Contrapuntal Experience and the Aesthetics of Shiva Aliabadi

The most recent work of Shiva Aliabadi, Abshar: Cascade, serves to underscore a long history of critical projects that are invested in touching on the limits of ephemeral experience, challenging the temporal coordinates of "presentism", and creating the conditions that allow us to see and feel the world around us, otherwise. Toward this end, we can say that while powder, paper and plastics all hold a place of prominence in Aliabadi’s work, it's not to simply adopt the aesthetics of high manufacture or to merely provide a commentary on the auspicious nature of commodification, although these elements are not wholly absent either. Rather, in Aliabadi's hands these materials become so many different surfaces which are impressed upon, incised in, or converted into being an imprint of something else.

In other words, they point beyond the hermetic concerns of the artworld, and in so doing, they come to function as markers of a kind of social abstraction that was put into play under the monikers of Simulationism, Neo-Geo and more recently, relational aesthetics. The difference is that with the emegence of Aliabadi’s work, many of these older strategies for moving beyond the limited converstation about the valences of "objecthood" appear to be inverted, turned somewhat askew, or even inside-out and upside-down. Afterall, Aliabadi does this by dematerializing some of the strict formal qualities and appropriative strategies that often permeated painting and cultural production at large in the era of high theory, but her work has the added twist of embracing an ethic of formlessness as a way out of the cultural logic of “ism’s”, or really, out of the kind of obsession with form-as-productionism that tended to be associated with those other two great end-game "ism's", that of neo-avant-gardism and late postmodernism. 

Which is to say, that as much as postmodernism was about parody, pastiche and a kind of self-knowing irony, it still largely relied on the creating movements and objects that sought to push the edge of cultural production forward. By contrast, Aliabadi’s work is about a capturing the weight behind the sense given to specific places and acts in an era where globalization is turning the world into what the theorist Marc Augé calls non-places. This is because history recedes to the degree that we have entered an economy of weightlessness, or of radical speculation and profittering. 

Conseqeuntly, Aliabadi’s aesthetic program is directly in dialog with the reduction of industrial capital to lightweight commodity forms; or the labor force of long-term contracts being commuted to conditions of precarity; or the end of life-time warranties being replaced by limited liability contracts and pay-to-play service fees. Afterall, what all of these changes in the cultural logic of capital have in common is a shared set of conditions that emerged around the conclusion of postmodernism through three major themes. These were “the end of the social” which served to demarcate the spread of mediated interactions over and agasint that of corporeal congress; “the implosion of meaning” as the atomizing experience of no longer participating in a shared horizon of grand narratives about progress; and the acceptance of “the post-historical condition” as that defacto status we all have a share in as neo-liberalism becomes a stronger ideological force in the world than nationalism, group identitfications, etc. Taken together, this sereis of intersecting forces, which sit at the very nexus of cultural production, signal that Marx's major thesis about life under capital has indeed held true: Everything that was once solid melts into air. And could there be a better represetantion of how these concerns have come together in our time than in Aliabadi's styrene wrapped still lifes, which demonstrate the dictates of manufacture as an encased momento mori? Such works are the lost artifacts of a material world of touch, sense and experience that we only experience as the fading afterglow of concretized-embodied relations. 

This being the case today, our collective problem becomes trying to understand what occurs as we enter this period as a new historical phase, and knowing how to develop new resources for critique absent any clear ground for talking about progress, or even permeability for that matter. We also need to know what new strategies emerge for the kinds of artistic practice that could withstand the erosion of all firm foundations related to judgement, moral action and ethical precepts. Furthermore, we need to find what new ‘signs of the times’ can act as a marker for where we hope to stand now and in the future, even if where we are is more of a crossroads because the future may not fall in any determined, or even univocal direction ever again.

Undoubtedly, Aliabadi’s work’s heeds the contest of confronting the above problematics with its own set of timely responses. This is the case because her oeuvre gives us a trace of human presence in midst of all of these mounting contradictions that might best be characterized as a poetics of situational indeterminatism. We see this on display in Aliabadi’s Untitled, which is a black charcoal square on the floor that reminds us as much of Michael Heizer’s subtractions of similar geometries from the floors of Dia: Beacon as it does other strategic uses of a squared-up minimalist frame set on the ground, alla Sol LeWitt or Carl Andre. Only here, the insistence on hard geometries is subverted by being constructed of the kind of charcoal dust whose contours can not only be disturbed by the slightest wind, but which the artist actively invites her viewers to walk-in and through, producing a counter-trace in the sphere of cultural elitism every time someone chooses to traverse the museum floors. In such a piece, reifaction is traded for engaging in the experiential; geometry is subverted by redistributed means; and the history of “significant form” is over-turned by the significance of using forms-in-motion as well as a sense of shared authorship in order to write the history of bodily passages in the present tense. But this pacing communion has it's precedents in rites, rituals and passages outside the artworld too.

