Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Garden

by Alexander Hawkins

Last week I had the pleasure of catching the last day of Abbas Akhavan’s first UK solo exhibition of installations produced during a 10-week residency at Delfina Foundation. Sadly, the Foundation is now closed for extensive renovation before reopening as one of London’s largest international residency spaces.

The Delfina Foundation is an independent, non-profit organisation with a particular emphasis on international collaborations with the Middle East and North Africa. After their remodelling, its programmes will continue to broaden a transnational perspective by developing partnerships with Brazilian, Indian and European artists.

Akhavan’s site-specific installation Study for a Garden used an entire, rather tired house adjacent to the Foundation. What the artist produced was a highly contrived exploration of the intrusion of the garden into the home. If we consider this an attempted to collapse a distinction between inside and outside by simultaneously domesticating the natural and naturalising the domestic, we can perhaps see Akhavan subscribing to a fairly perennial thematic binary. However, the overwhelming sense of artifice served to undermine this notion of folding boundaries between species of space and instead drew upon parallels.

Working with the original features of the house, at times one is not sure where the installation ends and the space begins. Comprised of five pieces spread across the house, there is a specific order in which you are expected to move through the space: starting on the ground floor and working up to the third before finally going down to the basement.  There is arguably an alternation of verticals and horizontals between the four storeys in a kind of rhyme scheme composition: the horizontality of the basement and first floor works, and the verticality of the ground and second floor pieces.

Upon entering you are faced with a wall of Leylandii trees where you begin to hear the rhythmic, constant dripping of Leak coming from the next room. On the first floor, ivy spreads across the original floral carpet in Variations on a garden and the pervasive sound of water, from Leak downstairs and the spray of Fountain’s oscillating sprinkler upstairs merge into a cacophonous soundtrack that insists upon the aural presence of physical elements even when not visible. Eventually, down in the basement you are confronted with Dirt/table, a wooden kitchen table covered precisely with one ton of soil that inspires macabre notions of burial or perhaps more literal references to the dug-out nature of the basement itself.

The garden’s intervention was not left to its own devices, unfolding chaotically or subsuming the house in the way that one sees in abandoned buildings. It was a highly controlled environment, bordering on a scientific or psychological study perhaps made reference to in the work’s title, and arguably we could identify this sense of the studied as the central point of consideration. For me, there really was no feeling of what Time Out’s Ossian Ward described as that akin to a “site of disaster or neglect” where “nature has been left to take over.” Equally however, this fact did not undermine my engagement with the installation, but piqued my interest further. What resonated most profoundly was the idea of a garden as a “guarded space, an enclosure, or a compound. Water, vegetation and gardening tools create discriminatory spaces, keeping some species alive and others dead.” In this light we can view the home itself as a discriminatory space, tirelessly working to keep certain things out and others in. It appears thus that Abbas Akhavan may point toward the manufactured sterility of a well-kept garden and of the antiseptic home. I then began to think about Victoriana with its proliferation of ornate floral wallpapers and rugs, a predilection for potted plants and conservatories and orangeries as means of civilising nature in small and grand gestures of floral worship.

The cumulative effect reminded me of central concepts of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space  – in his application of phenomenology to the lived experience of architecture – as a way of problematising the affective potential of interior space. Bachelard said, “It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” The very fact of the matter is that site-specific work like Akhavan’s is characterised by its ephemerality and its temporal finitude. This is then further compounded by the scheduled building renovation immediately following the closure of the exhibition. Unfortunately, if you haven’t seen this intriguing installation before now, you are out of luck, but I would urge you to keep your eyes open for the Delfina Foundation’s reopening so that you can enjoy the fruits of their next residency.

If you would like to see a short video I made of my encounter with this installation, take a look at my tumblr at