Random is one of those words that has been drafted into the lexicon of the back of the bus, entering a spectrum of judgement that is notoriously superficial. Arbitrariness, on the other hand, has not, but can cut much deeper in the right, or wrong, hands. Whereas random means entirely without pattern, arbitrariness might be arrived at through a well-defined system founded on meaningless parameters. When directed towards art, the term can strike a nerve in the artist who struggles with the boundless universe of possibilities. The freedom to select and develop an agenda, an aesthetic, a set of references—the basis of a practice—is literally overwhelming for some, requiring that arbitrary structures such as style are erected or appropriated.
Babak Ghazi is interested in this rather existential problem of the individual who must invariably pluck a sense of self from infinitude. To avoid option paralysis we are generally guided by aesthetic and ideological proclivities, which are then honed into a signature style to effectively curtail absolute freedom, enabling a decision, yet inviting accusations of arbitrariness. Ghazi’s stylistic point of departure is the 1980s, perhaps because they were his formative years, or maybe on account of their unique conflation of counterculture and mainstream consumerism. During the narrow window between the invention of youth culture and its cynical commodification, the New Romantics sashayed along the line between punkish antiestablishment and the high street co-option of countercultural style. Self- expression was drawn in by the wheels of commerce, which, like historiography, engulfs, processes and neatly encapsulates the noise of dissidence. Ghazi articulates such conflicts and their art historical equivalents when he places a Spandau Ballet gate fold album cover on a mirrored cube, reflecting the group’s pose, which echoes Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, in the shiny facet of one of Minimalism’s standards, effectively sculpting with historical motifs as if they were solid matter.
Spandau Ballet was the name given to the death throes of the Nazi war criminals executed at Spandau Prison, and other 1980s bands’ names, such as New Order, have distinct Nazi connotations. Arranging four copies of Creative Review so that their masthead becomes a swastika could seem like a random transgressive act, but then it might also be a challenge to restrictions placed on creative freedom by our liberal society. The Spands may have buried their Third Reich references beneath a flurry of ruffles and spandex but Ghazi seems to be interested in the boundaries of explicitness.
Another staple of the 80s that Ghazi favours is the Katharine Hamnett t-shirt with its political sloganeering turned typographical design, where again individual choice becomes secondary to the fashion designer’s own agenda. High above Istanbul, on a huge video screen, Ghazi is currently broadcasting—for 31 seconds among a showreel of other UK artists’ video pieces—a photograph found on ebay of a man wearing a copy of a Katharine Hamnett ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ t-shirt. The wearer, despite his face being cropped off, manages to impart a sense of personality by way of garish sweatbands, a cinching belt and a glimpse of ponytail. It reminds us of the artist’s struggle against art history and received ideas of style: how to find a new way. And the 31 seconds? Well, that is Ghazi’s age, the duration for which he has ‘chosen life’. It is of course arbitrary, but then, he seems to suggest, internal, localised logic is the only validation we can construct.
Sally O’Reilly is a writer and curator based in London