BY Ben Fergusson in Features | 22 APR 17
Featured in
Issue 187

Digging Upwards

The works of Hiwa K, which feature in this year’s documenta 14, draw on the misconceptions that pervade Western views of recent Middle Eastern history

BY Ben Fergusson in Features | 22 APR 17

Hiwa K talks about making work that ‘produces thinking’. This maxim is typical of the way he discusses his actions, videos and performances: a pithy, seemingly glib statement that, on closer consideration, is both bold and accurate. Experiencing his work abruptly triggers a sally of unex­pected thinking, sending viewers on a personal exploration of West and East, protest and pacifism, nationhood, emigration and asylum. Hiwa K has overcome the tensions and misunderstandings inherent to being an artist from the Middle East working in Western Europe by making that tension the subject of his art. He exploits and manipulates assumptions about Western art and its institutions and the gaps in many of his viewers’ knowledge of the Middle East’s history and politics, leaving them to rebuild their thinking anew.

In his 2014 performance as part of the series ‘Mirror’ (2010–ongoing), Hiwa K walks precariously through urban and rural landscapes balancing on his nose a pole covered in motorbike mirrors in order to, in his words, ‘extend [his] senses upwards’. The latest iteration of this project, the film Pre-Image (2017), will be presented at this year’s documenta 2017 in Athens, the city Hiwa K had to reach, evading arrest, when he fled Iraq 20 years ago. In Pre-Image, the artist carries his mirrored stick on his nose along the actual route he walked from Turkey via Athens to Rome. The mirrors, pointing downwards at his upturned face, afford him a fragmented, bird’s-eye view of his original journey: a remapping of his personal history.

Hiwa K, Pre-Image, Porto, 2014, from the series ‘Mirror’ (2010–ongoing). Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan and Lucca

The film and its genesis are, like the artist’s entire practice, bound up with his biography as a Kurdish Iraqi who fled his homeland, travelling for eight days with 53 other refugees to seek asylum in Europe. Two decades on, his traumatic, personal experience has become so established in Western consciousness that such stories of the hardship endured by those fleeing to Europe have long since ceased to make headline news. Yet, Hiwa K began working on his ‘Mirror’ series five years before the European refugee crisis became one of the defining social and political stories of our age. The fact that the work now appears so prescient, especially exhibited this year in Athens, is indicative of the inordinate patience that characterizes his practice. As spontaneous as many of his works appear, they in fact evolve over many years – from family relationships, from friendships with people he meets in Iraq and around the world, from the stories he hears from them and the conversations he has with them, all of which are slowly gathered and then stoically retained until they bear fruit.

The Bell Project (2007/2015), Hiwa K’s contribution to ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the 56th Venice Biennale, comprised a film, a research project with local students and a bell cast from scrap metal salvaged from successive waves of bombing over Northern Iraq, from the Iran-Iraq War onwards. The artist had been following the film’s protagonist, a Kurdish entrepreneur called Nazhad, for seven years before the biennale presented him with the ideal conditions in which to produce a piece. The work’s location in the Venice Arsenale, the existence of a bell foundry near Crema in Lombardy and the discovery that, during times of war in pre-industrial Europe, church bells were often melted down to make cannons: the alignment of these elements in that moment enabled him to realize the project. In a final symbolic flourish, the bell’s surface was adorned with a bas-relief depicting Mesopotamian artefacts that had either already been destroyed by Daesh in Iraq or were under threat of ruination. Hiwa K describes this process of gathering and developing material as ‘Darwinian’ – a constant, unplanned evolution, a groping blindly forwards. He sees his work as a reverse archaeology: a digging upwards rather than a looking downwards from a dominant (Western) perspective.

Hiwa K, Inappropriation, 2009, video still. Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani,
Milan and Lucca

This patience is also reflected in Hiwa K’s artistic career. A painter for 14 years, he abandoned his practice in 1998, feeling that his work was constantly mediated by a Western colonial form. He then turned to flamenco, learning to play guitar with the Andalusian master Paco Peña. Hiwa K’s interest in this ostensibly Western art form might seem paradoxical but, in fact, he finds in flamenco an overlooked blending of Western and Eastern culture: the musical style was brought by the Romani from India to Andalusia, a region already influenced culturally by the Islamic Nasrid dynasty. Flamenco marries melody with chord: Hiwa K identifies its hierarchy of notes, which he sees as vertical, as being of the West; melody, on the other hand, is of the East – a continuous horizontal line of notes rising and falling, in which one is never elevated above the other.

