Artist joins friends in getting down and dirty

The Australian 2 May 2019

New York artist Asad Raza is putting culture into agriculture, with an installation in Sydney made from 300 tonnes of “anthroposoil” that visitors will be able to take home as potting mix.

New York artist Asad Raza, centre, flanked by cultivators Rafay Rashid and Si Yang Han at Carriageworks in Sydney. Picture: John Feder

Raza’s installation, Absorption, opens tomorrow at the repurposed Clothing Store at Carriageworks, where the floor has been covered with 30cm of man-made soil: a compost of spent brewer’s barley, used coffee grounds and cuttlefish, as well as sand, silt and clay.

An earthy smell permeates the air of the disused factory that formerly made workwear for railway employees, but the soil covering is only the beginning of Raza’s art intervention. He has invited a group of artists — including Daniel Boyd and Agatha Gothe-Snape — to create their own responses to the space, which becomes, if you think about it, a kind of garden of conceptual art.

“The piece could exist without any of the other works, but I like to do things — rather than doing something alone or landing my work like a flying saucer here — to get people together,” Raza says. “I thought it would be interesting to have this dialogue with other artists. There is a collaborative ­dimension but it’s also a (self-­contained) work.”

Boyd has created perforated screens across the windows that filter and diffuse the light. Khaled Sabsabi has buried squares of turf facedown, under the soil, alluding to the Sufi belief that truth is veiled by appearances. Gothe-Snape has designed vests for a team of cultivators to wear, with linings in colourful, vintage patterns originally from John Kaldor Fabricmaker. Kaldor, who got out of the rag trade almost two decades ago, is the ­patron and presiding spirit of the exhibition, the 34th in his Kaldor Public Art Projects.

Raza, who was born in the US and has a Pakistani background, has made similarly unusual interventions in other places. A keen tennis player and a former writer for Tennis magazine, he once ­installed a tennis court in a deconsecrated church in Milan. (“I had this idea that when you are warming up in tennis, and just hitting the ball, it’s a very meditative ­experience.”) For the 2017 Whitney Biennial he installed a forest of 26 living trees in the Whitney Museum. In Home Show, he opened his tiny New York apartment as a museum and invited ­artists, friends and family to contribute. His father, a heart surgeon, brought an artificial heart removed from a patient who had received a transplant.

“For five weeks of the show, I gave a tour to every visitor, open six hours a day,” he says. “By the end, my girlfriend was getting a bit irritable.”

The title of his Sydney show, Absorption, suggests several possible meanings, one of which is a counterargument to modernism and the idea that an artwork must be utterly unique.

“In the discourse of modernism,” Raza says, “an artwork is something that stands out from what’s around it, and creates a separation between it and reality. Absorption is more about how we redirect the flow of what is already around us and create the possibility for more growth.”

Perhaps more important, Raza thinks of Absorption as ­returning to the earth its natural elements, a reversal of the industry that formerly happened at the Clothing Store. The soil was made with advice from an expert from the nearby University of Sydney, Alex McBratney, and visitors during the exhibition will be encouraged to take some away. When Absorption closes on Sunday, May 19, people will be invited to take it by the trailerload for home gardens and community plots.

By Matthew Westwood, Arts Correspondent