12 October – 22 November 2018
Publisher: Ab-anbar Gallery, Tehran, 2018. Essay: Azadeh Zaferani
Essay Translated by Namdar Shirazian
Arthur Danto, the philosopher and art critic, once said: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.”1 However, a closer look con rms that most monuments are destined to be out of content the moment they are built. They turn into things that no longer represent the magnitude of the historical moment they were built for. They are in a constant struggle to stand out and avoid disappearing among other built forms. They are too durable, too solid, too deniable and absolutely mute. They are lost in our everyday routines of a city life; a quality that is in contradiction with the monument’s original concept. This, however, cannot be the end. When Britain won the battle of Trafalgar in the 1805 Napoleonic Wars, none of the commanders would have imagined how this great victory is commemorated today: sharing London’s Trafalgar Square with George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier, Major-General Sir Henry Havelock and James II, in conjunction with a giant blue cockerel or a dinosaur skeletal or a giant “thumbs up” hand or, most importantly, Antony Gormley’s “One & Other” where 2,400 members of the public occupied the Square’s usually vacant fourth plinth, for one hour each, for 100 days.
The fourth plinth is an unsuccessful corner in this commemorative space that was built in 1841 to bear the weight of a power representative. Instead, due to lack of funds, it bore the heavy weight of nothingness for years. Finally, in 2003, a new approach to the concept of “monument” was born. The fourth plinth was commissioned to artists on a periodic basis by the Mayor of London to put the notions of power, history, national borders, public space and liberation up for debate. For the rst time, the Fourth Plinth commission invited visitors to a new Utopian setting where permanence is replaced by temporality, xation by rotation, nobility by commonality, and above all, totality by individuality — this rather distinct quality we see in Baktash Sarang’s works as we stroll through his representations of monumental forms in conjunction with the variety of ways he questions the concepts of individualism, mass individualism and multitude.
Born in 1981, Baktash belongs to the generation of “post-revolutionary” ideals and “war” — a dual paradox that has one foot in building, and the other in destruction; one foot in unity and the other in isolation; one foot in hope and the other in despair. A generation that stretches between the enormity of ideologies and the smallness of “selves.” Baktash renders Utopias. He constructs them and destroys them. He initi- ates them and interrupts them. He fragments them and embodies them. His forensic dissections are often artistically threaded together to create an environment of discovery where the viewer unconsciously plunges into his/her discovery of “self.” The fulcrum of his works is always an “individual” and his/her minimal space of “being;” a kind of space that is free of extras and equipped with necessities. Baktash reduces societies into walking architectural entities that resemble half-humans in ancient mythologies—sometimes in the format of a New Babylon2 that can be carried on shoulders of its possessors’ and other times in the format of cells—only his are not half-animal but half-architectural monuments. In fact, the evolution of this work depicts the evolution of his creatures from deformed faces and headless bodies into architecturally-infused bodies that are eventually submerged within the power of form and containment. Merleau-Ponty describes it nicely, it is as if “our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It applies itself to space like a hand to an instru- ment. And when we wish to move about, we do not move the body as we move an object.”3
Baktash’s take on cellular forms, either in the format of cof n-like modules, or sketches of Bentham’s Panopticon4, have a connection to the techniques of bodily discipline and control; a Foucauldian approach to examine biopolitics; a set of principles which develop the technologies of capitalism and sovereignty. These principles, however, are largely modi ed by evolving from a rst form— disciplinary—to a second, one which adds to disciplines the dispositifs of control. In effect, while discipline presented itself as an anatomo-policy of bodies and was applied essentially to individuals, biopolitics represents, on the contrary, a sort of grand “social medicine” that applies to the control of populations as a way to govern life. Life henceforth becomes part of the eld of power. Architecture, on the other hand, becomes a player on institutional, physical, and administrative mechanisms and knowledge structures, which enhance and maintain the exercise of power within the social body.
In spite of Baktash’s clear take on biopolitical structures, his works have a vivid un nished quality that places his art—and accordingly, his audience—in a decisive limbo between the subjectivity and objectivity of his approach. Volumes are missing details, bodies are missing heads, heads are missing eyes and lines have no ends. His texts are crossed over. His sketches are erased and smudged. His works often look like a do-over. Nevertheless, this un nished method endlessly evokes an artistic quality that is argumentative and explorative; a dialogue that constantly places his characters and forms in debatable contexts against each other. At times, we nd ourselves pitted against the multitude and his desire to illuminate the extreme subjectivity of such “phenomena,” while in other frames, he isolates bodies and the study of the human sciences as evidence for the in uence of a speci c powerful social structure. This is a structure that was strictly and “phenomenologically”5 overruled by self-ev ident insights into the “experience” of assemblies with no logical insinuations— assemblies, masses and crowds that fall apart in the same manner his Utopias do.
