Never Never Land

by Rosemary Heather

Ideas of play are not often mentioned when talking about art. Yet the two are connected at the most fundamental level. Both are forms of human activity unessential to the satisfaction of basic needs. Both also create territory, in the real world and the mind, that would not otherwise exist. The connection between play and art runs throughout Ghazaleh Avarzamani’s exhibition Never Never Land at the Koffler Gallery. The Toronto-based artist, who immigrated to the city from Tehran in 2016 by way of extended stays in Dubai and London, delves into how the dynamics of games and other structures of play are underpinned by deeper concerns surrounding childhood development, social control, and colonial experience.

Visual references to games, as played by both children and adults, appear throughout Never Never Land. Their symbolic role as a way to organize social interaction in everyday life is one facet of the artist’s interest here; games as a mechanism of social control is another. Catch as Catch Can (2014), the artist’s series of four individual, embroidered loofahs, greets visitors at the entrance to the show. Their dark blue surfaces are embellished with white industrial stitching, the “drawing” on each one representing a different kind of game, for instance a maze meant to navigate using a pencil, or a number grid not unlike Sudoku. The game-embroidered loofahs embody, in condensed form, the themes central to the artist’s work. The diagrams represent the way games fully engage our symbolic capacity. A set of rules structure the play, which are infinitely repeatable but with definite outcomes of winners and losers. In this work, however, the individual games function as metaphor, offering the schema for this type of social arrangement, but without the instructions that make games playable.  

Avarzamani’s use of the loofah in Catch as Catch Can is a symbolically loaded choice. The two-handled back scrubber, kisseh, is a familiar bathing implement in the Middle East, and represents another set of rules based on a form of personal  and cultural hygiene imposed through the forces of colonialism. This hygiene is a particular form of scrubbing: that which erases memories. The artist sees an analogy between daily routines of washing and the process we undergo of having new experiences that simultaneously wash away the older memories and experiences that preceded them. For every individual, the rules of the game – of society – are both accepted and struggled against. . In conversation, Avarzamani makes it clear that she sees dictates of cleanliness as having specific colonialist resonances, positioning hygiene as a means to assimilate and control the other.

Settings of play are another theme that Avarzamani references throughout Never Never Land, specifically that of the childhood playground. The eighteen watercolour drawings in the series Regarding Playground (2018) are all based on real-life playgrounds. From drawing to drawing, Avarzamani shifts the viewer’s perspective between aerial and frontal angles. All rendered in blue ink, the portraits range from diagram-like bird’s-eye views to sketches that depict the structures in outline. A playground, which is a permissive place, time and framework for play, contains the suggestion of an implicit boundary outside of which such behaviour is not encouraged. The omniscient perspective provided in Avarzamani’s drawings seems to imply that the child’s enjoyment of freedom in a playground is reliant on an observable, conscribed space. Beyond pragmatic concerns for the safety of children, Avarzamani sees in these structures the beginnings of a socialization process that can have more repressive overtones.

Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Regarding Playground (detail), 2018. Ink on dot gridded paper, 18 framed drawings, 11” x 14.3” each.
Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Regarding Playground (detail), 2018. Ink on dot gridded paper, 18 framed drawings, 11” x 14.3” each.Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

A brief look into theories about how play contributes to a child’s development sheds light on why it is significant, and even politically important, in realms far beyond that of childhood. The British psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott (1896–1971) connects the capacity for play to the earliest stages of child development. Winnicott writes that play is a key component of the infant child’s relationship to its mother, and subsequently to the external world. When the infant’s basic needs are met, within the normal circumstances of its nurturing, the child gains confidence and a sense of control over this regular occurrence. The trust this routine instills is experienced as a kind of omnipotence. Within this sense of control and its formation out of a relationship with the exterior world, we see the first stirrings of the child’s inner life.

Winnicott emphasizes that the element of play in this dynamic consists not in the satisfaction of instinctual needs but rather in the satisfaction deriving from “control of the actual.”¹ The child has an expectation that they will be fed again, and this conjuring of the desired object (the mother’s breast) is essentially symbolic – an image that bridges interior and exterior worlds. This sense of control over a symbolic conjuring is distinct from a lack of control over the actual external world, which in so many ways hinders or prevents the satisfaction of instinctual needs. In Winnicott’s view, all art, religion and culture stem from the infant’s ability to configure solutions to their desires that are not strictly bound by external circumstances.² In Winnicott’s words:

No human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality [but] relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of expertise which is not challenged (art, religion, etc.) This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is “lost” in play.³

Winnicott’s ideas about play are relevant in a couple of ways to Avarzamani’s exhibition – and may specifically shed light on why art can be politically trenchant using an indirect, or art-specific, means of analysis.   

