A Site to Behold: Works by Zarouhie Abdalian

Zarouhie Abdalian (MFA 2010) maintains quite the hectic travel schedule. This fall she made a trip to Bergen, Norway, to participate in the Kunstindustrimuseum's Material Information exhibition, and afterward she headed to the 9th Shanghai Biennial as a participant in the San Francisco pavilion.

She's exhibited work and created site-specific installations throughout the United States and eight other countries; right now you can see one of her works, The fall without the fruit, at the CCA Wattis Institute's When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes exhibition, on view through December 1, 2012.

Abdalian's work has evolved dramatically since her years as an undergraduate at Tulane University, where she focused on painting and printmaking. While at CCA she developed an entirely new way of working that is sculptural, and profoundly site specific. A new piece doesn't begin until she researches the place where it will be located. Visually and historically, her installations engage in dialogue with their viewers and -- ideally -- disrupt their typical interaction with a particular place.

A Sense of Place

This research may be easier said than done, depending on where in the world the work is being executed. For the 12th Istanbul Biennial last year, she was able to spend a long summer in the city, investigating its underlying cultural currents and tensions. The piece she made, Having Been Held Under the Sway, was simple and elegant, a minimal gesture full of meaning.

Visitors walked into what appeared at first to be an empty white cube. But affixed to the backs of the surrounding drywall were tactile transducers transmitting infrasonic test tones, which are below the threshold of human hearing but still felt in the body. The infrasonic waves acted on the materials of the room, creating rattling and humming sounds -- a "live" response of the room itself. Visitors found themselves leaning against the walls, pressing cheeks and hands to its surfaces to feel the vibrations. On the back wall dangled a plumb bob, its ability to measure vertical true compromised by the perturbation of the room's materials.

One experience from the biennial stands out in particular: "I was being interviewed by a journalist for an Armenian newspaper published in Istanbul. Her questions were so insightful; I could tell she had had a very personal experience with my piece. To think that my work had prompted such a compelling response was very meaningful."

For other situations, such as her participation in the show in Norway, she must interpret the site from home and have an installation plan mapped out ahead of time. "My work is in the entryway of the museum. To figure out how I should approach the space I studied photographs of it, reflected on the museum's history and on the themes of the current exhibition, and tracked the position of the sun in Norway from September into the winter."

Exhibitions Abroad, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina

The media she uses may have evolved over the years, but Abdalian's valuation of being grounded in place has been present since her art practice began, at the public arts high school NOCCA in her hometown of New Orleans. "They stressed that your work should reflect your location. That always stuck with me."

While studying at Tulane, she worked for the nonprofit Neighborhood Gallery, founded by the civil rights activist Sandra Berry and Berry's husband, Joshua Walker. "It was very much a community space. Working with Sandra and seeing her vision of what the space could represent to the area, how it could support the life of the neighborhood while representing a broad vision, was very inspiring."

After graduating from Tulane in 2003, Abdalian took advantage of as many opportunities to show her work as possible, and through colleagues and applications she was able to exhibit throughout the world: Sarajevo, Bosnia; Capetown, South Africa; Cadaques, Spain; Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Then came summer 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, and everything in her personal and creative life changed. "I had been working figuratively before, but then suddenly zoomed out on the landscape. Katrina changed my relationship to the sites that I addressed with my work -- not to mention everything and everyone I knew. I moved to Philadelphia, where I would eventually make my first site-specific installation, Parallax, which is permanently installed at a cathedral in West Philadelphia.

From Philadelphia to San Francisco and CCA

In 2008, Abdalian and her partner, Joseph Rosenzweig, were looking for a place where they could both attend grad school and enjoy living. The Bay Area was a natural choice. He started in the MFA program at Mills College studying music, and she enrolled at CCA. She began as a painter but continued pursuing work in a variety of media as her projects dictated.

"I only made a couple of paintings during my time at CCA. The school's interdisciplinary approach is a real strength of its MFA program. I worked with Linda Geary and Rebeca Bollinger every semester. We still stay in contact today. I also was challenged by Glen Helfand and Susan Gevirtz, who pushed both me both in the studio and in my writing."

Working on Site in San Francisco and Oakland

Many of Abdalian's recent works have been based at sites in the Bay Area. A recent work at the Victoria Theater, Now Showing, was part of Mission Afterviews, a project curated by CCA Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice alumnae Sharon Lerner, Michele Fiedler, and Xiaoyu Weng, that examined the current interest in theater revival as a form of nostalgia in the landscape of the Mission neighborhood.

The piece was a series of phrases installed on the outside marquee. "If anything, I wanted to counteract nostalgia by pointing to elements existing in the contemporary landscape. The marquee piece functioned to describe a site in flux, where the outline of any narrative is necessarily dependent on the position of the viewer in space and time."

Another recent work that attracted an enthusiastic response from both the neighborhood and the arts community, Flutter, was conceived in 2010 for a site in downtown Oakland. In this piece a false window constructed of Mylar shudders ever so gently, but consistently, giving the viewer a sense of unease amid the presumed stability of the structures populating the urban center.

A vinyl wall text completes the work and hangs in the gallery space. The piece resonated especially with the neighborhood at the time, as it was on display during the week when Oakland was preparing for the Mehserle trial verdict, and some windows were even being boarded up for fear of riots.

An Artist's Life

To supplement her creative practice, Abdalian assists other artists and also teaches art at a few different long-term elder care facilities in Oakland and Berkeley. "I like being in a nontraditional classroom setting, and working with people who have such a different relationship with art. It's nice to get some perspective, and hear stories about what life was like in the area 40 and 50 years ago. Connecting with the elders makes my life richer."

She maintains a studio in a shared space on Adeline Street in West Oakland. "With several part-time jobs it can be difficult, but I get to the studio almost every day. Oakland has an exciting arts community, and I feel increasingly invested in the city itself since moving here a couple of years ago. I definitely look forward to doing more public projects here."