Transformation seems almost too quotidian a word to describe the processes explored in Bani Abidi’s works. The exhibition ‘They Died Laughing’ features works from Abidi’s student days until the present, and captures numerous modalities of transition. Sometimes these transitions are political, sometimes personal, but possibly the most powerful of Abidi’s works explores the way media affects changes. The viewer enters ‘They Died Laughing’ to the wobbly strains of the American national anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ The song is the subject of a work bearing the informative (if somewhat literal) title ‘Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner.’ On the screens of the two-channel video, the musicians of the band assemble to learn and perform the anthem from a ramshackle cassette recording. The video is fascinating in the way it frustrates: musicians stumble over sections of the song, the cassette recording itself falters into static periodically. The frequently quoted William Morris dictum about all other art forms aspiring to the condition of music wherein form and meaning are joined is revealed for the oversimplification that it is. Notes, rhythms and timbres can be just as ambiguous and unstable in their meanings as lines in a drawing or words in a poem. The use of the American national anthem in a work from 2003—the height of the American War on Terror global hubris—makes Abidi seem almost prophetic: pride goes before a fall, and the work both prefigures and materialises that process of downfall.
The psychology of national security is at the centre of a number of works in the exhibition, among the most darkly hilarious are the images of ‘Security Barriers A-Z.’ Another deadpan title given to a work that presents the viewer with a kind of bestiary of security constructions observed in the environment of Karachi. Concrete, metal, concrete and metal, these structures, rendered quixotically amusing in the decontextualised renderings Abidi presents, seem to share a kind of genetic similarity, as if they represent different species of paranoia. The rub, necessarily, is that these structures, however disruptive, however inadequate, utterly transform the spaces in which they appear. The mere presence of serried concrete barriers in an urban space designates a dynamic of hierarchy and power. Alone and forlorn on paper, the structures’ absurdity is revealed, and thus Abidi performs a kind of alchemy, from their shapes and negative spaces, one reads the specific images in the nightmares of power.
Humour is among the tools Abidi is most deft in deploying. The work that very nearly shares its title with the exhibition, ‘And They Died Laughing’—a set of watercolours of laughing faces—explores how laughter affects the body. Individuals are rendered powerless in the face of laugher, eyes close or are covered over: one turns one’s face to the sky to give full vent to a guffaw. Laughter, as noted above, may be able to dissolve and transform certain appurtenances of power, but like any awesome force in nature, one discounts the power of the medium of humour at one’s own risk. To laugh is seldom to laugh last.
This tension between transience and permanence is a feature of several other works as well, particularly one of the pieces Abidi created with the esteemed sculptor Ram Sutar, ‘Death at a 30 Degree Angle,’ which skewers the pomposity of living politicians who hope their transfiguration into marble will magically impart them with the gravitas they so manifestly lack. ‘So He Starts Singing,’ an early work from the year 2000, also considers the points at which the medium and the message part ways. In this video work, Abidi’s flatmate at the time, Manisha Sharma, recounts the plots of 26 Bollywood blockbusters apparently from memory. The way in which the grand film narratives condense to explanatory language is in keeping with how Abidi uses titles elsewhere: does naming something reduce it, make it masterable or does it merely place that thing in a new context? The delight Sharma takes in talking viewers through the films is obvious and it marks another interesting feature of the translation process: to truly provide a sense of an artwork, it must dwell somewhere within the being of the person doing the recounting. It is, for an art critic, a relatable proposition. In ‘They Died Laughing,’ the viewer finds a rich trove of works to dwell among, and within.