Of course, this dual strategy is at play in the titel Abshar: Cascade as well, which is both a translation and a double-title of sorts that means a kind of “A (water)fall”, and/or a “perpendicular descent” depending on where the emphasis is placed. As such, it carries the implication of thinking about what comes from above and below, as well as what kind of cascade effects occur in cultural tranlation between Western paradigms of meaning and the world of the Middle East. In order to understand this, we have to first begin with the idea that both ‘The Fall’ and the reference to water tend to play heavy in terms of acting as carriers for so many diverse cultural connotations. “The Fall” is that religious term we often use in the West to signify the originary condition of "man". By contrast, water is often substituted for the divine anointing hand, and functions as a metaphor for redemption in the rites of baptism; of receiving the ‘new life’; and as a clear medium of unblemished perception. 

Only here, in Aliabadi’s piece, it is not a wet but a dry waterfall that we perceive, and the waves of charcoal dust feel more akin to the dense black of the Kaaba Stone that signifies God's covenant with Abraham and Ishmael, and, by extension, with the whole of Muslim community. This reference too, has its own unique connection to the idea of the Fall, as the Kaaba stone is said to have “Fallen from the heavens”, and signals the redemption that is possible in communion around Mecca. But of course, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that another biblical reference to the Fall is of equal importance when considering the history of conflict between these two civilizations, and that is how both religious and political interventionism is usually synonymous with the Pride that cometh before the Fall… on the world stage. 

And while all of this is thematized in Abshar: Cascade through the production of a "black waterfall" --- which looks as much like a line of burnt ash as does the result of a burnt offering --- it is still important to note that the idea of falling might be the most singularly present motif in Aliabadi’s whole oeuvre, and for good reason. Her Untitled floor piece of charcoal dust asks one to fall into it in order to deterritorialize how we usually treat the space of the musuem; her Six Paintings Overhead feel as if they might fall onto you as you pass beneath, birthing a baptismal ritual that celebrates the diversity of the world rather than the washing away of inborn "sins"; and Aliabadi’s copper foil piece feels like the negative impression of gold bricks staked in the corner of a room calling to mind the potential loss of value that engenders the widely used phrase, “the market fell today”, the difference here being, that Aliabadi gives us a reason to reconsider why the market has been allowed to rise to the heights that it has without much in the way of disciplinary or regualtory measures even when it does take "a fall". Even pieces like Envelop or Imprints feel as if they are dopplegangers for fallen bodies on the ground, not to mention the indexes they harbor from real bodies that have fallen or been impressed upon them, leaving behind so indentations and/or slight demarcations of a human presence placed on shifting substrates. All of the above could serve as a sublime metaphor for the position of civiliation in a post-civil society, because we know the human condition more by it's onotlogical and primoridial condition, which is to say of life as a pure impression of means inscribed on the contours of things situated all around us. 

This is probably the most poignantly on display in Aliabadi’s Traces series, which begins with singular stripe-like works of pure pigment powder and culminates in the tri-part use of pink, yellow and purple Holi Indian Powder laid upon both the wall and the floor, in a series of rectangular stripes that is reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, White and Blue. The difference being, that here Aliabadi has highlighted the political implications behind the most famous threefold monochrome in the history of the twentieth century by making color field painting into a series of discrete colors that are felt to the same degree that they are seen. This is achieved by making the rigor of flat geometric painting into a permeable poweder container where the forces therein are subject to the effects of gravity as much as the pleasure of affective repsonse.

The specificity of this act severs to close the loop on the question about who fears the Red, the White and the Blue by drawing out the larger socio-poltical context that Newman could not see at the time, i.e., that there is weightiness behind the issue of color, and or colors, as the case may be. The implication here being, that Aliabadi's work points to the spread of U.S. democratic imperialism throughout the world today just as it did at its founding. Everyone who is afraid of "the Red, White and Blue" is everyone who is afraid of American imperialism, colonialism, police brutality, etc. Even the choice of using a tribal name in the work by Aliabadi here is significant, because a great deal of her artistic output is about challenging those sacred cows that are considered all-to-Holy; about upsetting the politics of people who take privilge as a right rather than a responsibility; and about the growing hole in meaning that sits at the very center of the edifice of the West’s definition of progress. 

We are, afterall, no longer in the era of postmodernism, and much more in something like the period of what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity. A Singular work like Abshar: Cascade is nothing less than an elegant symbol for this condition. In it, distantiantion as a critical strategy has been replaced by deconcretization (formlessness); post-colonialism by the cry for lived practices of decoloniality; and even detournment has been superseded by detourage, i.e., the imbuing other forms of cultural signification with new references, positive forms of shared meaning, and ultimately, new ways of expereincing the world around us.

All of these strategies are at play in a work like Abshar: Cascade, marking Aliabadi as a rising star in the artworld for being someone who problematizes how we encounter temporal conditions in an age where nothing stands still; where it feels like the old paradigms of cultural production is falling down around us at the same time that the capitalism is still speeding up; and where neo-fundamentalist forms of enculturation may be the cascading effect that we all have to fear most as they come more and more into direct opposition with the new world of globalization. Aliabadi’s work is one such cry against futures lost, cultural entropy, and the mounting catastrophes of the present – a clarion call to have the presence of mind to embrace the participatory and experiential now rather than falling into the reactivity of aesthetic diatribes and the retrogressive politics of ages long past.

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