Safe to Light | Riyas Komu at Azad Art Gallery

Installation view at Azad art Gallery

Safe to Fight

Text and Curator: Shaheen Merali

When is it safe to fight? The probabilities of such an undertaking are of course calculated, albeit by intelligent guesses and measures guided by speculations of the fight in terms of the enemy’s strength and the forces needed to defend.
Defense and offense, the twin co-evils of all invasive desires, have been with us for millennia, making an odyssey of long drawn out atrocities- wherein heroes and patriotism are borne from the deaths and violation of others.
History, when read between wars, in the so-called peaceful eras, often suggests peace as the outcome of the fighting. I wonder if such peace can be deemed to be the result of a process of distillation, of land drenched in innocent blood, of hope drained from our future, and of the likelihood of more to come.
Komu’s work has always been a striking and constant reflection on the contemporary condition where so much remains at stake, here, after many thousands of years of fear and heartbreak as our heritage, we remain ready to move into another ‘situation’; readily abandoning our wit and knowledge and surrendering to the forces that break our bonds and our lives. Komu, like many of his contemporaries, remains perplexed by our lack of conviction to resist war and to think only in terms of defense and offense.

His work often appears to be a multiple space in which we are left grasping the moment, in order to release results or meaning. Like in a scientific experiment, the process of his thinking has preceded in secrecy before our entry, as an audience. Within the white cube we are left to investigate the ‘results’, the ‘outcome’ of an experiment that has taken something and someone, in this case, Komu, a long time to complete, leaving traces of its element and thinking.
His recent work on tables, which includes Safe to Light, is a second work conceptualized as a table. The first one, made in 2009, with a complicated title, Ballad of the distracted vs. Cult of the Dead of the Memory Loss, was a successful installation that provoked a response of amazement from the audience. An intricately engraved table, with symbolic carvings suggestive of maps and mapping, it resonated well with notions of a setting for a war room; – a dedicated space for the intricate arrangement of stains and fallen values. It was topped by a small working car engine that could be turned on by the visitor by a turn of a key on a nearby wall. The two, the table and the engine spoke volumes in terms of the acridity associated with the compulsive behavior of a human race torn apart by greed, pollution, and failed notions of progress.
The new work, Safe to Light, shows a series of scientific instruments and vessels, an alembic, used for the process of distillation, are placed on the leveled surface of a table. The table works both as a straight plinth (supporting structure) as well as a marked place whereupon experiments take place. A small flame, coming out of a bunsen burner carved in wood, heats the large glass vial also carved in wood. The three main elements of the work, excluding the table, are the heated vial and burner as well as another glass vial that accepts the vapours emitted from the initial vial, whilst, in sharp contrast, on the table sits a water pump, ideally waiting to pump move of the earth’s precious element out for further experiments.
The installation raises many questions about the notion of exchange as suggested in the title, Safe to Light. Exactly what has made it safe and why is it safe for it to light now? Both the questions are pertinent in terms of the way drinking water itself has become a politicized issue and in terms of territorial control, especially in the Middle East where constant bickering occurs over the increasing settlements by Israel of its Palestinian neighbors’ land. It seems much has escaped and some of which has flown has been recaptured by others in the world, yet whose world is it and how do these issues now affect the masses?
The symbolic instruments for the mining of water- the water pump, a mundane object that allows so much freedom, as Komu refers to his childhood, of time and energy for local communities, remains inactive in the installation, to suggest further states of depravity in forlorn places including such villages. The promise of change to inaccessible places in the late twentieth century, substantiated with access to the water basin, are again left to their own devices as all elements, including water, are diverted to urban centres that are increasing in scale and forcing demands of all basic elements.
Fragrance of funeral, based on the impression of a table surface, holds a similar potential for its reading as a setting for discussions, of a place to hover around. The distance between us is marked by its width and length, a space just big enough to keep us apart and, in intent, is measured to allow the meetings of values, either good, bad, or even indifferent, to be mediated. The work, which relies on the dip of the table remains without a set of its front legs, thus bowing like a camel sipping from a pond. Similarly carved to the Ballad of the distracted vs Cult of the Dead of the Memory Loss with an impression of a flagellated body, exposing its muscular structure, this new work is curiously manufactured. The table, like a shattered site after a natural disaster, remains whole but broken in parts, all aspects of its former self are present but evidently busted.
The work, which is a cross between a table and a funeral pyre or even a forensic table, has multiple meanings. One of the most interesting new elements to be introduced is a seated figure from a Moghul period, holding a flower to his nose and wearing an ornate turban. Bearded and reminiscent of images of Hafez, Rumi or the various Shahs in Moghul India or, indeed, of Turkish sultans in the reign of Suleyman, the Magnificent, it is indeed a strange inclusion and one that is suggestive of time and space as in the vocabularies and the temporalities that the work slides between. On the back of this figure is a printed linen image reminiscent of a hanging man. An inclusion that the artist discloses as “I wanted to bring the perception of the world into the work…” 2 A further nod to the current de-stabilized realities and atrocities of a world at war.
The top of the table/funeral pyre is white like iridescent marble, a further battle between the moghulisation of north India by the Persian empire in the sixteenth century to the clinical realities of forensic and pathology of the war dead.
Many of the sculptures in the exhibition, Safe to Light, stray between a mystical place of gothic pedagogy, where signs and power make a heady mix, suggestive of knowledge in a fixed monumental strait, and certain plays with the effects of a raging world in the twentieth and twenty-first century. If distillation is the process in which we survive, then its dictates have created a frightening enclave in the world, where the rational and the emotional have been replaced by a carriage drawn by a blinded masculinity, housed by the spectacle of our time – of a dark science of patriotism and nationhood. A prime example of these constructions is the way a unique work, entitled Royal Screw, works between a medieval tool of defense and attack, the sword, and, by sculpting the blade into advancing spiral threads that keeps something in place, constructs a certainty for the destiny of a moving object. The sculpture questions the modes of daily reality, are these certainties or sexual dispositions of “screwing” around?
The works in the exhibition, Safe to Light are a set of powerful metaphors for strategic empire builders and scientific irrationalities, which have strangulated philosophical truths and essentialized knowledge into odours of capitalism. Safe to Light is a set of reminiscences of fear and omission, the work is a weapon, an ode to weapons and castration, in reproducing the existing orders in fascinating twists as in the work Desert, a fascinating specter of control in an imaginative way is suggested. Here a horse is cut into two pieces and connected by an oil pipe. A similar pipe is used in the work Tribute to the footballer, which brings three diverse elements together to make a sad observation to a conclusive one side of a barricade. A carved wooden leg topped by a metal pipe is kept balanced by a wooden crutch that allows it to stay upright. The whole, looks oppressive, with its nuanced approach giving value to the plight of those injured and maimed in the war of terror but still full of life for the beautiful game.
The painting Haleema is an accompanying image of a singular portrait of a woman giving a speech on a cold day. The actual face of the woman and the background is blurred and indistinguishable, a technique commonly used in portraits in the media to hide the identity of the person. What is still recognizable from what is left is suggestive of a forlorn gaze into the distance, as if her lips are syncing to utter what could be a set of remarks. It is in its simplicity that the portrait starts to vibrate in an unfolding that can only be described as a diachronic thinking through time, of the disappearance and dispersal of humaneness in the contemporary, of honesty and gentleness as suggested in the title. One is left to ponder whether Komu is suggesting, in the use of this title and the way the technology in contemporary media uses anonymity, whether this is due to a role in the life of the speaker or is a result of her utterances.

