29. May 2017

Double Feature in May presents the artist Monira Al Qadiri and her films "Abu Athiyya (father of pain)", "Behind the sun" and "Travel prayer".

A minute-long car ride across a steppe. The sky ominously overcast with clouds, the horizon behind the clouds appears to be colored reddish-yellow. The video image is blurred and faded, the sound distorted: The first few moments of Monira Al Qadiri’s "Behind the sun” (2013) do not bode well. And indeed, after a good two and a half minutes, dawn gradually breaks in the place where we find ourselves: the burning oilfields of Kuwait. When withdrawing from Kuwait during Gulf War One, the Iraqi army set fire to between 605 and 732 oilfields – part of the perfidious "scorched earth" tactic.

At this point in time Monira Al Qadiri, who was born in Senegal in 1983 but grew up in Kuwait, was only seven years old. The camera in “Behind the sun” now freely reveals the image of the aforementioned burning oilfields, black smoke saturating the blue sky in an all-consuming something, and the ground appears to bleed fire from open wounds. Similar images were used by Werner Herzog in his fictional documentary “Lessons in darkness” (1995). Underpinning the work with music by Arvo Pärt, Herzog created a meditation on disasters, coupled with the actual historical content of the images. Al Qadiri saw the film when she was young and was furious about the “lies” she felt Herzog’s story to be, told off-screen in his ostentatious voice. Years later she saw the film again and fell in love with the work – hence “Behind the sun” is a kind of attempt of her own to emulate the influential images.

A mixture of melancholy and black humor

Qadiri underlays the previously unpublished shots by an amateur filmmaker with a soundtrack of Islamic poetry, the way such literature was presented in TV broadcasts at the time. The sonorous voice praises Allah’s creation, extols the beauty of the flora and fauna, and the perfect harmony of it all. Coupled with the images of the inferno, the film collage combines to form an ambivalent combination of melancholy and black humor. At the same time, the work calls to mind a now seemingly long-gone era in which Islamic preaching and texts were defined much less by martial and ideologist elements and much more by poetry and the extolling of creation.

In other works such as “Abu Athiyya (Father of Pain)” (2013), Al Qadiri refers back to a similar moment: As a bearded man clothed in a long robe, she performs a lament in which the singer complains about his sleeplessness. The bearded man eventually takes two daggers and, in the tradition of the Iraqi dancer Malayeen, performs a knife dance. The bizarre setting (black background, flying skull, later: disco glitter raining down) and Al Qadiri’s performance inject a touch of the nonsensical into the lamentation, likewise relishing the sadness on show and thus pinpointing a narcissistic element that perhaps goes hand in hand with male sadness - the world-weary youth or man comes to mind. In the end the lamenter in “Abu Athiyya” (Father of Pain) sits cross-legged with the daggers in his lap, when suddenly he grows angel wings and meanwhile his face appears to transform into that of Che Guevera, halo included.

Dividing line between grief and humor

In various video works that draw on the aesthetic of music videos, the artist examines that very aesthetic of grief – Al Qadiri wrote her doctoral thesis at Tokyo University of the Arts under the title “The aesthetics of sadness in Eastern cultures”, where she focused on the specific culture of grieving in the Middle East. Al Qadiri’s humorous approach with its absurd mélange, i.e. the pinpointing of the blurred dividing line between grief and humor, is evident in truly exemplary form in the short work “Travel Prayer”: A childish melody over which another mournful prayer is laid – “Oh Lord, facilitate our travel and make the distance we cover shorter”. What we see are shots from a camel race, whereby the animals are urged on by robotic jockeys. The prayer continues: “Oh Lord I take refuge in you from the hardships of travel and its depressive scenery”.

In the second part of the evening, the favorite film the artist has chosen is “Mishima – A life in four chapters” by Paul Schrader dating from the year 1985. The film focuses on the life of the eponymous Mishima Yukio, one of the most important authors in Japanese post-War literature, and at the same time a prominent right-wing political activist. Schrader tells the story using flashbacks from various phases in the life of Mishma (Ken Ogata), and in parallel to them presents important works by the author from the same period, which focus on his covert homosexuality or his radical politicization. The story ends with the spectacular and hopeless coup attempt that Mishima and four members of his “Tatenokai” private army launched on the Tokyo Army Headquarters in 1970 – an event that culminated in the author’s subsequent seppuku, an extraordinarily brutal, ritualized suicide.

A controversial author

Any closer critical debate on Mishima Yukio remains taboo to this day in Japan due to his imperialist, fascistic convictions – which is why Schrader's film production was threatened with failure on multiple occasions. The main actor originally cast withdrew from the production due to threats – and various investors in the film also wanted nothing more to do with it for the same reason – so filming only began once bribes had been paid to the Yakuza. 

Despite the adverse production conditions, “Mishima – A life in four chapters” is a visually captivating work that skillfully captures the ambiguity of the controversial author on film: The longing for perfection of morbidly narcissistic personalities, who substitute artistic examination with political action, henceforth transforms their fantasies of obliteration into ultimate acts. Schrader presents this mechanism using the precise screenplay and the spectacular pictorial language with lasting effectiveness. Narcissism, one could perhaps say after this DoubleFeature, acts in absolutes: Self-obsession either has to expand unendingly and make the world its own, or it culminates in self-destruction as with Mishima or the bearded dancer in Al Qadiri’s “Abu Athiyya”: the dagger is drawn. Whether redemption awaits afterwards, however, is doubtful.