Sevruguin, Antoin. “Photograph of two girls smoking shisha.” The Canna Chronicles, 9 Jan. 2018, thecannachronicles.com/tag/iran.
Group exhibition, Showroom MAMA and online curated by WORKNOT! (Golnar Abbasi and Arvand Pourabbasi)
Rotterdam07.17.2020 - 13.09.2020
Group exhibition, Showroom MAMA and online curated by WORKNOT! (Golnar Abbasi and Arvand Pourabbasi)
Rotterdam07.17.2020 - 13.09.2020
Golnar Abbasi & Maike Hemmers ~
A Discomfort Inside
Golnar Abbasi and Maike Hemmers’ joint contribution reflects on forms of labour and display within a domestic setting. We present a jointly edited excerpt of their correspondence which took place before the Covid-19 pandemic began. Their contribution is the first of a new series of ‘In Conversation’ text pieces where two artists discuss a subject of mutual interest and share references to which they both have an affinity.
Golnar Abbasi is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Architecture, TU Delft. She holds a Masters in Architecture from The Berlage, is a former artists-in-residence at the Jan van Eyck Academie and an educator at Piet Zwart Instituut and Willem de Kooning Academie. Abbasi’s work includes writing, curating and spatial intervention, she recently organized ‘Fictioning Comfort’, a group show currently up at Showroom MAMA, Rotterdam.
Maike Hemmers holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the Dutch Art Institute (DAI), and her research reflects on the relation of bodies and inner spaces through drawing, text, and everyday relational art objects. Hemmers is contributing to the exhibition ‘Fictioning Comfort’ with drawings, cushions and a video titled ‘Desire digests what moves it’.
Abbasi and Hemmers are both artists based in Rotterdam.
Hi Golnar, I will start with a simple anecdote. I think it makes sense to start small and relatable and zoom out from there. I generally think and work like that and that’s also why I am interested in the domestic environment and the objects that I interact with daily. I can make more sense of the bigger things because of intimate relations.
I’ve been renovating my kitchen these past few days. It feels daring to invest into a rental that I might leave in a few months or years, but I am up against a legion of mice and it became urgently necessary to find and close all their entrance ways. The kitchen ceiling is made up of wooden panels which were installed without a proper finish to their edges. For a long time any movement from upstairs has caused dirt to drizzle down from between the gaps. I stood on a ladder to pipe acrylic into all these open edges and holes, smoothing out the slightly gritty texture with my fingers as I went. I enjoyed touching the ceiling, reforming with my own body the structure of the room into a soft surface until it hardened again.
[ Attachment: Photograph kitchen ceiling ]
My mission was ‘to improve’ but half-way through I wondered if perhaps I was taking away some necessary movement of the space? It started to feel like I could be closing its breathing holes, or preventing the structure from communicating a release of tension. Shutting its sides felt like silencing the room. For the next few days I felt anxious and avoided entering the kitchen. I felt that that space had become a part of me. In this process, to improve, I had lost some understanding of my own state, and now I needed to get to know myself again, as well as the kitchen. This sounds dramatic, but it did actually feel quite destabilising. I now understand why people use paint colours that make a room look old, those matt and dusty colors which transform a house into an English country home. It’s just a way of pretending you haven’t just erased its past but have added some!
We are both interested in a sense of resistance that happens inside. The domestic is interesting because we interact with it intimately and daily. It is traditionally defined as a place of private family life as well as the workplace for women. In the domestic my position is forcefully (and often unconsciously) determined. But it is still a space I create enough privacy in to form some sense of resistance alongside the soft structures I create there. Also though, fuck the idea that home = female = soft = weak, we really need to redefine what resistance = force looks like.
In my first email for this correspondence I was writing about visibility. I was thinking a lot about what it means to make these correspondences public, and to have a public conversation in general. It made it super difficult for me to write or even think at all, as I would obsess over every word. I mention it because for me intimacy is about visibility; being seen, and the fear of it. Or maybe the self-consciousness of it, more than the ‘fear’, really.
And now I think about this constructed analogy: domesticity = private/privacy and hence, domesticity = a space of free self-expression. That directly implies a few things: first, that there is a public and a private (the binary) – but also that the public = being seen, and private = not being seen – which gives a sense of freedom/comfort. Being seen makes it difficult to move, to talk, to exist freely.
You know, the construction of the private home directly relates to the construction of the public. Like, the public is made so that it can be controlled; and hence, the private unit occurs anywhere that is not being consistently gazed over. The public space was the street. The one that connects the church, for instance, to the city centre, that connects the points of power. I think this is like, 13th century.
