How 1950s architectural criticism inspired Haleh Redjaian’s Dubai show

This is the Berlin-based artist's second project in Dubai

Installation view of Inhabiting the Grid by Haleh Redjaian
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The centrepiece of Haleh Redjaian’s current show at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde is an elegant, fragile-looking steel-wire sculpture, which the artist likens to a “drawing in space”.

Made in collaboration with a Dubai steel company in the days before her exhibition's opening, the work responds to its Alserkal Avenue site.

“I started first seeing how the light is, how the walls are behind it, and then placed the strings like lines on a paper,” Redjaian explains. “Each wall was created after each other and reacted to each other, like in a drawing you start drawing and every next line reacts to what is on the paper. You can never go behind a drawing, but this one you can experience from the other side.”

The work is surrounded by Redjaian’s intimate, precise drawings in which small geometric forms create the impression of both architecture and personal testimony. Some resemble Constructivist forms, while others evoke three-dimensionality, as if Redjaian were drawing prototypes for fantastical sculptural domiciles. This is the Berlin-based artist's second project in Dubai, and she continues that exhibition's theme of what might be called subjective abstraction – in her 2015 show, for example, she created a thread work based on the Azadi Tower in Tehran, which she has described as the first building she used to see when visiting her grandmother in Iran as a child.

Haleh Redjaian Notes for Daydreaming, 2017-18 Acrylic, graphite and gold leaf on grid paper 19.5 x 19.5 cm (HRED/PA 053)
Drawings from the collection 'Notes for Daydreaming.' Courtesy Haleh Redjaian and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

For this show, Inhabiting the Grid, she recalls how a curator recently brought up Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, an important late 1950s book of architecture criticism that details how spaces create and influence emotions.

“I realised: this is what I’ve been doing," Redjaian says. "Bachelard describes how we relate to space through memory. I thought this was very important. We carry traces of memory in our lives, and make work about poetics, about daydreaming, about space” all at once.

The works in Dubai are the result of Redjaian's encounter with Bachelard's writings, bringing together both her formal investigations into the act of drawing, and an exploration of how she can imbue these abstract representations with verve and feeling. The drawings Notes for Daydreaming, for example, gives the impression of thoughts attaining shape and colour as they spread out across the page. Some seem contained and confident, whereas others – such as a cloud of small, inked diamonds – resemble a tangent that has refused to settle.

As much as she admits allowing feeling and reference into her work, she insists that the foundation of each artwork is the line. She describes her working process as intuitive: a simple procedure that starts with her making a mark, and taking a series of decisions that follow on one from the other.

“When I start, it’s the paper, the pencil, and me,” she explains. “Like the painter would put the paint, I would put the line.”

Haleh Redjaian Notes for Daydreaming, 2017-18 Acrylic, graphite and ink on paper 19.5 x 19.5 cm (HRED/PA 047). Courtesy Isabelle Van den Eynde Gallery
Drawings from the collection 'Notes for Daydreaming'. Courtesy Haleh Redjaian and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

The exhibition reveals how fecund this idea is, exploring the line in a variety of ways: in her 3D sculpture; the careful drawings on graph paper and plain paper; in a wall-drawing generated by a mathematical system; and in woollen tapestries, which she embellishes by painting, printing and sewing.

The thread works are made on specially woven kilim tapestries, made by a small family-run business in Sirjan, a town in the south of Iran. She commissions them almost as blank canvases, interested by the idea that weaving presents the possibility of drawing materially.

"I thought, how can I find a materiality that most resembles a pencil line? I got these very fine threads, and then when I saw the carpet I saw these lines crossing and I could imagine these crossed lines as a grid.”


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Though the the sample the artisans sent her was perfect, on their side, they needed some convincing.

“In the beginning they were a bit sceptical,” she recounts. “Saying, what do you want to do with this, all these white carpets? They told me, you have to pay before, because if you don’t collect them, no one is going to buy them.”

Redjaian paints or prints on the rugs, and then sews threads on them, as if she is making a drawing in thread work. The relationship has now grown into more of a collaboration. “I visited them a few years ago because I thought it was nice to see what I am doing, and from that point on we really understood each other. And I understood them too – they said it’s not easy weaving these white carpets because it’s very tiring for the eye.”

Haleh Redjaian Notes for Daydreaming, 2017-18 Acrylic, graphite and ink pen on paper 19.5 x 19.5 cm (HRED/PA 041)
From 'Notes for Daydreaming' collection. Courtesy Haleh Redjaian and Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

Now, she says, they add ornamentations to the rugs that she then reacts to: a feeling of irregularity and handicraft nature that also affects the wall drawings she makes. Though the walls at the Dubai gallery are pristine, she notes that her previous occasion making the wall drawing was on a “horrible” wall that kept crumbling.

But for her, it became a chance for partnership.

Describing how she had to wipe the graphite onto the wall with a tissue, she says, “The handcraft bit gives it soul. It makes it more alive.”