“I Wish to Let You Fall Out of My Hands (Chapter I)” by Naeem Mohaiemen and Bani Abidi at Experimenter in Kolkata examines longing, memory, identity, dislocation and loss through architecture, form and space.
The show is the first chapter of Experimenter’s two-part exhibition, the second of which will inaugurate their new space at Ballygunge Place in Kolkata on 28 February 2018.
Structures and their myriad meanings
“I wish to let you fall out of my hands (Chapter I)” (PDF download) at Experimenter presents the works of Bangladeshi visual artist, writer and filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen and Pakistani artist Bani Abidi in an exhibition that seeks to decode the meanings behind structures. The artists use film and photography to explore the complexity of peoples’ relationships with the spaces they occupy – whether transitory, aspirational, imaginary or reclaimed.
In Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Tripoli Cancelled (2017) a man follows a daily routine of walking, smoking, writing letters, staging scenes and reading from a weathered copy of the fantasy-classic Watership Down – as the sole inhabitant of an abandoned airport. Inspired by the experience of Mohaiemen’s father who spent nine days trapped without a passport at Athens Ellinikon airport in 1977, the film explores the protagonist’s lonely, everyday life and we witness his slow descent into madness.
Tripoli Cancelled was filmed at the Ellinikon terminal, which was originally built in 1938 and redesigned in 1969 by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. The choice of location, in addition to its personal connection, suits the artistic intent of the filmmaker as Mohaiemen explores longing, memory, loss of identity and dislocation at a space that has witnessed significant change. The Nazi invasion in 1941, US Air Force occupation of the site after World War II and more recently as a shelter for refugees, the Ellinikon airport’s identity has evolved and it is presently the site of what is expected to be one of the greatest examples of urban real estate redevelopment in Europe in recent times.
In Tripoli Cancelled, which is Mohaiemen’s first fiction film, the line between prisoner and king is blurred, in a merging of our epoch of desperate migration with the post-Holocaust concept – Hannah Arendt’s “spectral human” and Giorgio Agamben’s “Der Muselmänner”. In a MoMA interview with Sarah Lookofsky, the artist when asked about the character in the film, and where and when the story is taking place, says:
“Muselmann” is an antiquated German word for Muslim, and was used at Auschwitz for prisoners who were too weak to survive and had given up hope. . . This “Muselmann” figure shows up in the film’s protagonist’s letter to his wife on the runway, and then in the bar scene, when he refuses a whisky, explaining, “I’m a Muselmann.” The phantom bartender replies, “Ah yes, we had a Muselmann here before. He was leaving Germany.” The “leaving Germany” reference is to the Muslim Germans (tiny in number), who may also have been persecuted by the Nazis but aren’t noted in historical accounts. So Tripoli Cancelled contains “Der Muselmann” as an end state in Auschwitz, and “a Muselmann” as an escapee from Germany. The unnamed protagonist refers to a dinner guest, meant to be Hannah Arendt, reporting from the Jerusalem trial and infuriating readers with the “Banality of Evil” thesis.
The film features two current nominees for Greek Academy Awards: the actor Vassilis Koukalani (for Amerika Square, 2016) and sound designer Kostas Fylaktides(for Suntan, 2016). It is showing for the first time in Asia, after premiering at documenta 14 and in the MoMA PS1 solo show “There is no Last Man”, where the film was described by The New York Times as “Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett mixed with Julio Cortázar, threaded through the needle of colonialism and 21st-century security states.”
On being questioned by Lookofsky in the MoMA interview on the repeated reference to the Holocaust across several of his works and on being asked to comment on the Eurocentrism of 1945 as a global marker in spite of other pivotal modern events such as the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent, the artist says:
I have for a long time been invested in burrowing into the Holocaust’s centrality to a European concept of “zero hour”[…] The camps loom large in ‘Tripoli Cancelled’, and later so do the trials in the reference to Arendt. An idea of modernity hitting a reset, a “never seen before” brutality. In actuality, colonial praxis had already refined this template of subjugation, domination, and annihilation. The system shock of the Holocaust is the boomeranging of these same tactics onto the European body. Human history has been a replay of this breakdown – a willed blindness to genocidal tactics, whether carried out by neighbor or state, as long as they target an accepted subject of dominion, framed by holy doctrine or racialized capitalism. The Holocaust, and the debates around the parameters of its inscribing open up ways to look at other instances of human history from within even this over-familiar, presumably “Eurocentric” space.
Mohaiemen uses essays, film and mixed-media installations in a practice that focuses on South Asia’s two postcolonial markers (the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971). He is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a Guggenheim Fellow (film). He has exhibited extensively at venues around the world including documenta 14, Momentum Nordic Biennale (Norway), Eva International Biennal (Ireland), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Tate Britain.
Public spaces and individual identities
Bani Abidi’s works being showcased at Experimenter were made almost a decade ago and find deep resonance with Mohaiemen’s film, while commenting on architecture and identity viewed through the lens of dislocation. The Distance From Here, a single channel video, is set within two undefined spaces. One seems to be a generic, sparse, waiting room of a visa office and another, a vast outdoor area where people move through security scanners, and are frisked by guards while being regulated through demarcated walkways.
Abidi develops a play on coercion and control, where groups of people unknown to the spectator are herded through manmade barriers and are made to mechanically follow orders with the final purpose of identifying themselves to the authorities. While this ultimate objective would be to obtain a visa for travel or immigration, the protagonists with their vacant expressions seem bored, disinterested and distant – apparently going nowhere. It is these conflicting emotions of anticipation and the fear of rejection and opposing relationships of power that Abidi renders skillfully, on film.
