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Abbas Zahedi talks about To The Sour Sowers

Photo portrait of Abbas Zahedi, a man with a calm serious expression looks straight at the camera, he wears a red patterned collarless shirt over a black t-shirt.

Image: Abbas Zahedi. Photograph Balint Alovits & thats_so_CSM

In a collaboration with The Mosaic Rooms, Abbas Zahedi created To The Sour Sowers —a risograph print conceived as an impermanent marker of loss and renewal. Zahedi’s interdisciplinary practice blends contemporary philosophy, poetics, and social dynamics with performance, sound, sculpture, and moving image. The prints were offered for free on request for people to participate in the project, and sent with suggestions from the artist on what to do with their print. All of the prints have now been distributed. The Mosaic Rooms spoke to Zahedi about the work:

Tell us about To The Sour Sowers what was the driving force and inspiration behind the work?

I’m always considering a site of a work, so I often say my work starts with an invitation to a site or a location. And then I have this other concern where I see my work as working with people, so even when I’m making installations it’s more about this idea of hosting, and this ties into a lot of my own experiences about hosting and what it means to be a host and what it’s like to be hosted by another space, or even a country for example. In the past as a community organiser, I used to talk a lot about this imaginal idea of a ‘neo-diaspora’. Now, my work has expanded into a participatory style of practice, that includes exhibition making and this brings the question of hosting within a contemporary art context.

When I was invited by Angelina [the project’s curator] to consider this proposal for a work of art, I was thinking about the idea of having something domestic – as in, how can you host someone in their own home?

Then we had the idea of creating a ritual and an image, with an invitation to collaborate. All of this became a way of extending this hosting ritual from a distance and also being hosted by them as well in the part of the work where we are inviting them to collaborate. So it becomes mutual. There are many things to think about around the power dynamics of ‘being a host’ so to speak, the likes of Derrida spoke a lot about this.

My ongoing interest is also in images and photography which has been part of my practice and my studies for a long time. Somehow in this time of pandemic, images have served more and more as our portals into a world in which we’ve all suffered in one way or another. Some of us have experienced very devastating losses in this time. The idea of sending someone an art object that they would maintain in a very pristine way – I felt that couldn’t do justice to the moment and to the feeling of renewal we’re seeking.

So this work actually invites people to damage the piece and cut through it, split it right down the middle. You know, there is a tradition in art history where the gratuitous destruction of artworks has macho connotations, people like the Chapman brothers, they would often disfigure very famous works of art and that was seen as something almost heroic, it was celebrated and those disfigured works would fetch some really high prices. For me it was important that this process of asking people to cut into the work doesn’t become a gratuitous gesture but something more sensitive and graceful, with a sense of optimism – re-framing the damage. Therefore, using seeded paper was a way of having a kind of ritual embedded within the object itself. This kind of disfiguring serves as a way of splitting the work along the lines of its potential as a carrier of seeds; some of these seeds are realised in the ones that get planted, and the unrealised potential is kept in the ones that get kept behind and made into the collage.

What is the significance of the photograph used in the work of a train pulling up to Ladbroke Grove station?

The image has multiple meanings for me. I’ve had it for quite some time. I can’t remember exactly when it was taken but it was definitely in the early 2000’s maybe 2003 or 2004. I lost my father when I was very young and every so often I’d go through some of his stuff that’s in storage and see what’s there. I found his old camera, a manual analogue camera, the kind of thing you’d get if you did a photography course to learn about dark rooms and 35mm film. There was a roll in there that I tried to get developed but it wasn’t salvageable.

I went to the local pound shop one day and they had some rolls of film which I bought and started taking pictures with. The first images I took were all white, completely overexposed – I had no idea what I was doing at the time in terms of shutter, aperture etc. I started Youtube-ing and reading books on photography, I kind of got a bit of a handle.

Within that time one of the images was Ladbroke Grove station, the train pulling in. It was a clear day and the settings that I took the picture with somehow exposed the train, platform and the tracks perfectly but the entire sky was blown out. So, I had this image where the train is one way but where you have the lemon print now, that was all white. It was almost like I’d cut the sky out on Photoshop. I then started playing with this image some years later in the form of a collage, replacing the sky with different skies and objects.

