Multimedia artist Adel Abidin presents “History Wipes”, centering on the complex landscapes of memory, exile and violence.

Hosted by Finland’s Ateneum Art Museum, the comprehensive exhibition questions history’s authority, and sheds light on the individuals and moments that have been systematically erased.

Adel Abidin, ‘History Wipes’, 2018, video still. Image courtesy Martin Jäger.

Adel Abidin, ‘History Wipes’, 2018, video still. Image courtesy Martin Jäger.

Adel Abidin’s tumultuous career has been rooted in history’s trauma, and more specifically, the way such trauma is articulated and remembered in different societies. This predicament is the cornerstone of the artist’s ongoing solo show at Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum titled “History Wipes”, and serves as a jumping off point to rethink catastrophic events through Abidin’s figurative visual language. The 1918 Finnish Civil War, the Arab Spring and the Holocaust, for example, are not only given consideration for the disasters they were, but have prompted the artist to rethink or reimagine personal and political histories through altered or forgotten lenses.

Based between Amman and Helsinki, Abidin reflects on the cross-continental dialogues – particularly those rife with inconsistencies – that run rampant in historical textbooks and records. The process of putting “History Wipes” together has evolved the artist’s practice into a more general commentary on the instability and ambiguity of memory. Whose stories and history are we telling – or are we told – and with what voice? Manipulating truths and erasing undesirable or emotional or devious political events, or persons from artefacts, does not change history, but only buries them deeper within archives.

Adel Abidin, ‘Cleansing’, 2018, video still. Image courtesy the artist

Adel Abidin, ‘Cleansing’, 2018, video still. Image courtesy the artist.

About this ongoing exploration the artist states:

Being politically correct is almost like being a hypocrite. History is all about manipulation; as Napoleon said, it’s like a set of lies we all agreed upon. I always ask myself [about] how we could live without history. And how can we rely on a history which is written by the victor?

Abidin’s show curiously approaches the act or idea of ‘wiping’. But it is crucial to ask: what is being wiped out? What is forcibly forgotten in favour of starting anew? In favour of a clean slate? Between state-sponsored amnesia – an unremarkably common practice in some post-war regions – and self-propagated forgetfulness, there is no doubt in Abidin’s work that wiping out history serves a defense mechanism: in defense of safety, in defense of memory and in defending the individuals who have been lost or overlooked by regimented time.

Adel Abidin, ‘Symphony’, 2012, mixed media installation, duration: 00'01'44 min. (seamless loop). Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Adel Abidin, ‘Symphony’, 2012, mixed media installation, seamless loop, 01m:44s. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

The exhibition’s title, however, may offer a variable approach where the ‘wiping’ is not carried out as a verb, but is instead enacted as a noun: wipes. While the purposeful erasure of certain histories is undeniable, perhaps Abidin’s projects in “History Wipes” offers the tools to do the erasing, this time at the expense of “the victor”. Left in this state, the exhibition leaves opportunities for revision.

Adel Abidin, ‘A Vision of the Future’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Adel Abidin, ‘A Vision of the Future’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Through his videos and sculptural installations Abidin takes an action, symbol or object out of its assigned context and revives it as a metaphor. Coming from his own experience of being at the crossroads between the Arab and Western world, the artist’s work is often haunted by notions of imprisonment, isolation and repeated exile, particularly in some of his earlier works like Cold Interrogation (2004), Alyaa (2005) and Chat Room (2006), which have been notably exhibited at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Art Basel, Lawrie Shabibi and the Venice Biennale among others. It is through a universal and profoundly humanist approach that Abidin lends an ironic sense of the absurd or surreal; he brings into question the social backgrounds that shape us as well as the concept of cultural alienation.

The large-scale installation Archive (2018), for one, is based on Abidin’s experience of applying for a residence permit at a police station in Amman. Within a large archival shelf are a series of colourful cardboard folders, within which remain the hidden lives of thousands of ordinary people, including that of the artist. This “eerie graveyard of information” began to live and transform in the artist’s mind: it conveyed stories of real people and real experiences, yet narratively controlled and monitored by governing authorities.

