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  • Christian Hain

Two Way Ticket to Pakistan: Bani Abidi, They Died Laughing at Martin Gropius Bau

(Berlin.) Pakistani artist Bani Abidi invites you to a virtual trip from Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau to Karachi. Mostly showing videos, she recreates the ambiance of – and the troubles ravaging – contemporary Pakistan, dividing her own life between both cities.

Somewhat orientally sounding bagpipes welcome the visitor, doodling what only after some moments becomes recognizable as The Star Spangled Banner. The sounds emanate from a first multi-screen video featuring a group of men sitting on carpets, some of them playing an instrument, others only listening, but what is that one man’s uniform implying, red, somewhere between Canadian Mountie and British East India Company? If this artwork were only some decades older, you’d connect "Sgt. Pepper", and suspect The Beatles on another trip to their guru, but today it’s the other way round: longing for another Empire, the West, ‘Murica a local power everywhere.

Another cultural influence matters even more in Muslim India, ups sorry, that was a very insensitive remark, the name is Pakistan of course! Coming here utterly unprepared – which is very advisable for any art exhibition – you could easily confuse the context, and misplace those scenes in an Arab country, the Gulf region, Qatar, Dubai, imagining World Cup stadiums being built in every background. Even the diamond shaped patterns to which Bani Abidi occasionally arranges her screens, hint at 1001 ornaments. Near and this part of the Far East (the subcontinent already belongs to the latter, right?) have shared a common culture for centuries, although at least the exchanges of manpower tend to favour only one side: Osama and crew for slaves working on those World Cup stadiums. But we’re digressing.

In a rather agreeable contrast to Bollywood movies, most films are silent except for background noise, we only get - English or German language – subtitles but no spoken word, no articulate voices (ok, that’s neither the case in Bollywood songs, but... anyway). “No comment”, does that segment on EuroNews still exist, and even the TV channel? If we are to believe Bani Abidi, large parts of Karachi lifestyle consist in waiting, waiting in the streets, or at a cinema - a row inside is reserved for as yet absent VIPs (have we ever talked about the Berlinale jury attending press screenings? saying that: watching a film of Berlinale proven Mariam Ghani would be greatly complementary to a visit here – even though she stems from another “-stan”!), waiting in hotel lobbies, or stuck in traffic; uniformed schoolchildren and men of authority (they have medals, HUGE medals!): life is waiting – in a less literal sense maybe for a better, and more peaceful, future, too.

Another leitmotiv are “Security issues” and sometimes, both go hand in hand – not merely on airports as is the norm everywhere, but also in everyday life. Not all is video, Bani Abidi also knows to draw, as proves not least a series of laughing faces lending its title to the show: “They died laughing” (now, that raises concerns about the people portrayed). Distorted in joy - or pain, they reveal the kinship of laughing and crying, is this a special kind of gallows humour? Another most impressive series of inkjet prints surprises with portraits of the abundant variety in security barrier species, many of which are endemic to Pakistan! Like any good wildlife observer, Abidi provides the place of sighting for each. Many cities have their monuments and typical, unique, landmarks, and not all of them are officially recognized - some are only familiar to natives and the most attentive sight-seeker. In Berlin, we love our multi- coloured, exterior, drainage tubes, leading along and crossing high above streets and pavements, that might or might not signal subterranean works in the area, whereas Parisians cherish their mobile metal fence elements, ever ready to contain the next violent demonstration. In Karachi, it’s security barriers in all forms and variations, and not for folklore but much sadder reasons. On a side note, these drawings being "digital" printouts, they also tell about the technological world being all but borderless and free. Having said, barriers and granite blocks were a landmark of Karachi, they've migrated westwards over the past years/decades, for reasons we’re all aware of and that very much concern people from Pakistan and comparable cultures spheres..., well you know the story. Abidi of course is one of the first to suffer from the fundamental changes in global political climate.

