Political agitation through reflection: Zarouhie Abdalian at KADIST San Francisco

An installation image of Zarouhie Abdalian's site specific Flutter (2010), at KADIST San Francisco. The image shows two individuals viewing the work from the street with their backs to the camera.
Zarouhie Abdalian, Flutter (2010), Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and KADIST collection.

Be here, or even better, be nowhere, the group exhibition curated by Director Jo-ey Tang from the KADIST collection, takes its title from Tarik Kiswanson’s sound work Vadim (2018). The 27-minute audio recording is a poem based on interviews with a preteen named Vadim. After Kiswanson recites the title phrase, the artist says “accept that things are now out of your control, completely out of phase.”

Kiswanson’s guidance embodies the mood of the recently closed exhibition. The irregular rhythms in his open-ended dialogue emphasize the gravity of attempting to dismantle both colonial power structures and remedy their effects — a theme mirrored in the other works on display that address socio-cultural issues requiring sustained activism. 

Despite this undercurrent, the show also implies there is always the possibility for change. The ten artworks (selected from among a collection of over 2,000) demonstrate the combined potential of language and material to imagine reconstructions in society and culture, representing how coded references, contradictory meanings, and processes of translation can make progress in the context of artistic practice. The included works spanned a range of mediums across five decades and were visible from the gallery’s exterior storefront windows. 

Zarouhie Abdalian’s site-specific installation Flutter (2010), adapted for the collection and again for this exhibition, provided a first and last look. The work consisted of dual panels covered in reflective silver mylar placed edge to edge inside two windows with hidden tactile transducers coupled to amplified syne sweeps that created vibrations. These agitations caused a doubling effect, where the images of the mirrored scene — the corner of 20th Street and Folsom in San Francisco’s Mission District — remained in constant motion. Standing before the work or glancing at it while passing by, I could see myself and the surrounding world shaken, a reiterative experience, disorienting yet oddly grounding.

@kadistkadist. Instagram post. June 12, 2023. https://www.instagram.com/reel/CtZdwJSJNX2/?ref=vgtimes.ru

The piece was on view twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week throughout the exhibition’s run. Since I live and work near KADIST, I viewed Flutter almost daily during the four months the work was installed. These repeated moments produced an accumulation of impressions that brought particular details into focus: people commuting, snippets of conversations, the Department of Public Works employee who, on multiple occasions, remarked “It’s called Earthquake!” then walked by laughing, a fading sunset-hued mural on the side of the building across the street showing a fantasy version of SF, graffiti tags decorating the sidewalk, a Mexican restaurant awning celebrating its fiftieth anniversary for thirty-two years and counting, a pair of Victorian box trees swaying in the wind, cobwebs gathering in the corners of the frames.

Abdalian first installed Flutter, partly in response to the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer and the subsequent trial and ensuing protests, in Oakland at Pro Arts Gallery located at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, now unofficially known as Oscar Grant Plaza. In a statement about the latest installation, the artist remarked “rupture is the unavoidable expression of an unstable system.” I thought about what it meant to reinstall the work here, and now, and what had and had not changed in the last decade and a half, or the past century and a half, for that matter. 

Zarouhie Abdalian, Flutter (2010), Installation view, From the KADIST collection: Be here, or even better, be nowhere, KADIST San Francisco, April 14 to August 12, 2023. Courtesy of the artist, KADIST collection. Photo by Robert Divers Herrick.

Zarouhie Abdalian, Flutter (2010), Installation view, From the KADIST collection: Be here, or even better, be nowhere, KADIST San Francisco, April 14 to August 12, 2023. Courtesy of the artist, KADIST collection. Photo by Robert Divers Herrick.

Though the artworks in Be here, or even better, be nowhere were made over a twenty-four-year period, the sentiments they express feel as urgent as ever. Like Flutter, the works engage in political conversations through abstraction, using composite visual and verbal languages that speak materially across cultures. 

A free publication accompanied the exhibition containing a reprint of the poem read in Vadim. It was positioned sideways in the middle of the booklet, inviting a closer reading and echoing the reorientations found throughout the larger display. The line I remembered most from listening to Kiswanson’s work remains: “the future is in-between now.” It made me wonder if the act of reflection could extend beyond the past and present into the future — and if revising our view of the world might, in turn, change it.

From the KADIST collection: Be here, or even better, be nowhere
KADIST San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
April 14th-August 12th, 2023

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