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Interview with Mariam Ghani
by Charlie Schultz

Kassel, June 2012 – Mariam Ghani’s research-based projects explore the socio-political histories of specific places, and often respond directly to the site upon which she works and exhibits. For Documenta 13, Ghani collaborated with a team to create the multichannel film, A Brief History of Collapses, which is based on and filmed within Kassel’s Museum Fridericianum and the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul. In addition she produced Afghanistan: A Lexicon, with her father for Documenta's 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts series.

While Ghani was in between Kassel and Kabul, she took time to respond to my questions about her project, its development, and what it was like to collaborate with her father.

Mariam Ghani, A Brief History of Collapses, Dar ul-Aman, video still; Courtesy of the artist.

Charles Schultz: I understand you have an academic background in literature and cinema studies. How do those interests inform A Brief History of Collapses?

Mariam Ghani: I have a B.A. in Comparative Literature as well as an MFA. My background in comp lit informs much of my work, and in particular the way I think about and work with language and narrative. In A Brief History of Collapses this is perhaps most obvious in the preoccupation with the contrapuntal narratives (a term borrowed from Edward Said) that emerge in the interplay between the architectures and histories of the two buildings I filmed, the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel and the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul.

CS: The term “collapse” could be interpreted many ways; how do you think of it in terms of your film?

MG: The collapses referenced in A Brief History of Collapses could be interpreted in several different ways: on the physical plane, as the actual collapses of the actual structures of the two buildings depicted; within the historical narrative, as the recurring cycles of political collapses and recoveries undergone by the two states in which the buildings are situated; and on the metaphorical level, as the collapse of history itself, whether through compression or conflation, the passage of history into myth or myth into history, and the elisions and transmutations that occur when history is rewritten after wars and coup d'etats.

CS: There seems to be a fair amount of symmetry involved on many layers. Not only are there a lot of symmetrical spaces in the architecture of the buildings, but their histories also seem to have a certain (mirrored?) symmetry. Do symmetrical movements play much of a role in the installation?

MG: The buildings themselves are axisymmetrical, so that symmetry informed the way I plotted the trajectories that the cameras and performers take through the spaces. Each channel of video shows one of the two buildings, and for each building/channel, the camera's path was designed so that when the two channels were juxtaposed, the two frames would sometimes be moving in the same direction, and sometimes be mirrored (left on one side, right on the other, up on one side, down on the other). The path of the women seen fleetingly in each building, meanwhile, was planned and edited such that their movement frequently implies a kind of illusory continuity between the two spaces (e.g. one crosses from left to right on the left screen, then the other crosses from left to right on the right screen) even though they are played by two different performers, wearing quite different costumes. Meanwhile, the costumes exemplify certain elements of the production design that may appear to be opposed or mirrored, but actually encode the same meanings; one woman wears mostly black, and the other mostly white, but each is the color of mourning in its specific context.

The video is installed with the two channels projected onto two very large screens (in Kassel, almost floor-to-ceiling) which are arranged in a wide V with a gap in the center, like a hinge or an open book. Facing the screen is a semi-circular bench, separated into two parts with a gap in the center. This is of course a symmetrical arrangement that refers to the architecture of the two buildings, and also to the way the piece connects them (like a hinge) without equating them (allowing them to remain separate).

CS: Can you talk a little about how the Brothers Grimm are incorporated in your narrative?

MG: The slightly heightened language, poetic devices and rhythms of fairytales provide an overall framework for the narration of the video. The introduction references the Grimms directly, along with Afghan folklore and the 1001 Nights, to suggest that the story or stories that follow should be understood as unfolding in the time-out-of-time or nonlinear time of oral history rather than the strict linear progressions of written history. A later section of the narration deals directly with the Grimms, speculating about the reasons behind the turn towards moralization in the later editions of their fairytales. The next story told is about something I refer to as the "war of fairytales" and concerns the uses of existing fairytales, and the writing of new and more overtly political tales, in youth recruitment efforts by various parties in Germany during the Weimar period, which ultimately led to the Allied ban on Grimm tales in the period immediately following WW2. I wanted to include these stories about storytelling -- and particularly stories about the political uses of fairy and folktales, along with stories about books that were banned, burned and stolen -- in order to put forward some ideas about the weight and consequences of narration, the role played by culture (whether art, literature, architecture or folklore) in the construction and reconstruction of national imaginaries, and the ways that myth becomes history and history myth.