Her films cover many aspects of Karachi everyday life, right up to families commenting on copulating turtles in the zoo, appearing rather outraged by the indecent behaviour. Much more serious, we learn about the suicide bombing of a local farmers’ market, then a second at the same place while the artist was still working on her film. Barriers and checkpoints do have a raison d’être after all – or not, as they cannot provide perfect security. Since the events, even more measures have been set in place, rendering it still harder to pass from one suburb to another. In an interesting choice, the artist decided to accompany this film with spoken words, breaking the silence of mourning in telling about death.

In spite of everything, Pakistanis have not lost their sense of humour yet, their will, or obstinacy, to live. Abidi shows a Guinness book attempt, a man trying to break a compatriot’s record who's once smashed one hundred and fifty walnuts in a given time – by headbutting them. Could almost be a piece of performance art, and what a nutcase (let’s just hope, he’s not one of those guarding the bomb, you know, they got it)! A local authority inquired into the unauthorized use of 150,000 chairs, but that’s a different record-breaking attempt now - they really do love their Guinness here, in halal form at least (but is not all betting/gambling haram?!). In the latter example, somebody tried to gather 150,000 people in a university stadium and sing the national anthem, but that certain likeable non-organisation that is so typical for many countries of the Southern hemisphere affected this event, too – we learn of missing documents and “bogus representatives“. In the end, the attempt had to be cancelled at the last minute for a lack of people showing up. And they had even prepared 150,000 gift boxes with 150,000 (fake) jewellery table clocks! Many might have stayed away for fear of the event attracting the wrong crowd too, people who would make it a true blast...

Elsewhere at Gropius Bau, visitors discover a heap of take away posters which are always welcome, and should you be interested in a little observation from the preview: The gallery representatives, or even the artist herself, like it clean and sober, as I witnessed a minor dispute with a museum warden who – contrary to all prejudices you might cherish about the profession – preferred those posters arranged irregularly to signal people they may indeed touch – and take! – them. They wanted that paper tower squared.

When you see an improvised market stall on a dusty road somewhere in the Pakistani nowhere, with a typewriter and the letters “documents” - do you think: “So, that’s where you get a Syrian passport if you feel like relocating to the EU!”?... - No? You’re right, because that would be a very nasty thought (and besides, those are probably handed out on board the ferries anyway, should anybody still be in need). This work in fact documents a very different, even contrary, topic, i.e. immigration to Pakistan and travel limitations once inside the country. Dear MGB, it’s really laudable to offer a brochure with information on all the works for free(!), but when in this you write about “paranoid travel regulations”, don’t you feel silly? Did you get the memo about those bombings? Islamabad is not Berlin-Mitte, there might be some good reasons for what you call “paranoia”.

In what could be called a single, room-taking, installation, many videos run next to each another, between documents, photos, and objects. One shows camel jockeys transporting their household goods (excuse me: that’s what they are!), despite all travel bureaucracy: some age-old traditions are hard to kill. This is a very immersive experience, wherever you choose to stand, you cannot avoid casting your shadow on, and thus yourself into, one of the screens.

Beyond, only some more “historic” works from the beginnings of Abidi’s career in the early 2000s, presented in a row of old fashioned TVs with attached headphones. One of them features newsreaders from India and Pakistan reporting on another conflict that apparently had something to do with the chicken and egg trade, each in their own rhetorics. It seems quite absurd, and which came first, chicken or egg (and terrorism or war)? Another one documents Bani Abidi eating mangoes with an Indian friend, then not commenting: “Um, my name is Bani Abidi, and I’ve just finished eating a... a mango”, but discussing the advantages of each their own national mango, as opposed to the other’s. Quite obviously, the intention is to say, “but it’s all mangoes, all the same fruit, stop making up differences!” Yet, .... it’s not bad per se to make a difference. And even will it into existence, create it as a human being, because that’s something only we can do. That’s how all diversity, culture, and meaning come into being: by “irrational” creation, invented, spoken, summoned, into existence. So yes, go ahead, favour your own mango over your neighbour’s, that’s the only way how there can be a you and a neighbour – only stop short at bombing each other.

There’s so much more to discover here, Bani Abidi’s works abound with information, ambiance, and at least occasionally with absurd humour too, definitely an exhibition to visit this summer!

Bani Abidi, They died laughing, 6. Juni-22. September 2019, Martin Gropius Bau

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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