Ask any kid at a museum – sculptures and paintings would be so much better if you could poke, climb or explore them. And no art screams to be clambered over as much as Siah Armajani’s immense architectural sculptures, but in this retrospective exhibition of work by the 74-year-old Iranian-American artist – famed for his large public installations and for being a vocal critic of the war in Iraq – almost everything is strictly off-limits. Verboten. No touching.
It’s a shame, really, because the works are beautiful, rough, inviting abstract constructions, with steps and doors that you want to climb and open. So in the outside space, when you can finally get into the art, walk around in it, steal a pencil, it’s so much more rewarding.
As beautiful as his architectural works are, they are in fact his least successful pieces. In the upstairs gallery you understand why. Laid out like a plan for a city, hundreds of tiny model bridges, houses, platforms and rooms that will never be built spread across the space. They are Armajani’s intensely personal journey through an interior world of unrealised possibilities. There’s a feeling of displacement, of someone far from home, trying to find a sense of belonging where there is none.
The 11 small 2D works tell the same story. Persian calligraphy is scrawled into abstraction, an English dictionary is aggressively defaced, homages to traditional miniature paintings fall apart and crumble. It all feels so disconnected, lost and more personal than the architectural works. It’s as if the big pieces are Armajani’s front, his public face, and the little ones are a peek into his heart and mind.