Abbas Akhavan’s Dark Comedy at Western Front

by Brandon Chow

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Abbas Akhavan’s exhibit at the Western Front elevates us to a precariously edged twilight zone between comedy and homicide.

Two protagonists drag an awkward body through an old building, trying to dispose of it. But the corpse is actually still alive and it swings its limbs in all directions. Partway through, the killers realize that it is not actually dead, and then things become really complicated.

The introductory synopsis attached to the accompanying pamphlet is an ominous prelude to Akhavan’s grimly constructed crime scene, but does little to brace us for the experience that lies ahead. Akhavan’s early practice explores connections between violence, the home and the nation state. Building on these ideas, the artist has turned his attention to domesticated spaces, such as gardens and backyards, and placed aspects of these manicured landscapes within the gallery.

Upon entering the white-walled room, I was met by a drably dressed adolescent girl, whom at first glance I mistook as just another visitor. As she sat in the corner of the room, she quietly read aloud with an eerily intonated rhythm, throwing around complex biological terminology about the condition and treatment of the withering corpse to her right. I began to recognize that her purpose here was far removed from my own, and far from anything natural, as her words polluted the space with an unsettling atmosphere.

The room itself seems to have been curated with stark purposefulness: the plain white walls accentuate the sparse arrangement of props (plants, the corpse, a bench, and a plaster model) that litter the ground, giving the attempted murder—and exhibit—a calculated and deliberate sentiment.

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At this point, it’s worth considering the importance of Western Front as a site-specific location. The structural heritage of the building marks it as a reminder of the 1950s or ’60s, which adds a unique character to the exhibit. Dark wooden floors and frames create an unnerving backdrop and soundtrack, complete with creaky footsteps and portentous stairways to where—as in every scary movie ever—bad things happen.

Returning our attention to the poor soul on the ground, whose near-death experience has been turned into a public spectacle, we can take a look at the main feature of the exhibit: a video documentation of the killers as they drag the body about the building.

The video is strangely absurd and comical, which really only makes sense once the “joke” in Akahavan’s exhibit is revealed.

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The corpse in this PG-13 horror show is actually a bird-of-paradise plant—an exotic South African plant standing four feet tall, with several leafy “limbs” to swing about. The creepy passages describing the body are excerpts from The Natural History of the Garden, a how-to guide on tending your very own greenery.

The absurdity comes from watching Akhavan and his “accomplices” struggle to drag the large, overbearing plant and its pot throughout the building to its final resting spot in the exhibition room.

In the end, I found Akhavan’s exhibit to more dark than humorous, although the strange assortment of elements did combine to create a sentiment both comically absurd and unnaturally creepy.

Green House is on until April 13th at Western Front, located at 303 West 8th Avenue.

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