After three years of training and three years of playing flamenco guitar professionally, Hiwa K decided to make art again. But music and flamenco were not abandoned and feature prominently in his work, most poignantly in Moon Calendar, Iraq (2007). The focus of this video and performance piece is Amna Suraka (the ‘Red Security’ building) in Northern Iraq, one of Saddam Hussein’s most infamous prisons, where torture was so endemic that men were employed for the sole purpose of raping male and female inmates. Hiwa K visited the prison, now a museum, to rehearse a performance that ultimately never took place. In the film of the rehearsal, he tap dances in flamenco shoes to the rhythm of his own heartbeat, which he listens to through a stethoscope. The dancing increases his heart rate, which in turn speeds up his tapping, until he can no longer synchronize the two. The work speaks of the impossibility of memorializing atrocity, as the viewer tries and fails to connect the action to the brutal history. There is something humble, elegiac and deeply moving about Hiwa K tapping with  increasing agitation in the ruined building, preparing for a performance that will never take place.

Hiwa K, It’s Spring and the Weather Is Great so Let’s Close All Object Matters, 2012, exhibition view at KOW. Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan and Lucca

The musical and the political merge again in Chicago Boys: while we were singing they were dreaming (2010–13), which addresses what Hiwa K sees as his key theme: the neoliberalization or, as he calls it, the ‘Westification’ of the Middle East. The project takes the form of an alternating troupe of amateur musicians gathered from the exhibition venue’s local community, who form what the artist describes as ‘a 1970s pop music revival band and neoliberal study group’. Its title references the school of economic thought developed by Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger at the University of Chicago. ‘The Chicago Boys’ – a generation of Chilean economists trained under Friedman and Harberger – would go on to transform the economy of Augusto Pinochet’s Chile along neoliberal lines during the 1970s and ’80s. Hiwa K makes an explicit connection between The Chicago Boys and the fate of Iraq after the Second Gulf War. Specifically, he targets the wide-reaching powers of American administrator Paul Bremer to institute a neoliberal economy in the country. He did so by privatizing the centrally planned economy, which had been closed to foreign investors, to allow unfettered access to foreign investment and by removing restrictions on the amount of money that could be taken out of the country. This transition reflects a broader movement in the Middle East, where – with the exception of Iran – economies have become increasingly privatized since the 1970s and socialism, from Libya to Israel, has declined or collapsed completely. For his Chicago Boys project, the artist organized performances– initially as part of the Serpentine Gallery’s Edgware Road Project in London in 2010, then at the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gdansk in 2011 and, finally, at Sredets House of Culture in Sofia and Makan Art Space in Amman in 2013 – for which participants drew on personal anecdotes and
popular songs to collectively analyze the effects of this neoliberal transformation in Iraq.

The political situation in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is again tackled in This Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011), but here the division between performance and politics dissolves completely. The film, recorded in Sulaymaniyah (the artist’s hometown) on 17 April 2011, documents anti-government demonstrations in a phase of the Arab Spring that garnered little coverage in the West, focusing in particular on one of the final days of the two-month protest. Over the course of 15 minutes, we watch the crowd surge forward as the authorities start to fire tear gas and, eventually, live ammunition to control the crowds, leaving demonstrators running bloodied through the streets. Lemons are a natural detoxifying agent for tear gas and, when it hits the crowd, we see them squirt lemon juice into their mouths.

Hiwa K, This Lemon Tastes of Apple, 2011, video still. Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan and Lucca

In the melee are Hiwa K, with a harmonica, and his friend, the guitarist Daroon Othman. They play Ennio Morricone’s dissonant, two-note harmony from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – a well-known film in Iraq – the unbearably sombre melody of which unites the demonstrators. This Lemon Tastes of Apple hinges on the moment in which the artist inhales tear gas through the harmonica, and protest, art, music and body briefly combine in a single instant. The film’s title refers to the deadly 1988 Halabja chemical attack against Iraqi Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War; the survivors recalled that, when the gas first hit, it tasted of apples.

