When we look at a painting, the ornate frame around it could almost disappear into the wall. It is separate from or subordinate to what we want to see.
But if we then concentrate on the wall around the painting, the frame becomes, in our eyes, part of the artwork. The question arises: what is the frame there for at all?
Conundrums like this are prime fodder for the conceptual kiln that fires Babak Golkar's art. To these questions, the Vancouver-based Iranian artist brings architectural sense and a head for complicated lines of inquiry. Parergon, Golkar's latest exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, satisfies all these sides of his practice.
Golkar has produced a solo show that focuses entirely on the frame itself. He's created eight hollow wooden frames, painted in a single bold colour using acrylic. The ornate ridges on the surface have been built to evoke the outline of several architectural wonders from around the region. At points, the continuity of the frame breaks, and these ridges cast a perfect silhouette of the building on to the gallery wall.
The idea came from the essay Parergon in the French philosopher Jaques Derrida's 1987 book, The Truth In Painting. In it, Derrida discusses the way that a frame's relationship with the art it surrounds comes and goes, depending on where we focus - the wall or the image. Golkar talks about the frame "melting" between these points, and this process sparked Golkar's imagination.
"From there, I started to look at buildings that have shifted their function over the course of history - places of contested architecture," the artist says. He points out that among the frames on show are silhouettes of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Tehran's Azadi Tower and, most pertinently, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - first a Byzantine Christian basilica, then a mosque under Ottoman rule and, today, a museum.
The way that buildings and monuments can shift in meaning, depending on their context, fascinates Golkar.
"It's logical. If you have a certain ruling system that's opposed to a monument," he says, taking the example of the Hagia Sophia once it came under Ottoman control, "they would either get rid of it or shift the function." Changes of ideology can be expressed through changing monuments. "These buildings don't, in their physicality, mean anything, but are rather containers of ideas."
In the same way, a frame immediately posits an image as a work of art and, consequently, an object of value. "Framing relates directly to market," Golkar says, but he also acknowledges that there's something similar between a frame and the way we comprehend people different from ourselves. "One culture frames another culture - an "othering" process, in which we separate that culture from everything else so as to make sense of it. I'm not saying that that is a negative thing, it's just how we understand something, very much like how a frame operates in terms of an artwork."
Golkar has been a finalist for two major conceptual art prizes in London this year - the Jameel Prize and Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize - for work that is just as cerebral.
This "moment of alchemy", in that case melting a 3D model of a building into a 2D design on a carpet, extends into everything Golkar does and makes his work exciting to be around. In Parergon, the alchemy lies in how a form, be it a frame or a piece of architecture, can shift between meanings and functions.
Parergon continues at The Third Line, Dubai, until January 12