In response to Wafaa Bilal, Etienne Zack, Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens
If ever there was a time in need of imaginative propositions to counter difficult problems, it is now. After almost two centuries of essentialist modernism and decades of exhaustive postmodern relativism, it seems clear that most, if not all, of humanity’s utopic visions have failed or are obscured by forces beyond our reach. In an increasingly totalitarian climate, one can still imagine a way through oppressive regimes secured by war, neoliberalism, and anti-intellectualism supported by alternative facts. The potential in failure underlines the Esker Foundation’s three solo exhibitions of diverse works by Wafaa Bilal, Etienne Zack, and Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens. Each artist’s practice underscores the devastating effects of war and/or neoliberal ideology on cultural histories and the continuation of knowledge and humanity, while simultaneously modelling imaginative counter-positions borne of these failures.
Curated by Srimoyee Mitra and organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Windsor, 168:01 is a major installation by Iraqi-born, New York-based artist Wafaa Bilal that is accompanied by ten colour inkjet photographs from The Ashes Series (2003–13). Bilal’s work draws on his direct experience of trauma and loss in Iraq, starting for him with the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein, the subsequent wars with the United States and several national uprisings, his turbulent immigration to the US as a refugee and the violent murders of his brother and father by his adopted home’s government in 2005.
The Ashes Series sets the stage for all three exhibitions. Each medium-format photograph is a set in and of itself, a more-real-than-real dioramic reconstruction of a recognizable site based on existing photojournalistic images of war-torn ruins that have circulated in the western media. While the source images record the recent destruction of Iraq, Bilal’s reconstruction of these sites as miniature handmade models to be photographed focuses on details that point to the absence of presence of the subjects who once occupied these places; a street strewn with manuscript pages, a pristine glowing crystal chandelier, a velvet upholstered golden arm chair, a legless white mini-grand piano. His inclusion of these elements not only registers recent human presence and cultural activity for the viewer, but also interrupts the otherwise seamless translation of the media image into three-dimensional form by introducing an awkward sense of scale. These ever so slightly over-scaled objects are monstrous in their intent. They trigger viewers to look more closely, past the aesthetic skin of the image into its recesses. Viewers might then notice a light dusting of monochromatic white ash in the corners of the architecture, on the surfaces of the objects, and caught in the subtle filmic light of each scene. Ash is symbolic of death, peace, and hope, and Bilal describes its significance here as “the presence of the human spirit represented only by 21 grams of human ashes mixed with other ashes and spread over the model landscape, literally bringing a human aura to the image.” This, he continues, is “the mythical weight of a human soul.”
The Ashes Series addresses how one comes to know a culture through media images used to serve the oppressor. Bilal’s photographs emerge to strike an ethical balance, sharp as a razor’s edge, between the aesthetics and trauma of war. He attempts to re-personalize, re-humanize images of sites familiar to him, particularly cultural and domestic sites torn open by war, after their commodification and circulation as aestheticized, dehumanized media spectacles of a war. Paradoxically, Bilal turns these existing images of violence against the powers that wield them to cultivate humanism and empathy in his viewers. These large-scale monochromatic colour photographs seductively turn the media’s aestheticization of violence back onto viewers so that they might recoil in horror from their own dispassionate consumption and acceptance of such representations. The Ashes Series points to how the failure of humanity to act compassionately, empathetically, as captured daily through media images, might be remediated through art to potentially re-humanize trauma and loss in an imagistic world.
Bilal’s 168:01 installation mobilizes his audience even more directly to resist ongoing cultural genocide perpetrated by war. The work addresses the repeated destruction of ancient libraries and other cultural treasures in Iraq by war. Most notably for this work is the story of how the books from the Bayt al-Hikma or House of Wisdom—once a library to rival Hellenistic centres of learning, the Library of Alexandria (Egypt), and the Imperial Library of Constantinople (Istanbul) as an intellectual meeting place for humanist Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars—were destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1258. During the destruction of Baghdad, all the books were thrown into the “Tigris River in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink from the books.” 168:01 refers to the second after this seven-day rampage came to an end, when the last drops of ink recording centuries of shared cultural knowledge washed away beneath the water. The title re-inscribes this historical moment of cultural destruction, but, more importantly, it records the subsequent second; the moment at which a culture starts to rebuild itself.