Safe to light | Riyas Komu in Tehran Poster by Aria Kasaei
Safe to light | Riyas Komu in Tehran Poster by Aria Kasaei

The final work, Blood Brothers, is a work that straddles both sculpture and a drawing. It is a set of cast aluminum figures of soldiers from two opposing sides, hung against a wall in a battle of no mercies nor of definite winners. It is in this complex battlefield of grids and victims that they suggest the nonsense of spectral violence, which now ruins our capacity to be called the intelligent, civilizing race.
Safe to Light, as an exhibition is a reminder that so many places and so much time have been involved in sheer brutality that now we seem to be tied to a future by a shared histories of violence and violation, that seems to guide us to an ever more dangerous future.
In all the works, Komu seems to argue, people, more so than individuals, now more than ever before, have the power to assert criticalities into certain vacuous sites in order to transform and make history. So much is fast disappearing or hidden now. All the works, combined into the meta-title, Safe to Light, work as a journey, between geographies and temporalities to be reconsidered. They use the battlefield as a familiar hallmark to understand power from the powerful and to speak of a world to be ignited by sharing these experiences and enhancing connectivity.
The exhibition, in its grace, suggests an examination of our heritage within the light of these sudden politics that have entrapped our voices and our lives, compromised our world and our liberties, made us into interns of societies’ intellectual possibilities. In visiting the various forms of distillation and utterance, we, too, can safely light the path in terms of the community and our intellectual desires. Komu suggests if anything is possible, we can produce it and we can remain active in transforming the centres, instigating a necessary move away from the constant distillation of rehearsals based on reparations of the powerful.

Friday, 09 – Wednesday, 28 April 2010
16:00 -20:00
Azad Art Gallery
No 41. Salmas Sq.Golha Sq.Fatemi Sq.
Tehran, Iran
+98 21 88008676