I almost missed Abbas Akhavan’s installation when I walked into the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Despite seeing photos of the work online, what I encountered in the gallery took me by surprise. Located in the hallway immediately after the entrance, variation on a landscape recalls Akhavan’s other work in its expansiveness. By making viewers walk through the work Akhavan facilitates a chance encounter between the installation and the viewer that encourages active contemplation.
A temporary installation commissioned by the Power Plant, variation on a landscape is a site-specific work that changes with the seasons over the course of the exhibition (June 23-December 30, 2018), with a summer and a winter iteration. The changing seasons are reflected in the changes in materials within the work, where only a central circular fountain remains consistent. Though even the fountain shifts as it is covered-up for the winter installation contains less water and is filled with debris. The other elements, including a series of cast swans and a paper towel dispenser, are replaced by a stick and two pairs of monitors that lean against the wall on opposite ends of the corridor, displaying static neon-green screens, while a phone charger makes for a puzzling and easy to miss addition in the winter iteration that has no counterpart in the summer version. By physically changing the installation and using emptiness as both a sign of absence and the promise of creation, Akhavan speaks to the destruction of nature at the hands of society in order to erect a new, easily controllable, synthetic nature.
In the context of the installation’s title, Akhavan’s use of space and material can be interpreted as a disruption of the economic and colonial history of landscape painting. By using sculpture, found materials and mundane objects, variation on a landscape expands the genre outside the picture frame, emphasizing the way the genre pictorially segments nature, creating a limited and easily consumable view. By pushing the genre, Akhavan draws attention to the way land is viewed through the lens of conquest and profit, while echoing growing material consumption and ongoing neglect of the environment in contemporary society. The work’s sparse aesthetic offers a glimpse into a possible apocalyptic future, an alternative to what art historian and critic T.J. Demos calls ‘restorationist eco-aesthetics’ which he describes as, “art that attempts to repair damaged habitats or to revive degraded ecosystems.”1 Instead, variation on a Landscape shows how environmental damage can form its own ecosystem. Combining natural and synthetic elements, the installation has all the standard components of a landscape, from the token animal to the picturesque fountain, yet their arrangement feels deliberately out of place, resulting in a suspicion that something is missing, which left me with a haunted feeling that caused me to ache with longing.
The sense of void or absence is most notable in the use of technology in the winter iteration. Expansive static green screens captivate attention and imagination the way a lush green forest does, invoking a reality that is quickly under threat of being obliterated. This tension between natural and synthetic nature is further emphasized by the play of elements within the space. A wall of windows at the far end of the hallway naturally shapes the lighting of the installation as daylight hours shorten in the winter and expand in the summer, yet this natural intervention only further enhances the mechanical aspects of the installation. In its shifting iterations, variation on a landscape points out an ever-increasing demand for utilitarianism and the resulting alienation from natural processes within our contemporary ecosystems, what Marxist theory might call “use value.” Akhavan made me feel complicit in this process. As I moved around and surveyed the work, I was unconsciously scrutinizing it with my gaze, trying to decide whether it was missing something. More animals or plants, perhaps? By continuing to mentally edit the installation Akhavan made me aware of how easy it is to approach nature with a prefabricated notion of what belongs and what doesn’t.
The swans, present in the summer iteration, are a culmination of the desire to shape and perfect nature, expressed in the landscape genre itself as well as our growing reliance on technology. With clean and precise lines emphasizing their principal features, they look like mass-produced objects coming down a conveyor; a stock representation of nature that has been condensed for easy consumption. The swans become objects, embodying what Patrick Poulin describes as the “transitivity, impersonality, and functionality [of plastic], to which we add a veneer of artificial singularity (false fragility or realism).”2 This artificial veneer creates the sense that Akhavan is suggesting a kind of ‘build-it-yourself’ landscape, explored by artists like Ian Baxter& in his 1966 Bagged Landscape. A lonely phone charger, dangling from an outlet at the bottom of a wall in the winter iteration, however, mitigates the alluring promise of control within variations on a landscape. Plugged in, but not used, the charger suggests a literal unplugging from the promise of Hollywood-style eye-candy invoked by the green screens; a return to reality to face the consequences of our actions as a society, a future that Akhavan suggests is looming.