Lida Abdul describes herself as an artistic nomad. Born in Kabul in 1973, she and her family fled Afghanistan soon after the Soviets invaded in December of 1979. They lived as refugees in India and Germany before immigrating to the United States in the late 1980s. Residing in Los Angeles, Abdul returns regularly to Afghanistan, where devastation and the resiliency of its population fuel her creativity.
The installation, five films and one video (all made between 2005 and ’13) comprising Abdul’s first solo exhibition in France presented poignantly staged allegories of the human spirit, both provocative and poetic. The artist set the tone in an introductory wall text, proclaiming that her ravaged homeland “is a prime example of humanity at its worst and possibly its best precisely because the disaster, by definition, ruptures the mechanical workings of morality bringing us face to face with the ‘strange,’ the ‘uncanny,’ the inhuman, the cruel and the unknowable.”
In the video Dome (2005), one is confronted with the inexplicable behavior of a boy, his face raised toward the sky, who turns round and round, trancelike, inside a roofless ramshackle building. The camera slowly zooms in on him, assuming his position and action, so that the viewer, too, experiences dizziness. The video is largely silent; the only sound effects are chirping birds, suggesting salvation, and rumbling aircraft, evoking imminent danger. The piece ends exactly where it commenced, avoiding any clear pronouncement regarding the boy’s motivation or his fate.
Most of the films on view (all 16mm) presented similarly baffling Sisyphean labors performed on and amid war’s wreckage. In White House (2005), the artist, dressed in traditional Afghan garb, whitewashes a bombed-out dwelling, a surreal and futile attempt to grapple with the pervasive destruction around her. Near the end, when a man appears, she subjects him to identical treatment, as if so traumatized that she is unable to differentiate between rubble and a living person. (White paint recurs in Abdul’s oeuvre, symbolizing redemption, peace and purification, on the one hand, and mourning, on the other, as it did in pre-modern Europe, in the mourning garb of medieval queens.) In Transit (2008) features a group of boys playing with an abandoned, bullet-riddled Soviet plane. In a bizarre ritual, they plug its countless holes with tufts of airy cotton and attach ropes to its carcass. They then lie on their backs clutching their respective cords, as if the grounded war machine were an ethereal kite. The virtually silent, slow-motion and intermittently blurred footage at once contributes to the scene’s ambiguity and underscores the power of the mind, particularly that of children, to find solace in even the most dire circumstances. A subtitle at the outset of the film sums up such wartime fortitude: “All is possible when everything is lost.”
Abdul’s compelling blend of dreamwork and documentary culminated with the installation Time, Love and the Workings of Anti-Love (2013). Over 500 small black-and-white identity photos arranged in rows on two walls flanked a crude, colorful box camera acquired from a Kabul street photographer. A recorded voice recited a litany in homage to the nameless merchant, ending with the disquieting assertion: “Once your dreams are populated by unfamiliar faces / Then living, dying, dreaming or loving are all the same.” This anonymous inventory of humanity attests to the tenuous and transient nature of identity in the face of disaster.
Avoiding either grisly or heroic specifics of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Abdul’s evocative work strives toward universals, hinting at the manner in which loss and despair awaken fantasies of hope.