I august skal kunstneren Adel Abidin stille ut for første gang i Norge - på Oslo S og Fotogalleriet. Fotograf og skribent Nina Strand har snakket med Abidin i forkant av utstillingen - samtalen leser du her:
The Art Cowboy
With a big print of an Arab man dressed up and posing as Marilyn Monroe on the façade of the Central Station, artist Adel Abidin is ready to stir things up in Oslo.
A conversation with Nina Strand - photographer and writer.
Nina Strand: Your work Cover-up! makes reference to the seductive image of Marilyn Monroe in her famous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Inside the station the film and installation will be shown. Can you tell us more about this work?
Adel Abidin: Central Station has a great façade for such a large-scale print. The video Cover-Up! will be shown inside on the second floor, with a fan in front of it so people can do the same as the man is doing. Let’s hope it works out.
NS: And then a few blocks away, your work Michael will be screened at Fotogalleriet. In Michael, singer and icon Michael Jackson is being interviewed after his resurrection. The answers he gives and the speech he makes take the form of a compilation of his song lyrics. I’m curious about what the audience reaction will be when they see Michael. Could you tell me a little about the idea?
AA: Well, unfortunately, each one of us needs an idol, someone to look up to. We need somebody to follow, someone to tread the path. But as I say, it’s unfortunate. In this work, I’m trying to illustrate this with a visual argument. Celebrities today are very influential, maybe even more than prophets, and that was my point of departure: to replicate the story of Jesus’s resurrection through someone who had a huge impact on so many. So I threw him into a talk-show setting, to discuss matters that we don’t have answers to. I did a lot of research on all the dead celebrities, and found that Michael Jackson is the ‘one’. Many of his song lyrics have a ‘prophetic’ touch to them – he was a kind of Messiah.
NS: Given that all his lines in the film are taken from his lyrics, it must have been a tough script to write.
AA: I had to modify all the questions to fit. It was interesting for me: applying his lyrics to a discussion like this, I noticed that even banal lyrics can become philosophical.
NS: It will be interesting to see this piece this year, with the backdrop of having lost both Bowie and Prince.
AA: The thing with Michael Jackson is, it’s not just his genius music, but him in himself as a character. He was the perfect example to use for this resurrection idea. It was a good process. The hardest part was killing some favourite lines in order to select the best ones for the discussion. It’s normal in video-making though.
NS: The art scene here in Oslo has evolved massively over these past years. We’re seeing all these artist-driven initiatives really pushing and challenging the larger institutions, making the whole scene more vibrant. Having shown your work at the Venice Biennale, Hauser & Wirth in London and Kiasma in Helsinki, what are your thoughts about the venues in Oslo?
AA: Oslo has a good vibe. Fotogalleriet, where I’m showing my work this summer, is a very cool space. I like the energy there, which is down to its director, Stephanie von Spreter, who’s an easy going person, interested in challenging ideas.
NS: Tell me more about how you work. For feature films, the producers usually invite several focus groups to see the film in the editing room, before deciding on the finished version. How do you go about showing your work before it’s done?
AA: I have some good friends, not on the art scene, whom I invite to comment when I’m sceptical about a piece of work.
NS: It’s probably smart to invite people from the outside world: they’ll see the work in a visual way, the way it’s meant to be seen, and not in a technical way. And for inspiration, who do you go to?
AA: I have one person, a very good friend of mine in Finland. I never show my work if he doesn’t approve it. I call him my God.
NS: As your superego in a way?
AA: He says what I don’t dare to say about my work. And I want him to say it.
NS: Let’s talk more about your work. In the site-specific installation Yesterday, you translated the lyrics of the Beatles song into Arabic and wrapped them around the rooms like the banner lines from breaking-news announcements on TV. You use a song that everyone knows as a metaphor to describe the situation in the Arab World today. You could say that you do the same thing in Michael – using something so familiar and that everyone knows to draw us in instantly.
AA: It was the same in Three Love Songs as well. For years, I was listening to Iraqi songs that were commissioned by Saddam Hussein, and were used to glorify the regime during his reign. I was almost brainwashed by them, but I never paid attention to what the guys where singing. They are really violent lyrics, and still everyone was dancing to them at weddings.
