Asad Raza, Diversion, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Diana Pfammatter.

Asad Raza, Diversion, 2022, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Diana Pfammatter.

Asad Raza

For Asad Raza, who thinks of exhibitions as “metabolic” situations, a river is an obvious material for artmaking, just like other dynamic processes and systems that have featured in his work, such as a forest, soil, schools, or a game of tennis. So when commissioned by Portikus curators Liberty Adrien and Carina Bukuts to make an exhibition there, the New York–based artist embraced the institution’s unique setting on a small island in Frankfurt’s Main River to redirect a current of water through the space for his show “Diversion.” Pumped through a pipe system, the water entered the tall, narrow building at the top, ran down the walls of the main gallery, splashed into a basin, and was channeled through a makeshift riverbed formed from crushed-stone-coated tarpaper that covered the floor of the ground level gallery. The water then plunged into another pipe, which left the building through a lower level window, and circled back into the stream. Visitors could not only get their feet wet, but also try a sip of the water, which was collected, filtered, simmered, purified, and remineralized on-site by a rotating cast of custodians, using crystals, orange peels, and charcoal produced by burning wood nearby. When I visited, a custodian was cooling down a bottle of boiled water by dipping it in the basin, explaining the cleaning process, and offering samples from a ladle. It tasted like, yes, water. More difficult to name was the feeling of interconnectedness, the sensation of being part of the same chain of biochemical processes and energies flowing through the gallery, that ensued from this unusual, deftly staged encounter with the river, which was ultimately also being diverted through the viewer.

The careful thinking that went into the adaptation of the material for the gallery space and its audience exemplified Raza’s dramaturgic approach, which places him in the company of artists, such as Philippe Parreno and Tino Sehgal, making relational work. Raza added context to the production of “Diversion” by coediting with artist Mathew Hale a collection of writings related to the project by various contributors. These range from a brief history of water diversion in antiquity to a local history of swimming in the Main and a commentary on the cultural significance of the Ganges. Published as an insert folded into the local newspaper, this anthology also included drawings, poetry, horoscopes, and even a recipe for clam chowder. Rather than imposing any definite meanings, these pieces were prompts for conversations, with oneself as well as with others.

As much as “Diversion” offered an aesthetic experience of an actual metabolic process, it also proposed metabolism as a metaphorical framework for exhibition aesthetics. Here, this notion was best understood via philosopher and media aesthetician Desiree Foerster’s definition of processes that “interrelate us with the world.” The redirected river provided a powerful antidote to conventional exhibition practice, giving rise to a display conceived as active and ever changing. Neither buoying up nor washing away the past, the piece embodied a constant remaking of materiality, connecting visitors with each other and with the whole world of living and nonliving things. While at its core was a simple gesture, the work was also, as explained by the press release, a call to change course both literally and figuratively. “Diversion” asked that we understand systems and our place within them—our relation to nature and its resources—holistically.