With his un nished techniques, he persistently invites and at the same time eliminates the notion of science and technology into his medieval-like drawings, as if he wants to keep the viewers aware, and on their tiptoes, while investigating the “isolation” of “selves.” Baktash overlays digitally-drawn prison cells on digitally manipulated portraits. His overlapped layers of form and body create an illusion where the collaged image resembles a medieval scold’s bridle through which the tortured body looks at the viewer. Yet, the torturing device is not entirely and physically a brank. Instead, it’s a scaffold where Baktash brings together his monuments and cells to spatially reveal the relationship between a punitive city and its citizens in the age of “information” and “technology.” After all, as Michel Foucault asserted, we inherit a society whose ground was laid at the dawn of the Enlightenment — which discovered the liberties, and also invented the disciplines.6
Historical traces always accompany the evidence of science, numeric methods and measurements in Baktash’s works and explorative sketches. His scienti c historical materialism7 is a journey that moves the viewer back and forth in time; a journey that ows between architectural expressions of defense, containment and death, in order to speak of life. This life, however, presents itself in the format of a “separation” and “exclusion” from the formal scene, as if Baktash wants to hold his people as a witness to what his models or architectural drawings present. Always on the wall and away from the spatial domain of his three-dimensional realm, Baktash’s characters protest against the solidity of these forms by departing and migrating from the scene, leaving these factory-like forms empty against the vast wilderness of space, oceans, mountains and deserted lands. This tripart relationship between life, forms of production and geographical resources brings to light a landscape of forensic investigation where life is not only biological, civic, political, or communal but also the product, object, and result of the operation of sovereign power. This is a landscape where the condemned live outside of the city for the serious offences he/she has committed; a landscape of homo sacers8 away from society and deprived of the right to be “included.” In series of drawings that Baktash produced for the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2018, the artist depicts an environment where the curatorial concept of “free space” is looked at through free spaces of trade, storage, and distribution:
“Free spaces of trade, storage, and distribution are transformed into centres of detention and expulsion for labourers; whose bodies are not only controlled by the automated machinery and robots but are also dominated by the obscure desires of the others. Logistics today is a biopolitical apparatus.
This bio-political machine is founded on the division of life, into biological life and political life. The same means of division however, is precisely what permits one to construct the unity of life: a life that is not separated from its form. As the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben puts it, such form of life is not de ned by its relation to a work, but rather by a potential, and by ‘inoperativity’: that is, mode in which it is maintained in relation to a pure potential in a work, where life and its form, private and public enter into a threshold of indifference; wherein the question is neither life nor work but happiness.” Hamed Khosravi, ‘The Port and the Fall of Icarus’, a project for the Dutch Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition- La Biennale di Venezia 2018.
Once again, we are back to the architecture of happiness, free of work and labour.
A future society that is best described in Nieuwenhuys’s “New Babylon.” Homo Ludens live in a lucid society where the human being, freed by automation from productive work, is at last in a position to develop his creativity. The term Homo Ludens was used for the rst time by Johann Huizinga in his book A Study of the Element of Play in Culture (1955). In his foreword, Huizinga speaks of the man who plays in still-measured terms:
“In the course of time we have come to realize that, after all, we are not as reasonable as the eighteenth century, with its worship of reason and its naive optimism, assumed; hence, modern fashion inclines to designate our species as Homo Farber: Man the Maker. But though faber may not be quite so dubious as sapiens, it is, as a name speci c to the human being, even less appropriate, seeing that many animals, too, are makers. There is a third function, however, applicable to both human and animal life, and just as important as reasoning and making—namely, playing. It seems to me that next to Homo Faber, and perhaps on the same level as Homo Sapiens, Homo Ludens, Man the Player, deserves a place in our nomenclature.” Huizinga, IX
The question of not knowing how one would live in a society that knows neither famine nor exploitation nor work, in a society in which, without exception, anyone could give free rein to his creativity—this troubling, fundamental question awakens in us the image of an environment radically different from any that has previously been known, from any that has been realized in the eld of architecture or urbanism. The history of humanity has no precedent to offer as an example, because the masses have never been free, that is, freely creative. Perhaps this is another Utopian dream that nds its place in Baktash’s playfulness of a collapsed Utopia; a wearable tower of Babel that is ready to walk the nomadic landscape of New-Babylon on the face of the Earth; a mobile, malleable and self destructive “monument” that can be easily celebrated on the fourth plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square in protest against the mutiny of the “masses” and the victory of “selves”.
1- Arthur Danto, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” The Nation, August 31, 1985, 152.
2- Henri Lefebvre characterized the “New Babylon” as a gure of good that took the name of the cursed city and transformed itself into the city of the future. The idea was to create “situations” where alternative living experiences were revealed; a kind of environment to which Constant Nieuwenhuys envisaged society belongs. This society is the product of total automation in which the need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up. In this experimental geography, the inhabitants drift by foot through huge labyrinthine interiors, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces. Every aspect of the environment can be controlled and recon gured spontaneously. Social life becomes architectural play; architecture becomes a ickering display of interacting desires.
3- Baldwin, Thomas. Maurice Merleau-Ponty basic writings, New York: Routledge, 2004
4- The Panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The scheme of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being observed. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to see all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times.
5- Phenomenology is a broad discipline and method of inquiry in philosophy, developed largely by the German philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, which is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events (“phenomena”) as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness. It is an explicit rst-person method, free of the scienti c third-person approach.
6- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin, 1991.
7- Historical materialism is the methodological approach of Marxist historiography that focuses on human societies and their development over time, postulating that they follow a number of observable tendencies. It places Economy and Production at the heart of all major historical events.
8- Homo Sacer is a juridical term from archaic Roman law designating an individual who, in response to a grave trespass, is cast out from the city. From the moment of his ritual pronouncement as homo sacer, he can be killed with impunity by anyone, but cannot be employed in sacri cial rituals that require the taking of a life. This “sacred man” is thereby removed from the continuum of social activity and communal legislation; the only law that still applies to him is the one that irrevocably casts him out of the communal sphere. Giorgio Agamben expansively used this term in “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998)” and texts that followed.