Lida Abdul

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan (AF) in 1973. Lives and works between Kabul (AF) and Los Angeles (US).

What we saw upon awakening

16 mm film transferred onto DVD, colour, sound. Frac Lorraine production.
Durée 6’53’’
Year of Purchase: 2006

Afghan artist Lida Abdul presents a consistent critique of architecture and the built environment in a body of video, film and performance works that span the last decade. Through her examination of the role of monuments and ruins in contemporary culture, Abdul provides a counter-narrative to dominant preoccupations in the politics and meaning of the built environment. Returning to Afghanistan recently after years spent in the United States and Europe (and as a refugee with no passport), Abdul’s itinerant past and present inform her perceptions of home and place.

Like some of her previous works, the video What we saw upon awakening (2006), produced by Fonds regional d’art contemporain de Lorraine, is strikingly silent. Abdul’s selective and careful use of audio creates a sense of cinematic minimalism. Beyond a minimalism in the formal sense, it is clear that Abdul’s use of silence is a deliberate conceptual strategy, an allusion to the implications and politics of speechlessness, homelessness and dispossession.

What we saw upon awakening presents a scene of perhaps a dozen young men clad in black pulling on the remains of a bombed-out structure in Kabul, the ruin a legacy of decades of war in the region. Ropes are fastened to the ruin at various points, and the men strain to pull them as if to tear down what remains of the building. The ropes create a complex and resonant image. They literally form a web, with associations of entanglement, and create a similarly biomorphic form like an octopus. Entangled in this web are memories of ruin, collapse, and history.

The ropes featured so prominently in What we saw upon awakening also invoke a number of works by Gordon Matta-Clark. Beyond the more obvious deconstructions, rifts, and cuts that he is so well known for (and that Abdul shares a sensibility with in her previous works), it is Matta-Clark’s rope works that bear the most productive comparative example here. In Jacob’s Ladder (1977) created for Documenta 6, Matta-Clark produced a rope ladder stretching from the ground skyward to the top of a giant smokestack. In Matta-Clark’s initial proposal, he had wished to weave a net among three or more stacks, but eventually had to settle for a single stack, changing the conception of the work from one of inhabiting space, to one of celestial ascent. Matta-Clark’s sketch for the work showed, “…a five-armed rope structure suspended midway between three smokestacks 300 feet high and 460 feet apart from one another. The supporting cables are envisioned as stretching from the base of each column to the pinnacle of the one opposite.” 1

While the content of works such as Jacob’s Ladder and What we saw upon awakening might diverge, there is at a more fundamental level a sensibility which connects Abdul with Matta-Clark. Both worked consistently in film and video, looking at the built environment as a means to reflect on human existence. There is also a performative aspect to their works which questions the traditional, foundational and autonomous object. Architecture becomes a process, rather than an object, which is a sustained implication of Matta-Clark and Abdul’s work. The burying of the stone in What we saw upon awakening (in a scene we can see men placing a rock in a hole and burying it in the ground), is the burying of the static object of architecture and value in western culture. It is not a rejection of space or buildings in a simple oppositional sense; rather it connects Abdul’s work to a contemporary reading of significant “anti-architectural” works for example, of Georges Bataille.

Like Abdul’s previous video works — such as White House (2005), or Untitled (Tree) (2005) — What we saw upon awakening also reflects on the representation of ruin or the subsequent significance and fate of sites of catastrophe, death and memorial. The video has an ambiguous and poetic sensibility; it is not certain exactly what the goal of the men’s labours is. The images appear as if in a dream, both believable and yet unbelievable. The “pulling” could also read visually as shoring up, or maintaining a structure that is perilously destined to collapse with very little or no human intervention. It is the shell of a former structure, already half disappeared. Could these figures actually be holding up the building, against all odds? The ambiguity of their actions allows viewers to project their own meaning and understanding upon the work.

Further, in What we saw upon awakening, there is this scene where the men have dug a hole in the ground. They place a rock in the hole and bury it. In Islam the body is buried directly into the earth, and this association underscores the memorial nature of the piece. As both a memory and commemoration, the stone signifies more than its literal singularity. While the stone buried naked has Islamic meaning, Abdul’s work references western cultures as well. A stone has an iconic status in western architectural culture, which Abdul sustains her critique of in these new works.

Artist Jimmie Durham has also taken up the stone as a potent symbol in European culture, and one that is eminently available to critiques of colonizing western cultures, especially from the perspective of an indigenous or nomadic culture with inherently different sensibility or values around the built environment. Durham is perhaps more explicitly aligned with Bataille, and quotes him in his own writings.

“Architecture”, says Bataille, “is the expression of every society’s being… [But] only the ideal being of society, the one that issues orders and interdictions with authority, is expressed in architectural compositions in the strict sense of the word… Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State in the form of cathedrals and palaces speak to the multitudes, or silence them. The storming of the Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is hard to explain this mass movement other than through people’s animosity (animus) against the monuments that are its real masters.” 2

Anthony Kiendl

1 Thomas Crow, “Thomas Crow: Gordon Matta-Clark”, Gordon Matta-Clark, Corinne Diserens, ed. London: Phaidon, 2003, 105.

2 Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wing, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989, ix.