Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, An Icon of a Marble King I, 2016, wood and marble, 6 3/4 × 14 5/8 × 3 1/8".

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, An Icon of a Marble King I, 2016, wood and marble, 6 3/4 × 14 5/8 × 3 1/8".

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan

Green Art Gallery

Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, An Icon of a Marble King I, 2016, wood and marble, 6 3/4 × 14 5/8 × 3 1/8".

One work in particular captured the essence of Hera Büyüktaşçıyan’s solo exhibition “Write Injuries on Sand and Kindness in Marble.” The Relic, 2016, is a bronze cast of two hands extending to mid-forearm and resting on wooden blocks, in front of which other blocks hold arrangements of gray mosaic chunks. The hands are turned palms up to reveal the imprints of mosaic tiles on their surfaces—an homage, Büyüktaşçıyan notes in the accompanying publication, to the workers who, legend has it, lost their fingerprints (or fingers) during the Taj Mahal’s construction, when sanding and smoothing fitted stonework was undertaken by hand with wet grass for months. (Today, the process would be executed with a water saw.) Those fingerprints, “lost in the liquid surface of the building,” are the “embodiment of a solid history of production and waves of people.” This is the essence of what Büyüktaşçıyan calls “aquamorphology,” the conceptual thread woven through the works in this show: that all things solid not only melt into air but also linger in perpetuity as an archive of human experience. This story of labor in Mughal India resonated in contemporary Dubai, a city under construction, and especially at the Green Art Gallery, housed in a former marble factory in an industrial zone. 

“Water,” as the artist states, “is nowhere, yet it is everywhere.” The condensation that clings to the Taj Mahal could be the same as that which coats the double-glass cladding of the air-conditioned Burj Khalifa. This idea came through in a number of works. In An Icon of a Marble King I, 2016, for instance, two panels are connected with a gray mosaic curve, the ends of which meet a hand on either side rendered via print transfer—as if that arc of gray marble offered a symbolic visualization of water’s properties as connector, divider, and channel through space and time. This flow was likewise reflected in Everflowing Pool of Nectar, 2017, eight paper scrolls cascading down a wall and spreading forward onto the gallery floor. Each scroll bears a chevron pattern rendered in ocher chalk and graphite, inspired by the walls of the Taj Mahal, with each stripe depicting scenes copied from Byzantine manuscripts of workers building gardens, water parks, and pools. Nearby, a kinetic sculpture made of marble-clad wood panels positioned on a plank, Chanting if I live, Forgetting it I die, 2017, emulated the soft shuffle of undulating waves whenever sensors picked up movement, recalling an observation Büyüktaşçıyan made of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, whose marble threshold is so worn by centuries of feet passing through that its surface “appears melted or liquefied.”

Architectures of power are remembered in history as being built by the commanding figures who commissioned their construction, rather than the invisible workers whose identities melt into the structure; Büyüktaşçıyan wants to overturn this structure of memory. Thus, hand, tile, and water become potent, universal symbols, representing both the laborers whom she iconizes and the timelessness of their historical role. The eight wooden panels, each titled Icons for builders, 2017, for instance, have whitewashed surfaces on which images taken from Byzantine manuscripts have been printed, and mosaic curves made from gray, black, and olive-green marble. Another kind of commemoration takes place in The Discovery of 36 Wells, 2016, three framed panels each presenting a set of eight watercolors showing a fragment of an architectural form extracted from buildings in Dubai, Athens, Istanbul, Delhi, or Amritsar, India, positioned over a watery, bloodred background pool. Visually, each architectural form appears like a cross between a well and a tomb, as if to commemorate the bodies buried in the foundations: invisible yet ever present, like water on the ground.

Stephanie Bailey