Mariam Ghani, A Brief History of Collapses, Fridericianum, video still; Courtesy of the artist.


CS: Can you talk a little about the dance and narrative elements? How did these come together?

MG: The movement you see onscreen is certainly choreographed but not necessarily dance in any traditional sense. The two figures pursued by the two cameras are always escaping either the frame of the architecture or the frame of the screen, so they are mostly seen in parts, or partially obscured, or in passing, at a distance or from behind. Usually, they are simply walking, but with a certain purpose, as if towards a definite destination. Another choreography, the staging of small events and objects around or alongside the passage of the camera, also operates simultaneously. These can be very minimal, like a particular photograph hung on a wall, or timed very precisely, like a flurry of burned pages wafting past the camera. In either case the camera does not seem to remark them or react to them, in the same way that it tracks the movement of the women; the camera simply passes by or through them without comment. These objects and events are linked to specific references in the voiceover narration, but the references deliberately occur several minutes before or after the visual cue, so the links are probably not immediately apparent on a first viewing of the video but would be clear to a viewer watching the loop a second time.

CS: The lexicon you created with your father seems like a wonderful project on its own. Have you collaborated with your father before? What was that experience like?

MG: Afghanistan: A Lexicon, the notebook that my father and I wrote collaboratively for Documenta's 100 Notes, 100 Thoughts series, definitely does function as a complete work on its own, but reading it would also reinforce or enrich a viewer's experience of A Brief History of Collapses, because the ideas that it examines in a more analytic mode overlap to some extent with the ideas explored in a more poetic register in the video's voiceover narration. In fact, the notebook project came out of an overlap between my thinking about and research for A Brief History of Collapses and my father's thinking and research at the time. Specifically, we both were preoccupied with the contemporary significance of the Dar ul-Aman Palace, the king who built it, Amanullah, and the period of his reign, 1919-29. We were also both thinking (and talking together) about how to write a non-linear history of 20th-century Afghanistan, which to us appeared more like a recursive cycle (based on a pattern set during the Amanullah period) than a straight line of causes and effects. The lexicon -- which allows for cross-referencing and multiple, overlapping definitions -- seemed like a form that would allow a different kind of history, or histories, to be written. As far as the collaboration goes, we had actually written together before, but in this case the usual roles were reversed, and I was in the position of the "senior author" with the first say on determining the overall structure and the last edit on every text. My father took this with remarkable grace, and I think we're both quite happy with the result.

Mariam Ghani, A Brief History of Collapses, Dar ul-Aman, video still; Courtesy of the artist.


CS: Would you consider A Brief History of Collapses to be a site-specific or site-responsive art work? Do you think it would be effective elsewhere, say in New York?

MG: Like a number of previous projects about places or buildings, A Brief History of Collapses is a site-responsive work, but not a site-specific one. By which I mean that the video was imagined, developed and made very much in response to the sites of production, the particular buildings where it was filmed, and in relation with their resonances in their particular contexts, the cities of Kassel and Kabul. The installation of that video, however, is a variable and scalable piece that can adapt to many different sorts of settings, rather than an installation developed specifically for the site of viewing at Documenta 13. In fact the project has been premiered almost simultaneously in both Kassel and Kabul, and looks a little bit different, but still recognizably itself, in each place. Of course it adds a little extra fillip to the viewing in Kassel to view the video in the Fridericianum itself, and to recognize onscreen, somehow altered, a corridor you recently walked through. This experience will probably never be repeated after Documenta, however -- in Kabul the video is being shown in another building altogether, not in Dar ul-Aman -- and that seems perfectly appropriate to me. In other places, the effect will be not recognizing the familiar, and having it re-presented as strange and new, but rather being presented with something new and strange, and gradually being coaxed into a kind of intimacy with it.

Charlie Schultz

ArtSlant would like to thank Mariam Ghani for her assistance in making this interview possible.

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