Friday, February 12, 2010

REVIEW: Wafaa Bilal at Helen Day Art Center

by Stephen Orloske

Remember eight years ago when the World Trade Center towers were felled on New York City by jetliners turned missiles and it's likely the recall of some mediated experience: a radio broadcast; the interrupted television; an abnormal email. And then the aftermath continued incessantly. Every day we awoke and combed rubble with CNN. We recounted the desperate stories off Morning Edition with coworkers. Our lives were so enwrapped by 9/11 that thinking back now we must check our memory and remind ourselves we had not stood there as that concrete cloud billowed toward us, a camera did.

So when you enter Wafaa Bilal: Agent Intellect at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe be little surprised that quotes from Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek and J.G. Ballard adorn the walls – a philosopher, a psychoanalyst and a writer who explicate the ways media is more “real” than reality. Their thinking certainly sets the analytical mind to the right tone, but a less visible, more pressing tidbit is that a drone strike, itself the most mediated warfare in Iraq, killed Bilal’s younger brother in 2004. Wafaa Bilal is Iraqi born and emigrated to the United States in ’92 as a refugee after refusing to participate in the Kuwait invasion. That the death of his brother was both committed and reported through the alienating distance of telecommunication answers why Bilal is obsessed with the struggle to feel and be felt with fiber optics.

Domestic Tension Redux (2007) is a documentation of Bilal’s conceptual piece where for a month he remained in an apartment fitted with paintball guns connected to the internet. Anyone could logon and “shoot an Iraqi.” Or chat with him. Half the space at Helen Day is a facsimile of the splattered bedroom with a speaker ticking off fired rounds. The other half contains photos,

webboard comments and a video looping highlights from Bilal’s video journal. Eight million people visited the original website. Some ridiculed him, others brought him aid. Bilal suffered 40,000 paintball lashes; that averages to one every minute. Domesic Tension was a success, it takes on torture, empathy, war, privacy, alienation… every avenue of thought shaped by a man perpetually the target of a firing squad. The exhibit effectively generates the anxiety of being in such a menacing space, something you can’t appreciate viscerally browsing online, but to explore all the content thoroughly you’ll have to anyway.

The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi (2008) is the controversial work twice censored in the city of Troy, NY, and it’s disappointingly benign. Twice hacked from a lowbrow videogame Quest for Saddam, first by Al-qaeda, then by Bilal, Virtual Jihadi is nondescript and intensely virtual: buildings are cobbled from abstract shapes; keys float and glow; pea-green enemies hobble in beelines. That G.W.’s face is plastered everywhere only adds to the surrealism. And the game was lagged and jittery and too frustrating to play, which might go unmentioned if not for a card saying, “meet the artist at the end of the game.” Much of this trouble might be intentional, then again it might be the source (censor him in the name of satire!) it’s built from. That Virtual Jihadi is now a case for free speech while Modern Warfare 2 is in popular taste is a failure of culture, a failure at least illuminated in the hubbub.

The reason to visit is for Bilal’s new works Ashes and Mghaisil (Morgue). Ashes is a series of five large-format photos taken of dioramic constructs Bilal produces in his studio. They are reproductions of his memory or of iconic photographs from a bombed Iraq in minute scale. At first your interest is peaked by how they were made with stitched scraps of cloth, metal nibs and dollhouse furniture. But as you read and learn the dust is human ash and the background a New York City skyline the specter of 9/11 seethes into the photo’s workings, so when you step back

to gaze at the remains of a building that burst and crumbled over Baghdad it is with an emotion kept locked when watching the war update. And stepping into Mghaisil is like a chance to morn, or repent, this violence. Named and modeled after a funerary washroom in Iraq, its concrete slabs wet and oiled as though just used, the dim space silently permits anguish over the uncounted deaths buried in red tape, and, perhaps more so, that we cling to media even though, unlike standing in this morgue, it’s unable to bring empathy with its information.