For whom do images of a conflict zone, as those Wafaa Bilal has recreated in his Ashes Series, bear witness? How is this memory constituted? In his first solo show at Driscoll Babcock, the artist and NYU professor takes as his starting point newswire photographs of destruction in Iraq, transforming them via scale reproductions into dioramas where bodies are traded for a volcanic scattering of human ashes — 21 grams of cremated remains acquired on the “black market,” according to a gallerist at the opening last Wednesday. These scale models, one of which was temporarily on display in the rear of the gallery, form the basis for the 10 photographs exhibited. The resulting pictures, both flesh and not, manifest Bilal’s conceptual focus on bio-politics and autonomy: bodies here are the site of an abstracted antagonism, as in his best-known work, “Domestic Tension” (2007), in which the artist placed himself at the monthlong, 24-hour mercy of a web-enabled robotic paintball gun. But where Bilal’s earlier work foregrounded the physical body, The Ashes Series takes it away.
Collective memory is always active, but especially so after a war, when the world has been redrawn with corpses and rubble. Bilal traces this process to private space made public (here Saddam Hussein’s unmade bed, there the dictator’s empty pool) and public space made private (a market in ruins, voided of bodies). Hussein’s ruined palace takes on a secondary dimension of home-less-ness: the regime forced Bilal out of his native Iraq in the early 1990s. And mounds of rubble point to the destruction wrought from above by the American military, which was responsible for the death of Bilal’s brother in 2005. This distinction between public and private, personal and political, further comes into relief in “Erasing,” a durational performance set to run over the course of the exhibition.
Although the piece, which takes place daily at noon in the gallery, puts Bilal in the position of muse and master of ceremonies, he is removed from material agency. The task of action falls to two assistants, one erasing and cutting from a version of “Pool” (2014) mounted on composite board by the entrance, another recording the proceedings in stenographic free-form: measures of distance (from Bilal standing before the work to within the work itself), the phrases uttered by the artist, information on attendees, atmospheric observations, etc. The dated entries are made in an unlined black logbook. This documentary rigor belies the arbitrary physical deconstruction of the image of “Pool” and its reconstitution on a flat composite surface across the gallery. The charade of sovereignty is dissected — surgical squares cut by scalpel from one image — then rearticulated, pinned to a table like the viscera of a biological specimen. (The two works will eventually form a diptych that is the physical product of the performance.) At stake is the contingency of collective memory and the autonomy of the artist himself, who, during the performance I attended, asked: “Can I unearth disaster? Since every name in history is I, what right do I have if I arrive after the dust settled?”
The aesthetic of a different sovereign will figured prominently in the public theater of the Iraq war, like it does in most. As Negar Azimi has written in “Saddam Hussein and the State as Sculpture,” an essay accompanying On Democracy (2013), a collection of Saddam Hussein’s early Ba’ath-party speeches, Saddam’s Iraq was one constituted from the very beginning as an aesthetic-ideological project. But a zealous dedication to cultural production was paired with a commitment to a brutal cult of personality; the Baghdad Biennial, innumerable journals, and high-profile commissions (Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright) were joined by, for example, hiring James Bond director Terence Young for a six-hour hagiographic telenovela on Hussein’s life. Early Ba’ath secular national Nasserism thus gave way to a state sculpted — often quite literally — in Saddam’s image. But if monomania is equal-opportunity in the real-time of political violence (here Azimi turns to George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” moment), what do we make of the images that we’re left with after all statues have fallen? For Azimi, the visual record “proliferated care of the bounty of photojournalists who continued to travel to Iraq, coming to define the visual culture of the war and its aftermath.”
Bilal’s Ashes Series intrudes upon this order of news images with a mediation of its own: the theater of war becomes the “dollhouse” of the scale model, vacated of bodies and photographed in medium format film, digitized then printed. The models form what Bilal tells me is a “transitional space between the conflict zone where the images take place, and the comfort zone, where the images are consumed.” The touch here is lighter, more obliquely personal than in Bilal’s “3rdi” (2010), in which he had a camera surgically implanted on the back of his head: the lens is now turned on the images themselves, at a distance from the body of the image-maker. (This strategy has old modernist roots, most notably in T. S. Eliot’s 1917 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which offers: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality … It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.”) Moving away from the punchline affirmatives of art that deals in flatly sympathetic politics (e.g. drones are bad), Bilal proposes the picture of war as an archaeology and a reconstruction.
Wafaa Bilal: The Ashes Series continues at Driscoll Babcock (525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 14. “Erasing,” a durational performance piece, will occur daily at noon through June 1.