Abbas Akhavan Collaboration at the Chisenhale Gallery

Kate with Abbas Akhavan

‘Curtain Call, Variations on a Folly’

Article by Julie Shaw, August 2021

During late June and early August 2021, Kate Edwards has been working on a collaboration with the artist Abbas Akhavan as the cob building expert for his installation at the Chisenhale Gallery in East London.  Kate designed the cob construction processes for this cob reconstruction of the colonnade leading to the Palymra Arch in Syria, a 2000 year old historic monument destroyed by ISIS in 2015. The work explores issues of impermanence, cultural genocide, colonialism and iconoclasm.

Kate with Abbas Akhavan
Kate poses with Artist Abbas Akhavan by his installation ‘Curtain Call, Variations on a Folly’ at the Chisenhale Gallery

For this project the challenge was to build tall, vertiginous, thin columns, with hanging ridge sections of cob supported between them.  A stable structure when built in stone, stability was much more difficult to achieve using cob, particularly with only three weeks to complete and dry out the installation.  Kate designed a rammed earth method using two-foot tall hollow cylinders of plywood surrounding poles which had been fixed to the stage and studded all the way up with screws and nails.  The cob was rammed down into the space between the cylinder and the pole, and the cylinder was then removed, leaving the cob supported on and concealing the studded pole.  Each two-foot tall layer of the columns was then left to dry before the next layer was constructed upon it.  To achieve the forced perspective in the work, the cylinders used for the far columns were smaller in diameter than the ones for the near columns, and the far columns were positioned gradually closer together.  For the hanging sections Kate designed a cob-bale method in which miniature hand-tied straw bales were connected along a wooden rafter.  These rough straw bales then provided the ‘key’ into which the cob could then be pressed before sculpting.  Abbas wanted his cob pillars and the sculpting left ‘sketchy’ and it can be seen that the near columns and hanging sections are more defined than the far ones, contributing to the forced perspective.  Abbas also wanted the joins between the two-foot sections of column left un-smoothed, revealing the construction process and reflecting the honesty and authenticity of the cob material, as well as mirroring the stone sections of the actual Palmyra columns.

When the show opened on Saturday 14 August the construction process was immediately evident in the difference in colour between the lower portions of the columns which dried out first and the upper sections which were not yet fully dry and were darker in colour.  During the course of the exhibition this difference in tone will fade as the upper sections also dry out, making the work a slowly-changing testament to time.  After the show the cob from the installation will be returned to the ground, continuing the themes of impermanence, age and destruction.

The artist Abbas Akhavan during construction

From the Chisenhale Gallery exhibition booklet:

“Chisenhale Gallery is pleased to present curtain call, variations on a folly, a new commission by Montréal-based artist Abbas Akhavan. Akhavan’s work ranges from context-specific installations to drawing, video, sculpture and performance. Paying close attention to the historical, societal and architectural structures of a given site, Akhavan uses a range of materials to examine spaces and species just outside the home, such as the garden, the backyard, and other domestic landscapes.”

“For his Chisenhale Gallery commission, Akhavan develops his ongoing research into the relationship between chroma key green screen technology and cob, an ancient building material made of subsoil, water and straw. A large chroma key green stage with an infinity wall fills the gallery and hosts a series of sculptures made of cob. The cob installation is built in the image of the colonnade that once approached the monumental Arch of Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old heritage site in Syria. The arch is thought to have been destroyed by Islamic State militants in 2015, and subsequently replicated in marble by the UK- and US-based Institute of Digital Archaeology using 3D imaging technology.”

“The chroma key green screen and cob used in the exhibition sit at opposite ends of the material spectrum. Cob is an organic, ancient form of construction, and chroma key compositing is one of the most ubiquitous visual effects tools used to construct digital images. Shifting perception through the manipulation of visual and sonic perspectives, Akhavan’s installation acts as a potential portal, where the green screen stage repositions the cob sculptures as placeholders that have the possibility to exist in any given space.”


Abbas Akhavan lives and works in Montréal. Solo exhibitions include the CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco (2019); Fogo Island Gallery, Fogo Island, (2019); Museum Villa Stuck, Munich (2017); FLORA ars+natura, Bogotá (2016) and Delfina Foundation, London (2012). Recent group exhibitions include the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe (2021), Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool (2018); SALT Galata, Istanbul (2017); Sharjah Biennial 13, United Arab Emirates (2017); and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2016). Residencies include Fogo Island Arts, Fogo Island, Canada (2019, 2016, 2013); Atelier Calder, Saché, France (2017); and The Watermill Center, New York, USA (2011). He is the recipient of the Fellbach Triennial Award (2017); Sobey Art Award (2015); Abraaj Group Art Prize (2014); and the Berliner Kunstpreis (2012).”

Column and hanging ridge

Quotes from Interview with Abbas Akhavan:

‘As for cob, I have been interested in this ancient material for quite some time. While my biography is of little relevance to my work, I have many memories of cob from my childhood.  My grandparents lived in a small village that was made almost entirely of cob.  I remember running and scraping up against a farm wall and learning quickly how bad the rough cob can scratch the skin.  So, the memory of cob is more about the feel of the material than the location in which I first experienced it. More importantly, cob has wonderful qualities with a lot of potential, hence its recent popular comeback as a sustainable building material.  Clay, an essential component of cob, is often nutrient-rich with minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium.  While building, those minerals can be absorbed through the skin.  It has a richness to it, yet it is cheap, with much structural and visual value.  It is generous in its malleability as it dries quickly, does not shrink, it is non-toxic and is biodegradable.  The material feels suggestive, as if it can connote form with very little information and effort, a qulity that I value in sculpture.  I don’t conceal it.  It is just cob.  Old as dirt.’

‘Cob is nothing short of…clay with loose aggregate of rocks, gravel and sand in the ground.  So, one can imagine that when dug out for shelter, it is easy to repurpose its ingredients for building and expanding upwards, to make vertical structures, walls, platforms and so on.’

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