New York

Abbas Zahedi, Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype (10013), 2022, beechwood, stainless steel, hardware, silicone rubber, heatproof glass, polyamide, food-grade calcium chloride, steel, custom waterphone instrument (brass, stainless steel, animal hair bow, polystyrene), 99 × 11 × 11".

Abbas Zahedi, Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype (10013), 2022, beechwood, stainless steel, hardware, silicone rubber, heatproof glass, polyamide, food-grade calcium chloride, steel, custom waterphone instrument (brass, stainless steel, animal hair bow, polystyrene), 99 × 11 × 11".

Abbas Zahedi

In Abbas Zahedi’s exhibition “Metatopia 10013,” a hanging loculus posed architectonic questions. This centerpiece, Waterphone & Automatic Sprinkler Prototype (10013) (all works cited, 2022), was a distillation instrument composed of brass and stainless steel. Above it dangled its counterpart: a quasi dehumidifier with a polystyrene base, which filtered the room’s moisture through calcium chloride. Later, in a performance, the instrument would be played like a viola, a makeshift bow on the metallic sternum generating an echoing screech.

On the gallery floor, Zahedi had placed two sets of hand-cut colored tiles—qibla arrows, laid in Muslim homes, pointing in the direction of Mecca to denote the proper orientation of prayer or the correct positioning of a deceased loved one’s body. The markings are a recurring motif in Zahedi’s work, and here they were trained on the sites of the Grenfell Tower council flats in West London and the Twin Parks North West housing development in New York’s central Bronx—settings of cataclysm for the buildings’ residents and their communities.

Zahedi’s guides attempted to relocate the damnatio memoriae, those excluded from the official accounts of history. Born into a working-class Iranian British family, the artist was affected by the 2017 fires at Grenfell, which killed seventy-two predominantly immigrant residents after the borough council allowed flammable cladding to be used, in part, to obscure the public-housing eyesore. This work tracks the well-trodden cycles of financialized urbanization—isolation, immiseration, de-development, deferred maintenance, “beautification,” catastrophe—that entrap millions of residents in various states of neglect.

Zahedi also addressed the 2022 fire that engulfed Twin Parks in the Fordham Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, where an electric space heater caught fire, taking seventeen lives from among the building’s largely West African Sunni Muslim population. That disaster, one of the worst residential fires in New York’s history, occurred at one of a series of buildings suspected to be unsafe since at least 1977, abetted by the original public-benefit corporation’s exemption from particular municipal ordinances and codes as part of the state’s affordable housing mandate.

Zahedi connected the works’ disparate strands through a self-described dynamic social practice and perhaps a knowing sprinkle of Islam. In Scent of the 10013, eleven long-stemmed roses decayed within a clear-plastic sack shaped like a body bag, their effluence later used by gallery staff to feed the distillation instrument. (Like the plum leaves or camphor with which bodies are washed, rose water is used in some traditional Islamic funerary practices.) The writing about Zahedi’s work thus far depicts his arrangements sentimentally—as condensing the essences of grief—which is understandable, given the pleasant, barely perceptible aroma the fluid produces, as opposed to what I would assume a putridarium would smell like after the liquids of bodily decomposition from London’s and the Bronx’s immigrant dead collected there. This olfactory diminishment is surprising for an artist whose stated aim is to combat the white sterility of the gallery.

Instead, the artist turned the deceased into sound. A recording of the aforementioned waterphone filled the room with a plangent chiming, layered alongside the murmurs and sniffles of Zahedi’s collaborator Saul Eisenberg, a North London musician and instrument maker. These sounds were not unfamiliar—not quite keening, like oppari, or other such wailing funeral lamentations, but a softer weeping. The transformations in the material world were meant to parallel the changes in the viewer, and to reflect the repurposing of the gallery’s teleology—as a site of aesthetic experience—into a site of mourning, and later, hopefully, political commitment.

What purpose is served by enacting rituals for the departed in spaces not meant for them? This remains a tangled issue. For example, this past summer Zahedi was announced as the winner of the 2022 Frieze Artist Award. Perhaps it was not the wisest decision to put on a show memorializing the Bronx’s dead while accepting a commission from a posh art fair and publication that between 2016 and 2017 proposed but ultimately shelved a plan to gentrify the borough’s Port Morris neighborhood through a 280-acre arts district dubbed Frieze South Bronx. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Zahedi argues in his practice that particular engagements with art, even if produced under the impositions of capitalism, can be socially generative. The resultant works are formally challenging, generating blended feelings of besiegement and obligation. The anger, however, will be up to you.