Play what's not there
Catalogue essay by Daniella Rose King - November 2017
“Masterplan”, “game” and “play” are helpful keywords for Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s solo exhibition at AB/ANBAR. Three words that conjure seemingly-endless meanings, that often contradict each other. The "masterplan" could be a scheme for individual gain, at the expense of others, or a mutually beneficial enterprise, or neither. The "game" could similarly be stacked against one, or a level playing field for the emergence of a victor. "Play" is possibly the most ambiguous term in the mix, that describes recreational activity, the performance of a role, as well as the conformation or resistance to a set of rules. “Play what’s not there” Miles Davis cautioned his musicians as an effort to encourage them to embrace improvisation, pure creativity and innovation. But read differently, could this statement be a call to arms to not just bring new thought, feeling, sound and movement into being, but also to subvert the very conditions and frameworks of their production and relation to both the “masterplan” and the “game”?
"Play" in this context can be understood as the performance of preordained tasks, functions, expectations, cultural norms and even subjectivities. Not the "playtime" of our childhood selves then, or the supposedly separate sphere of activities that take place under the banner of ‘leisure’ as adults. Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s exhibition Masterplan does away with these dichotomies, arguing and demonstrating how play and games have infiltrated every aspect of our contemporary lives. From game theory which gave us the internet and (will give us) artificial intelligence, to language; the very essence of our sense of self, and difference, wherein the system of symbols, signs and significations denoted by speech itself makes way for a “play on words”, an unending game of naming, misrecognition and conjuring. To understand play as an historically and culturally determined performance of the everyday, is a progressive approach that allows us to look closer at how the rules of play came to be, and perhaps how to play within, outside and with what’s not there.
It is in the slippage of language; when it comes up short, translates inaccurately or fails altogether that we see it for what it is - an inherited and necessarily limited means of describing the material and immaterial phenomena that surrounds and is encountered by us every day. Language, its construction and function is at the heart of Avarzamani’s understanding of games and play. Born in Tehran, she held residencies in Cape Town and Beijing, studied in London and currently resides in Toronto. As an itinerant, nomadic artist, language becomes not just a tool for communication, but legibility and visibility as an artist and individual. English, her second language, was the lingua franca (and mother tongue) in each instance, underwritten by histories of colonialism and the murky futures of globalisation. Thinly-veiled stereotypes jump out of her silkscreens in "Eengeeleesee" (2014) a precursor to the Masterplan project. The images are taken from English textbooks the artist and an entire generation of Iranian students studied, that in essence reaffirmed the notion of difference: the occident and the orient. Shown alongside "Eengeeleesee" are four small panels of embroidered text titled "Apologie for understanding" (2014). “AND”, “IS” and “LIKE” populate the surface of three of the panels, in different shades of black and grey on a white-ish background. The words take on new meanings and enunciation in each, as the viewer’s eyes scan the text making novel combinations. The work’s title (purposefully misspelled), monochrome pallet and large, simple stitching technique, read with "Eengeeleesee", bring to mind language or handwriting learning aids and games. Avarzamani’s careful eye takes these seemingly benign pedagogical tools, amplifying them so that we may see how diverse and established the ideological apparatuses of hegemonic power are.
Avarzamani’s practice is peppered with investigations of language, whether that be its limits or capabilities. In “Jabberwocky”, an exhibition she curated at AB/ANBAR in 2015, seven artists responded to a nonsensical poem by Alice in Wonderland’s author Lewis Carroll. The poem, comprised of made-up and misspelled words set in rhyme, despite its nonsensicality is whimsical and evocative, proving the inherent possibilities of speech and the written word. From transformation, productive misreading and misunderstanding, to the production of new and unexpected meanings and the conveyance of fantastical realities, these potentials continue to be concerns present in Avarzamani's diverse practice.
Play, for the artist, is one of the more complicated processes of social and political control, but perhaps one with the most radical possibilities for subversion and pleasure. It is defined by the paradox of free movement within a system of constraints, an organisation that it shares with other spheres of human activity, namely: worship, war, philosophy and art. Each activity also has its own language of symbols, codes, behaviours, grammar and vocabulary that intersect and influence one another. This melange of systems at work is no more apparent than in "Commonwealth" (2013) a central work within the exhibition. A collaboration between Iranian and British textile companies and embroiderers it utilises traditional and contemporary technologies and visual traditions in the production of a large, wall-hung quilt. The work recalls traditions of Iranian wall paintings and the oral histories associated with them that not only served artistic, historic and folkloric functions, but also acted as religious propaganda. Appearing as a visual encyclopaedia, it shares strategies of aesthetic organisation with the map of a board game, and details a number of routes a player or viewer could take. Ostensibly it depicts the history of the British in Persia, focusing on pivot points in the tumultuous and still-unravelling narrative. In the centre of the quilt is a shield flanked by two birds, but the coat of arms one expects to see in this space is redacted in its entirety with black fabric. Here the artist brings into view the historical censorship that has taken place on both sides of the conflict, but also allows the viewers eyes to rest, momentarily, amongst a sea of overwhelming, violent, silly, and emblematic visual signs.
Avarzamani interrogates the accumulation of history and meaning around a plethora of symbols deployed in "Commonwealth", bringing together seemingly disparate elements for the viewer to translate and reassemble themselves. Utilising signs made familiar through popular culture, and materials associated with the everyday - quilts, embroidery, “pardeh” or storytelling curtains, board games, origami, loofahs or “kisseh” - the artist avoids overburdening her artistic approach, and ensures a level of legibility and access to the weighty themes contained within her work.
The "Game of Goose" looks at the Masterplan for board games, one of the oldest existing printed game sheets of The Game of the Goose. The -63space track that comprises the map is based upon medieval spiritualism, values and superstition, with the purpose of the game to educate the player in matters of moral, social and religious import. Modelled as a blueprint for the architecture of modern games, Avarzamani has embroidered the entire map in white onto a grid of 180 dark blue loofahs. The conventions of the game are eerily familiar, even though the Latin text that annotates it is somewhat illegible, proving how programmed they are in the language of modern games. Presenting the map as fragments on a fabric associated with personal hygiene seeks to recast the image as somewhat sinister. Envisioning this educational, moralizing tool in such an intimate proximity with the body is discomfiting. It is another example of the artist playing with language: here she considers what “brainwashing” could literally look like, and how ideologies can get under our skin, perhaps.
"Fortune Teller" considers architectural environments as spaces of interactivity and play. It is inspired by the paper Origami game one would place on their fingers and manipulate based on the responses of the player. The paper is labelled with numbers, words or colours that the player would choose from, with the resulting motions dictating an outcome. Reproduced by the artist in plaster and scaled up in size, the objects become less ephemeral and more sculptural, calling to mind the geometric patterns in Islamic decoration and architectural vanishing points. The viewer cannot read or “play” with this work as with the others on display in Masterplan, yet they transform, and make material some of the theoretical arguments in Avarzamani’s work, giving form to an attitude, as it were. Masterplan though concerned with the social and political boundaries of play and its relationship to processes of language, is also invested in testing out visual and material strategies of play and imagination.
Avarzamani has generously provided the theoretical and aesthetic tools to question, and possibly identify, the constructions of power and hierarchies in the most unlikely and banal of objects. From loofahs with “brainwashing” abilities (a playful double entendre by Avarzamani) to oversized “fortune telling” objects, Avarzamani warns us of the power of language and how it moves through the objects that surround us. But with a wink she reminds us that language is malleable, we can deconstruct and reconstruct our own meanings and relationships, and if not, with the aid of a “kisseh” perhaps it’ll all come out in the wash eventually.