at Gazelli Art House, London (through 6 June 2021)
Reviewed by Niccy Hallifax
Walking into a London gallery again after a year of restrictions and lock-downs was strange but uplifting for the soul. More uplifting still was seeing an artist I have long admired, ever since I saw her work at the Saatchi gallery many years before. The Dust Became The Breath, at Gazelli Art House, is a solo exhibition for Aidan Salakhova, the prominent Azeri artist.
On display throughout the gallery are the sumptuous pieces of very fine and masterly crafted marble that look, belying the medium, both tender and entirely tactile. You would have thought it was either 3D printed, cast clay or created by a Renaissance artist of the 16th Century.
The breadth of the exhibition, mounted cleanly on walls and plinths, project in near-3D fashion the sensual nature of the work, which on the whole communicates itself through disparate threads and differing media. As well as the artist’s enchanting, exploratory mind, her rich, complex work looks at heritage and the history of the politics of being female. The work defies easy explanation because of its deliberate, quite touch of concept with the juxtaposition of medium. This is shown no more prominently than in the books, Without Words. These two books, sitting side by side, open in the centre as if to show a reader midway through reading, when they were pulled elsewhere. Both cut into white marble so exquisitely deft in its sculpting that at first sight you think it is silk, then as you get closer 3D-printed or cast in a fine plaster, until up close you gaze upon a sumptuous hand carving of one of the strongest materials a sculptor can create in.
On the walls are Salakhova’s drawings and paintings, which are Russian-stark and flat-out beautiful in their simplicity, whereas the cast marble and quartz busts are by contrast sensually detailed, fluid in form and rest on their rostrums as if awaiting the inhale or exhale some divine breath. In other words, they have a real weight and presence, and were one to furtively glance across her turning shoulder, surely she would see they are indeed alive. This juxtaposition in itself, between the spare works flat on the walls and the inspirited bodies on the gallery floor, is interesting, and not just from the perspective of craft, for it reveals a full integration of training with a visually astute understanding of form.
A master in her medium, Salakhova creates an existential, otherworldly space where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, where the folds in the cloth of the busts in particular are as fluid and soft as moving water, though now made somehow larger by the small exhibition space the three busts sit within. The busts themselves are clearly modelled on two different women, but all have an other worldly feal about them, especially the grey marble and yellow onyx bust called Portrait, ‘Sophie-Lerock’ (2020).
Courtesy of Gazelli Art House © Aidan Salakhova
This innovative mix of material heightens the feeling of the artist’s lightness of touch and her real feel for the mediums she sculpts. Every facet of her work becomes an indelible delight for the too-long, pandemic-deprived eyes on a grey low-cloud London backstreet off of Old Bond, otherwise known as a street which is home to fine jewels and fashion. Yet I would venture to say Salakhovas’ work is the sparkling jewel of the area. The detail, too, lies in so much mystery, and with each figure there seems so much waiting to be heard, to be able to speak her truth, to speak her mind quietly yet with purpose. Were these pieces to indeed speak, one would surely hear wisdoms come down from the ages, of what it is to look back to see the now and to understand the future. But though no word departs from their supple, graceful lips, the whispers of a heightened humanity and hard-won sagacity come movingly through.
The Dust Became The Breath structures its discourse on cultural and sexual identity, religion and spirituality, traditional symbols and journeys taken inward. Experimenting with implicit concepts of time and memory, Salakhova’s work elicits a sense of mysticism and transcendences, with an eye on the ‘nature of feminine,’ but with the presence of a warrior through time. The work as a whole conjures a simultaneous existence in multiple realities – internally and externally, in the past and present, experiencing and being experienced – while attempting to escape such constraints imposed by the principles of duality, of
feminine vs masculine
consciousness vs unconsciousness
guilt vs remorse
personal vs public
presence vs absence
past struggles vs present identities,
East vs West.
And while these expressions find language in concepts of time and memory, they also speak to the enduring presence of an abiding patriarchy in all of its looming, suffocating constructions, and the exhibition counters this presence with the definitive thrusting upward and forward, particularly articulated in the statues, of Woman, who is personified as both timelessly enduring and as an evocative, spirit-shaping energy that cannot be laid low, for these are the energies of the earth itself, which too suffers though will long outlast the consumptive lineage of insatiable Man.
Installation View. © Aidan Salakhova ‘The Dust Became the Breath’ Install shots, 2021, courtesy of Gazelli Art House.