The short story The Iron Table, written in 1950 by the underappreciated American author Jane Bowles, is a poignant and devastating anecdote about Western colonialism in the post-colonial era. In the story, a couple living in Tangier discuss how the city has been ruined by Western expatriates. Suffering from intense cognitive dissonance, the husband speaks of the pureness and authenticity of the Saharan Desert, while the wife argues for the inescapability of Western society. The artist Nairy Baghramian started working with this story in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Baghramian explains to me that, in such a highly politicized time, members of her creative circle wished to escape to a “supposedly empty desert.” Working with the idea of impossible escapism—of irreconcilable historical and cultural baggage—Baghramian created two sculptures, respectively titled “The Iron Table” and “The Drawing Table.”
Baghramian debuted “The Drawing Table” at documenta 14 in 2017. The sculpture negotiates the Bowles story in oblique and direct ways. A limp string with nautical bunting, potentially referencing a string that separates the couple from the streets of Tangier, hangs from a geometric wood frame. Blown-glass shapes are housed within the wood structure, which is held down by abstract blocks. The entire sculpture has a feeling of a failed oceanic voyage, of a journey doomed before it starts. It is a beautiful, eerie piece that feels just out of reach of comprehension. The piece crystallizes Baghramian’s artistic vision: erudite, complex, holding many meanings at once in forms that feel both alien and somehow familiar.
Based in Berlin, Baghramian has lived in Germany since the early 1980s, when her family escaped Iran’s Mullah regime. In her sculptures, she seeks to connect formal design with extensive social and historical research. Her work is indirectly political, addressing the body, cultural tensions, gender, modernist utopias, and many other far-reaching concepts. Born in pre-Revolutionary Iran, she is private about her upbringing and personal life. Many expect that the weight of a dual German-Iranian upbringing would pressure her to address her birth country’s politics, or her trans-national experience in her work. But she resists the increasingly common expectation that artists from places of political conflict make their art obviously political. She explains to me that “artists and their work are increasingly being reduced to their country of origin, their place of residence, ethnicity, and nationality,” greatly compressing identities. “This makes the creation of an elaborate and complex identity extremely difficult.”
Yet Baghramian’s art certainly does not exist in a vacuum. Her works resist categorization and occupy a rare space between volatile and accessible. Her sculptural forms—whether amorphous or geometric—harmonize with the architecture of the spaces where they are exhibited. Baghramian’s artistic and ideological flexibility, as well as her refusal to be hemmed in by expectation, have led to both acclaim and variety. She can pull off ambitious conceptual projects like a Jane Bowles-inspired sculpture, while later holding a solo exhibition at Marian Goodman New York about oversized dentistry. Her work has been shown in solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Tamayo Museum in Mexico City, and the National Gallery of Denmark, and she has participated in the Venice, Berlin, and Lyon Biennials, among others. This year has seen Baghramian exhibit two important projects: solo shows at kurimanzutto in Mexico City and the Palacio de Cristal at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. Though not obviously working from a specific text or design movement, these two projects reflect Baghramian’s fondness for interrogation and investigation.
Titled Maintainers, Baghramian’s exhibition at kurimanzutto explored the process of creating a sculpture. Each piece was constructed of three interdependent elements commonly used in casting sculptures—aluminum casts, colored wax forms, and painted lacquer braces with cork mounts. She tells me the title Maintainers “connects and compresses the three elements of the group of sculptures... The rough aluminum cast and the wax elements are symbolically held together by the bracket, which is itself supported by the so formed group.” The entire piece is thus maintained by its composite parts. However, this kinship and dependence of the components is fleeting. “Potentially, the wax would be used in the technical refinement,” Baghramian elaborates. The wax would be used to polish and shape the aluminum, “and in doing so it would eventually be consumed in its entirety.” Though all the materials are interconnected and interdependent, some are purely submissive, existing only to preserve their counterparts. This entire idea “is, of course, only to be understood as a metaphorical process.”
Baghramian’s more recent exhibition, Breathing Spell, is an investigation of functionality, decoration, and the hidden nature of architectural components. Constructed around Madrid’s Palacio de Cristal, Baghramian interweaves her sculptures with the architecture of the structure, essentially making a “living, breathing piece.” Creating tube- and pipe-like objects, she highlights structural components that are usually hidden by the architecture of the building. For those who haven’t visited, the Palacio de Cristal is a Victorian-era glass exhibition pavilion. Baghramian leaves the entire structure vacant, save for numerous pipe sculptures on the interior and exterior of the building. Semi-open and semi-transparent, these pipe sculptures exist as fragments, disconnected from a larger system or body. Dysfunctional by nature, the sculptures take on new decorative meaning as they intervene in the glass “skin” of the building. There is an ambiguity to the piece, specifically, what body is she referencing? An institutional body? A human form? As she explains to me, “I always put an emphasis on disputing an extended definition of physical-ness, meaning the social body, or issues concerning institutional organisms.”
In mid-October, Baghramian will open a new version of Maintainers at the Festival d’Automne at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Unlike the kurimanzutto version, the wax casts will only be in off-white tones, referencing the historic plaster cast collection of the institution. Indeed, her sculptures show a deep respect for processes of production and art history. Yet, as she tells me, “there is no such linear and historic reference system with me.” Her works are open-ended, in a way. “Of course, the reception of my work by the viewer or commentator is also tied to their own reference systems,” she states. “But the works are fundamentally independent entities,” to be duly judged, interpreted, and understood by the viewer. Her works reference the past and the present, yet don’t depend on specific cultural knowledge—like having read an obscure Jane Bowles story. My interpretation of “The Drawing Table” is not necessarily correct. Maybe some viewers will see an allegory for colonialism. Or others will see an impossible search for a utopia, a non-place.
Written by Miller Schulman