Author: St Jacques, Jillian
Date published: July 1, 2011
It could be said Iraqi installation artist Adel Abidin specializes in dark humor. In fact, it has been said, or something close to it: "black humor" is how New York Times art critic Carol Vogel described Abidin's 2007 installation, "Abidin Travels," in her review of the Nordic Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. In his fictional cut-rate travel agency, Abidin deployed images of postoccupation Baghdad in a slew of cheesy brochures, videos, and websites promoting junkets, services, and lodgings. Certainly, there was plenty of grim irony in the quixotic efforts of "Abidin Travels" to promote tourism in what is perhaps the world's most ancient, lovely, and war-ravaged city, home of the Golden Gate Palace and Qasr al-Khalifa:
1. All the beautiful places that you might have read about have either been destroyed or looted. There really are no sights left.
2. Do not walk on sidewalks, they are filled with mines.
But any pat reduction of Abidin's work to humor amounts to critically selling it short, no matter how dark or black that humor might be. How can we define as "dark" work that sheds so much light on the dyadic force relations of East and West, patriotism and terrorism, masculinity and femininity, visibility and (mis) recognition? Indeed, it is precisely because Abidin positions so many of these elements on the same interstitial playing field that his works complicate what is defined as "humor" - which, as Julia Kristeva points out in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984), is not always a prerequisite of laughter. Moreover, the fact that humor is not always present in Abidin's work makes his pieces more rewarding, as the artist tangibly resists perpetuating a trademark aesthetic. In this manner, Abidin avoids stumbling into the pitfalls that plague agit-prop old and new: the didactic gesture, myopic scope, and intellectual peevishness of Werner Horvath's Clash of Civilizations (2006), or the schoolboy hectoring of Banksy's graffiti. It is Abidin's frequent alternation - not entirely seamless - between humor, tenderness, and melancholy that keeps his political tooth sharp, and makes any irony in his works bite more keenly. I will return to this notion in a moment, but suffice it to say that a nuanced blend of humor and abjection runs through all of Abidin's pieces. It can be detected in his "Oil Paintings" (2004), a series of three interactive plexiglass photographs slathered with axel grease, as well as more recent video installations, such as "Abidin Travels," "Tasty" (2007), and "Foam" (2007). Any humor present in these pieces is interlaced with an ominous melancholy, while their eye to conceptual breadth ensures the work remains multifarious and evocative.
"Foam," in its manifestation at Vienna's Projektraum Viktor Bucher in 2008, consisted of a simple video projection at the end of a long, shadowy room - a stark, even bleak setting that lent itself to the more critical aspects of the piece. In the video projection, we see a group of Iraqi barbers' apprentices learning their trade the old-fashioned way: shaving a series of black balloons with a straight razor. Each boy approaches his balloon with practiced, bored caution, slathering it with white lather and attempting to whisk it clean. The boys have conducted this ritual innumerable times and are all too familiar with the fatal slip as the razor nicks the skin, yet they always seem shocked, puzzled, and humiliated at the moment the balloon explodes (an explosion Abidin amplifies to bomb-like proportions). Even though their performances are unrehearsed, the pragmatic fact of their repetition makes them cohesive, while the formal composition of Abidin's video is tight and crisp, its colors stark and stylized. The ancient barber's chair, with its battered metal and crackled leatherette, recalls gangland scenes in Bogart movies, the faces of tough mugs wrapped in steaming cloths.
The implicit violence of the piece is clearly endemic to the balloons, which typically serve as children's toys, the trappings of birthday parties and other celebrations. On the most superficial level, the round black shapes of the balloons conjure images of comic book bombs in Doonesbury, Tin-Tin, and Batman; mad bombers gloating behind sparkling fuses, twitching to blow the works. These readings gain traction in light of the controversy provoked by the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper cartoons, which portrayed the prophet Muhammad as a suicide bomber with an explosive device fizzling beneath his turban. Clearly, the balloons of the barber's apprentices are placed in the position of a human head - they must be ensconced in the barber's chair at the appropriate height for the practice of shaving them to be realistic. But limiting Foam to a dark slapstick comment on terrorism sells it short, because the piece also takes up a split in subjectivation, as a forked line of transidentification emerges between each boy and his balloon/head. On the one hand, each balloon is a proprioceptive extension of the boy's own head, and his narcissistic equilibrium is punctured whenever his labor is botched - which it inevitably must be in the process of learning his trade. Yet, the balloon is also the fantasy head of a projected adult, whose nameless, faceless beard needs a shave in an indeterminate manhood the boys have not reached, may never reach. But just as the video gestures toward the proximity of each boy and his own death (or at the very least the impending drudgery of his projected adulthood), the distance between the boys and ourselves becomes equally transparent, and it begins to dawn on us how invested we are in their success - and failure. The camera angle and image resolution are so intimate we can practically touch the boys; indeed, we want to touch them, to comfort them, hug them, reassure them life is about more than this tedious loop of explosion and humiliation. We want to take the sting out of the inevitable failure at the center of this absurd Zen exercise imposed by adult overseers, but the blank expression of the boys suggests we are too late. Then, the dark irony present in "Foam" cuts its deepest.
