Wafaa Bilal: Art as Agitation
“Art is a powerful medium. It engages people. And I think that’s what we need…[I]t really doesn’t matter what medium you decide to use. I think the objective is to engage people. But now more than ever, artists have a lot more powerful tools to play with…[A]rt does not have to be confined to a physical space, the gallery or museums, but now we have the power of the internet, when we could enter people’s homes and offices and engage them in the dialogue. Art is not only there to educate. Art is there to agitate, as well.” –Wafaa Bilal on DemocracyNow! March 9th, 2010
From 8pm on March 8th, 2010 to 8pm on March 9th, 2010, Iraqi performance artist Wafaa Bilal sat in a chair on display in the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts on West 39th street in New York City as two tattoo artists took turns making marks on his exposed back. After twenty-four painful hours, the resulting tattoo was a borderless map of Iraq, its major cities’ names inscribed in Arabic, scattered between which lay two sets of dots—5,000 bright red dots and 100,000 green UV ink dots. The red dots were meant to represent the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, while the green UV ink dots—invisible except when viewed under a black light—were meant to represent the excruciatingly high number of corresponding Iraqi casualties. One of these green dots stands for Bilal’s younger brother Haji, who died in 2004 in United States bombings of their hometown of Kufa. Wafaa, who has been studying and working as an artist in the United States since 1991 has experienced the recent war in an unique way, living a relatively safe life in comparison to his family back home and yet unable to relate to the nonchalant disinterest in its violence of the Americans around him. His tattoo makes the disparity in death tolls apparent while drawing attention to the invisibility of those killed by the overpowering bomb and drone attacks of the United States military.
But this piece, entitled …And Counting, similar to other works by Bilal, is just as much, if not more, about the process as the result. The 24-hour performance was intended both for New Yorkers, who could visit and experience the piece in person, as well as an international audience, which could watch and participate via an online live feed. Similarly, in May 2007, Bilal received extensive media attention for his piece Domestic Tension, in which he confined himself for a month in a backroom of the FlatFile Gallery in Chicago’s West Loop, where a paintball gun, rigged to be fired online, was trained on his every move. By visiting the work’s URL, people around the world could gather to take shots at Bilal and/or discuss the ethics of such actions in the accompanying chat room. By the end of the thirty-first day, when the gun went finally went silent forever, over 65,000 shots had been taken from 136 different countries. Bilal, who had gained significant weight, experienced extreme sleep deprivation and taken numerous body hits, was noticeably worn. In both pieces, Bilal put his body at the center of attention, offering it up as a conduit for others’ anger, sadness, frustration and neglect. In both, he chose to endure considerable discomfort and to make his pain public.
Recalling other artists’ comparable works of endurance body art—Eleanor Antin, Chris Burder, Vito Acconici and more recently Mary Coble—Bilal appropriates such formal components as self-inflicted wounds, defined temporal limits and exhibitionist display but revamps them in a new contemporary setting and specific context. By using the tools of modern internet culture—gaming, chat rooms, live feeds—his work appeals to a broad audience, revealing a common pleasure derived in inflicting and/or watching pain be inflicted on others. Bilal’s casting of his viewers into such a sadistic role is not an accident. In his 2008 book, Shoot an Iraqi, Bilal recalls how when the women of Kufa grieved the deaths of their male relatives during the Iran-Iraq War, tearing at their hair and clothes, unashamedly revealing their bodies publicly in ways that they otherwise would never do, some of the neighborhood boys—unabated by the bloody bodies over which these women grieved and perhaps even further aroused by them—would gather on the overlooking rooftop to masturbate to the grief-stricken display. In his own work, Bilal consciously puts himself in a comparable position to these women. His body and his grief are on display and we—to varying degrees—take curious pleasure in viewing them.
Bilal is not, however, playing the role of the moralizer. He is not simply stating that what we do to him—whether it’s fire repeated paintballs, direct the gun away from him, or watch him get tattooed for hours on end—is wrong. Rather, the work provides a forum for us to recognize the voyeuristic appeal of such actions and think about such distanced non-involvement in a broader context. As his book also points out, his work recalls military tactics—missiles, bombs and drone attacks—and those firing’s detachment from their targets. It also, of course, makes us civilians’ neglect apparent, which in turn upsets us. As long as those “under the gun” so to speak are far away, invisible and cast as inherently other to us, we only feel a limited capacity of remorse or regret. When, however, we are asked to confront others’ humanity, boundaries collapse. In viewing, reading about and participating in Bilal’s work, we hear about the pain that the Iraqi people are experiencing on a day to day basis; we learn about the stress they have endured for decades under the oppression of governments, rebellions and factions, and we are made to confront the deaths they themselves have seen as a result of violent clashes with Saddam’s regime, Iranians, Americans and one another. We gain awareness and become implicated simultaneously. We are educated but also agitated. It becomes clear that Bilal’s work should not be seen as just a game, a tattoo or an eclectic piece of performance art. And his ceaseless dedication to exposing the unnecessary but nevertheless neglected pain of the Iraqis suggests that we better not let ourselves relax and get comfortable, because—if we do—sooner or later he will be back to cause us distress yet again.