Ab-Anbar presents “At 11:57 am Wednesday 23 October 2013”, the second solo exhibition of Iranian artist Reza Aramesh at the gallery, showcasing a new body of work, exploring the role that images of violence play in the contemporary moment, articulated from the vantage point of a single event: On this date, October 23, 2013, it was reported by media that in the southern province of Helmand, Afghanistan, a young couple that had eloped together was lured to the woman’s family home, and were later found decapitated, in what authorities believed was a honor killing. The horizon of this event, though marginal in the history of contemporary conflict, is a very telling personal story that addresses the central position of the body in the receiving end of violence: The reduction of the body politic to a community of mere bodies evaporates the distinction between our presence as subjects and simple biological existence.
Ascertaining the merging of biology and politics into a unified whole, Aramesh has long conducted archival research on images that portray the violated body, forced into the multitude of public scrutiny, bereft of any characteristics. His work, however, is not that of a documentarian, but rather an intervention on these images against the background of the relationship between acts of violence and the history of representation. The artist situates the body as a site of consciousness, and as a centerpiece of the social world, not independent of reality.
As the connecting thread of the story behind “At 11:57 am Wednesday 23 October 2013” suggests, decapitation forms the core of the exhibition; what Reza Aramesh is looking at, however, isn’t the immediate shock effect of the latest wave of decapitations taking place in the Middle East and their meaning as political acts, but something far larger: Judging from the history of beheading, particularly from the viewpoint of Western art, what is that makes the severed head a symbolic and almost ritualistic element that we cannot look away from? The series of marble heads in the exhibition, executed in the manner of classical art, yet based on photographic testimonies from contemporary events, belong in a larger conversation about the aesthetic fascination of art with torture and execution as the ultimate ‘sublime’, and the re-birth of the role of execution in public life, defunct since the European 18th century, now at the very center of our media culture.
For Aramesh, the severed head is not only an active metaphor for the implausible linearity of history, but it becomes also a psychoanalytical model for the same history: It is not only that violence ‘threatens’ civilization but is itself synonymous with civilization; there’s no process of civilization –and its main drive, colonization, without obliteration, mutilation, burial and oblivion. Informed by the work of the critic and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, the severed heads in the exhibition act out a bipartite role: They are the ritualistic elements of barbarism, while at the same time also a memorialization of the powerful. Sculpted out of marble from the Pietrasanta quarries, the marble heads are delicate and sensual objects, carved out voluptuously, against a solid surface.
In the second part of the exhibition, Reza Aramesh presents a series of pottery vases, crafted by hand and fired in a traditional kiln in Iran, in the manner of the Greek narrative urns. They enable us to navigate the cross-references between classical art and the violence of the contemporary moment as a strategy to dislocate political history from the grand Western narrative and emplace it in larger framework of knowledge about the real.
At last, the photographed plaster heads, also severed, and set against the idyllic landscapes of the south of England, which make up the third and last part of the show, subvert the process of image production and memory. Based on photographic sources from journalism, they have preserved a ‘memento mori’ in the intimate form of a sculpture, yet derived from a source which is not only public but also voyeuristic. They have been entirely dislocated from their original context, and transferred to the realm of photography again, into fragile silver gelatin prints. In this process, Reza Aramesh has expanded our consciousness of death and the body from the public spectacle of torture, towards a place which is sublime and unreachable, where the meaning of violence has been not transformed, but rather temporarily suspended.
The haunting drama of public execution is concealed through aesthetic gestures, and presented as an epic. “At 11:57 am Wednesday 23 October 2013” is a cross-cultural examination on both sensibility and perception, presenting our own media realities as a theater of the human condition in which representation becomes the latency of trauma.
Reza Aramesh (b. 1970, Ahwaz) completed an MFA at Goldsmiths, University of London. Working across a wide range of materials and processes, Aramesh examines simultaneously the history of Western art and contemporary commentary on the politics and history of the Middle East, concocting a unique visual language to address the contemporary conditions of violence and bio-politics. Earlier solo exhibitions include Ab/Abnar, Leila Heller Gallery (New York), Isabelle Van den Eynde (Dubai), among others. His work has been showcased in many international group shows, including ICA (London), Goodman Gallery (Cape Town), Goethe Institute Brussels, Frieze Sculpture Park, Tate Britain and most recently, “The Great Game”, Pavilion of Iran at the 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale de Venezia.