Named after the earliest known board game, which dates back to fifteenth century Italy, Game of Goose (2016–19) again remakes kisseh into a kind of canvas, using white pictorial stitching on a dark blue background. The game takes the form of a track with 63 spaces that spiral inward, each space representing a house of moral or religious station. Players race to the finish, advancing through rolls of the dice. The direction of the spiral inward, when presented at the scale of a large painting, suggests a vanishing point on a horizon. Game of Goose is the template for all games that came after it. In Avarzamani’s enlarged and unplayable version, it takes on the resonance of a symbolic structure, one that envelops the viewer within the imperfect process of their acculturation. On the floor, accompanying the wall work, is a sandbox filled with rubber playground mulch that evokes the calm of a reflecting pool or a patch of playground transplanted from somewhere outside. The rubber is intended to protect children from playground mishaps. However, when encountered out of context, our body intuitively recognizes that this part of the ground is not real. Considering Winnicott’s idea about how the artwork might function, the work succinctly embodies the intermediate (or transitional) status of the artwork – it is simultaneously a thing and the ideas we have about it.

Interpreted through the lens of Winnicott’s theory about how images (or symbols) construct our relationship with the world, the presence of the colour blue throughout Avarzamani’s Never Never Land takes on an enhanced meaning. In the exhibition, visitors encounter blue both as a thing and as perceptual experience. Because it can take a form that is as simple as a colour, art can be an interestingly pure expression of this idea of an intermediate between ourselves and the world, both inside our head and clearly external to it. 

Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Fortune Tellers (detail), 2016. Moulded USG Hydrocal, 100 pieces, 6.30” x 6.30” each.
Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Fortune Tellers (detail), 2016. Moulded USG Hydrocal, 100 pieces, 6.30” x 6.30” each.Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Blue runs like a current of perceptual experience throughout Never Never Land, establishing a pictorial theme picked up by various artworks. Another way of describing its function is via the phenomenon of atmospheric perspective. Essentially a phenomenon of figure-ground confusion, it is experienced within the specific context of viewing something against a landscape. When seen in the distance, the contrast of the object against the horizon gets lost in the pervading blue of the sky. The exhibition design uses the colour blue to specifically evoke this phenomenon, allowing the colour to function figuratively as the ground (the context) of viewer’s perception throughout the exhibition. Looking at Strange Temporalities (2019), which uses metal armatures and plastic sections of a playground slide, a figure/ground confusion emerges between the blue slide fragments and their context within the exhibition space. The piece is adamantly a sculpture, and one that deftly evokes a high modernist style. And yet, the mental process of completing the object strongly suggests that the work exists more as form and idea than function. Within its symbolic dimension, the work suggests the processes of perception and memory, which recognize and reconstruct whole objects from mere outlines or fragments. Artworks may function in this way too: it is the very essence of the sketch or drawing to suggest what it represents rather than replicating it exactly. The freedom to be creative exists within this capacity of the symbolic to be notational, fragmentary or referential.  

That the diagram is the pictorial form predominant in this show, gives us insight into the artist’s preoccupation with the rules and encodings that organize our lives. The board game reappears in the work Of Manual (2019) in a kind of meta form. Woven as a carpet and quartered, the artist’s composition brings together the playing pieces from 150 different board games. Mounted on mobile wooden frames, only the backside of the carpet pieces remains visible, suggesting both that cultural codes form the foundation we stand on and that they remain somewhat hidden from our awareness. The four pieces could be fitted together to create a single picture, a kind of master template game board of the artist’s devising. Yet three of the pieces are fitted with wheels and movable on the gallery floor, while the fourth hangs on the wall – this is a picture that will never be put back together again. In the centre of the composition sits a diagram for a Coat of Arms, the traditional heraldic symbol that represents family achievement and lineage, with origins in the Middle Ages. Avarzamani’s Coat of Arms remains diagrammatic and absent of symbols. The empty diagram instead evokes the artist’s ambivalent relationship to her experience of British colonialism, while living in Iran and later as a resident in the UK and Canada.