Adel Abidin, ‘Archive’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Adel Abidin, ‘Archive’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

The Reward (2015) is the artist’s delicate, yet daunting reaction to news of torture on the Iraqi national football team at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s elder son during the late 1980s. Forced to wear rusted iron masks after performing “unfavourably” in a match, Abidin depicts the athletes’ torturous ‘reward’ and sheds light on a barbaric act against human rights. These glass masks have, however, lost their weight, still representing fear and torment, but through a nimble fragility or vulnerability; their power has been revoked.

Adel Abidin, ‘Reward’, 2015, Pyrex-Glass, variable dimensions. Fondazione Berengo and Berengo Studio, Murano, Venice. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Hannu Pakarinen.

Adel Abidin, ‘Reward’, 2015, pyrex-glass, variable dimensions. Fondazione Berengo and Berengo Studio, Murano, Venice. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Hannu Pakarinen.

It is also impossible to wander through Abidin’s solo show without encountering Al-Warqaa (2013), an enormous steel structure that hangs suspended from the museum’s ceiling. The skeletal piece is inspired by Avicenna’s poem titled “Ode to a Human Soul”, in which a soul’s journey is likened to that of a dove taking flight.

It descended upon thee from out of the regions above, that exalted, ineffable, glorious, heavenly Dove. Twas concealed from the eyes of all those who its nature would ken, yet it wears not a veil, and is ever apparent to men. Unwilling it sought thee and joined thee, and yet, though it grieve, it is like to be still more unwilling thy body to leave.

Extracted from “Ode to a Human Soul” by Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

The soul, like its animal counterpart, is ethereal: detached from Earth’s surface and equally separate from the heavens. Al-Warqaa’s metallic structure, however, adds a daunting weight to an otherwise airy or precious symbol. The dove takes on a machinic appearance; and while functionally static, holds an imaginative potential strength.

Adel Abidin, ‘Al-Warqaa’, 2013, suspended steel structure, acrylic sheets, LED lights, rope and customized stone, 190 cm x 600 cm x 400 cm. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Adel Abidin, ‘Al-Warqaa’, 2013, suspended steel structure, acrylic sheets, LED lights, rope and customized stone, 190 cm x 600 cm x 400 cm. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Abidin’s attention to the nuances of history, and their resonance in the present, allows his work to take on a multidimensional and enthralling ethos, one that allows the artist to bridge personal and broader political histories into compelling and challenging work. And at the epicentre of this attention is the video piece after which the show is titled. History Wipes details those current events that people prefer to shut out from their minds, while simultaneously considering the repetitive nature of this phenomenon through centuries past. Atrocities like ethnic cleansing, war and prejudice are intertwined with narratives about migration, exile and refugee status. It is as if these ‘categories’, neatly filed away in our minds to help us cope, or worse, forget, are reimagined on a leveled playing field that does not allow for irresponsible or unethical neglect.

Adel Abidin, ‘History Wipes’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

Adel Abidin, ‘History Wipes’, 2018. Image courtesy Finnish National Gallery and Jenni Nurminen.

By twisting realities (how real are they anyhow) and creating contextual shifts in history’s perception of itself, Abidin’s visual poetry shouts about what many keep quiet about. It sheds a spotlight on that which is blotted from memory or reduced to a status of alternative understanding. The artist states:

Human existence is played out on just two stages: the past and the future. We are accustomed to relying on written history – but how can we be sure that we know the whole truth about our history? And what would happen if we were to forget all the wars that we caused and all the people that we killed?

In this vein, “History Wipes” transforms certainty into a fluid state, rendering all that one has encountered, read or been taught into yet another storyline.

Megan Miller

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“Adel Abidin: History Wipes” is on view from 14 March to 22 April 2018 at Ateneum, Kaivokatu 2, 00100 Helsinki, Finland.

Related topics: Iraqi artists, historical art, museum shows, memory, installation, events in Helsinki

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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