The video and print-based works in Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s exhibition ‘They Died Laughing’ at Berlin’s Gropius Bau draw us into the side-wings of the nation state: a sculptor’s studio in Uttar Pradesh, India, where public Gandhi statues are churned out, or the viscous flow of everyday bureaucracy. Mixing documentary and scripted scenes with a smirk, Abidi presents state power as a roving centre, setting up operation for a photo shoot or a traffic check point. Abidi deflates the sites of national myth – the podium, the mausoleum, the memorial – and instead presents politics as an exchange of empty time: who waits and who is waited on.
Reserved (2006) is a two-channel video projected on perpendicular screens. On the left are small rehearsals of power: diplomatic greeters ambling on a red carpet, children preparing to salute with flags a teacher hands out, and an auditorium slowly filling around reserved seats. Everyone’s on hold. The right channel screens only briefly, erupting into the spectacle of a motorcade. We never see the faces beyond the windshield, but the motorcade asserts its gravitation pull on the left channel. This absent figure, speeding through town, slows the rest of the city to a halt.
Waiting takes a different form in the series ‘Section Yellow’ (2010): in the video The Distance from Here, people holding bureaucratic applications line up between parallel yellow lines in a parking lot, next to notaries, snack vendors and clip-on ties for rent. On the floor in front of the video, the series’ Exercise in Redirecting Lines collages copies of a close-up photograph of yellow road lines into a snaking, angular labyrinth. The line, this supposedly rational element of infrastructure, is broken into redirections, failed passages, and culs-de-sac. They more closely translate the lived experience of navigating a bureaucracy in its minor turns and farcical dead ends. Both Abidi’s critique and humour rely on spatial reversals: people hardly move in the video’s manicured shots, while the photo collage is vertiginous and full of motion.
In Death at a 30 Degree Angle (2012), a man strikes heroic poses while sculptors quietly draft him. Projected in two channels on large packing crates, the work forges a resonance between skin and the stone being chiselled to look like it. The crate’s relation to representation shifts: a dark brick looks hyper-real, rough to the touch, but a bright ceiling is flimsy and riddled with knots. The video shows a fictive commission at sculptor Ram Sutar’s studio in Noida – famously known for its Gandhi statues – and exposes how national memory is materially produced, while shrinking the heroism of its subjects. More than just mute, symbolic stone, statues are objects that activate their surroundings, inseparable from the labour and life in these sites which will be forgotten once the statue takes to a square. Like the casting process on the screen, or the comic deflation of the politician lowering his sword to take a call, it is always a dummy that holds the centre, a placeholder.
The linchpin of the show is a placeholder entirely. In the series ‘The Address’ (2007), video monitors are scattered from the museum’s coat check to the staircase. A painting of a press conference podium flickers on the screen, as a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, hangs on a curtain. It’s a trompe-l’œil set for presidential addresses but no speaker arrives. Here, postponement is the event – waiting as tool of pomp and power. Satirizing the mise-en-scène of government, Abidi reminds us how much a government’s messages are just demonstrations of the media channels that reach into every crevice of the public, even if nothing is said. Abidi seems to ask how this public media spectacle could be pointed back at the state itself.
Main image: Bani Abidi, ‘And They Died Laughing’, 2016, water colour on paper, 20 × 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata
First published in Issue 206