It took Sholeh Asgary some time to find the rug – which now ties together the conceptual artist’s immersive month-long show inside a small gallery space on Willoughby Avenue. The room is kept pitch black, lit only by a bulb attached to a microphone that directs attention right below it, to a noteworthy bump in the carpet. You can get on your knees and touch the bump, as some do, and feel around as it moves slightly to the lightness of your touch. Asgary calls the piece “Qanat,” a Farsi word for the ancient system of underground aqueducts developed to transport water that’s still used in the country of Iran today. Indeed, around the room, a slight whooshing can be heard, not unlike the restless churn of a washing machine. 

The sound is – more or less – what’s keeping the corner of the rug up, says Asgary. “It’s being sent through a transducer, which affixes to a surface and uses the resident properties of that surface to transmit sound,” she says. “Qanat” is the centerpiece of one of Asgary’s biggest shows yet, itself called “By the Mouth of a Wadi,” a reference to an Arabic term for an ephemeral river.

“A wadi is a river regardless of whether it has been dry for centuries or if it currently contains water. One can also think about the mouth of a river past, or a river that has not yet run dry,” Asgary clarifies in an email that she sent a few days later. 

A bicoastal performance artist who largely works out of a studio in California, Asgary talks like most conceptual artists do – conceptually. Yet the experience of her latest work is viscerally satisfying and, in some conceptual way, stunning. You could notice, as the gallery’s website indicates, that the microphone hanging above the rug casts a shadow meant to invert “the mythical ‘Peacock’s Tail’ from Islamic dome architecture.” It’s apparently recording the noise of the room in order to feed the sound back into the transducers. 

Image: from the Tiger Strikes Asteroid Instagram.

But standing there, or even sitting down, is the real experience. The website from the gallery – a small Bushwick collective called Tiger Strikes Asteroid – goes on to detail this part of the effect too: “Enveloping the viewer in a womb like sound and space, ‘By the Mouth of a Wadi’ reminds us that we are all born into the comforting darkness of sound and water.” 

On the walls are another story entirely: a series of three prints, all paper-white. They are, in fact, made of paper: embossed cotton rags, the caption says. Asgary has named them “Ghatel I,” “Ghatel II” and “Ghatel III.” These were made, she says, from plaster casts that she blew into; their archipelago of indentations captures the outlines of her breath from those moments. Then, she says she melted “consumer-grade plastic” to create a mold that was used on the thin sheets of cotton.

Ghatel I, Ghatel II, Ghatel III were all made from plaster casts that Asgary altered by breathing on them. (courtesy of the artist)

The word “ghatel” is farsi for “murderer” – e.g. Asghar-e Ghatel, an early Iranian serial killer whose moniker translates to “Asghar the Murderer” – but Asgary means it in a slightly different way: “the ghatel” was a name that ancient Persian diggers used to refer to the work of mining those qanats, a task was deadly for many involved.  

In a later email, Asgary’s writes to me that “while each of these works are born out of tremendous research, they are also equally born, if not ever more so tremendously, out of my intuition.” She sends along some of that research – she considers a story that appeared in a 1968 issue of the Scientific American particularly helpful, for instance. 

Interpretive art often tries to interrogate complacency because so much of modern art is wrapped up in passive spectatorship.  A lot of current figurative art stylizes that relationship, lending it a language of pure iconography and dovetails into a theater of intellectual property. 

Instead, “By the Mouth of a Wadi” feels fresh – it concerns the present, but it is historically situated. Conceptual, but understandable. It reminded me of one of the city’s older still-standing works of immersive reflection, Walter De Maria’s “New York Earth Room” in Soho. Both speak in a language of well-researched formal simplicity.   

The rug? Asgary says she found it used online after some time searching for it. 

“Actually FedEx almost lost the rug,” she remembers. “They didn’t track it and it was missing for a while.” 

By the Mouth of a Wadi” will be at 1329 Willoughby Ave., at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, until February 13th. The gallery is open weekends, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and on weekdays by appointment.

Featured image: Andrew Karpan

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