New York 2007 - Lida Abdul's solo show at Location One Gallery in New York’s Soho was on view from October, 20 - November 17, 2007. ARTslant’s writer, Hong-An Truong, was able to have a conversation with Lida about her influences and recent projects during that exhibition:
HAT: Lida, you were raised in all these different places – Kabul, Delhi, Germany. How do you identify yourself, as an artist and otherwise?
LA: It’s complicated. It’s fluid. It’s not one or the other. When I’m in Afghanistan I feel very Afghan. I can speak the language, I can joke around, pick up the nuances very quickly and it seems like I never left. But in Europe it’s the same because as a child I was there. So I can handle both. I feel like I can cross borders in that way. And I think that is what is wonderful about not having a fixed notion of identity or nationhood. There is really nothing I have a duty to do. It bothers people, this refusal to choose between us and them because I guess when you announce your identity publicly people know what to expect. If I were to identify with anything, it would be Afghanistan because it’s a country that needs so much attention.
HAT: Your work deals with questions of place, history, and violence by using ruins, both literally and figuratively. Why do you think the image of ruins resonates so powerfully?
LA: I imagine my work to be outside always. At least for the last four or five years I haven’t made anything inside a traditional studio. The architecture is always represented from the outside and I cannot help but find in the war-ravaged, destroyed architecture a story that must be told if the country is to move forward. And I think it’s interesting in relation to Afghanistan because it is a country that performs so many psychological tasks for the larger world: it is a failed state; it is a tragedy; it is the incarnation of a land that is unconquerable, etc. Afghanistan is the place where all the melodramatic cliches of the so-called west come to die and then the media rehashes them as orientalism. It's a country that is a metaphor for so many things: freedom of women, war, warlords, a country of resistance, a country that historically was in the center of the Silk Route. In terms of Afghanistan's identity, we’re already mixed, very mixed, so it stands for so much. So in a sense the landscape really adds on to that discourse already. But I’m very careful as to how I portray the landscape, or how I choose the way that people act within that landscape.
HAT: Your work figures in comparison to Robert Smithson and Michael Hezier and the discourse of earth works but I think it’s so different because their work is about the individual and yours is about a collective action. How do you imagine the role of your actors? You get the sense in your films that they aren’t just actors, but are connected to what they are doing.
LA: Yeah they are real events and performances for me. They take place in real time and space rather than as a stage. In that sense they are very different. I feel that what I’m doing conceptually is taking those ideas, for example Gordon Matta-Clark or Smithson or Ana Mendieta, in relationship to the body itself – I’m taking it to a real context of real life, and real events that aren’t just staged for some kind of entertainment value or that are done for an art audience only. I see my work as a rehearsal for what I hope will happen in Afghanistan, a certain reconciliation with the past that is neither a desire for revenge nor a complete erasure of the past in order to start anew, which seems to be the model of neo-liberalism whose motto is what: let's just get along and forget what we did to each other in the past. It’s more than that. I feel that these events are like healing processes that open a space of mourning for me. I’m interested in the relationship between monuments, architecture, and trauma and how we look at these three different things. And in that way, the performances are given a different kind of life, an everydayness. For instance, the way that Gordon Matta-Clark talks about the wall as a medium, that it’s interesting as a medium itself. And I think he’s right, just looking at the wall in Afghanistan is completely different – it adds on to it.
HAT: How does gender figure in your work? Because most of the people in your films are men, gender resonates. The only female figure we see is you as the artist in the piece “White House.” Can you talk about this?
LA: I am not interested in the moment about making work about the veil or issues of gender so specifically. It’s been done and is being done a lot by Middle Eastern artists. My interest lies in looking at the ideology of landscape and architecture in relationship to identity, so that’s where I’m focused. But at the same time, White House (2006) in a sense really engages with this issue of war and gender for me. In that piece when I started to paint the ruins white, they became sculpture, they became a kind of monument, or anti-monument. They existed there just as a piece of fractured architecture. But that piece was so many things for me. It was performance, installation, sculpture, all of those in one. And it was amazing because when I showed that piece at the Venice Biennale in 2005, the piece was in 20 countries simultaneously. I felt it was interesting in that sense that it brought up so many questions of gender in relationship to architecture and war. I mean during WWII where Europe experienced such a catastrophe, women were always the ones to clean up, to put the pieces of the broken vase back. Like the vase has already been shattered and is on the ground and they are piecing it back together. So I think this is really interesting in terms of global politics.
