Michael Ashkin’s Adjnabistan 2005 is a remarkable landscape sculpture arranged on a tabletop. Exhibited at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, the work filled the room to such an extent that the viewers had to ‘scrape around the sides of the room’ (Cohen 2005). The simulated ground consists of plasterboard sheets and the habitations are made from recycled cardboard and gypsum. Ashkin notes:
“Adjnabistan” is the name of the anti-nationality I invented with a friend while traveling through the Middle East in the late 1970s. Derived from the Arabic “adjnabi” (meaning “foreigner,” “stranger,” or “other”), this land of impossible origin proved useful, especially in Iran, where, as an American, one needed to avoid treacherous political discussions. If said with the proper lightness of tone, “Adjnabistan” could provoke a smile or even be accepted without question. In any event, we could not be accused of lying or insincerity; in fact, the more I used this word over the months, the more I came to develop mental images of this shadow homeland. These images varied widely and, like a dream, spanned numerous geographies, but empathetically included aspects of the political and economic neglect evident in the landscapes through which we passed. (in Rosen 2005)
Ashkin’s project is of interest on two counts: firstly, because it involves an American’s jouney to a territory which is antagonistic to the American way of life; and, secondly, because of the vast difference between Ashkin’s representation of human habitation in this enemy territory and that of his homeland, America. There is, on the one hand, a significant element of danger in the background to this work; and on the other hand, it behoves us to consider the political connotations of Ashkin’s representation of this other. David Cohen notes, for example, that Adjnabistan evokes an aerial view of a desolate “post-apocalyptic township of shipping containers, caravan, and makeshift observation towers on some prairie or step” (Cohen 2005). The imaginary territory and its habitations set out on large sheets of white plasterboard evoke a sense of desolation. Ashkin no doubt wanted to stress the difference between this land and his own, but there is a distinct lack of humanity in his depiction. Cohen notes the relationship of the work to an aerial view and an aerial view is significant in the way that it turns a landscape inhabited by people into an abstract picture. One can note that the abstraction that accompanies distance is of psychological benefit to the pilots of fighter jets and bombers as their victims become invisible, or are reduced to dots. In short Ashkin does little too evokes sympathy in his American audience and this is because his work is conditioned by the art historical discourse of abstraction and formalism rather than by a narrative sensibility. Ashcombe sought to create a work that was a dissertation upon the theme of “the other” but unfortunately it appears that he tried to express this fundamentally postmodern concern via a modernist vocabulary.
Cohen, David. 2005. Michael Ashkin: Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York Sun, 16 June. Online version hosted by artcritical.com accessed March 2007: http://www.artcritical.com/DavidCohen/SUN106.htm
Rosen, Andrea. 2005. Michael Ashkin: Adjnabistan. Andrea Rosen Gallery, May 6 – June 18, 2005. Press release, accessed March 2007: