Home is Where the Art Is

04 February 2019Nick Leech
Home is Where the Art Is

There are a series of profound dichotomies in Don’t worry, spiders, I keep house casually, Hesam Rahmanian’s first solo show at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde since 2013’s Now the Dove and the Leopard Wrestle at Five in the Afternoon.

At first glance, the objects that appear in the paintings, Surrealistic assemblages, sculptures, and collages that make up the show could not appear more generic, anonymous or even banal. Featuring toilet rolls and shoes, shirt collars, and light switches, slices of cake, bathroom sinks, and even portraits of pet dogs and spiders, the works are unquestionably the product of the artist’s immediate environment, but there appears to be little that locates them in the broader context of Rahmanian’s adopted home, Dubai. 

As such, audiences could be forgiven for thinking that Don’t worry, spiders is essentially an introspective show, a personal perspective on a very private universe—but that is where they couldn’t be more wrong.

Hesam Rahmanian, Toilet Paper, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 38 cm.

The show, whose title is taken from a haiku by the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), may be predicated on the fundamentally generous notion that all things are worthy of our acceptance, consideration, comprehension, and care, but is also a reflection of Rahmanian’s status as an artist in both exile and residence, for whom keeping house and home is both an aesthetic and an intellectually necessary act.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1980 to Iranian parents, Rahmanian moved to Iran in 1982, and after completing his studies in fine art in Tehran in 1999, moved to India and then California until 2009, when he moved to Dubai to join his childhood friends, the exiled artists Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh.

For much of the intervening decade, the triumvirate - who have recently collaborated on a series of major international exhibitions at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Officine Grandi Riparazioni in Turin, and the Han Nefkens Foundation in Barcelona - have shared a villa in Dubai’s Al Barsha neighbourhood that they keep as part-home, part-studio, part-gallery, and part-retreat. “It’s been almost 10 years that I’ve been living in Dubai with Rokni and Ramin and that we’ve been working together, and our house and our environment has always been surrounded by objects,” Rahmanian explains.

“Not being able to easily go back home, we tried to redefine home for ourselves as something that is literally on the water. You build your home on the water and you float with it.”  That sense of dislocation and disconnection, the artist says, even extends to the ways in which the trio engage with the city around them, and might also explain their tendency to hoard.“We try to have a certain independence from the city. Literally, we may stay in the house for a week and not leave. The only reason we have to leave is to buy groceries,” Rahmanian says.

“Sometimes we feel like tourists in Dubai because things are happening so fast and we so rarely leave the house, “ he adds. “For that reason, we try to make something that stays independent from the city. Our home is something between a cinema, a studio, and a theatre. It’s like a sketchbook for our upcoming projects, which is why its constantly changing.”

Despite their sense of separateness, this experience of perpetual change and a perspective that sees the environment as a malleable platform for speculation and experimentation echoes wider attitudes to the urban fabric of Dubai, whose heterogeneity has also inspired several of the works in the show, especially Rahmanian’s paintings of deadlines and pieces of cake.

“Living in this diverse city with so many languages being spoken here and communicating with different people, I came across these words that could mean something else to non-English speakers,” the artist tells me, recalling English classes when he would remember words by thinking of the images they conjured. “I started painting deadlines, lines that were dead, but then ‘deadlines’ became so relevant for our time. Everybody knows what they are, everybody has to deal with them, and they are very tangible,” Rahmanian says. 

“Its a cause of anxiety for many people, but for others it means that they get their work done. It’s a force that has a contemporaneity to it.” The artist’s timed cake paintings play similar linguistic games with the phrase ‘a piece of cake’ and point, in their frequently unfinished state, to the importance of process rather than results, while his architectural corner paintings return, more directly, to the title of the show and Kobayashi Issa’s haiku, which calls for and celebrates a change sense of perspective. 

Hesam Rahmanian, The window in the mirror and the mirror on the wall ..., 2018, acrylic on canvas, H: 177 x W: 89 cm x D: 89 cm, Right side: 71 cm, Left side: 53 cm

“There are two different types of corners; those that stick out and those that go inside,” Rahmanian explains. “Those that are inside draw attention to the corner and you can read them all at once, while the others stick out and reveal themselves depending on where the audience is standing” he says. “The viewer has to change their position to see one side or the other, but if they are standing on the left side or the right side, they can only see both sides by changing their position.”

That phrase, ‘seeing both sides thanks to a change of position’, would seem to be an apt description of so much of the contemporary art that emerges from the UAE—a diasporic vantage-point from where the world looks very different, but where structured unities of home and identity are frequently, and often painfully, questioned and overturned.

Don’t worry, spiders, I keep house casually runs at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde until 9 March.

Image credits:
Hesam Rahmanian, Spider, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 45 x 55 x 27 cm, L1: 37 cm, L2: 32 cm.
Hesam Rahmanian, Piece of Cake, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 cm.
Installation views of Don't worry, spiders, I keep house casually at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.


The exhibition is a reflection of Hesam Rahmanian's status as an artist in both exile and residence, for whom keeping house and home is both an aesthetic and an intellectually necessary act."