The latest exhibition at Mottahedan Projects, “The Awakening”, brings together profound works by American abstract artist Peter Halley and Italian multimedia artist Pietro Roccasalva. While Halley is presenting a series of paintings inspired by the architecture of the Kaaba, Roccasalva’s installation, featuring a figurative sculpture and abstract painting is based on Oriental and Western philosophy, literature, mythology, religious iconography, architecture and art history. The show invites viewers to contemplate the journey of life and the eternal quest of the soul.
Roccasalva’s installation, titled “Z”, has evolved from paintings, installations and tableaux vivant that he has been creating since 2008. The stunning wood sculpture, chiselled and painted by hand, features a cathedral-shaped wagon with a dome that looks like a lemon squeezer. Instead of wheels, the wagon is supported by three levers manipulated by life-sized figures of three identical, bespectacled men, dressed as football referees. A camel with blinders around its eyes pulls the wagon towards the painting on an easel.
The three male figures represent Zurvan, the deity of infinite time in pre-Islamic Zoroastrian Iran, and his twin sons Ohrmazd, the deity of light and Ahriman, the deity of darkness, who are locked in a fight for the control of the universe. Their attempt to manipulate the wagon in different directions reflects the human struggle to find the right direction in life, and our futile attempts to control our fate. Their football referee uniforms allude to the judgment that awaits us at the end of the game of life.
The blind camel in this work is a metaphor for destiny, inspired by a poem of Zuhayr Bin Abi Sulma, one of the seven poets of pre-Islamic times, reputed to have been honoured by having their work hung in the Ka’aba. In the poem, “Mu’allaqat”, the poet describes death as a night blind camel stumbling in the desert trampling on men. The painting towards which the wagon is moving is an allegorical reference to the death of the Sun, and the end of all life.
“The lemon squeezer represents a pan-religious dome, which could also be a sundial that indicates the presence of the Sun and the passage of time. I often use it in my work as a reference to the death of the Sun and the nihilistic concept that all of existence is meaningless. In a previous work I also alluded to the death of the Sun by using a big ‘arancino’ [fried rice ball] placed on a stack of papers with Ellsworth Kelly’s painting ‘White Square’ printed on them.
“In this installation I have painted the grease marks left by the ‘arancino’ on the top sheet from that stack. This impression of the rice ball is like a relic of the death of the Sun, alluding to the biblical story of Veronica’s scarf, with which Jesus wiped his face, leaving behind an imprint of his features just before his crucifixion. The three figures are based on Zoroastrian mythology, and reminded me of the legend that the Magi of the Christian Nativity were Zoroastrians, as well as of mythological tales about twin deities of good and evil, such as the story of Cain and Abel.
“Interestingly, the figures are modelled on a real father and his twin sons. As a football fan I have also referenced the referee structure of a football match. The wagon refers to Zuhayr’s poem on death and the journey to the ‘end of the road’, which is not just the death of an individual, but the death of the Sun and thus the end of the universe. However, the painting conveys that death is just a passage, and the path continues on the other side,” Roccasalva says.
Halley’s series of paintings called “Direction” also deals with similar themes. Through the simple lines and the rectangular doorway of the Ka’aba, the artist represents the self and the transcendental journey of the self on the path that lies beyond the doorway. Halley has used a Roll-A-Tex to apply metallic and pearlescent acrylic paint on the canvas to create beautiful textures that add depth to the paintings and draw viewers in.
“In the late 1970s, when I was in my 20s I was drawn towards spiritual themes, particularly to historical Islamic art, and studied how the symmetry, radiating vectors and light effects of the geometric patterns of tile mosaics in mosques and palaces conveyed a sense of spirituality and cosmic harmony. I also made small paintings with square and cubic forms to explore the parallels between minimalist art, which was at its peak then and the stark architecture of the Ka’aba, which is a pure iconic symbol of a sanctuary.
“But later I moved on to investigating the sociological implications of square and rectangular shapes as enclosed spaces representing the alienation of the individual in the modern world. When Mohammad Mottahedan suggested the iconography of the Kaaba as a subject for a new series, I agreed enthusiastically because the Ka’aba embodies themes of iconicity, austerity, enclosure and sanctuary that are important to me. But, I want to leave the interpretation of these works to the viewer,” Halley says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
“The Awakening” will run at Mottahedan Projects, Al Quoz until April 19.