‘History Wipes’ – Adel Abidin’s solo retrospective at the Ateneum, Helsinki

‘History Wipes’ was the title of the first solo retrospective by contemporary visual artist Adel Abidin (b. 1973, Baghdad, Iraq), displayed at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, during March and April 2018.

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Ateneum Art Museum, Kaivokatu 2, Helsinki. Photo: Carol Dixon.

The exhibition featured a series of video installations, multi-media artworks and sculptural pieces presented in five galleries on the 2nd and 3rd floors, as well as two text-based light installations displayed above the museum’s main staircase and its covered courtyard. Collectively, the works communicated a very powerful sequence of messages and provocations concerning the fragility of human existence – with a particular focus on how individuals and communities memorialize difficult and traumatic life experiences.

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White neon light installation ‘We Came to Kill Your Father’ (2018) by Adel Abidin, displayed above the main staircase at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Carol Dixon

A recurring theme throughout the exhibition was Abidin’s questioning of the veracity of archival documentation – not only in terms of what was recorded and by whom, but also the extent to which archives often represented a deliberate erasure, manipulation and omission of certain histories that some would prefer to be suppressed, hushed up and wiped from the collective memory of a nation.

Writing about the unreliability of historical records – specifically with regard to the fragility and malleable nature of one’s own memories, and also the imperfections and subjectivities of institutional archives – Abidin remarked:

Our memories are malleable and reset stronger, more vividly and less accurately each time we revisit them. This process is known as reconsolidation, and it explains why our memories can change slightly over time. Therefore, it seems we must rely on written history.

However, a corollary that necessarily follows from this observation is to question how confident anyone can feel about receiving an accurate account of past events. For Abidin, he chose to pose the following questions, the strengths of which became increasingly more intensely felt as one progressed through the exhibition:

How can we be sure we know the whole story about past events? How can a writer, an artist or any type of researcher rely on historical data?… What if we wiped out certain parts of history because they made people feel uncomfortable? What if we wiped out history simply to have a fresh start? What if we forgot all the wars we caused, all the people we’ve killed? What if we forgot our beliefs?

Many of these questions were articulated in the voice-over for Abidin’s harrowing video installation ‘History Wipes’ (2018) – the work from which this exhibition took its title, featuring a rapid sequence of different archival films,  news broadcasts and photographic stills showing people in positions of authority (particularly members of the armed forces and the police) committing acts of violence, humiliation and manipulation against others during moments of heightened political tension and conflict. Intermittently throughout this piece an image of a gloved hand was shown wiping away some of the most violent scenes as though it was actually possible to simply erase any painful and shameful events from history to make ourselves feel more comfortable about the past.

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The multi-media installation ‘Archive’ (2018) by Adel Abidin invites us to consider our relationship with power in a world where knowledge is power, and also to question the use of surveillance mechanisms as a form of control.

Another poignant piece was the installation Archive (2018), comprising a series of shelves stacked full of paper folders displayed in a darkened room with the lights flickering on and off. Based on an image of an actual archive repository Abidin secretly took a picture of on his mobile phone when visiting an immigration office in a police station in Amman, Jordan, the work encourages visitors to consider and question why public access to such records is often so closely controlled and monitored, and for whose benefit such restrictions apply.

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‘Reward’ (2015) by Adel Abidin. This sculpture was one of five representations of medieval-style torture masks, made from Pyrex glass. It symbolises the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The use of a fragile material alludes to the vulnerability of torture victims. Photo: Carol Dixon

Whilst some of Abidin’s sculptures and installations used humour, sarcasm and irony to explore difficult issues – as illustrated by works such as Politically Correct (2018), and Reward (2015) – the majority of the pieces were much more direct and explicit in their power to evoke challenging emotions, visceral reactions and fears about the future. This was particularly the case in the white neon sculpture titled ‘We Came to Kill Your Father,’ inspired by a curatorial colleague of Abidin’s personal story about an event that happened during the Finnish Civil War; and also poignantly reflected in a still from the video installation ‘Symphony’ (2012). The image from the latter piece featured a landscape comprising statues of dismembered bodies scattered over the ground and attached with strings to doves attempting to fly above them. The image was created in response to real-life tragic events that took place in Iraq in 2012, where a group of students were stoned to death by a religious mob who accused them of being Satanists on account of them wearing Western ‘Emo’ haircuts and black, ‘goth-style’ outfits. For Abidin the doves symbolised the souls of the students attempting to fly away, but being firmly tied to the weight of death.

A similar representation was echoed in the companion piece to Symphony – titled ‘Al-Warqaa’ (2013) – featuring the skeleton of a dove made from neon lights, tethered to a stone and thus unable to fly.

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‘Al-Warqaa’ (2013) by Adel Abidin, suspended from the ceiling and tethered to a stone, on display at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo: Carol Dixon.

I was pleased to have had an opportunity to view Adel Abidin’s solo retrospective during my visit to Helsinki, and I look forward to following this artist’s future progress as he continues to create and exhibit important works that questions the veracity and reliability of memories, archiving as a process, and our attempts to preserve accurate records of shared experiences through archival documentation.

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‘Politically Correct’ (2018) by Adel Abidin

For further information about Abel Abidin’s portfolio, please see the artist’s website at http://www.adelabidin.com/.

An archive of images and narratives from the exhibition History Wipes (14/03 – 22/04/2018), as well as videos of selected works, can be viewed online via the website for the Ateneum Art Museum.

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation/doctoral thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).

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