In March 2014, a Pakistani man, Muhammed Rashid became a Guinness World Record holder of dubious notoriety, breaking 155 walnuts in one minute using only his increasingly bloody forehead. Alongside the most number of people waving the national flag or singing the national anthem, it was one of many records attempted at the Punjab Youth Festival – a state-sponsored event meant to be a display of patriotism and prestige, plagued instead by accusations of corruption and embezzlement. It was the ideal intersection of absurdity, politics and a bumbling state to form the basis for the latest work from Pakistani video artist Bani Abidi. In her first solo show in the US, opening on September 20 at Dallas Contemporary, Abidi whose work has exhibited at the Guggenheim Musem, Tate Modern, and MoMA, is presenting ‘An Unforeseen Situation’ – fictionalised depictions stemming from this orchestrated series of events.
Exploring notions of masculinity and patriotism, the video installation looks at the farcical spectacle of such mass-participation events to gain a place on the international stage, as well as a fictional backstory of the nutcracker extraordinaire. Layered with a text narratives, and sounds such as an ambulance siren, and news broadcast of a bomb blast, it juxtaposes failed attempts at patriotism with the dysfunctionality of the space. “The fact that there’s corruption even in a display of patriotism; it’s another example of a perpetually faltering state that always seems to be on the verge of collapse but doesn’t,” says the artist.
Merging humour with almost mundane aspects of politics and the state, An Unforeseeable Situation is representative of much of Abidi’s past work, which she describes as “never prescriptive, uninterested in grand declarations, focused instead on small, absurd details”. Originally trained in sculpture and painting, Abidi explains that she embraced video as a medium for the layers it afforded her – text, image, sound, dialogue, all with the ability to tell a story over time. Abidi currently spends a lot of her time in Berlin but emphasizes the importance of locality, which is why most of her work is firmly placed in Karachi, where she grew up.
“I’m not an easy fit for what a lot of people want a Pakistani artist to be. I’m not an activist artist. I’m not out to create change. I really like film and humour, and I’m out to recreate whatever time I exist in as an artist. And I do it on my own terms,” she says.
At Dallas Contemporary, Abidi will exhibit a site-specific installation: Funland (Karachi Series II), a work that was originally exhibited at the Berlin Biennale in 2014. Presented on six, 13 feet wide screens hanging from the ceiling, it is an immersive body of videos depicting Karachi as a space that has emptied out. Diverging from her usual style, the videos were shot without any enactment or intervention, and exude a certain gloom. Viewing the topography of the city as bearing the weight of its history, the videos are contemplative, showcasing large cinematic cityscapes devoid of their masses of occupants.
As a man walks through the remains of a cinema hall burnt down by protestors, old film dialogues play as a background score. As a library imposing self-censorship on its collection of literature on comparative religion packs away its books, a mechanical whirring in the back builds up to a crescendo of anxiety.
“In a way, it’s not a realistic representation of Karachi. It’s a city of 20 million people, far from empty. But there are communities and groups of people who’ve faced violence and over the years their presence in Karachi has emptied out. It can be a hard city,” explains Abidi. In the most captivating central video, a man sits on a beach in a plastic chair, a common practice in Karachi, surrounded by rows of unoccupied chairs. He looks out on to the seas as his back is turned to the city, to each of its 20 million inhabitants.
An Unforeseen Situation is on from September 20 – December 21, at Dallas Contemporary. Dallascontemporary.org