Confronting head on the problems of removing the “artist’s hand,” Sabahi demonstrates how a dialectic emerges from works of art, willingly or not, and at the same time traces poignant pieces of history that converge on the works and stories she presents.
Muted Fanfare for the Shy (2013) and Muted Fanfare for the Shy (Prop) (2013) offer a starting point for understanding Sabahi’s method. Both in the film and the object, we see a greenhouse and its automated blinds, seemingly disavowed of any human labor. The folding blinds along with the plants take center stage; their function and ghostly presence offer the only action, while a human shape lingers in the background. What remains appears attractive and at the same time somewhat unsettling. Witnessing the dry mechanical language of the machinery over time gives the machine a certain agency; it begins to form a language of its own, a language we cannot completely tune in to.
The muted presence of these works demonstrates the suspension of disbelief required of audiences in order to “buy into” the idea of a truly autonomous art object. Such objects further seem to pose a question to themselves: Why are they here? Becoming self-aware is taken to be a sign of maturity and of interaction with the surrounding world, signaling an ability to engage in complex reflection. However, without the human component, the mathematical purity of the gesture becomes simply self-referential and tautological, revealing nothing of its potential content.
In her more recent works, Sabahi focuses on pools as a metaphor for what artworks or artistic processes might contain below their transparent or opaque surfaces. The two films Mouthful (2018) and Borrowed Scenery (2017) derive from the same project, which ultimately led to bringing the Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi back to Tehran to oversee the restoration of his sculpture Matter and Mind (1977), a steel basin filled with used engine oil that has been permanently installed at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art since 1977. Over the past four decades, the oil pool has transformed into the object of a vernacular ritual: an accidental wishing well that triggered museum visitors to throw coins and other objects into it. The film Mouthful is in a sense both the means and the end to the project of restoration.
The story of Matter and Mind directly shows the kind of unintended consequences that can arise from attempting an aesthetic program—leading with a certain intention, while achieving a completely different outcome. Looking at the various objects fished from the pool, in the work Pocket Folklore (2018), we can only ponder what kind of feeling drew the museum visitors to this action. Was it an act of defiance, rejection, protest, resistance, or simple childishness? One particular story in Borrowed Scenery is especially telling of the hypnotic effects of the pool: upon seeing it in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, the former Shah was so perplexed by it that he reached into the pool and got the dirty oil all over his hand. He in fact did not even recognize the material he had sold out to all along.
In addition to scrutinizing the possibilities and limits of art production as such, Sabahi also looks to discover or define the sui generis of such stoic objects as Matter and Mind, what in the Western art canon is usually referred to as minimalism. Arising in the 1960s as a reaction to the then-dominating abstract expressionism, minimalism quickly led to artists developing practices defined by a programmatic thinking and seriality that enclosed itself in its own logical endpoint. Beyond the confines of New York, however, a similar aesthetic also became emblematic of the international protests of 1968 and materialized for instance in Europe as arte povera and in Japan as Mono-ha (School of Things), which Haraguchi was a part of.
From these developments, we can see a pattern emerging where certain styles or methods prevail, yet their content and meanings are wholly changed. The title of Sabahi’s exhibition is taken from shakkei (borrowed scenery), a principle of East Asian garden design whereby a background landscape is incorporated into the composition of a garden. The various methods of the principle always include a guiding hand of some kind to frame an outside autonomous element within the given context. As with botanical gardens and Haraguchi’s work, Sabahi frames these within her own garden: the exhibition. Her borrowing of locations—or using a location as “a button to then make a coat for,” as she has described it—is likewise apparent in the exhibition design, which is, quite literally, relentlessly reflexive.
With the works We Came Here to Swim (2012) and We Fell into the Water Staying Dry (2013), we get a glimpse into Sabahi’s inaugural work with the pool as a metaphor for aesthetic determinism and interpretation. Facing two contradicting accounts of a film shoot, and even more confusing imagery to go along with the narratives, it becomes clear that speaking up and speaking out loud does not necessarily always help with being heard. As a consequence, Sabahi’s films implicitly suggest that staying momentarily silent and reflecting have communicative qualities that are also worthy of our time.