I am hardly the first critic to recognize the nuanced role humor plays in Abidin's work. In her recent review in the French e-zine Arty Parade (2010), Lauren Hasty describes Abidin's pieces as "serious and controversial, sarcastic and funny . . . His work will make you laugh out loud, and only afterward will you be moved by how deep the message really is."1 Hasty's reference to the "serious" message beneath Abidin's veneer of levity will almost certainly ring a bell for those familiar with Freud's notions in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), particularly Freud's position that aggressive or hostile humor can function as criticism against authority figures, with laughter leading to liberation from their oppressive injunctions. This is the concept Kristeva mines in Revolution in Poetic Language, arguing that laughter "lifts inhibitions by breaking through prohibition."2 Yet, Kristeva urges us to acknowledge that when this liberation has taken place, and the basis for power relations has shifted, "it can hardly be said to make [the jester] laugh."3 In short, the hostile jester knows something unsettling lurks beneath the laughter unleashed by his antics, the pressure of which occasioned his aggressive humor in the first place. After the joke has been received, Kristeva suggests all players have the opportunity to glimpse these unsettling truths. Therefore, what laughter has thÚ potential to release is insight. Produced under pressure, the hostile joke disturbs the thin veil between the ego and the Real, and can redistribute the ontological praxis of discourse, art, and subjectivation.
In his newest works, such as the mixed-media installation "Ascension" (showing at the Anne De Villepoix Gallery in Paris through July 30), Abidin extends the critique he initiated in Foam to probe the semi-conscious interstices of irony and dream within the psychological milieu of childhood. Featuring a handdrawn superhero rising up from the rubble of a ruined city, "Ascension" evokes the child's-eye view of what might happen to the spirit after decorporealization. More specifically, Abidin's colorful superhero provokes us to consider the ways in which children project themselves into their larger cultural maelstrom, via their attempts "to figure out what happened to Jesus Christ, Malcolm X, Osama bin Laden, Tupac Shakur, or the spirits of fellow children killed in violent, crumbling cities like Baghdad, Detroit, or Tripoli."4
Indeed, the limiŘess scale and generic features of the ruined metropolis looming behind the implausibly colorful superhero gesture toward the incomprehensible atrocity of war, which frames and disrupts the child's existence. Considering Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's recent work in Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and their argument that war without end is "the ultimate barbarity," Abidin's observations in this regard seem particularly well-timed. Meandering into its eleventh year, some images of our ongoing "war on terror" have become unforgettable, and point toward the existence of humor of the darkest kind, a laughter that most of us would choose to disavow, as chortling American soldiers hoist a thumbs-up next to a debased stack of naked bodies and tortured, hooded figures wobbling on wooden boxes. But perhaps the most barbaric image remains the photograph we haven't seen: the images of bin Laden that White House officials have not allowed us to see. Fearing that the damage caused by high-caliber bullets to bin Laden's left eye might be too grotesque for human consumption, or that purveying those images would endanger our troops (thereby compromising their ability to perpetuate the horrors of war), this unseen image of bin Laden's head is the most abject of all. In that sense, bin Laden's forbidden visage could well become the most emblematic image of the unspeakable atrocity of war, as it frames the discourse of the unseeable and unsayable in the transnational discourse of abjection.
In the final knell, there are any number of responses one might have to the unfathomable barbarity of terror, war, and abjection - but any singular response will always end up missing something. Perhaps that is why Adel Abidin takes them all, not at the same time, or one at a time, but in different combinations of elements. If dark humor or cutting irony is part of his any thing-goes approach, then so be it - but it is never Abidin's only approach. We must grant the insanity of war and our vistas of abjection the complexity of discourse they deserve, and regard any laughter generated in their midst with the deepest, most attentive criticality.
NOTES 1. Lauren Hasty, "Harte a Coke fir Islam! Adel Abidin exposes at the Kiasma Museum fir Contemporary Art," Arty Parade, February 22, 2010, http://artyparade.com/fiash-netvs/14. 2. Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (New Tork: Columbia University Press, 1984), 224. 3. Ibid. 4. Skype interview with the author, May 23, 2011.
JILLIAN ST. JACQUES is an instructor of Writing fir Media at Oregon State University and recently edited a collection oj scholarly essays entitled Adaptation Theoriesj˘r Jan van Eyck Press (2011).