A familiar childhood game, the paper fortune teller derives from origami. Rules, instructions or outcomes are written on paper that is folded inward in a configuration of paper flaps. These are labelled with numbers or colours on the outside. With this combination of options and at least two players, the fortune teller can decide the respective players’ fates, to the extent that such terms are agreed on by the players. The artist’s Fortune Tellers (2016) memorializes this game in White Gypsum Cement casts, repeating 100 times in rows of 5x20 along the wall. The piece distills the mental activity of game play down to its essence, repetition of the activity always undertaken with the expectation of, and hope for, a good or better outcome. Within the set of concerns explored in Never Never Land, we can see why game playing is a central activity to all cultures everywhere: it is the freest form of symbolic activity and, for the most part, the least consequential. However, we can detect within the social expectations of game play the expectations at work in society at large. Abiding within rule structures and determined forms of relationship comes at the cost of personal autonomy: this is the social contract that everyone must negotiate.  

Desire is Tender is Love is Love #1 & #2 (2019) consists of two giant bars of soap staged on custom-made wooden pallets. In some sense this installation dominates this show, surprising visitors as an outsized spectacle. Cast in glycerine, one in amber and the other in blue, the two pieces emit a strong scent; certainly this artwork is sensorial unlike anything else in the exhibition. Thematically, Desire is Tender is Love is Love #1 & #2 is a counterpart to Avarzamani’s works using loofahs. For the artist, both reference colonial regimes that impose hygiene and other kinds of disciplines and strictures on colonized cultures. These are the dubious terms of a supposed modernization (cleanliness) that doubles as a kind of erasure. In a more general sense, daily routines of washing connect with the way memory works. Of necessity, it is built on forgetting; recollection needs only notational components to bring back the past. Artworks share in common with memory this symbolic ability to find within fragments an effective conjuring of the whole. The soap pieces will change over time, affected by air moisture and temperature. The artist expects the transformation to be a gradual loss of colour and return to the transparency of the glycerin base, but whether this happens and within what timeframe is uncertain. 

The idea that the soap works will change over time projects a future onto them that is an essentially symbolic operation of the mind. At the same time, they function as an anchor within the exhibition of an implied heaviness – soap as a cultural imposition that both forms and deforms the social order. This balance between the physical object and what we may think about it defines the space occupied by Never Never Land, creating within the mind a perspective on what we can consider and hope to change within our everyday material reality.

¹ Winnicott, D. W. Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock Publications, 1971), 47.

² Tuber, Steven. Attachment, Play, and Authenticity: A Winnicott Primer (Lanham, Maryland: Jason Aronson, 2008), 121.

³ Winnicott, 1971, 9.

Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Never Never Land (installation details), 2019.
Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Never Never Land (installation details), 2019.Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Ghazaleh Avarzamani (b. 1980, Tehran) was trained in painting at Azad Art University in Tehran, followed by a Master of Fine Arts from Central Saint Martins, London, UK and has exhibited in venues internationally since graduating. Selected solo exhibitions include Ab-Anbar Gallery in 2016; Asia House London in 2014; Etemad Gallery, Tehran; and Light Gallery, London in 2013. Avarzamani has been the recipient of the Red Mansion Art Prize in 2013 and Ontario Art Council award in 2017; she curated the exhibition Jabberwocky at Ab-Anbar in 2015. She currently lives and works in Toronto, and is represented by Ab-Anbar Gallery in Tehran.

Rosemary Heather is an art journalist, curator and researcher. She writes about art, the moving image, digital culture and new technologies for numerous publications, artist monographs and related projects internationally. She is a co-author of the collectively written novel Philip, Project Arts Centre, Dublin (2006). Exhibitions she has curated and co-curated include: Nasty (2016); Screen and Decor (2013); Ron Giii: Hegel’s Salt Man (2006-2007); Serial Killers: Elements of Painting Multiplied by Six Artists (1999); and I beg to differ (1996). From 2003-2009, Heather was the editor of C Magazine (Toronto). An archive of her writing can be found at:

Essay: Rosemary Heather | Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson
Digital Publication to the exhibition Ghazaleh Avarzamani: Never Never Land. Presented by the Koffler Gallery, January 17 – March 17, 2019 | Curator: Mona Filip.

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2019, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-928175-18-6.


Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council