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Adel Abidin was already an artist when he left Baghdad for Helsinki in 2000, when Iraq was crippled by sanctions, still suffering from the 1991 war, and stifled under Saddam Hussein. Although cataclysmic events have swept his country since then, it’s fair to surmise that Abidin’s human qualities and his sensibility as an artist were already formed when he left. So when we look at his work in exile, we can expect to see qualities of the real Adel Abidin, and indeed there they are: a certain tenderness, a deadpan sense of humor, a fondness for understated color, an interest in the subtle expressivity of a tactile surface, and an equal respect for the restraint of the line.
It is a strange contradiction that living in Helsinki has both afforded Adel Abidin the time and space to develop his creative practice and bound him to speak, from a distance, about the increasingly horrific state of Baghdad since he left. Looking at the range of strong and diverse artworks he has produced since his arrival in Finland, it seems to me that Abidin has had to compress himself in order to meet the demands of exile. In order for his artwork to be able to speak from Iraq and to Finland, he needs continually to make a choice between being and communicating. Some exiles or immigrants feel "more like themselves" after they emigrate, but I think most find that, in communication with others, less of the space of themselves comes across. For Abidin, it is as though in Iraq he had a broad window through which to speak, but he had a small number of listeners. Emigrating compressed Abidin, reducing his many human traits and idiosyncrasies into Abidin the Arab artist, Abidin the Iraqi artist in Finland, Abidin the Iraqi living in Finland during the war and occupation of Iraq. The space of communication narrowed to a tiny aperture. But now, there are many people on the other side of the aperture waiting to hear from him - or at least from what he represents. So he has to shout through it. Direct communication, bitter irony, and sharp humor have to replace subtlety.
Of course the changes in Abidin’s work result not only from his emigration but also from the Iraq’s descent into hell since the American invasion in 2003. On one hand, Abidin is more intimately aware than are most of his Western interlocutors of the specific suffering of Iraqi people; and on the other, he can only describe this suffering in generalities that his audience will grasp. Several of Abidin’s works since 2003 have reacted to the superficial, pornographic ways the Western media represent Iraq and Iraqi people by emphasizing muteness and refusal. The prejudice and ignorance of even the most well-meaning Westerners toward Iraqis, Muslims, and Arabs recur several times in Abidin’s works of the first war years. His paintings and videos refuse to cater to Western curiosity and stereotypes, instead emphasizing the impossibility of communicating the lived horror of post-invasion Baghdad to the eyes of outsiders. In contrast to media representations of the devastation of the war in Iraq, these works of 2003-2005 suggest that what has happened is too terrible to express. But lately, Abidin’s work communicates with a vengeance.
The installation Abidin Travels (2006), a fake travel agency whose sole destination is Baghdad, is the artist’s most radically graphic work. But here the communicative purpose of the graphic is irrevocably and violently ruptured. The "tasteful" design of the travel brochure, the tacky graphics of the promotional video, and above all the hard flatness of the tourist video all "communicate" relentlessly. The brochure points out flatly, "All the beautiful places that you might have read about are either destroyed or have been looted. There really are no sights left"; it advises that the best thing to do in an explosion is contrive to be wounded, so that you won’t be singled out as a terrorist yourself. In the bitterly sarcastic promotional video, an upbeat female voice with an American accent lists the touristical attractions of Baghdad, "the still-beating heart of this historic civilization." Presumably she is addressing the only "tourists" in Iraq, the American soldiers of the occupation. The video stresses the hypocrisy of the occupation by showing the soldiers at leisure, quaffing alcoholic beverages, swimming, and improvising music at a Fourth of July party. The voice enthusiastically describes the city’s geographical features, important monuments and museums, great restaurants, and hospitable people. But this litany is "illustrated" by images that are beyond ironic: destroyed buildings, weeping women, looters carrying televisions out of a government building ("Baghdad residents are known for their hospitality"), a police car on fire ("Welcome to Baghdad!"), and general devastation. Many of the images are impossible to watch: corpses, a mass of dead bodies, a dead child, a bleeding man screaming in pain, unearthed bones and skulls. The images are clear, and it is possible to recognize the corpses as human beings, individuals, who were alive not along ago, and to physically feel the anguish of the living.
These images of the dead, mutilated flesh, and human agony are the radical limit of what I’ve been calling "painterly." They are what cannot be communicated and what is too intense to feel, without becoming wounded yourself. The violent contrast between these images and the tourism narrative reveals the American occupation and its propaganda to be an abomination, an obscenity. Abidin Travels thus opens an abyss between what is communicable about life in Baghdad today, which is transparently a sheet of lies, and what is incommunicable because it is too real: and into this abyss you fall.
Also in 2006, Abidin made a video installation called Construction Site, in which we see in close-up a little girl’s hands moving pebbles with plastic spoons, while we hear her sing a melancholy love song. To see the video, you have crouch down in a small pile of rubble, so it feels you are there with her. Abidin notes that he filmed this little scene "in a street in Baghdad after a recent explosion." This work is powerful because it is both immersed in life and making a political point, both painterly and graphic. In itself the installation brings us into the specificity of the child’s universe, the intensity of her stone-moving game, her pretty pink plastic sandals. In its context it is graphic, making us ask, What happens to children whose point of reference is the seemingly random violence of present-day Baghdad? When destruction is happening all around, can a child save her mind through small acts of construction?
These works over just a few years show how Adel Abidin responds to the mounting pressure on him to Communicate - as an Iraqi in the West, as someone who can translate the experience of Iraqis for somewhat-willing audiences, as one who knows that experience cannot really be communicated but only felt. Painterliness, in its tactile intimacy, gives a sense of humanity and its fragility. Graphicness indicates the sacrifice of intimacy in favor of communication: The graphic is meant to communicate clearly, as in written word and graphic design. So when Abidin takes on the graphic, it is with a sense of loss.
Excerpted from "Adel Abidin: This Land Is Your Land," an essay accompanying the Nordic pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Framework, no. 7, 80-87.
Laura U. Marks
Media theorist, curator and Associate Professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. Website: http://www.sfu.ca/~lmarks/