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Arts / Museums

Domestic Violence, Supermodels and Patriotism Put Under the Microscope in a Dallas Museum’s Unsettlingly Brilliant New Show

BY // 10.29.15
photography Kevin Todora

I’ve rarely seen installation details influence the impact of a show as much as the Dallas Contemporarys current exhibition, Impunities. The work, done by Tunisian-born Nadia Kaabi-Linke, would already be dense with shudder-inducing mystery without the brilliantly lighted and sleek sheen of etched glass and white walls; however, its presence amps it up into a spectacle of narrative brilliance.

It chronicles (via bits of verbiage and the shape of scars) the abuse of women who — unfortunately and unsurprisingly — go without notice no matter how often statistics document and rage against their status as the victims of domestic violence. This is the ultimate oxymoron. By this, I mean women are creatures simultaneously worshipped via troubadour poetry, yet atrociously treated in ways that would make SPCA and PETA groups howl and demand redress. Consequently, the show is a stroke of brilliance on the part of Justine Ludwig, the director of exhibitions and senior curator. And its chilly, gorgeous look is a mechanism that works as a powerful fulcrum for the show’s revelatory and loaded content.

Along with delicately amorphous shapes of scars, the visible vestiges of emotional injuries, some glass works include language and offer bits of insight into harrowing situations. They include:

“I didn’t realize it was wrong”
“I started taking my daughter everywhere with me, even to the toilet”
“In three hours you will end up with a black eye”
“bleed up / die alone / at home”
“Locked up for months”

The confluence of technique, image and the revelatory malevolence embedded in the written material make for a tiny landscape of a show with huge repercussions; it demonstrates just how ransacked our culture has become when it comes to understanding the feminine. Impunities gives us a vertiginous slide into bruises, scars and insidious emotional resonance. And sadly, for many women, that’s simply the truth, a documentary, so to speak. The only thing that makes Impunities bearable is its surface gorgeousness. The irony is not only huge; it’s also fitting in our era of Photoshopped magazine covers featuring supermodels who are never as “super” as their digitally enhanced images insinuate.

Bani Abidi's An Unforseen Situation, 2015. Video installation at Dallas Contemporary, 2015.
Bani Abidi’s An Unforseen Situation, 2015. Video installation at Dallas Contemporary, 2015

Yet another artist, Bani Abidi (who works in Karachi, Pakistan, and Berlin), also has work showcased at the Contemporary and curated by Ludwig. The installation is two-fold — one part, An Unforeseen Situation, was funded by the museum and is situated in a darkened room in the back of the space — behind Abidi’s other, less-current video work, Karachi Series-II. The latter features haunting images of Karachi, particularly the thriving city’s public spaces in early morning hours before thronging crowds arrive.

The result is unnerving and haunting. A festooned camel, empty amusement parks and rows of chairs facing towards the Arabian Sea all constellate a world lacking sustenance, much less any sliver of glamour or opulence. It strikes deeply and offers an iconic series of lonely cosmogonies, places of pleasure appallingly devoid of comradeship or laughter.

Meanwhile, An Unforeseen Situation comes off as a work that’s a tad mischievous and, among other things, pokes fun at odd attempts at masculinity and patriotism. For instance, it depicts the bizarre efforts of a gentleman intent on cracking the most walnuts ever with his forehead. He trains with all due ceremony and seriousness for the one-minute event; however, the whole episode (thankfully) is fraught with the artist’s jaundiced glance at such absurd feats.

Meanwhile, the Punjab Youth Festival sponsors exactly those kinds of tournaments with staunch seriousness. Thus, Abidi shows us not just the horrible effects of empty urban environs, she also shapes new contexts for observing political absurdities — which are abundantly found in every sphere, albeit in highly diverse guises.

Both exhibitions close on December 20.

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