[ Attachment to come: Public street ]
But anyway … to make our conversations public invites the watching over of one’s most intimate thinking. Intimate things are domestic.
I listened to this podcast by Failed Architecture after I saw your Instagram story of the bridge in Esfahan, where you were born, and you told me how it's several things at once: water engineering, palace with balconies, swimming pool, a place to gather and sing. This resonates with the 'Incompiuto’ and their focus on unfinished architecture; like the example they give of a public building which is in a state of constant becoming, redefined by the way people use it. I liked how one of the speakers said that they are basically buildings for the people anyway because it’s funded by taxes, so it’s legit that people claim it back.
[ Attachment: Failed Architecture podcast ]
I want to write to you about my engagement party/wedding party in Iran, and how that very moment of publicly ‘solidifying’ a relationship is full of implication about domesticity, nuclear family, gender, institution of marriage, etc. All the controversies we felt, all the policing of our bodies and encounters ... and all the ways in which that is also a spatial practice.
The domestic is very political. And so to think about resistance and domesticity is crucial. I have been wanting to write to you about projects I have done on this. But I feel a reluctance in myself to do that, maybe because these emails seem more like a stream of consciousness form of thinking.
Tonight I’m packing for my flight to Rotterdam. I have my clothes and stuff all around the room and I also have a lot of paper including my receipts and invoices ‘cause I was here during the tax deadline. I also have lots of spices and dried herbs from the Bazar cause this is what I bring back every time, to give away to friends; stuff for cooking. I am thinking how food is such an important part of domesticity; of making kin, of ritualising, etc. I think about domesticity a lot when I'm packing my stuff. I think about uprootedness and moving.
You have lived away from home for a long time too, right? Every time I pack my suitcase and I have all my stuff lying around the room, there is this feeling of excitement that I have that I am never sure of. Never sure whether it is pleasant or bitter. The stuff that I use or need most frequently—my closest belongings—all have to fit into a space of a certain size and become a certain weight. Compacted all together. It is quite extreme if you think about it.
The precarity of having to pack quite frequently, is also about domesticity for me. Packing is domestic too. It marks the points where we seem to be extending and augmenting ourselves and our space, I think those transitionary moments of packing and unpacking are also domestic moments.
I also can’t help but think about the tensions, moments of crisis, and horrors of domestic life. There is a text by Paolo Virno called ‘Familiar Horror’, that I will attach to this email. I want to read it again and talk about it with you. It also somehow relates to you renovating your apartment/kitchen, and the picture you sent me. I might be wrong, in that this would relate more to human relations and encounters. But it might also relate to other forms of encounters – like the picture of your kitchen, and your feeling like this is not your kitchen anymore.
[ Attachment: Familiar Horror ]
I agree, when thinking of the fragility of making oneself public, it is good to privately ponder on that first. I think if talking or writing is the bridge between our own private and public selves - it needs to be built carefully.
Last year, when the issue with my neighbour erupted, I felt completely exposed in my apartment. He was knocking our shared walls at night, sometimes very violently, without me understanding what he was responding to. After one night in which he had tried to break through the wall with a drill, we finally talked face to face, and I understood that he had been responding to the slight sounds of closing the curtains (there is more to say on that, why, and what the fuck, but....) It took me months to get over this, I felt I was always visible, even though it was sound not sight that created this exposure. Mentally the walls seemed to have vanished. It was so destabilising to feel that visible and unsafe inside, at home. It made me aware of how incredibly fragile the feeling of privacy is.
I want to give another example of constructing social space with the working class museum apartment in south Rotterdam that I am currently working in. ‘De Kiefhoek’ was designed by J.J.P Oud. It has a few practical examples on how the working class were meant to be educated through the construction of space and their necessary behaviours. e.g. the kitchen was made very small to prevent its inhabitants from hanging out there, because using the living room instead was considered ‘more proper’. In the living rooms, Oud built in a set of shelves to manage the way people would decorate their own home. On the other hand, the housing committee rejected Oud's original plan of building in showers - this was deemed an unnecessary luxury. Which seems especially crazy considering how the education around hygiene in relation to disease, was actually necessary to save lives. Giving direct access would have changed a lot.
Being able to view these direct examples of the imposition of the architect/ patriarchy/ the public, and looking at De Kiefhoek again, makes the violence of those walls so tangible.