Hiwa K’s critique of the rise of neoliberal economics in the Middle East and the concurrent collapse of left-wing politics in the region is most directly addressed in One Room Apartment (2008), an iteration of which comprises the second part of his presentation for documenta 14. The installation takes the form of the outside wall and staircase of a one-room building with a single bed on the roof, modelled on a real structure photographed near Sulaymaniyah. In pre-invasion Iraq, where multiple generations almost always lived together, this kind of single-person dwelling was unimaginable. The sculpture shows only those elements visible in the two-dimensional photograph: the wall, the staircase, an outdoor light, a metal bedstead. As viewers move around the sculpture, they discover the void behind the wall and the single bed hanging precariously in the air ready for its one lonely occupant, the inheritor of neoliberalism’s rewards.

Faced with the urgency of Hiwa K’s message, it is easy to overlook the aesthetic dimension of his work. Indeed, the artist encourages you to do so. But his films and installations are consistently filled with symbolism and beauty. The image of Iraqi-Kurdish men squeezing lemons into their mouths in a tumultuous crush of rioting bodies is both moving and allegorical. The concrete staircase and surreal floating bed are monolithic and structurally satisfying, recalling antecedents by Donald Judd and Rachel Whiteread. My Father’s Colour Periods (2013) – an installation of black and white television sets appliqued with cut-outs of coloured plastic – encompasses personal biography and a critique of economic and cultural divisions in Iraq. In the 1970s, when Kurdish families such as Hiwa K’s could only afford black and white televisions, the artist’s father stuck coloured plastic onto the family set to simulate the colour models owned by richer Arab families in the south. But the work is also vivid and disconcerting: a cacophony of voices and figures briefly caught behind layers of coloured film, before they move and become dissonant again.

Hiwa K, The Bell Project (Iraq), 2007–15, video stills. Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan and Lucca

There is also a disparity in the relationship between these biographical works and the artist himself. His life story is at the centre of his entire practice and he appears in person in most projects. Yet, despite the sincerity and humanity of Hiwa K’s work, there is something elusive about him. The details of his journey from Iraq to Europe and his arrival are vague; the exact reasons for his leaving are unclear. We do not know what kind of paintings he made before he abandoned painting, nor even what the ‘K’ of his name stands for. Working in Germany – a country permeated with notions of the Protestant work ethic and Calvinist ideals of an honest, industrious life – the artist employs such uncertainties to disconcert us, perhaps to greatest impact in the performance Inappropriation (2009), for which, on his graduation day from the Kunsthochschule Mainz, he gathered together his professors to reveal that he had gained his place using someone else’s portfolio. The performance piques a Western reverence for the sanctity of its formalized education system and an obsession with the concept of the artist as a singular genius producing work unaided.

Instead of supplying literal truths, Hiwa K engages in what he terms ‘an affair with knowledge’: a too-literal connection with the world, he says, would ‘kill the poet in me’. His words recall Elena Ferrante’s assertion that her anonymity makes her autobiographical novels more, rather than less, authentic. ‘If the author doesn’t exist outside the text,’ she claimed in an interview, ‘inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement.’ By being both present yet absent in his work, Hiwa K is also able to be truer, utilizing the lacunae in the Western viewer’s knowledge about the Middle East, Iraq, refugees, migration and political protest. Like the mirrored cane he balances on his nose to fragment and reframe the ground he walks on in Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue), the artist’s films and interventions change the way Westerners see themselves in the world, leaving them queasy and disoriented. He unmakes their understanding, revealing it to be highly mediated and based on the scantest of knowledge.

Main image: Hiwa K, My Father’s Colour Periods, 2013, installation view at Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani. Courtesy: the artist, KOW, Berlin, and Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milan and Lucca

Ben Fergusson is a writer and translator and teaches at the University of Potsdam. His debut novel The Spring of Kasper Meier won the Betty Trask Prize and the HWA Debut Crown and in 2015 he was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. His second novel, The Other Hoffmann Sister was published by Little, Brown in 2017.