Babak Golkar, Grounds for Standing and Understanding (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Babak Golkar, Grounds for Standing and Understanding (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Babak Golkar

Babak Golkar, Grounds for Standing and Understanding (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Upon entering Vancouver-based artist Babak Golkar’s exhibition “Grounds for Standing and Understanding,” the visitor was greeted by a surfeit of blank walls: Numerous white partitions had been erected, dividing the gallery’s conventionally white shell in an unusual, concertinaed fashion. The spectator was required to proceed further into this field of blanks before the exhibition offered up any ostensible contents, but when it did, he or she was met with a familiar trope of Golkar’s recent work. In the rear of the gallery, white wooden sculptures resembling architectural models were laid on top of a Persian carpet. Golkar uses the geometric designs of these floor coverings as fantastical ground plans from which he extrudes sculptural forms reminiscent of early modern skyscrapers or the mammoth new constructions of Dubai.

Evidenced by a number of recent exhibitions, the Persian carpet has come to be employed as a sign of cultural, political, and religious conflict, a readymade for that which stands stubbornly outside the United States’ claim on global hegemony. For example, Pray Way, 2012, Slavs and Tatars’ contribution to “Ungovernables” (on view earlier this year at the New Museum in New York), puts the Persian carpet to work to precisely this effect in a large sculpture that also invokes prayer-book stands and communal seating. Unsurprisingly, this signifying task means that the carpet produces conflict in the reception of these artworks, too. In discussions of Golkar’s exhibition, some artists and curators here were deeply critical of what they perceived to be the opportunistic deployment of the Persian carpet with little or no explicit articulation of the child labor, imperialist politics, or Orientalist fantasies that have long underwritten its production and consumption.

Adorno argued at length that aesthetic forms are derived from sedimented contents that have fallen below the threshold of intelligibility. The original derivation of a form having been forgotten, it would then be free to circulate autonomously, independent of the concrete situation from which it arose. In the specific case of the nomadic Persian carpet—an object that can be understood in its original context as a kind of portable symbolic garden (a quality that caught the attention of Foucault in his discussion of heterotopia)—this process of untethering is integral to the history of the object.

Golkar’s gambit seems to be based on the possibility, as Roland Barthes once declared, that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.” This much seems probable given the exhibition’s title. “Understanding” indeed comes after “Standing” in more than a literal sense: Understanding is groundless prior to the negotiation for a place from which to carry out the work of understanding. As with most art, there is no standing on Golkar’s carpet, so spectators, denied access to the symbolic garden, are bounced back into the real space of the room and left to negotiate the blank walls with which we began.

The architectural historian Paul Frankl described the ways in which gothic architecture, itself influenced by Islamic architecture, produced disorienting spatial effects through combinations of optical and spatial forms. Through rapid and accumulative planar shifts, Golkar’s blank walls—which are now legible as scaled-up versions of the carpet-bound models—produce a similarly involuted space: A shallow relief might be opened up by a change in the linear direction of a wall, giving the momentary sense of a break, only to promptly recapture the planar boundary.

Frankl thought the optical principle of diagonality allowed the subject in a gothic interior to find its orientation; Golkar’s walls, to the contrary, blocked the very space that a diagonal sight line would need to traverse. As a consequence, the spectator here was akin to a spinning doll, seeking out ground for understanding but overwhelmed by an almost algorithmic accretion of turns. If Golkar has succeeded in producing a sufficient burden of form to turn us back to history, it would appear that yet another operation—a liquefaction of form—would be required to allow obscured contents to once again enter into the mobility of discourse.

Gareth James