Using some of the ubiquitous ruins found in Afghanistan, and ‘found’ local children, Afghani-born artist Lida Abdul’s video installations delve into issues of war, memories and feminism or its lack thereof in her homeland. In White House (2005) she found an old classical style presidential palace that had been bombed into a ruin, on the outskirts of Kabul and painted the whole place white, filming the process which lasted for 3 days.
The fact that she was dressed in black shows a kind of mourning, and her bent over, sweeping motion in the wind is somewhat ambiguous; is she white-washing, sanitizing the whole place with the paint, or is this an act of remembrance, like elderly people sweeping the grave of the deceased in other countries?
As stray animals and people pass-by, she photographs them and they are displayed in the final film, inevitably becoming characters in this play, while the house becomes a stage-set. A man who passes-by agrees to appear on film and be painted, in the back slightly, as a gesture of solidarity with the ruins and a statement that the physical destruction equates with the destruction experienced on a personal level.
The other type of ruin witnessed in Kabul, are that of destroyed military equipment. In In Transit (2008) local children tie ropes to a destroyed Soviet military airplane and lie on the ground pulling it, imagining for a while that they are actually flying it, like one of those line controlled model airplanes that one flies round and round in a circular fashion.
This is similar to another piece, Dome (2015) in which a boy spins round and round under what used to be the dome of a building, while a helicopter flies over head. At some point, the camera spins in slow motion with the boy while looking up at the sky through the bombed out roof, round and round with the sound of the helicopter omnipresent, going on forever.
Why would this boy, who apparently was here by chance and did not act according to any instruction, be doing such a silly thing? Or the other boys in In Transit (2008) for that matter? Like someone who has been rendered mute but is trying to say something, the film mourns the loss suffered from the destruction while at the same time reminisces the past via the imagination of the boy, as the circular walls and openings where windows once were, spin around.
Totally absorbed in the act, he’s imaging what the dome must have looked like, what it must been like to live there. Could he be imagining the future, like what it would be like if it was restored? Possibly, if one could call imagining the past and applying it to the future, as that. Which is the ambiguity of it all; is he imagining the past or is he imagining the future?
The opposite of In Transit (2008) is seen in What We Saw Upon Awakening (2006) where a group of grown men are seen pulling at ropes tied around a ruined building. Where the children of In Transit (2008) were seen pulling at ropes around the ruined plane, they were merely using their imagination to turn it into something else to play with. Here the men seem to be trying to pull the building down, to erase the memory of what happened, but they are having difficulty doing so. This apparently is the local Government’s desire for these ruins, which makes it a commentary on the situation.
What’s curious is the absence of women, except for Abdul herself, in all of these works. In a culture where women are not allowed to work, or do anything they want for that matter except stay at home and marry whoever their family tells them to, the fact that she has gone there, hired all these men to do these films, must be a real thorn in the backside to the local authorities.
While Abdul herself has said she has been threatened, had guns pointed at her and had to persuade people for hours in the process of making these films, it is perhaps that she has a foreign passport and doesn’t have parents there to punish her that the authorities can’t quite do anything to stop it. However, this cultural attitude towards women didn’t exist until fairly recently. It wasn’t like this historically. Apparently it was after the Soviets invaded the country around 1980 that changes happened and plight of women became like this.
Seen collectively these films are both a political gesture, a social commentary and a dream for a better future.