www.straight.com by Robin Laurence

Babak Golkar's Dialectic of Failure reconsiders the nature of craft

Babak Golkar's Scream Pots asks us to both act and reflect on the pressures of contemporary life and the ways in which we do or do not deal with them.


Family lore has it that one of my grandmothers kept a set of cheap dishes on hand to smash when she was angry. I’ve found that booting an empty cardboard box across the room is a satisfactory way of venting suppressed rage. In Dialectic of Failure at the West Vancouver Museum, Babak Golkar offers us 30 oddly shaped terra-cotta pots to pick up and scream into. Nifty.

Born in California, raised in Tehran, and based in Vancouver (where he studied art), Golkar brings a number of cross-cultural perceptions and interpretations to his multidisciplinary practice, and to the ways we construct the past, present, and future. With his oddly shaped, open-mouthed Scream Pots, laid out on a canvas-covered table in the middle of the room, he asks us to both act and reflect on the pressures of contemporary life and the ways in which we do or do not deal with them. He also proposes that, as we handle the rough-textured pots, we reconsider the nature of craft—as art and as a slow, meditative engagement with an age-old medium, in opposition to the fast-paced, digitally driven, and electronically mediated world we otherwise inhabit.

An additional and slightly obscure allusion made by Golkar’s terra-cotta pots, whose sometimes wobbly and organic forms are suggestive of stomachs, bladders, and other internal organs, is to the 19th-century American ceramic artist George E. Ohr, aka “the Mad Potter of Biloxi”. With their flamboyant colours, warped and twisted forms, and astonishingly thin walls, Ohr’s nonfunctional vessels anticipated abstract ceramic sculpture by many decades. He messed up the boundary between art and craft in ways that are still relevant today. I’m not sure, however, I would have made the connection between Golkar’s Scream Pots and Ohr’s oeuvre if I hadn’t been alerted to it by the show’s introductory essay.

By all accounts, Ohr was a self-consciously eccentric self-promoter with a fabulously long mustache who advertised his work as “unequaled, undisputed, unrivalled”. The Salvador Dali–like aspect of his public persona and wildly avant-garde approach to his medium do not fully resonate in Golkar’s installation, even if they anticipate modern and performative attitudes toward art and art-making. Although his work is now critically admired, even seen as visionary, Ohr was not recognized in his own time. Perhaps his is the failure alluded to in the title of Golkar’s show.

Other works in the show play on the terminology of “throwing” a pot—of using a potter’s wheel to mould clay into the desired shape. Golkar’s video Throwing documents an unseen person (the artist, presumably) hucking cow-pie like blobs of wet clay at a piece of drywall. What we see are these brown blobs hitting and often sticking to the drywall, and what we hear are the accompanying smuck and splut sounds the clay makes when it lands. This willful act of throwing wet clay at a white panel stands in opposition to the careful control most ceramicists exercise when throwing a pot on a wheel. As with screaming into a terra-cotta pot, it appears to be a physically gratifying way of dealing with unexpressed emotions and frustrations. There’s something oddly primal, in a Freudian kind of way, about screaming into gastrointestinal forms and hurling excremental lumps of clay at a white wall. And although Golkar doesn’t frame his work in such terms, Dialectic of Failure suggests the need for us to project our understanding beyond the confines of rational behaviour.