“Give me a boundary. I want to know when I’ve arrived.”
These words end Mitra Saboury’s Dry Wall, a short film in which the artist navigates, through words and crawling, floor-bound movements, an empty, dilapidated warehouse space. They articulate a need, pulsing through many of the films on show in her two-part Birmingham exhibition “Pulling Walls”, to investigate, to explore, to test, and to get to grips, in very literal ways, with the built environment around her, in order to know where she is in her own body.
Several films play on loops at Millennium Point, including on the giant screen in the main atrium. Wooden drawers are filled with gloopy, gelatinous substances in various lurid colours, which Saboury’s hands mix and knead with relish; fruit is squished and squeezed together in visually and aurally vivid salads. A short walk away at Grand Union, screens stood on lumpy concrete legs depict the artist wandering the streets of Digbeth with a moulded shell on her back, or trying to squeeze an oozing clay bung into a hole in a wall using her cheek. Concrete is often thought to be a perennially hard and brittle material, but a friend told me recently that so much concrete was used in the construction of the Hoover Dam that some of it still hasn’t set yet, eighty years after pouring. Saboury’s passion is clearly for the gelatinous, oozing state of the material.
The films in “Pulling Walls” show a clear love for the the messy, the crumbling, and the squishy. Perhaps a better word than “love” is “empathy”: through the presence of her own limbs and hands and cheeks in each film, Saboury puts herself in the place of the materials she plays with, coming to terms with her own squishiness and vulnerability through that of the built environment, or alternatively making it fit to the proportions of her body by poking it, squeezing it, or leaning or climbing inside it. Working with the holes and the flaws and the leakiness of objects and surfaces as a way of working through one’s own predicament; working urgently, riskily. Give me a boundary. I want to know when I’ve arrived. We are all squishy beings, after all.
One artistic gesture stands out for regular visitors to Grand Union. The windows that span the length of the gallery space on two sides have been covered in swirls of white silicone, finger marks clearly visible, illuminated by daylight and reifying that same light, turning it into sculpture, the way stained glass windows do. Bodies, objects, and the ether, completing and making each other whole.
“Pulling Walls” is showing at Millenium Point and Grand Union until 4 November. A tour with curator Anneka French is on 8 October.