Soapstone (Tehran)

Year: 2020

Material: Soap

I bought a stone from a man on the streets in Tehran. He found it, among many others, in the Alborz Mountains bordering the city. I paid €0.30 for the stone. Iran was already (01/2019) in an economic crisis as a result of the American sanctions.


The last few years I have been working around specific objects which I found in my surroundings, at home or during residencies abroad. I collected them because I was intrigued by their tactility, context or exotic connotation. I started working with these objects, both as a medium and as a subject. First through decontextualizing them, later by reproducing and reinterpreting them. I started revealing their layers which appeared to me the first time I encountered them. By reproducing them with different techniques and materials I ended up building new relationships between the object and a context, or rediscovering latent relations between the objects and its original context.


The collected items I work with are, mostly, referring to a political, urban or climatological crisis I experienced in my surroundings. Because of their context, a macro political story enters my installations.


The stone I found in Iran is a souvenir from a residency I did in Teheran. A city where conflict of ideologies and geopolitical crisis are inherent to the daily reality. But despite the financial situation of most of the passengers, the man selling his rocks out of a bag on the street had quite some success. Without being a necessity, the stones apparently had great value for the Iranians. It’s hard to capture the ratio behind the fact that they treasure these stones. It’s clear the value lies beyond the rational, in the realm of the subconscious. Maybe it symbolizes hope for the future, or nostalgia to how great their beautiful country once was.


Back home in Brussels the stone started a new life. Step by step it found its place in the context of my studio, where a relation with other collected items occurred. In the same spirit, I used to collect little soap bars from hotels I visited the last years, all over the world. I am interested in these little things, because they have a great sense of placelessness. In a way they are a representation of how universal this world has become. Where ever we go, we will find these little soap bars in the bathrooms of the hotels. These bathrooms look the same, even if they are in a completely different climate zone on the planet. The authenticity of the place is lost. The context is nowhere to be found. They are fully universal. Placeless. Like the souvenirs shops selling the idea of authenticity, while destroying it at the same time.


By reproducing my Iranian stone with soap, I am questioning these subjects of globalization and authenticity. With the current crisis, more relevant than ever.  


The resulting sculptures have something supernatural. The different layers of colors and scents give it a fragile and sensitive tactility. The sculptures are soft and highly responding to condition changes, far different from the mother mineral stone. On the other hand, its shape remains the one from a rock with sharp edges. Hard and extremely durable, possibly millions of years old and shaped without any human intervention. This ambiguity between the shape and its material, between the rock and the soap, are the origin of my series of sculptures. I am intrigued by its sculptural aspect, but at the same time the contrast reveals a more layered reality between the two objects.  

Text by Sebastiaan Willemen