HAT: What do you think the role of narrative is in your work?
LA: In certain pieces there is a narrative, but not a traditional sense of what we would understand as narrative in cinema or art or theatre. It’s very disjunctive, experimental, looking at narrative in a certain way. It’s not a kind of narrative that goes A + B = C. There’s a break in time. The time of mourning, the logic of mourning and reconciliation is not narrative but poetic.
HAT: The process of labor itself almost serves as the narrative, or a metaphor for the narrative.
LA: Yes, exactly. The dialogue one finds in my work is very spare because in some ways the pieces come about at the end of some extreme events. I suppose in some way the words are purely referential, but at the same time abstract in their references. I’m not trying to tell a story in one hour. I’m interested in doing it in five minutes. There’s a difference between cinema and video. It’s a challenge.
HAT: Your work is very much grounded in a cinematic tradition. There is a kind of productive sublimation of trauma that I think is very beautifully rendered in your films. It’s not about the shock of trauma. It’s not a coping thing, because you’re not trying to get over it…
LA: Yes, you’re right, it’s not about coping or getting over it. I’m trying to understand it, trying to have an opening of a space. I’m interested in this question of documentary. Goddard said that documentary is always about others and fiction is about yourself. It’s an interesting way of looking at these two different mediums of cinema.
In a conceptual mode of working, there is a level of self-reflexivity; for instance, didactic work doesn’t have that. Didactic work kind of fails because you are standing in the street but you can’t see the end. You are very involved in the periphery that you’re standing on, you see? You’re missing the rest. In this way of working there is a perspectival position. That’s one thing. The other thing for me, being embedded in Persian mythology and culture, is that I share in a literary tradition, a very poetic and oral tradition, a way of life. For instance, the influence of Sufism, or Rumi, that is really embedded in the culture. So we can’t help being this way in a sense! In another sense I can also say that I am not following any kind of tradition or movement, per se. I’m not following any movement anywhere or in the West. I am not part of any of that, like I don’t see myself as part of a group, let’s say in NY or LA or London. I am not doing any of these things because I come from Central Asia, really. So I am really dealing with that history and rooted in that Persian history, the tradition of literature, and Sufism. It trickles down in to the culture so much.
HAT: In engaging with questions of trauma and healing, though, how do you deal with Adorno’s question – how do you write poetry after Auschwitz? How does one represent that which is ultimately unrepresentable?
LA: I think you deal with it through metaphors, with layers of metaphor. I think the answer is poetry, really, for me it’s creating a poetic space to this issue of what you do after disaster. It’s definitely a different kind of language. It took me time, you know? I think Afghanistan gave me that, which I’m very grateful for. I think being in the country and being involved in the everyday events has given me that language. I felt that after 2001, after the fall of Taliban, and I went back, something opened up for me. It was a crucial moment for me as an artist.
HAT: Do you think about your work contributing to global and political change?
LA: It’s difficult for me to answer this. I don’t know. Yes and no. I mean it’s not direct, obviously, it’s in a much more indirect way. I think that’s what art should do overall – it leaves us with a thought, and perhaps in a way it’s really effective because you have this tiny little image that you’re carrying with you, with a message. So it really depends. Maybe it doesn’t have that simultaneous effect. It takes time, opens up space. I think most art does. Not just what I’m doing but most interesting art that is really meshing and intertwined with form and content does that. It takes you somewhere, you have a little journey and it’s like you’re in a boat, you’re sailing in the sea, you don’t know quite where you’re going to go, and it takes you somewhere. And I think that’s really important.
HAT: Changing the imagery of the landscape, having it understood or read in a different way is a really powerful way of affecting change, affecting people’s position or relationship to the world. Somehow it has to be a slow kind of infection, not immediate or in your face, which tends to affect people by triggering guilt.
