Thursday, April 15, 2021
Arts + Culture Art Review: Zarouhie Abdalian holds back too much in 'We...

Review: Zarouhie Abdalian holds back too much in ‘We can decide’

At Altman Siegel, the artist's minimal interventions gesture admirably but too delicately at weighty ideals.

-

While artists have traditionally made sculptures, paintings, etc., out of clay and paint, unmaking or limiting one’s making are also artistic processes that transform ready-mades into strategies of resistance and critique. In New Orleans artists Zarouhie Abdalian’s “We can decide” at Altman Siegel (through April 24 by appointment), the artist presents a poem and a series of industrially manufactured objects in which the artist restrains her making to simple acts like opening the seams of a bag used to distribute food aid and coating an engine block with clay.

While Abdalian’s strategies and materials could potentially challenge the pressing sociopolitical issues addressed in her titles and the press release, her minimal interventions result in rather nebulous poetics that overshadow the connections between content and form.

Easily overlooked as an exhibition support material (like a check-list or press release), the artist offers a simply printed poem for visitors to take. “Rhymes and Reckonings (for Sverdlovsk and Yekaterinburg)” (2019), written in collaboration with Joseph Rosenzweig, is central to parsing Abdalian’s exhibition, and its strongest offering. Abdalian and Rosenzweig structure their poem with the repeated phrasing of “we make…,” followed by social, economic, military, and everyday products or structures. Their list includes those beneficial to humanity, like forests and hospitals; others that will undoubtedly destroy us, like “factories to make war”; and still others that attempt to remedy the errors of our previous making, like “solar farms that float on flooded coal mines.”

Zarouhie Abdalian, ‘We can decide’ 2021, Installation view, Altman Siegel. Photo: Robert Divers Herrick

Abdalian and Rosenzweig’s poem captures the folly of our constantly escalating system of industrialized production and capitalist structures, which ensnarl us in a cycle of further production. They end their poem with two blunt lines: “We made decisions or not” and “We can decide.” The poem shrewdly suggests that in addition to actively affirming or objecting to these things we made, our silence was also a decision, which by proxy gave tacit consent. Closing on an optimistic note, the poem affirms and incites our right to choose our futures. 

Abdalian and Rosenzweig’s poem suggests the ability to change the course of history; the exhibition’s press release indicates that “threnody for the unwilling martyrs” (2021) is a monument to victims of “mass murder” in the United States, or an incitation. In the work, Abdalian’s five shiny brass bells emit a consistent and barely perceptible hum. Simple scaffolds constructed for each bell position them at about eye level or below, imparting the work with an anthropomorphic quality.

While bells are chimed in memorials, the white noise of the bells is too neutral to constitute a threnody, a lament or song of mourning. Additionally, with five bells, the work’s modest scale falls short of embodying the magnitude of what the press release vaguely terms “mass murder” or the title’s suggestion of “unwilling martyrs.” Rather than revealing the relationship between industrialized manufacturing and human causalities, Abdalian’s strategy of restricted making overly generalizes and minimizes gravely serious events, which have been so palpable with the two mass shootings in the last week. Regrettably, Abdalian’s installation does not do justice to so many unnecessary deaths and the affected communities, nor does it feel adequate to compel individuals to act.

As the artist titles her exhibition with the last line of her poem, “We can decide” unfortunately gives viewers too little information about what they are deciding upon. In works that are so sparse, the artist’s decisions are critical and must be laser-sharp. While Adbalian commendably refrains from didacticism, her restraint runs the risk of being withholding, and ultimately maintaining the art world’s elitist bubble.

“We can decide” is on view at Altman Siegel gallery by appointment through April 24. More info here.

Genevieve Quick
Genevieve Quick is an interdisciplinary artist and arts writers. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, cmagazine, and Art Practical.

More by this author

Review: Black Madonnas, fashion photos, semaphore, and song in ‘Future Histories’

At SFMOMA, Theaster Gates and Cauleen Smith draw on the African American archive to point a way forward.

Review: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s sequined gas masks and intergalactic minarets

Speculative meets divine in 'Future Faithful: Islamic Experiments in Space Exploration and Posthumanism'

Review: Zarouhie Abdalian holds back too much in ‘We can decide’

At Altman Siegel, the artist's minimal interventions gesture admirably but too delicately at weighty ideals.

Review: ‘Native Resolution’ renders the anthropological archive bare

Stephanie Syjuco's new show at Catharine Clark reclaims Filipino lives from omissions of colonial history

Review: With collaged screams and comic silences, Christian Marclay channels the inexpressible now

The artist, known for his montages and experimental scores, unsettles with timely new work at Fraenkel Gallery.

Most read

Radical right group is trying to attack public-sector labor in SF

Anti-union mailers are going to workers home addresses -- but really, this group is looking pretty desperate.

How To Reopen Nightlife: Enough with the boys’ club, make room for women

DJ femmelectric and promoter Alex McGeagh speak about equity, access, and safety for women and nonbinary folks.

Black Freighter Press sails in, boosting writers of color and radical imagination

The revolution will be published, with the help of SF Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin and Alie Jones' new outlet.

City College students fight back against brutal faculty cuts

Firing teachers could also mean the end of a lot of treasured programs.

You might also likeRELATED