Warm and textured, sensuously appaeling and grand in scale, the prints envelope their viewers, simultaneously attracting spectators with their physicality and repelling them with the implications of the subject matter they depict: palatial chambers in tatters, roofs and walls blown apart, objects (chairs, pianos, beds, chandeliers, tools) once used to sustain and enrich life, now metaphors only for survival in the face of death.
Shelley Rice analyzes recent photowork of Wafaa Bilal.
THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY
According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo is the space/time between human lives; all of us pass through this dematerialized environment soon after we die, on our way to the next assignment. But Tibetan scholars emphasize that the Bardo exists in life as well as in death, in physical and emotional terms as well as metaphysical ones. More generalized than a religious or spiritual destination, the Bardo encompasses the virtual landscape of transition and uncertainty.
Wafaa Bilal makes art in this transitional space, neither here nor there, moving between time and place, life and death, as if there were only a gossamer veil between them. We in the art world talk a lot about new media; we emphasize connectedness and globalization, information and access. We rarely talk about how the World Wide Web— disembodied, virtual, instantaneous—can become a Bardo, a non-space of activity for those de-territorialized, immobilized or estranged. Born in Iraq, Bilal was forced to flee when he was 25; after spending two years in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp, he ended up in New Mexico and now lives and works as an artist in New York. From far away in his adopted homeland, he watched the American war on Iraq unfold on television, in newspapers and online. Separated by yawning chasms of space and culture, he observed his native country as it was being torn apart, as the world he knew collapsed, as his home was destroyed and his brother and father died. All of his art is about this existential, this definitive distance between his two lives, traversed only by a continual stream of images and screens.
Given this situation, it is not surprising that the body—real or implied, physical or virtual—becomes a lightning rod telescoping time and space, simultaneously representing and transcending historical circumstances in most of Bilal’s work. For Domestic Tension (also known as Shoot an Iraqi), 2007, a performance enacted over the course of a month in Chicago, Bilal lived in FlatFile Galleries and invited spectators to shoot him with paint balls instead of bullets. Creating a virtual space where he, like his family and friends in Iraq and elsewhere, could undergo the horrors of aggression and racist hatred, Bilal breached the barriers of time and space by embodying the Other and allowing his audience (whether physically present or online) to re-enact the war with the same detachment experienced by soldiers who launch deadly bombs and drones. Art served here as a mirror image, as the dark glass through which Bilal could pass in order to connect not only to his past but to his present in the United States, fraught as it was and is with political tension. The satisfaction of physical participation, however, was denied the artist in a more recent work. For the performance of A Call, 2011, which took place between Tehran and New York, Bilal could not obtain a visa to travel to Iran—so the Internet became the only link between the Iraqi artist and the Iranian performers he directed via Skype. Moving slowly, ghostlike, into and around an abandoned swimming pool, the 80 actors transformed their presence and Bilal’s absence into a metaphor for both the war that tore their two countries apart 30 years ago and the current stasis that continues to undermine peace, relationship and understanding.
The Ashes Series: Saddam’s Bedroom, 2003-2013, courtesy Driscoll/Babcock Galleries New York.
Considering his subject matter, it might seem counterintuitive that Bilal does not think of himself first and foremost as a political artist. Whatever medium he may choose for a given work, he uses it to focus not on journalistic facts or political ideologies, but on images and gestures that re-create the sorrow of distance and estrangement, violence and death in order to initiate a process of social and personal healing. The dark glass through which he views the world never gives a direct, unmediated picture of people, places, events—as his new body of work, aptly entitled The Ashes Series, 2003-2013, makes clear. Large-scale color photographs, based on appropriated journalistic images of the destruction in Iraq, depict once private spaces that were, as Wafaa has said, “ripped open” by external violence, becoming public in their demise. Devoid of people, the pictures are nevertheless filled with human presence, and the 21 grams of human ashes into which we, body and soul, will all one day be transformed.
Once again, in other words, the absent body is central to these works, but in this case the space is shaped by the artist’s hand. Like German photographer Thomas Demand, Bilal builds models of rooms charged with history and circulated in the media, but he does so in order to infuse these environments with personal significance. Slowly, painstakingly, Bilal reconstructs the spaces in miniature, using cardboard, wood, Styrofoam, plaster, concrete, paint and tiny furniture, and then covers them with ashes. This process allows him to re-inscribe anonymous, utilitarian or public images into a private vocabulary. “The models,” he has said, “serve as mirrors of my desire to return home or find my home when this is not possible, and in a sense to rebuild the places where my father and brother were killed. Reconstructing the destructed spaces is a way to exist in them.” Once the small stage sets are complete, the artist interprets them photographically, and releases them into the global image stream once again. By exhibiting and publishing his pictures outside the confines of the studio, Bilal charges these photographs with a public life parallel to, but more subjective than, the mediated images upon which they are based.
The Ashes Series: Chair, 2003-2013, courtesy Driscoll/Babcock Galleries New York.
Warm and textured, sensuously appealing and grand in scale, the prints envelope their viewers, simultaneously attracting spectators with their physicality and repelling them with the implications of the subject matter they depict: palatial chambers in tatters, roofs and walls blown apart, objects (chairs, pianos, beds, chandeliers, tools) once used to sustain and enrich life, now metaphors only for survival in the face of death. Dominated by the grey tones of shattered concrete and ashes, the rooms are nevertheless punctured by shafts of light, natural or human made, white or gold, that illuminate the devastation and open up new perspectives into possible futures. Inviting empathy, these silent interiors provoke awareness; exuding beauty, their desolation nevertheless instills horror. Brilliantly manipulating the cycles of communication and disinformation, preservation and destruction inherent in the photographic image, The Ashes Series transforms Bilal’s creative process into an affective bridge, linking people to each other on a personal level in order to heal the festering and impersonal wounds of contemporary history.
(This article was first published in the catalogue ‘Wafaa Bilal. The Ashes Series’, Driscoll/ Babcock Galleries New York 2014)
First picture: The Ashes Series: Dark Palace, 2003-2013, courtesy Driscoll/Babcock Galleries New York.
Exhibition is still on till June 14th.
Bio: Shelley Rice is an Arts Professor from New York. Joint appointment between the Department of Photography and Imaging and the Department of Art History of New York University. She published several books on photography.