LA: I’m not interested in the guilt. I’m not interested in making my audience feel guilty because of what’s happening in Afghanistan. That’s not my aim at all. I don’t think that’s interesting. You lose your audience. What’s interesting is how do we go about as people, as viewers, as people who are engaged in the world, rather than having these isolated experiences. We are much more connected than we think we are because whatever you do in New York for instance affects things in other cities in the world. I know this is a cliche but 9/11 has shown us that we cannot stop there but must take that as a point of departure for an engagement with the world that is neither touristic nor so blindly compassionate that it forgets the cultural specificity. The kind of energy we put out in the world is really important to me. I’m really interested in bringing that kind of feeling or energy to people rather than like, saying you have to feel sorry for people in Afghanistan because they are living underneath ruins. That’s not my aim. It’s happening, it’s true, it’s a fact, you can read about it on BBC – but it’s much more challenging for me to bring about questions about that interconnectivity and open up a space so that for instance, you can engage with the question, how do you build after disaster? This is a big question for me. Do you completely start from somewhere new? Is it possible to start with a clean slate, or do you build up from what was already ruined? And do you build another wall to Afghanistan just like we have the Vietnam Memorial in Washington? Do we need another one? Is there a process of understanding or learning that has taken place from this? That’s interesting for me. Not just to cover up but to build something that is a reminder but also allows you to move forward. There’s a psychological and literal rebuilding.
These questions that I’m dealing with right at the moment – you know Europe had to deal with it. The French had to deal with it, the Dutch had to deal with it. So I have these conversations occasionally with people. For instance I was in Germany and I had just left Afghanistan and all of a sudden they found a bomb, one of the biggest bombs from WWII! The whole city had to be evacuated! The whole city in the middle of Germany had to be evacuated! It was just six months ago. Now they’re dealing with it. So in a sense, these are questions we have to deal with no matter what context, no matter what political situation. If it’s not war, it’s disaster. Or, simply the question of how do we build something knowing that it can get destroyed?
This is a question for architects to ask, you know? It’s incredible that so much goes into building something but there’s always that potential for disaster. These are interesting questions for me to think about.
HAT: Yes, there’s that potential for disaster; there’s a cyclical sense of that rising and falling, building and destruction.
LA: Right before I left there were 27 people who died in Kabul. it could have been me driving through that city, on that street, so you never know. But Afghanistan has a lot of life. They’re not depressed, you know? When you have suffered so much then normalcy itself is a form of resistance.
HAT: I think that sense of risk-taking is in the work too. Not all artists would be willing to put themselves in that place. There’s a real vulnerability in the work because of it.
LA: I’m not staging too much, I mean I go with ideas but at the same time it’s life. The place is contaminated, I’m dealing with that as well – contamination of all kinds, chemicals. It affects your body as soon as you’re there. A lot of friends who I like to work with, they will not go to Afghanistan. I have a specific camera person, a photographer, who is amazing, and I would like to hire him on my shoots but he will not go. He’s based in the U.S. and he will not go. But right now I have a group and they understand that there are risks and they are willing to take them.
HAT: That’s amazing.
LA: Yes, it’s amazing. They are in Germany, and they know the risks and are willing to go. They know that they may not return, and that anything could happen. But they still go. Because they really like the culture and they go because they like to spend time there, and make connections with people there, so there’s more to it. They also come back to their own work.
HAT: Can you describe your process of working with the people in your films? How much of the overall vision for the film do you discuss with them?
LA: It depends on the piece. With certain pieces I don’t tell them anything. I just tell them to do this or do that. And then I wait for the transformation. We do like four or five takes, and there is a transformation, I can see it. I can talk about it then, I can say what we’re really trying to do is deal with the history of Afghanistan, or the history that I have gone through and you have gone through. What do we do with this history? Literally where is it sitting in your body? What part of your body is storing this trauma? So we have that kind of discussion in the middle of the piece or at the end of the piece.
With other pieces I have to explain everything. I have this piece where people are digging a tree out of its roots, it’s called Tree, and it was also done for Venice. For that piece I had to explain everything ahead of time because there was a dialogue, so they had to really understand it. It was dealing with history as well, just like the ruin piece up at Location One (gallery), but in a much more direct way, trying to uproot a tree where people were hanged. And this twenty-foot long tree gets carried away by like twenty five men outside the city. So this landscape that is created, this journey of really coping with that place where people were hanged, is really interesting, and they totally understand that. And maybe perhaps I have been lucky you know? I don’t get resistance. They work with me.
ArtSlant would like to thank Lida Abdul for her assistance in making this interview possible.
- Hong-An Truong
(All images courtesy of the artist)