Wafaa Bilal asks us to bear witness, examine, and understand recent history. He places himself in his art to raise awareness and alter our perceptions. In his past work he has used his body to create endurance performances, as in Domestic Tension, where he was shot by tens of thousands of paintballs, or his piece “and Counting…” (2010), where he created a borderless map of Iraq on his back to represent the pain felt by loved ones who lost someone in war. He was tattooed five thousand times in red permanent ink to represent American casualties, and one hundred thousand times in invisible ultra-violet green ink to represent the Iraqi casualties that were largely invisible to the American public.
As an artist, Bilal creates work that attempts to display the ephemerality of life. For his piece “3rdi” (2010) he temporarily implanted a camera into the back of his head for one year. The camera documented his past as it literally slipped behind him. In his most recent series, The Ashes Series, Bilal displays the suffering of war through the absence of human life. In this series Bilal uses the photograph as documentation, a place for meditation, and reflection on destruction and what has been lost. He archives history and brings it to our awareness through reconstructions, humor, and performance. In this interview I spoke with Bilal on his recent solo exhibition, Ashes, at Driscoll Babcock.
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Samuel Jablon: Is the Ashes series a new direction for you? Could you explain how and why you started the series?
Wafaa Bilal: The Ashes series is a project that began 11 years ago from a desire to physically and emotionally connect with my homeland at the beginning of the Iraq War. The project began as a meditative process, something that allowed me to shorten the emotional distance and displacement I felt. But it evolved beyond meditation to question the images that were coming out of the war—images filtered through the lens of a photograph. I wanted to question how these images were really functioning.
SJ: Would you talk about the importance of your relationship to Iraq through the lens of the photographs and performance?
WB: Photography and performance allows me to meditate and reflect. What makes us do anything? Other than that we have the need and urge to do something?
SJ: There is a lot of beauty to this work, but the reality of the photographs is haunting. Could you talk about this tension?
WB: The beauty of the photographs draws viewers closer to the image. With war images, it is easy to turn away from scenes of destruction or violence. In The Ashes Series, aestheticization becomes a strategy for engagement, allowing viewers to inhabit the photographs and become engulfed by them. Once the image has been inhabited, the viewer’s gaze instead reveals a sense of something unsettled—either intentionally or unintentionally de-stabilized. The viewer begins to wonder, why do I feel uneasy? This unease triggers a search for answers from among the ruins.
SJ: Were there actual human ashes involved? What is the significance of the ashes? How did you get them?
WB: There are 21 grams of human ashes scattered in these photograph. The ashes represent a symbolic human presence and were obtained on the black market.
SJ: Could you talk about the photographs? They are reconstructions/models? How did you make them, and where are they from?
WB: The photographs are images of reconstructions based on press photographs from the Iraq War. The process of rebuilding was tender, emotional and meditative. Once the miniature sets were complete, I photographed them and printed them large so that viewers would be engulfed by their space.
SJ: The performance involved narrative, power dynamics between you and the assistants, exactness, destruction and creation, and humor. It reminds me a bit of a Samuel Becket play. What was going on there?
WB: Yes, the dynamic between the assistants and myself draws a direct parallel with remote warfare! Each day’s performance also examines a long and complex history of the domination of one culture imposing itself over another. Humor is just one of the ways we can engage people to look closer.
SJ: What is the significance of cutting up the photograph? Also how did Darth Vader and mini Darth Vader come into the mix?
WB: How could you avoid Darth Vader? He represents the Empire. I’m just disappointed stormtroopers did not show up. In Erasing, the photograph, itself already a reconstruction, is disassembled and gently annihilated. It is then reassembled and examined. The act of re-assembling the image also changes its form, from a smooth surface to the archive of scattered fragments on the white table, where it is offered for consumption and contemplation. However, not all of the information is there. This process mirrors the psychological reconstruction of memories after trauma, as well as how the act of photography unfolds nowadays. Images are taken, compressed, de-compressed and channeled, then repackaged for consumption. By extending each act, the performance contemplates the subjectivity involved in every process of coding an image with personal meaning. At the end of the process, the question for the viewers remains — what is erased, in Erasing?
SJ: Could you talk about the importance of documentation in regards to the performance?
WB: Documentation functions as commentary, as creative archiving. The same way that the photographs document a distant war through the filter of centuries of cultural imposition, the documentation of Erasing also imposes a subjective filter on the performance. With Erasing, it is important to distinguish the intention of different types of archiving. With images there is always the question of its intention and distribution channel. Professional photographs already belong to a pre-existing platform and are therefore tied to the ideology of the platform they originate from. But amateur photographs can be more spontaneous in its ideology. These two forms of image archiving were also echoed in the performance. Sometimes a square from the photograph would ask to be Instagrammed. Another time, I step in and document the performance myself in a professional way. But Erasing is overall anti-photographic, which is why the daily documentation is conducted by written text. With writing, there is always space between the lines allowing readers to imagine what that space entails. Writing also requires viewers to actively engage when they re-visit the performance. Photography and video are very concrete and straightforward archives, but viewers simply consume the image and its illusion of neutrality and move on.
SJ: Do you find a freedom from history by erasing the images?
WB: In Erasing, the past is not erased to free ourselves from history. Rather, the past is reassembled in an aesthetic archive that affects how we situate ourselves within history. There are multiple ways to mediate within the process of a photograph’s creation and dismantling, multiple channels of subjectivity imposed at each turn. Rebuilding and dismantling the images acts as a trigger to filter these concepts historically.
SJ: What comes out of the ashes? What’s left?
WB: An increased level of awareness on how images from conflict function in distant societies. With all of these images, the intention behind the image does not matter—the act itself is what matters. The Ashes Series seeks to reposition aesthetic archives to a level of hyperawareness of itself and the role it plays in reassembling the expectations and ideas of distant societies towards places of conflict.
SJ: What’s next?
WB: On August 5th I will premier Dead Serious, a durational collaboration with the Nadar Ensemble in Germany. The project is commissioned by Thomas Schäfer/Internationale Musikinstitut Darmstadt for the Darmstädter Ferienkurse 2014.
Wafaa Bilal: The Ashes Series took place at Driscoll Babcock (525 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) May 1–June 14. Erasing, a durational performance piece, occurred daily at noon May 1–May 31.