There’s also something around dealing with an impulse that I was having about stepping out of the platform, I was dealing with a lot of mental health issues at the time, following the loss of family members, so I’d go up to the edge of the platform and I’d have these feelings to fall off. Somehow working with the image and changing the sky helped to sublimate some of these emotions and made me ask the question that if I were to step out, what would I be stepping into? The sky image would then be a kind of placeholder for this.

This version with the image of the lemons was from when I was working at Square Root Soda, the drinks company, who are my long term collaborators. In 2014 I worked with them during the startup phase of the company, where we did absolutely everything by hand. So I would often be producing up to 80 litres of lemon juice on a manual citrus press, and whilst I was surrounded by these mountains of lemons I’d take my phone out and take pictures of them.

Printed editions of To The Sower Sowers

In some way those lemons reminded me of places I’d traveled to, like in the Mediterranean and even in Iran in the South, places like Shiraz you walk into the streets and there’s Narenj trees everywhere. Somehow that became a similar gesture, the sky had a similar mental association with that. At the time I was working in drinks production I was still coming to terms with being forced to leave medicine, so I was completely over qualified for a job as a manual labourer, but I found something deeply therapeutic in being close to the earth and produce in that way, which is why I wanted people to feel encouraged with this work to connect with the soil.

The other symbolic thing which occurred more recently was in connection with 2017 and exhibiting at the Venice Biennale as part of the Diaspora Pavilion show. I came to be good friends with Khadija Saye. I’m from Ladbroke Grove, and I live a few streets away from Grenfell tower, so I knew of Khadija before but we got to know each other properly throughout this shared experience. After I came back from Venice and after the fire, I noticed that the tower to the left of the train image is actually Grenfell, before the cladding, so it’s an old picture of the tower. Now that the train platforms have been extended because of the new trains, you can’t see that view any more. So now when I look at the print, all of these things come to mind.

The last year has limited the ways in which we can interact with our own communities physically, how important do you think small acts of contribution to our local communities, like planting seeds, are to our personal and collective lives?

Already people have messaged me about the work and someone said I’m going to plant the cut-out outside of my house, so for them something public is close to where they live, just outside their home. Someone else told me they were going to a cemetery, and wanted to plant it close to someone that they lost, so for them the cemetery and people that go to the cemetery becomes a form of community.

I often talk about the idea of resisting metaphysics in my work, or resisting the idea of a community that functions in an idealistic or representational way, so as to foreground inter-sectional associations that cut across our lived daily experiences. One of things I keep coming back to is the idea of the ground, the earth, the floor. This is something we all come from and return to, it’s becoming much more a part of the wider discourse in talking about the environment, the oceans, the consumption of animals and different lifestyles associated with these factors.

People talk about how major wars were started in the past around oil and it looks like in the future similar wars will be centered around water, and these vital elements are becoming much more of a concern of ours and for me, establishing a relationship with the earth in one way or another is a way of trying to reach out to create that community. Because wilderness is a key aspect of diversity and there is increasingly this notion of ‘re-wilding’ our selves and in particular the art sector, so as to create a stronger ecology of practices that don’t rely on the old institutional model. And this isn’t a work that is going to create a grand solution, but it allows these conversations to happen in a more intimate way, resisting that need for spectacle. These small intimacies are what I’m interested in, so it’s using the opportunity of something created online to make something that exists in the wild.

Can you talk about the idea of care in your work? (thinking of your recent work creating a space for front line workers in the pandemic)

We’ve been put in a very difficult situation and a lot of people are trying to think about how we look after ourselves in these confined set of circumstances. I feel like I share that experience so I’m asking the same question; in seeking new rituals, with collaborative aspects that can renew our sense of connection and bring a sense of being able to make something. The idea of gardening became a big thing over the last year, and there’s research about how gardening helps mental health and having your hands in the soil in terms of your microbiome and gut-health, so there’s that element, yet I’m aware of the disparity where a lot of people don’t have access to gardens due to social and economic reasons.

