, would come out from a single negative. The artist’s understanding of the photographic gesture is not one of simple visualization, but a sustained engagement with the creative possibilities of both construction and destruction, as nearly identical parts of a complex process. The gaze here is not directed at the world but toward the most obvious and direct elements of formal composition, often overlooked by the naked eye in its search for a referent in reality. The real however, has not disappeared; instead it has become codified in an almost suprematist language in which the eye is displaced and it is necessary to deploy the whole apparatus of consciousness in order to decipher the signals at hand.


Yet this process is less ephemeral than the viewer would make-believe: It is achieved through damaging the negative and printing each modification anew; as if staging alterations of consciousness in the form of discreet visual innuendos. The incisions in the negative are near-cinematic controlled actions, using blades and sharp tools, sometimes burning – causing the negative to melt and bubble, and then, subsequently, repairing the negative of an image that has been already damaged, split, broken, disfigured. Overturning the mechanism of production inherent to photography, with its many prints and editions, Shahrzad Kamel’s “Rift” is conceived as a flow of unique images, never issued twice, and therefore embedded in an almost painterly, mimetic, incomprehensible body. Working in the dark room, after the fashion of earlier photographers, Kamel reaches out for the outer limits of photography itself, achieving the ineffable.


In the first part of the exhibition, a series of silver gelatin prints are made solely out of a single negative drawn from the artist’s archive. Shahrzad has slowly led this negative down a path of ruination, creating lasting ruins that are simultaneously newfound and decayed: A new type of archive emerges from this process, carefully documenting the eventual collapse of an object –an assault on the contemporary visual aesthetic, where the photographic object has been long discarded. Rather than shying away from the process for the sake of a visual experience, in Shahrzad’s work, the rifts and fissures are not only evident but constitute the centrifugal force of her aesthetic configurations. The collapse of the image, central to the current crisis of visual culture, is not bypassed or masqueraded; instead it is confronted and given a definite shape which eludes the concreteness of literal language.


In the photogram series Linings, the second part of the exhibition, the process of dissolution is stretched further: The objects of reference here are simple pieces of mesh; the same mesh that was used as support for the negative fading out. These photograms occur by placing a sheet of metal mesh over photosensitive paper and exposing it to light, so that there is the allusion of soft paper crumpling in these images, whereas it is but pieces of metal that have corrugated. This fundamental tension, ripping throughout Kamel’s recent body of work, is available to perception only upon closer inspection, and creates a parallel between the traditional photographic archive and the uncertainties and paradoxes of human memory. Lyle Rexer draws attention to this phenomenon in his essay for the show’s catalog: “The obvious analogy to human beings gives the images tremendous poignancy. Each of us registers our experiences which accumulate as we age and decline. What’s lost with the destruction of our physical ‘negatives’ is the store of memories that make up our identity, our being. That we experience this fullness and disintegration at the same time is the ultimate paradox of existence.”