Untitled (Files) (2010) is a series of photographs of unnamed files, seemingly referring to people who are preparing to go elsewhere. The images displayed on two walls at first glance appear to be ordinary folders of varying thicknesses, which contain the identity papers of unnamed individuals, but on closer examination are an anatomy of anxiety, dislocation, anticipation and above all, hope.
Abidi was born in Karachi and after studying painting and printmaking in Lahore, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has completed residencies with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (2000), Fukuoka Art Exchange Program, Japan (2005), and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program (2011–12). As an artist, her practice has always used video as a primary medium with elements of performance and photography gradually being incorporated into her work. She has used these means to address problems of nationalism – specifically those surrounding the Indian-Pakistani conflict and the violent legacy of the 1947 Partition that divided the two countries, commenting on their uneven representation in the international media. Her work has focused on how these issues have affected the everyday life and individual experience of the normal citizen.
Abidi has exhibited extensively in group exhibitions at the Berlin Biennial (Berlin), Documenta 13 (Kassel), the Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Gwangju Biennale (South Korea), the Singapore Biennale (Singapore) and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial (Japan), amongst others. Her solo shows include “An Unforeseen Situation“ (Neuer Berliner Kunstvereien, 2017), “Exercise in Redirecting Lines” (Kunsthaus Hamburg, 2016), “The man who clapped for 97 hours” (Experimenter, Kolkata, 2016) and “Bani Abidi” (Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, 2011). The artist’s work can be seen in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Tate Modern (London), The British Museum (London), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Fukuoka) and the Spencer Museum of Art (Kansas). She lives and works in Berlin and Karachi.
Art Radar spoke to the artist about her practice and the ideation behind The Distance from Here.
The observations that you make in The Distance from Here, of a group of people mechanically following orders as they seek to prove their identity, were made almost a decade ago. This reality for many in the subcontinent and other countries around the world has not changed – in many places it has worsened in recent times. How has this apathy and deterioration in the human situation influenced your current work?
The Distance from Here came from my own experiences of waiting in various embassies in Islamabad for visas many years ago, and closely watching the lives of people and the space around me. The almost jail-like architecture, multiple layers of security, the attitudes of local visa officers, all the mechanisms of intimidation that were simultaneously at play… Now I think the whole question of refugees, their movement, their trials and tribulations, their reception in various countries has become a metanarrative of our times. I live in Germany, which has been at the centre of the refugee issue. At this point I’m just watching and absorbing things. I usually don’t respond to ‘global issues’ unless they creep into my own life with some level of personal relevance.
As a filmmaker from the subcontinent with its various complexities in histories, identities, people, memories and spaces, how do you create work that is comprehensible to an international audience who has not experienced such flux and/or conflict?
Most intelligent and political human beings get the larger picture, beyond the specificity of space and time. As long as there are enough of those around, I’m in business. But I think with popular global political themes (like the refugee crisis), which grab most people’s attention, specific histories and moments, which may not have global relevance, find it hard to compete.
How important and relevant is the space that you choose for your films and photographs? Your locations seem to reflect the same loss of identity, dislocation, conflict and complexities that are evident in the characters in your work, as well as in the modern world…
Well, in a video like The Distance from Here, I created a part of the set, which is the outdoor space, and used an existing indoor space I knew of to set up the visa office. So this video in particular was very much about space, temperature, the sun, the gravel on the ground versus the air-conditioned interior with echoing sounds and public announcement systems.
In your practice, whether it is video or photography, you explore the political and cultural histories of the world. What are the challenges you face in communicating serious messages to a ‘regular’ art and film audience? What is your creative process from ideation to fruition to make sure that this happens?
I don’t have that many serious messages, I usually just notice details of things around me and glean from everyday stuff. I make comments that to me are funny or may have pathos. They are all political – but not messages, just ideas.
“I Wish to Let You Fall Out of My Hands (Chapter I)” is on view from 30 January to 3 March 2018 at Experimenter, Hindusthan Road, Gariahat, Kolkata 700029. “I wish to let you fall out of my hands (Chapter II)” is on view from 28 February to 7 April 2018 at Experimenter’s new Ballygunge Place space in Kolkata.
- “Of Absence and Weight”: Pakistani-born artist Seher Shah at Nature Morte, New Delhi – January 2018 – Seher Shah works with drawing, printmaking and sculpture, exploring a range of processes that draw on her background in art and architecture
- Research as Practice, Exhibition as Inquiry, Archive as Verb: Hammad Nasar at Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2017 – November 2017 – Art Radar looks at some of the highlights of Hamma Nasar’s presentation at ECH2017
- Avant-garde art and feminism: late Pakistani artist Lala Rukh – artist profile – August 2017 – Art Radar celebrates Lala Rukh, avant-garde artist, feminist and teacher
- “It is Not Necessary to Understand Everything”: Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen at Tensta Konsthall, Sweden – July 2017 – Naeem Mohaiemen excavates national and personal histories in his film essay “It is Not Necessary to Understand Everything”
- All art is political: “Immateriality in Residue” at Experimenter Kolkata – in pictures – December 2015 – “Immateriality in Residue” features Indian artists Prabhakar Pachpute and Sanchayan Ghosh, Bangladeshi artist Ayesha Sultana and French-Indian artist Gyan Panchal
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