10 September 2016 Babak Golkar (b.1977) is a Vancouver-based artist who opens his debut London exhibition this week at Edel Assanti. This exhibition, A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work is the second installment in ‘The Return Project’, which considers a series of assemblage works where readymade consumer articles are dissected, transformed and reinserted into their wholesale environment. Golkar’s solo exhibition borrows its title from the motto of the American Federation of Labor; this series takes labour as its central theme, addressing the role of the individual within large-scale commerce and mechanised production.
In this body of work, each piece in the exhibition is planned and executed around a specific concept within the theme of labour, specific to the original object’s broader allusion whilst examining issues ranging from geopolitics to workers’ rights and globalization. Below, Christiane Monarchi asked Golkar more about the background to these ideas, as well as the physical process undertaken with these objects and their photographic documentation for the resultant exhibition.
Christiane Monarchi: How did you first conceive of ‘The Return Project’?
Babak Golkar: The Return Project was initially conceptualized in 2002 as a performative gesture in which I purchased a ceramics vase from IKEA and made a plaster mould and casted a replica of it in a very fine thin pastel pink porcelain. Since the original vase had “IKEA, Made in China” embossed on the bottom of the original material, the replica picked it up and mimicked it as well. At that time I was only interested in that object finding its way back into the inventory of the store by the way of retuning it with the receipt and asking for a refund, which I did. But, that felt unresolved and I had no documentation of the process! I was also wrapping up my undergraduate degree and didn’t feel that there was enough time to explore the idea further with the given timeframe.
In 2014, I returned to the idea with an intention to develop it into a series that would allow me to playfully address diverse subjects that I have been thinking of examining for a while. I further thought out an overarching process for the series in which I visit multinational chains and big box stores such as Walmart, IKEA, TJMaxx, Home Depot etc. and look carefully through their aisles searching for objects that through the process of re-contextualization could point to the subject at hand. Once the object is purchased I bring it to the studio and photograph it, usually in a very straight forward documentation way. The object then goes through a modification and that often has to do with me taking a piece off of it and/or replacing a part with a customized hand made part.
Once the original object is modified, by the way of a discrete written note on the object, I authenticate the piece as a unique work of art, sign and date it then photograph it again and return it back to the store asking for a full refund. While that art object enters a mass market, what remains of the process is a before and after photograph, in a form of life size documentations, and a residue object that I turn into a collaged object. The collaged object is always in dialogue with the diptych photographs. The project, in this iteration, came about as a general frustration with the labour market in relation to quality of objects available for mass consumption and their valuation in relation to cheap labour. The latest iteration, A Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work, which will be debuted in London at Edel Assanti, in fact focuses on labour as its main subject and examines some historical registers as well as labour-valuation dynamics.
A very interesting concept indeed. I’d like to ask you a bit about the objects we will be seeing at Edel Assanti – on the website is a spool of ‘decorative ribbon, handcrafted in India’. This still looks like a spool, but now containing possibly yarn of a different colour. How important is the craft element to your object manipulation, which yields a product that could possibly be returned to the unknowing shopkeeper, but also leaves an expression of difference in form or colour. You didn’t want to make it too similar?
In fact the craft aspect of the project matters immensely as it points to the labour involved in the process, in particular for this latest iteration of the project since the overarching subject of examination is “labour”.
In the case of the spool, I found the object in a sister store to TJ Maxx called Winners! (They sell discounted household items). The spool caught my eyes because of the text on the label “handcrafted in India). I simply replaced the spool, which was spun of a long hessian thread, with a tri-color yarn. I chose the specific replacement yarn because of its colour associations with the British flag, as well as a few other countries associated with historical colonial power exercises. With the hessian thread I hired an expert knitter to knit a pair of gloves to the size of a ten year old boy. This was an excruciating process as I was informed later that the hessian thread is not flexible at all and is extremely difficult to knit. I am very much interested in the relationship between the diptych images and the collaged object, but also their relations to their respective titles. The photos are titled: “From EIC With Love” and the glove is called: “Hessian Glove for a Ten Year Old Boy”
In another piece, I cut a foot off of the end of the stick from a broom and replaced it with the end of a elderly person’s cane. With the cut off I made a shepherd’s flute (that actually functions). The photos are called “Shepherd and the Witch” and the flute is titled: “Primitive Accumulation”.
I’m really enjoying thinking about your work. For me this series also points to the creation of higher ‘exchange value’ of the evolved objects, if only the shop actually ascribed this value in the return instead of unknowingly valuing them the same as before your intervention. Your photographs capture this ‘lost’ value, which is not at all lost as they now hang in a commercial gallery to be collected alongside unique objects. Are your photographs also unique?
Thinking further through the economics, the retail system must eventually lose out in your transactions. Have you had problems in ‘returning’ your items? Is it of interest, who may use them next?
Your readings of the works and the function of photography in the series are absolutely spot on. The photos are unique as they are accompanied by the unique residue object.
In terms of the retail system’s loss, I could see it going either way, one could argue that they are not losing or gaining since they are missing the knowledge of the transformation. That’s already counted in their inventory as the “employees” don’t have much knowledge on what they are selling to begin with. As for having issues returning, I have only encountered it once when a cashier questioned the object as (a metal airplane desktop decoration) that I cut off its wings and tail and torched it. The problem was that char was falling off of it when I put it on her counter! But, she still took it back!
I have absolutely no interest in finding out where the objects end up or in whose hands. In fact, it has been suggested to me many times to try to trace them, and I think that’s not so relevant to my project.
Babak Golkar was born in Berkeley in 1977. He spent most of his formative years in Tehran until 1996 when he migrated to Vancouver, where he obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Arts from Emily Carr Institute in 2003 and a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia in 2006. Recent solo exhibitions include Of Labour, Of Dirt Sazman Aab, Tehran, Iran (2014); The Return Project, The Third Line, Dubai, UAE (2014); Time to Let Go, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (2014); Dialectic of Failure, West Vancouver Museum, Vancouver, Canada (2013); Ground for Standing and Understanding, VOLTA NY Featured Project, New York, USA (2013); Friday Late Special Project, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK (2012); Spatial Transformation, Hilger Modern Contemporary, Vienna, Austria (2012); Parergon, The Third Line, Dubai, UAE (2011). Selected group exhibitions include Common Grounds, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany (2014); L’avenir: 9th La Biennale de Montreal, Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal, Canada (2014); La Route Bleue, Boghossian Foundation, Villa Empain, Brussels, Belgium (2013); Come Invest in Us, You’ll Strike Gold, Brot Kunsthalle, Vienna, Austria; Jameel Prize Exhibition, Casa Arabe, Madrid, Spain (2012).