So when I ask people to plant the seeds I ask them to do it in a public space, and that’s an important thing. We don’t think about that as much because it’s sort of converged a lot during the pandemic. A lot of these spaces that we consider to be public online are actually corporate entities, to which we’ve outsourced our democracies so to speak. Yet they are not public in the traditional sense of a space that purely exists for the benefit of the public good, or the interest of the people who go there. That almost seems like a naïve idea now, to have a space just for the public, that’s why the need for genuinely open art spaces is more pressing than ever.

I feel like I’m trying to re-imagine the idea of having public galleries and public institutions and spaces which are open and inclusive and allow for people to be involved in lots of different ways. I’m taking that into consideration, and trying to think okay, how do I address some of those questions with this work that is going into a person’s house, a private and domestic space? I’m introducing something of myself and asking them to collaborate by removing something and adding something. The thing that they’ve removed contains seeds, if they plant it somewhere public, then other people may see it as they are in the process of planting a piece of paper – that in itself could start a conversation or connection. It’s this very small gesture that opens up the question, what is an art work? Is it the material object, or that sense of connection through the world?

Maybe these small gestures can help people to feel a sense of agency again and to start questioning their own ability to reshape their environment. The experience that I’m seeing is that certain savvy middle class folk have found ways to exist much more comfortably than others who rely on social interactions in a more physical sense, so we’re seeing a surge in delivery drivers and people providing ‘physical’ services vs those who can exist more safely and outsource their demands for goods and services.

At the same time there are these new social binaries of the ‘useful’ and the ‘useless’ – people like artists are being told they’re useless and doctors are being called useful. But that cuts both ways because all those people who are being called useful, they’re being overworked and traumatised with no recourse to any other space. With the Sonic Support Group project, I was able to re-open my closed exhibition space to doctors and frontline workers, and they were coming into an art space and saying we need this space for our own sense of well-being, it does away with that whole binary situation.

Every situation is showing us that we are much more interrelated and interdependent than we once presumed. We need to find how to honor this and not create new class dynamics on top of old ones or new binaries that make more and more people feel dismissed – that’s something I’m afraid of. With this work I’m happy that the gesture is a broad invite, people can request it and have some agency over how they address the work, how and when the respond to it – it’s an invitation that goes both ways. As an artist I’m not in control any more, once I hand it over to the gallery it’s handed out to the people who receive the work and then it has a life of its own. For me that’s the most satisfying process because it’s the closest to our lived experiences, something that’s hard to replicate in a typical museum space.

How do you feel your work and your outlook have been impacted by the events of the last year?

It’s interesting as last year was when I really started getting into exhibition making and did two solo shows. The urge to collaborate is very instinctive for me, having that as the core to my work has really helped me to transition into other ways of working, with the Sonic Support Group and now this letter commission, all of these different ways of working I see them as equal, they are the thread that keeps everything together. The idea of never taking my medium for granted is probably the only rule I have, if I’m working with a certain medium, whether it’s a print or a sculpture, or a performance, or an invitation, or if it’s a space. It allows me to be very open and approach things without a hierarchy. I think in this time of the pandemic we’ve all been limited in the spaces and the people we can access and it forces us to recognize what we may have taken for granted in the past. This approach in my practice, has now extended into new ways of working. As artists I think there’s a tendency to want mental escapism, whether that’s zoning-out by being immersed in your work or viewing art or having experiences that serve as inspiration. That’s all well and good, but when the world goes into lock-down you realise that those things are much more precarious, and it brings the question of what else is left?

My logic as an artist before the pandemic was one in which I took one piece of ground for granted and saw another piece such as a museum floor as more special, but now I’m forced to consider how any piece of space can function in multiple ways. It’s going to be really interesting to see how people respond to this new way of thinking. I’m yet to see the results but this commission is coming out of this kind of framing for me, and that’s why it feels like such a vital and important work, which we are seeing now through the response and how quickly all the prints went. I’m very grateful for everyone involved and the team at The Mosaic Rooms for facilitating this multi-dimensional work.


If you received a print we would love to hear about where you planted it or how you adapted it and why. You can share online tagging it #tothesoursowers or email us at info@mosaicrooms.org.


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