WAR GAMES by Lida Abdul, to April 21, talk w/ John Greyson, April 13, 7:30 pm ($8, stu/srs $5); reception April 14, 2 pm, at Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art (401 Richmond West, 416-591-0357). Free. Part of the 20th Annual IMAGES FESTIVAL, April 5-14, www.imagesfestival.com. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The Images Festival is 20 years old, and it's never been more right now. Toronto's annual riot of video, film, installation art, live performance and mass-media takedowns has always been personal, radical and peer-to-peer.
The YouTube generation has finally caught up to the subversion-on-demand approach that Images takes to moving pictures. And so, among the dozens of artists throwing down in 25 venues over 10 days this year, there's no better emblem of Images' continuing commitment to insurgence than Lida Abdul.
Born in Kabul and now a globe-trotting art star, Abdul makes stark, pointed videos that distill carnage into ritual.
In White House, she stands in a bleak, beautiful landscape, painting the ruins of a Kabul building white. She paints the rubble on the ground. A man comes into the frame, and she paints him, too. White House is just five minutes long, but its language is like a secret code for 25 years of screaming rage. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan back in the 80s sent Abdul and her family into exile, and buildings have been blown to rubble there ever since.
Amazingly, Abdul continues to return to Afghanistan in the middle of endless war to shoot her haunting videos.
"That's where I'm from," she insists. "That's the place that touches me. There are things I can do in Afghanistan that I can't do anywhere else. And I'm attached to the place, obviously. I grew up there and I saw it go from something very beautiful to a complete state of disaster, like a Pompeii."
Speaking from a stop in Chicago, Abdul acknowledges the tough position of a woman artist in Afghanistan today.
"Yeah, it's difficult for women to be in Afghanistan," she says as if exhausted by the idea, "and to make work as an Afghan woman is very difficult for me. I have a lot of resistance from the moment the airplane lands. I have problems in the airport with the film crew, and I have to deal with the bureaucracy, which favours men. On shoots I have to be veiled all the time, and when I'm not veiled I get questioned."
She adds, "I've worked under gunpoint, and now I hire security."
In addition to White House, Abdul has two other videos installed at Prefix Gallery for the Images Festival, each one full of tension between fury and a kind of ceremonial performance. In Brick Sellers Of Kabul, a long line of boys wait to redeem bricks for cash. In War Games (What I Saw), men on horseback are yoked by long ropes to a two-storey hulk of a ruin. There's a touch of American artist Matthew Barney to this one, with the horses straining in a futile exercise against the imposing building.
Abdul's videos open up to lots of meanings, but what's immediately notable is that she refuses blood or torn bodies in her work, to focus on the dust and broken bricks left behind.
"When I was growing up," she recalls, "the Russians took over and things started cracking in Afghanistan, literally. Tanks came in, and I started paying attention to these structures. Secondly, I had to leave Afghanistan as a refugee, and then I started thinking about the idea of shelter and home, and what does it mean to have a place of dwelling one day then not have it the next. That's why I started to make work around architecture, because of my own lack of having a place to live."
So beyond its obvious references to the presidential residence in DC, a tape like White House "deals with architecture, it deals with sculpture and it deals with performance all at the same time," Abdul says.
"But it also refers to a time when there was beautiful architecture, architecture of royalty in Afghanistan, and it no longer exists. That's what war does," she says simply. "It creates massive destruction and massive debris."
Abdul has also painted abandoned Russian helicopters white, emphasizing "the idea of purification, and also making them stand out." But as she's transformed specific ruins into a general statement on war, she insists that her work not be reduced to the merely political.
"Yes, there's politics involved, because I work in a place that's been so political for the past 25 years," she says. "Yes, it is about Afghanistan; yes, it deals with politics, but it also deals with form. I'm really interested in beautiful images. I would like to seduce the audience with images.
"I make work because I really have to," she continues, "because it's a personal necessity. If it's used for other interpretations, I can't help that."
Even in her most elegant, quiet pieces, Abdul comes off as defiant. Her politics, both feminist and anti-war, are embedded.
"I want to make people think that a woman has agency in Afghanistan, and that there's a certain amount of power women can hold," she says, adding, "even if they don't have it at the moment."
Then she corrects herself. "But some do. There are some powerful women in Afghanistan. The mayor of Bamiyan is a woman, and it's refreshing to have a woman in a position of power in a country that's been battered. I hate to put it this way, but they don't have agency. They have to wear a veil, and I disagree with that."
One of Abdul's self-portraits has her wearing a black veil, with her eyes closed. But at her lips there's an expanding cloud of bubble gum.
It's more than a beautiful image. It's a woman powerful enough to play.