Anything but Scrap

Karen Ann Monsy
Filed on May 1, 2009

Total Arts Gallery owners discovered more to the gutted warehouses of March 2008 than extensive damage

As 83 warehouses in Al Quoz went up in a ball of fire on a March morning last year, the force of the blast shattered glass windows of buildings in the vicinity. Certainly, the last thought on anyone’s mind just then was an artistic tribute to the inferno that eventually claimed two lives. But almost exactly a year later, Total Arts gallery owners Dariush Zandi and Shaqayeq Arabi hosted the ‘Scraps’ exhibition — an installation comprising sculptural works and found objects from the wreckage.

Curiosity was the catalyst that began it all. “Having our gallery in such close proximity to the accident site made us want all the details,” says Shaqayeq. Returning home after one of his many early excursions to this scene of disaster, Dariush presented Shaqayeq with a gift — a dozen scissors completely fused together from exposure to intense heat. Such was her fascination with it that the Iranian couple continued salvaging as much as they could from the site.

And thus, their tribute was born.

For a city that turned metropolitan overnight and is constantly given to demolishing and rebuilding, it’s important to pause and remember the things that were. Walking around the gallery space gives one a chance to do just that.

Dim lighting attempts to recreate the warehouses’ interiors in the aftermath of the blaze as soft booms reverberate across the room. The basic frame of what once must have been a fine bicycle takes centre-stage, with spokes, chains and wheels bent right out of shape. I approach what looks suspiciously like bundles of rust-coloured hay, stacked to form an amorphous sculpture. Closer inspection revealed it was, in fact, a two-tiered version of Dariush’s gift to Shaqayeq — only this one consisted of hundreds of rusted scissors, all melded together into one.

The fire spared nothing in its path. “What once served as warehouse ceilings were transformed like tissue into something so organic,” exclaims Shaqayeq, pointing to deformed metal sheets that now strongly resembled clothes hung out to dry. Sooty piles of newspapers and charred cans of paint were other discoveries that snagged their attention instantly. “The transformation of harsh construction materials like beams and metal roofs were what inspired us,” Dariush notes. “It was incredible how a fire could turn everyday objects into beautiful artworks. What attracted us was not the utilitarian value anymore but its aesthetic appeal.”

Viewer demand has postponed the exhibition’s closing date thrice already and will now be on show till the end of May.

Walking back, I notice a fire extinguisher cut a sorry figure in a corner. As one of many recovered objects from the site, it was no match for a fire of such proportions. Next to it, a plant — or what’s left of it — with brittle leaves strewn at its base, is a reminder of how daily lives within the premises were disrupted without so much as a warning.

With a story beneath every surface, one really can’t take scrap for what it seems to be, after all.

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