Tommi Hilsee sent me, Matrix - Women and the Man made environment (written and brought together by the feminist designer collective Matrix in 1984). Chapter five especially, unravels the setting up of the domestic in relation to labour production and the education of the worker. A helpful reference.
[ Attachments: Matrix - Making Space, Women and the Man Made Environment, Photograph Kiefhoek kitchen floor ]
That idea that the domestic = private = intimate, is historically constructed in relation to gender. ‘Cause intimacy is apparently only defined in the heterosexual relationship on the basis of the institution of nuclear family; and not in terms of friendship, kinship, or other forms of relationships or encounters.
Like you said, fuck the idea that the inside, the domestic, is feminine; and hence unimportant, disposable, easy to overlook, a void in sociopolitical life... ‘cause what is important belongs ‘outside’ where men perform important jobs … Important jobs that are of social and political urgency. Not only is the private/public dichotomy based on a construction of a gender binary, but also on roles presumed for subjects who perform under those constructed gender categories!
I find it interesting though, that the domestic is an important safe space for those who feel violence in public (people of color, queers, trans, women) yet this is still under the influence of public notions in the private (e.g. gendered division, unpaid labour, domestic violence).
I don’t think that it’s all historically constructed, like it rings true to me also that: Domestic = private = intimate ... But not all the time, and overall it’s fucking hard to say what’s ‘real’ and what we’ve been taught. But I guess what we easily agree on is that the construction of what is domestic and who is forming that is violent to many.
For me, emptiness or the void link to the inside. Inside is where many people experience privacy and safety, inside their own bodies or inside a building, or like being under a blanket. Void or nothingness cannot be contained or related to anything specific, it is more of an abstract thinking space. I always think that emptiness is created (i.e emptied) but nothingness is desired. To me this desire for nothingness speaks of resistance, because it’s a space I do not want to fill, or it's about an emptiness I want to contain inside because of the potential it holds.
A great reference here is Ramon Amaro’s work, Darkness, as a First Act of Creation, for the Dutch presentation at XXII Triennale di Milano. From his website: ''Darkness, as a First Act of Creation proposes darkness not as a void or absence but, instead, borrowing from Denise Ferreira da Silva, a type of dark matter with generative potential. A ‘first act of creation’ in a continual process of creating one’s own reality.’' I haven’t seen this work, but there was also a great review of it in De Groene Amsterdammer by Ilga Minjon, in Dutch though.
[ Attachments: Darkness, as a First Act of Creation also shown at Het Niewe Insitute in the 2019 exhibition: ‘I See That I See What You Don't See’]
I am absolutely into that sentence you wrote: ‘emptiness is created but nothingness is desired’. Nothingness is desired! I also wanted to share that right now I have a big bubble in my head around desire/imagination/fiction…(!)
Maybe this photo (belonging to a different time) helps with thinking around ideas of kinship today? The photo is from the Qajar period in Iran, late 19th century; when public coffeehouses were highly masculinised spaces which meant women’s shisha rituals would always take place at home.
[ Attachment: Photograph of two girls smoking shisha ]
About the violence you mentioned btw, I think of it in stories from the 19th and early 20th century of women in love relationships that either had to perform a housemate narrative or perform manhood. Because to live together intimately at home was an exclusively heterosexual framework. So the construction of the domestic was inherently violent to some.
[ Attachment: Reference women in love ]
But then, of course, the pairing of ‘domesticity’ with ‘privacy’, constitutes it as a safe space in other ways, that is also especially inscribed in the law. The police cannot enter the territory of a home unless with legal papers (pff!). And that ties back to what you mentioned about home being a safe space for folks who experience more violence in public.
One of the projects I did in my graduation (which also extends into my PhD research) looked at exactly that narrative of domestic=private=safe as something inscribed into the law(s). Which in turn, makes the domestic terrain a space with potential for resistant practices. For instance, independent (art) collectives in Tehran could emerge and operate within apartment units, while if they would work as public or official organisations they would be heavily surveilled. They could operate within apartment units as long as it would seem like a house, with no police force having permission to intervene. This is domesticity performing as cover; a fascinating tactic that has been happening in many other cases around the world as well.
I think this photo of these two girls smoking shisha in this room is a way to think about kinship that is formed temporally. I bring this image to say that I think intimacy doesn’t happen in the bedroom only. Looking closely at the photo now, I also like the little vanity mirror in the back, and the curtain that seems to cover a door, and that the photographer stands in the frame of another door: a series of curtains and doors. And OF COURSE the cat <3.
︎Back to Index