Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy


I have a painting by Abbas Akhavan in my living room. It’s a square of raw canvas with a square of bleach at its centre, a work about erasure and extraction, and one that makes fun of the monochrome tradition. It’s also a kinetic painting: the bleach is slowly eating away at the canvas. I’m waiting for it to destroy itself.

My mom has visited my apartment twice in the last five years. On the first visit she looked at Abbas’s painting and said, “What’s that?” I told her it was a painting. “I hope you didn’t pay for it,” she said, and I said “Actually, I did.” She rolled her eyes and sighed “Well, I guess art is in the eye of the beholder.” “That’s beauty!” I snapped. “It’s different!”

The next time she visited she saw the painting and asked “What’s that?” I told her it was a painting. She said, “I hope you didn’t pay for it.”

Then there was a foil swan that Abbas made in my living room. I didn’t pay for it, and I promised to give it back. But I feel like the work might not be worth paying for. I mean that as a polemical compliment. Even Abbas has expressed confusion over the work’s status or role as sculpture. It’s an interesting relationship for an artist to have with a work that they themselves made, though one that most artists are familiar with (“Is it art yet? Was it a minute ago?”) The swan’s form is purposeful and referential, but it doesn’t read as skilled, and it doesn’t seem immediately challenging or significant. The swan’s head shimmers to the point that I had to look carefully to determine whether a jewel had been added where its eyes should be, an addition that would have made the work both something more and something less: an added feature would make the artist’s hand present in a way that would diminish the careless creases and folds the quick shaping and reshaping of foil already displays. It would also reward the viewer’s anxiety about a sculpture being so easy, so basic a form. The swan’s refusal to reward my doubts is my favorite thing about it. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, and that I gave it back. At its base it’s an off-putting piece. I like it a lot.

Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck (1535-40)
Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck (1535-40)

We generally don’t eat swans. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason why. Leviticus 11:18 tells us they are unclean, but strangely only in the King James Version. That prohibition should be understood in relation to the British consideration of swans as the ornithological embodiment of the crown. A hundred or so years before the publication of the King James Bible, Edward the IV passed the Act Concerning Swans, outlawing the hunting and keeping of the bird as tantamount to treason. Today the swan remains property of thecrown, and Queen Elizabeth still oversees an annual swan census on various tributaries of the Thames. In places like Michigan, where swan populations have grown to the point of nuisance, the hunting of swans has been re-introduced, providing what I can only imagine is an oddly nostalgic anti-imperialist pastime to a nation that both disavows and embraces its imperial present.

I’m not sure why the swan seems so regal, so much more regal than a goose or duck. Part of it must certainly be cultural, stemming from the Greek myths as well as the history of painting. But is there something else? Do swans move more slowly and confidently on ground? Do they waddle less? Do they seem more relaxed than other waterfowl? Ducks are anything but reserved. White geese – with their ridiculous small black eyes and idiotic beaks, with their squat necks – don’t inspire awe in the way that the taller masked swan does. The flamingo’s neck is even longer than a swan’s, but its rickety legs that bend backwards, its gaudy pink colouring, and its hooked beak disqualify it from being a symbol of anything but tourist leisure. There is something about the swan that seems to set it apart. When flying the swan’s neck stretches forward as if constantly crossing a finish line. The swan’s body is ambitious, and supercilious.

Painters and poets have contributed to the swan’s reputation. Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (1535-40) is one example. Ann Boleyn was often described as having a “swan-like neck,” a feature that was often accentuated in portraits of her. Why it is considered an idealized feminine attribute should be actively questioned, as a long, exposed neck seems to suggest a physical weakness alongside austere pride. The neck is a place of vulnerability. It is the exposed tube connecting brain to body, and as such evokes anxiety around catastrophic injury: slit throats, choking, broken vertebrae, strangulation, and also, as in the case of poor Anne Boleyn, decapitation.The long-necked swan as a symbol of the monarchy seems strange, then, unless it is meant to instill in the citizenry a concern for the crown’s well-being, knowing that the crown is fragile and requiring protection. I can imagine a people being less devoted to a Queen or King represented in the form of a goose, or a wombat.

Portrait of Anne Boleyn, 1534
Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1534)

The foil swan is fancy and tacky at once. I associate it with French cuisine or those who would mimic it, where presentation and protocol are paramount. There is dark humour in a restaurant’s elegant presentation of the remainder of an unfinished meal in the shape of a regal bird as a way to transport food that has necessarily cooled and been combined and misshapen. How many foil swans have been handed to street homeless, the donor feeling self-satisfied from not only the meal s/he was unable to finish, but from the decorative form of their charity, too? The excess labour that goes into the forming of the swan-case, the excess food that case holds, and the excess foil (after 1926 no longer tin, but aluminum) signifies value in a way that saves it from simply being waste, itself a different form of pleasure. The functionality of the form is not improved by the double-length sheet of foil that allows for the neck of the swan. Even without the neck or tail, the foil folds out into a plate of sorts, one that can be molded to whichever situation the food is to be consumed in: at a table, on the ground, while standing. It also provides its own container for reheating, though the wax paper that sometimes comprises the stomach lining of the swan might make that method unwise. But the neck and head of the swan – the sculptural features that change a package of leftover food from a lump to a sign – serve no purpose other than that of conspicuous consumption.

So what happens when there is no food? Abbas’s swan is foil wrapped around foil. The body of the swan is even a little open, a structural feature that would prevent it from adequately containing any juice or sauce that might happen to get collected with the food scraps. Holding it is odd. It has very little weight, and is neither warm nor cold in the way that a foil package of food should be. Picking it up, there is no felt potential for restaurant, cared-for food, or even for spoiled or turned food, if that swan has been left alone and unrefrigerated for too long. There is no excess of labour, because the sculpture was made as play. There is no excess of food, obviously. There is an increased excess of foil, and maybe an excess of art because of it. As a work it can’t be considered pollutive or irresponsible. While aluminum mining – along with all other mining – is notoriously damaging to the environment and complicit in the corporate sponsorship of repressive regimes, there can be no serious complaint that Abbas’s work participates in or promotes that material relationship. So is there an excess of art, or is it a joke that challenges the excesses of art? I know where the swan is now: in a gallery, on a shelf in the back office, among beautiful ceramic pieces and other small sculptures. The gallery will soon close, and I imagine the swan will go to the home or office of the owner-operator. When I asked Abbas to lend me something, he suggested I borrow the swan from the gallerist. The gallerist was eager to point out that he did not own the swan, but was only keeping it, and was unsure if Abbas wanted it back. I enjoy that about the work. Nobody wants it, but everybody likes it. If it gets thrown away or lost, we can always just make another.