NS: It’s a reminder to always listen a second time to something you think you know from childhood. Speaking of childhood, you've stated in a previous interview that your parents don’t understand your work and want you to get a ‘real’ job? Do they still feel that way?
AA: Yes indeed. They don’t understand what I’m doing. I understand their point of view in a way. You know the Willie Nelson song: ‘Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’? I’m like a cowboy to them. Art is a risky business.
NS: I think we have the headline for this conversation here: ‘Adel Abidin – the art cowboy’. Why are your parents sceptical?
AA: They wanted me to be a doctor or engineer or lawyer. That’s work they understand. In the beginning of my career, I was annoyed by this. I tried to show them my work. But I’ve stopped now.
NS: Did they go to see your work at the Venice Biennale, for example?
AA: No, they’re totally out of the art world. But it’s somehow nice when I go home – it’s like I’m taking a holiday from work. One of my sisters was an interior designer before she married. I can discuss art with her.
NS: It’s probably nice to be away and free from the studio. Maybe the trips lead to more inspiration. Artists are always working, in a way.
AA: It’s vital to take breaks. Relaxing your brain is good. You can’t always work. Sometimes your brain needs to stop. Sometimes the solution comes to you when you’re thinking of something else. Luckily, we have smart phones now, so you can write your ideas down immediately, before you forget.
NS: I always take my notebook with me, but I end up writing notes on my phone instead.
AA: I remember watching a TED talk where an American poet, I can’t remember her name, talked about how one day she was working in a field when a poem came to her. She didn’t have anything to write on, and was far away from her desk. She ran to the house, and while she ran she held the tail of the poem all the way to the desk. It’s a beautiful metaphor, holding the tail of the poem.
NS: I agree. Speaking of ideas, I must admit, both your works Twins, showing a fight for life inside the womb between twins, and Ping Pong, where two ping-pong players are in a match so heated that they’re oblivious to the naked woman acting as the net in the middle of the table, were a struggle to watch for me personally. I read that Ping Pong was censored from one of your solo shows.
AA: The people at Location One Gallery in New York wanted to protect me. They were worried we’d get too many negative reactions. The film is about Baghdad. The woman symbolises the city. She’s like the model of the classic nude, and she protects, feeds and gives birth. Some hated me for it. They thought I’d made porn. I’ve also had strong reactions to Twins and Consumption of War .
About Twins: I used to have an extra bone in my knee and in Finland there’s this myth that if you have this, it means you killed your twin, and that the bone is what’s left. I believe that the brutality of humans has to go back to the subconscious, back to the womb.
Art gives no answers; we just put forward some perspectives.
NS: Exactly. This is what I want from art: many question marks, no answers.
AA: If you want answers, you can go to journalists. An artist’s task is to confuse viewers with a visual argument, and make them think.
NS: It’s important to do this in the art world, especially here in the Nordic countries where we play it so safe. We want to please each other; we’re not critical enough.
AA: We’re politically correct all the time. Look at Donald Trump: he’s saying what he believes in. I don’t agree with him at all, but I respect that he has the guts to just shoot.
NS: You’ve made some pieces of work dealing with the conflict between Americans and Muslims, like I’m Sorry, where you sum up what happened on your first visit to the USA when the people you met said ‘I’m Sorry’ once they heard you were from Iraq. And in No Muhammad! No Mecca! you reference the myth that the logo of Coca-Cola logo, when read backwards, has an anti-Islamic message in Arabic.
AA: I was in the USA for three months and heard ‘I'm sorry’ maybe five times a day. So freaky! And I remembered that myth about Coca-Cola, a drink banned in Iraq, when I had my solo-show at Kiasma in 2010. I needed a piece to open the show with and was thinking about this when buying a coke, and there it was. But this was a long time ago.
NS: And what are you working on now?
AA: I’m working on a very new cool piece. It’s a semi-fictional novel. I’m really not a writer, but I have this script and a writer volunteered to help me reshape it. I want to make it into a film. It will probably be animation.
NS: Having had such a long career and having shown in so many different venues, what do you feel about the current art scene and the industry?
AA: I’d love to be represented by a gallery, but the work I do might not be commercial enough. Many people think I have at least five galleries.
NS: I thought you did. Does it matter?
AA: It would make my life easier. I’d be able to continue without worrying about money. It would give me an opportunity to show work in more places. But I won’t change or modify myself, or my work, to gain that.