Abidin pings!

18.3.2010 Lauri Nykopp

Adel Abidin in Kiasma 12.2. – 25.4.2010


Pong. Ping.

These are great onomatopoeic words – words that evoke the aural phenomenon they are used to describe.
Ping has a contemporary connotation, too: the computer command ping sends a short data burst – a single packet – and listens for a single packet in reply. Since this tests the most basic function of an IP network (delivery of single packet), it’s easy to see how you can learn a lot from some `pings’.

Successful pinging means that a line of communication, a contact, is functional.

The ping is elemental in Adel Abidin’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki. Adel Abidin was born in 1973 in Bagdad, Iraq and lives and works presently in Finland. His works have been presented in the 2007 Venice biennale and in several other exhibitions in Europe and in the Middle East.

The new works are like ping messages and by stretching the meaning of the word “ping” to a visual language the works can be fully called onomatopoeic.

Each of the five video installations called Bread of life (video, 06’34”, 2008-09), ON LIVES…(video, 04*33”, 2009), Ping-Pong (video, 03’44”, 2009), Hopscotch (video, 02’00”, 2009) and ´To Mohammed! To Mecca! ´! (neon sculpture, 2009) convey one clear idea. These are video works, works involving time, yes, but they are more related to still-life paintings and documentary photographs than to moving pictures as seen in a cinema.

Abidin has the skill of transforming a simple gesture into thought-provoking metaphor. In ”Bread of life” four men in Cairene nightclub musician attire drum up complex rhythms. Deadpan, a single shot of six and a half minutes, no edits, no artsy tricks. The setting and the light reminiscent of classic portraiture.

Caption: Adel Abidin: video still from ”Bread of life”, 2008-09, © Editions Artfact’Paris

But the drums are of durum. (In Arabic these words would be written the same.) Egyptian flat breads made out of wheat. It went largely unnoticed by the affluent Western countries that Egypt endured a severe crisis in 2008 when the cost of wheat increased far beyond the means of the huge part of the population, which constantly struggles for nourishment. Wheat is the main staple for these people.

Drumming up this message Abidin pings a perceptive viewer a question about the unsustainable world we live in. Global wheat stocks have decreased alarmingly due to overpopulation, rapidly increasing middle-classes in China and India and the demand for bio-fuel. With subsequent capitalist speculation in wheat futures the cost of a loaf of bread increased threefold in Egypt.

And yet – all over the world as in Abidin’s piece – the music plays on.

What might be the outcome we cannot know. Dread, not bread, I presume.

Another issue of survival for every one, and not only humans, is fresh water. Human attitude and treatment of that crucial necessity becomes the subject for ON LIVES…

Caption: Adel Abidin: video still from ”ON LIVES…”, 2009

When the four protagonists in turn squeeze and spill life (i.e. Water) out of the plastic bags in which city-dwellers all over the world pack their veggies and fruit in supermarkets and open markets, there is nothing funny about it really, although the humor so characteristic of Abidin’s work, is evident. Abidin shares this attitude with the Japanese appropriation artist Yasumasa Morimura, whose self-portraiture photos and videos are funny. You could die laughing at Morimura re-enacting Charlie Chaplin portraying Adolf Hitler in The Dictator. The depressed Morimura commented on his new video works at a gallery opening dinner a few years ago: “This world and all these people. I would die if I wasn’t laughing.”

Again Abidin produces a strong image and he relies on it. The viewer does not need to be versed in exotic languages or preposterous philosophy to read the message of this work. Abidin has no qualms to use popular connotations. He has a message to convey, and not only to a select pale elite.

When Abidin’s exhibition opened and the cultured were afforded the inaugural view of his sporty work ”Ping-Pong”, most Western onlookers probably seized on the obvious imagery of war. War sublimated to sports.

The nationalist clamor in the arenas, in crowded bars and in home theaters is an imperative part of spectator sports. Flags waving high the murderous hordes fulfill the urge of the basic nature – humanity is nothing but varnish on the picture – Kill! Kill! Kill! as you can witness in any pro ice hockey or football match. And the gladiators fight for glory and dear life with no remorse for what gets trampled.

Caption: Adel Abidin: video still from ”Ping-Pong”, 2009

Abidin’s looped video ”Ping-Pong” is a major work. It is not a depiction of a table-tennis match, though the two men hit the ball in earnest and the referee keeps score.

The ping-pong net is replaced with the classic subject of Western art: a naked woman. She, all but immobile, suffers the pangs of the ping-pong balls hitting her. The whiteness of her body becomes blemished by red marks as she winces at every hit. Are the players and the referee so blind to all but their evil game – war, that is – that they see not, hear not, speak not, while she suffers? And who is she if not all the living beings caught up between warring cuckolds in the turmoil of reckless devastation?

Abidin fishes in the sea of his abundant visual imagery and creates short, no-frills pieces, which do not need the huge crew or budget so customary to museum-scale video-works. Yet he is an esthetic. The professional lighting and camera-work in these recent pieces bear witness to a careful even if spontaneous attention to form and color.

His ”Memorial” is of a different breed. It has a narrative and it is autobiographical. The young Abidin witnessed the US bombing of Baghdad in 1991. Al-Jamahiriya Bridge that connects the banks of Tigris had collapsed and the carcass of a cow laid on a block of concrete. The image burned in Abidin’s brain and has recurred in his sleep. Why? Why? And why would the cow be there, crossing the river?

Answers we have not, nor can we foretell of a vision. With this, beg, let us end this play:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(William Shakespeare: The Tempest, act 4)

Caption: Adel Abidin: video still from ”Memorial”, 3-channel video installation, 2009, photo Finnish National Gallery/Petri Virtanen

The writer is a visual artist and a wilderness guide

Adel Abidinista suomeksi mustekalassa: Sokerimoskeijan juurilla

Adel Abidinin väittämät