Bani Abidi (b. 1971, lives and works in Karachi and New Delhi) is a video artist who was born in Pakistan. Her work often consists of dual screen installations. Much of Abidi’s work has explored the ways that nationalist and other political ideologies are internalized by individuals and related to civil society and the creation of history. She has shown at a number of international exhibitions, including the Singapore Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale and the Biennale de Lyon.
“I have innumerable memories of sitting in the audience and staring at an empty stage.”
Bani Abidi’s two-channel video project, Reserved, is an exploration of power relations through the eyes of those who are subject to them. The viewer is placed in a position to witness the preparations for a VIP visit, including roadblocks, blaring sirens, school children waving flags, and reserved seating. Abidi’s video work has explored variety of themes in the past, often employing two different screens to emphasize diverging viewpoints or contexts, but a common thread of these works is their interest in the ways that nationalist and other political ideologies are internalized by individuals. What experiences we have of democracy are fundamental to our experience of it. If we are stuck on the outside of the roadblock or are left waiting to show off for the VIP’s who are always late, our sense of the meaning of government is structured from the outside. In this context freedom may not mean freedom at all; it may instead be shorthand for passivity and restraint. Yet in this video work, new relationships emerge and other events happen which are not scripted. In other words, life continues despite the official functions of the state.
This piece begins with the right screen showing a group of school children in uniforms who seem to be sitting on a highway barrier, in the middle of the road, holding colored flags. In the distance, we hear the sounds of blaring sirens. The video ends with the same children standing on the barrier holding their flags, still waiting for the VIP cortege to salute. What happens in between is not only the content of the piece, but the experience of those passersby whose lives are determined by the police barriers and who wait in an empty auditorium for someone important to arrive. It is hard to avoid the reference to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but here the existential concerns of the few are reconfigured as the practical hassles of the many. The sense of the inaccessibility of power is the same but, in Reserved, this dynamic is rooted in the self-important gestures of the policemen and the inscrutable black Mercedes, appearing on a separate channel, that one can often hear but never actually arrives.
John Zarobell (lives and works in San Francisco) is currently Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, after working as Associate Curator of European Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His new book, Empire of Landscape, was published in early 2010.