The failure of humanity to learn from its past cultural genocides repeats itself today in the ongoing destruction of library and museum collections by war. During the 2003 US-led invasion, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, where Bilal studied, lost their entire library of 70,000 volumes. As an act of resistance and cultural persistence, 168:01 activates its audience to rebuild the library’s collection. One thousand pristine white volumes of blank pages line a twelve-metre white shelving unit in the gallery. Each volume is replaced during the exhibition by art books donated by the public to replenish the inventory of the Baghdad art college library. Once a donation is received, either directly or via Amazon order, it takes its place on the shelf and the donor receives a signed white volume from Bilal as a reciprocal gesture of exchange. These donations are then shipped to the University of Baghdad and added to their collection for future use by their students. Individually, the process is regenerative for Bilal, whose action can be understood as a way for him to personally recuperate from the trauma of war and the recently attempted cultural genocide in Iraq; for the library and its constituents, who struggle to recover and maintain the culture and contribute to the production of new knowledge; and for the donors, who collectively through this work, can proactively assist in the ongoing dissemination of knowledge across cultures.
First glimpsed through Bilal’s bookshelf, Montreal born and Los Angeles-based painter Etienne Zack’s exhibition, Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality, is curated by Esker Foundation’s Director/Curator Naomi Potter and also addresses ideological social and cultural erasure. Its title is taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Goodbye to Language (2014) and sets the tone for two series of works, seventeen paintings from 2014–16 and ten works on paper from 2016, that reflect on how the architecture and materiality of language, including the language of painting, shapes our histories and potential futures through what can be known. Like the film, Zack’s paintings trace a descent into the reality of the artist’s imagination. His large trompe-l’œil paintings of books and manuscripts stacked as if to build a gridded house-of-cards fill the frame of each painting to exceed the limitations of its edges and draw viewers into a seemingly rational, but fragmented space, in which there are multiple viewpoints. Trompe-l’œil painting creates an illusion of reality but, in these works, the illusion always gives way to the material reality of painting itself, in its drips, runs and brushstrokes. Zack’s painterly handling of materials marks the act of painting itself necessary to render these imaginary worlds.
Painted mainly from memory, these paintings are both imagined and real constructions of knowledge and history through language. Measured titles, Centralized, Extract, Indexed, Mass, reference both the discourse of painting and broader social and political discourse. These paintings represent ambiguous interior spaces, possibly a library or bookstore, a collector’s basement or an artist’s research sources, but it is unclear if they ever existed in reality or only in the artist’s imagination. Redacted, unreadable text and incised volumes suggest how the reciprocal processes of construction and destruction of knowledge/discourse by institutional powers form how history is recorded. The impossibility of reading the painted texts also highlights the limits and failure of any language to capture reality/truth. Ominous police batons punctuate these scenes to signal systems of state and corporate control that enforce the structural processes at work in such constructions. Dangling light bulbs and precariously balanced fluorescent tubes cut the compositions to shed light on how dominant power structures are maintained through physical and ideological violence. Importantly, through the language of painting, Zack transforms these oppressive spaces into ones full of imaginary potential.
Similarly, each of Zack’s collaged drawings repeats these precarious, fragmented architectures to create a believable construction from which there is no escape. Each work derives from a singular drawing, which has been copied and then reworked, but maintains its underlying grid structure. Unlike his earlier studio still life’s of accumulations of discarded artist’s materials and everyday bric-a-brac meticulously arranged to look like abandoned bricolage, these collages include actual magazine clippings of crowd scenes of protest and conflict produced and circulated by the media. They also seamlessly merge private interior space with images of collective public space. These collages decontextualize existing imagery and reorder it to camouflage the consistent underlying structure of the original composition, which parallels the hidden ideological systems that govern our world. Zack playfully uses the formal representational elements to subvert the power of representation itself, particularly in a media-saturated culture, by revealing its illusionary potential.
Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens’ video Real failure needs no excuse (2012) deconstructs the very ideas of success and failure. Shot in a recently vacated office space in Glasgow, the work captures the artists engaged in a series of relentless actions, seemingly without an end goal. They work tirelessly to stack, prop, rest and balance found construction materials, and remnant furniture and décor in a series of precarious constructions that they simultaneously deconstruct. Against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows, Lemmens positions two boxy, cloth-covered chairs centrally on a blue industrial carpet. One rests on its face. Against each, she leans and stacks two-by-fours, drop-ceiling grids and fluorescent lighting racks precariously against each other to cut diagonally across the space and intersect with the architecture. The looping video captures states of completeness and incompleteness, simultaneously and continuously.
In another scene, on another day, Lemmens works in a corridor, propping and piling boards, furniture and panels, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. Objects shift, sometimes fall, to be reconfigured immediately, again and again. In a third scene, she rearranges and misuses office partitions to section the space in to unconventional areas. In a fourth, Ibghy balances a copier/fax machine atop a desk phone and jar of Marmite, its top propped open with miscellaneous office supplies and detritus. Given the mundaneness of Ibghy and Lemmens’ actions, the video is strangely compelling. It is not performance documentation, because the actions are not performed for the camera but just done in front of it. Time is actively documented by the continuous recording, but cannot be easily read as unfolding in time. Rather, what we witness is an ongoing improvisation. Each action leads to another potential action, in combination these actions are both conclusive and inconclusive simultaneously, resulting in a type of non-production. In an interview with Bryne McLaughlin for Canadian Art the artists explain the conceptual significance of their working process, “‘It turned into something extremely abstract: if you don’t have a goal when you act, there isn’t an end for an action. It can continue forever. And when you have no objective, the idea of success and failure dissipates,’ adds Ibghy. ‘Nothing can be a failure.’” Cumulatively, this durational series of actions is work and they become the work. It is a precarious construction that through repetition enacts the futility and impending exhaustion of capitalism teetering on the brink of inevitable collapse.
Real failure needs no excuse (2012), like much of Ibghy and Lemmens’ recent work, asks what are the political effects and affects of non-productive labour? Under neoliberalism non-productive labour means non-market-based labour that cannot be easily capitalized. Marx famously distinguished between labour and work in his capitalist critique, Das Kapital. Work, for Marx, could be eudemonistic if not fully capitalized; work has the potential to exceed mere labour that reduces work to repetitive, exhaustive actions, and in this excess, there lies potential. The knowledge economy based in immaterial labour, precarious labour, and even the labours of love (art is often identified as one of these), typically exceed capitalism’s ability to quantify. Obviously, this does not mean art cannot be efficiently instrumentalized and commodified by capitalism, but rather that the work of art as a form of immaterial labour is a particularly unusual commodity that might somehow exceed the limits of neoliberalism and therefore be a productive non-productive critical counter-point to it. Real failure needs no excuse performs labour, physical actions, but this work is, in fact, about work, and its unquantifiable and unqualitative excesses beyond recognizable and commodifiable production and consumption.
There is a rather Sisyphean undertone to this selection of works by Ibghy and Lemmens, Wafaa Bilal and Etienne Zack at the Esker Foundation. As Emma Cocker writes:
a Sisyphean practice operates according to a cycle of failure and repetition, of non-attainment and replay; it is a punctuated performance…the myth of Sisyphus is invoked in different ways where its meaning can be seen to shift, moving from (and also between) a sense of futility and an individual’s resignation to the rules or restrictions of a given system or structure, through resistance, towards a playful refusal of the system’s authority. Here, the myth’s logic becomes pleasurably adopted as the rules of a game or as a way of revealing porosity and flexibility within even the most rigid framework of inhabitation.
Bilal, Zack, and Ibghy and Lemmens, and the curatorial strategy that brings them together, adopt this Sisyphean logic to reaffirm a space for the critical refusal of some of today’s most oppressive ideologies even in the face of repeated historical and political failure. This logic is seen in the structure of the works themselves and in the combination of artists’ works at the Esker Foundation, which recasts failure and art into a mode of cultural resistance, an imaginative generative force, and a refusal of neoliberal quantitative measure.