Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 6, 2021
Panteha Abareshi: Tender Calamities
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, online February 4–April 22, 2021
Panteha Abareshi, New Artifacts, 2021, installation view, Panteha Abareshi: Tender Calamities, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 2021 (photograph provided by the artist and Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery)
Panteha Abareshi, New Artifacts, 2021, installation view, Panteha Abareshi: Tender Calamities, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 2021 (photograph provided by the artist and Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery)

Panteha Abareshi’s solo exhibition Tender Calamities—presented in both physical and online formats at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG)—highlighted the complexities of illness and disability. Originally hailing from Canada, Los Angeles–based artist Abareshi (they/them/theirs) pressed their audience to reconsider the relationship between embodiment and its representations. Drawing from their own experience with chronic illness and the othering of the sick and disabled body, Abareshi confronted the trauma and violence of the medical industrial complex and how ostracizing and objectifying the experience of seeking care can be. In turn, LAMAG’s exhibition layout did double duty, showing the work while simultaneously engaging with and highlighting the struggle of museums presenting artworks during pandemic times. The body, its illness, its pain, and the impossibility of rendering them neatly through text and through line were brilliantly paralleled by LAMAG’s display of the work, resulting in a thoughtful exhibition.

Precarity underscores Abareshi’s video work Unlearn the Body (2020), which attempts to render the body as object. While to resist coding the body as subject proves an interesting (and, in this case, nigh impossible) pursuit for Abareshi as they clamber atop crutch handles, entangle themself with walkers, and tumble through the bars, Unlearn the Body actually presses this resistance of objectivity one step further: the work makes us keenly aware of the cost of trying to render the body as object. The kaleidoscopic portrayal of mobility devices, with black lines entwining on a sea of orange, transform mobility aids into a smattering of shapes, revealing simultaneously their complexity as objects and how distant a rendering can be from reality. The precious materiality of these pieces of metal dissolves into swirls in the pursuit of representation, inverting Abareshi’s own engagement with the physicality of these devices.

For the video work Methods of Care for the Precarious Body (2020), Abareshi dons a myriad of braces, completing the hardware assemblage with hospital socks, an ID bracelet, and latex gloves in a variety of still photos. These images are interspersed with photos of the artist clad in braces, watching these same images being displayed on a projection carousel, stoically bearing witness to their own discomfort. As Abareshi prods, stretches, and ultimately puts on each piece of equipment in the photos, the beige, supposedly “nude-colored” devices stand in gentle contrast to their darker skin, a subtle nod to the dominance of whiteness in the medical industry. In the final images, hard metal U-bolts are clasped around their wrists and ankles, while the bright teal of the loose latex gloves and hospital socks stand out keenly. The clean white dashes and V’s of puffed ink on the hospital socks are the only accent, a visible reminder of utility as a predominant aesthetic of care in medicine.

The LAMAG website provides a running time for Methods of Care for the Precarious Body that differs from the five minutes and forty-nine seconds of the video—twice the length plus twenty seconds—suggesting subtly that a proper viewing includes two complete cycles of the film with a bit to spare. Care for the chronically ill body plays to no convenient timeline. While Abareshi distills the tedium and agony of care into these five minutes and forty-nine seconds, the longer viewing suggested by LAMAG proves especially fruitful as it captures the exhaustingly repetitive and cyclical nature of both illness and care.

In the sculptural installation New Artifacts (2021), Abareshi deftly marked the pelvis as a site of both pleasure and agony, with the two sensations at times coexisting in perfect harmony in the realm of sexuality, only to clash once more in the pain of illness. A ring of one-third-scaled white plastic pelvises descended from the ceiling on hooks, recalling the inescapable meatiness of flesh dangling in butcher shop windows, with the dark intrigue of the interior of the body being made visible. Piercings studded the white sculptures, treading a fine line between the loss of control over the body in pain and the intentional pain of piercing in bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM). The web fails to do justice to the scale and height of this work, making the pelvises seem more on eye level than hovering overhead, as they would be for most in a physical gallery setting.

The 3D-printed pelvises, derived from scans of Abareshi’s own body, point to the weird voyeurisms that accompany medical diagnostics. This information, which was available via wall texts in the gallery, is not apparent when viewing the work online, and this shortfall in trying to render the piece virtually is particularly appropriate, offering a metaphor for what is lost when the physical body is distilled into data and divorced from its fleshly presence.

Functioning as a reduction of physical phenomena to a single undulating line, even as it draws parallels between the natural fluctuations of both body and earth, the installation Aggregation (2020) features videos of a performance in which Abareshi attached an electrocardiogram (EKG) to themself as they recounted significant memories. Audio of this recounting is rendered via oscilloscope into a sinusoidal waveform. Small monitors display seismographic, astronomical, atmospheric, and biological data. On their webpage for the work, Abareshi points to these disparate threads of visually rendered information coexisting as “one single, indiscernible visual language,” but this statement does not hold true for all; for those trained accordingly, some of these marks constitute legible signs proffering a wealth of information. With the exception of the oscilloscope rendering, here data is encoded in a form inaccessible to most but, significantly, not to all, underscoring how much the ill body must depend on trained medical practitioners to translate and interpret its signs when they are reduced to data, and in turn how far that interpretation is removed from the immediacy of the lived experience. For the rest of us without that privilege of knowledge from medical training, these lines remain mysterious, indecipherable scrawls.

Similar to New Artifacts and the disparities between its physical and web presences, the exhibition captures the reductiveness of referencing a work via a series of lines on a paper through identifying text, just as seismographs and EKGs render complexity into a warbling scrawl, losing any sense of pain, of fleshiness. The smattering of pixels on my screen allows a fantastic degree of access and elicits further clicks, deeper dives into more information, but it stands divorced from the physicality of being in the space of LAMAG, feet on an unforgivingly hard floor, the inevitable coldness of the gallery space, the embodied reality of attempting to comprehend Abareshi’s attempt to express their lived reality of pain.

For all the pains it proffers, Tender Calamities is a visual treat. The work is a rich cacophony of pain and pleasure that honors the normalcy of illness, discomfort, and care. Simultaneously, it complicates not only our understanding of embodiment and illness but also the process of exhibition making and exhibition meaning.

Aubree Penney
Independent Curator