Adel Abidin
Birth place and date: Baghdad, 1973
Place of residence: Helsinki
Education: MFA, Academy of Fine Arts (Helsinki); BA, Academy of Fine Arts (Baghdad); B.Sc. in Industrial Management, Mansour University, Baghdad.

Finland’s next major contemporary art export Adel Abidin works with humour and sarcasm, but he is no pedlar of cheap laughs.

THE NAME Adel Abidin has been on many lips in the art community lately. A rising name in the international scene of contemporary art, 36-year-old Abidin’s works have been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world, and his first major solo exhibition in Finland opened in February in Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. SixDegrees spoke with Abidin the day after the opening.

Making jokes about his hangover, Abidin notes that he really feels like he is Finnish – and not just in terms of alcohol use. Abidin is living and working in Europe but rooted in another culture. Born in Baghdad, he moved to Finland in 2001. He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and switched painting for video art, installations and other contemporary techniques. Dealing with themes of identity, alienation and controversial issues of otherness, war and sexuality, Abidin’s works quickly got the attention of the art world.

In 2007 he was one of two artists representing Finland in the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale with his work Abidin Travels. The installation, currently displayed in a truncated form in the Kiasma atrium, features a fictional travel agency promoting holiday trips to war-torn Baghdad –”Much more than a holiday!” Handout brochures give helpful advice to avoid going out in the morning, since it’s the time when suicide bombers are most active, and to keep in mind that American tanks have the right to shoot or drive over your car if they think it’s in the way.

The joke is so macabre, so ostensibly cruel it leaves the viewer with a lingering sense of unease that is hard to shake.

The main exhibition on the fourth floor opens with a neon sign of a mirror image Coca-Cola logo. A few years ago a conspiracy theory circled the internet, claiming that the logo, when read backwards, read ”No Mohammed, No Mecca” in Arabic. But Abidin reads it as ”To Mohammed, To Mecca,” flipping the conspiracy upside down. The next room contains Bread of Life, a video installation of a band of Egyptian nightclub belly dance drummers playing rock-hard stale loafs of bread.

Humour and irony are central to his language, Abidin states, and where it’s found, his humour tends to be of the wry, deadpan, so-poignant-it-hurts kind.

You studied art in Iraq before coming to Finland. What was art school in Baghdad like?

It was really traditional, old school you know. I was in the painting department. It was mostly drawing models and so on. You do it every day until you can do it with your eyes closed. But it gave me my first knowledge and understanding of many things, because you study a lot of philosophy, art history and psychology as well. So it was really interesting, but in terms of technique it was very conservative.

You already had a degree in industrial management before that. At what point did you decide that you might want to be an artist?

I never thought that I wanted to be an artist, actually. I used to draw when I was a kid and I did one solo show of drawings on paper when I was 17. But I never thought I would make a living out of art. When I finished high school I wanted to join art school, but mainly as a hobby. But I couldn’t go because I wasn’t a member of the Baath party, so I had to study something else first.

Was going to art school an acceptable career choice for your family?

No, until now my family has thought that I don’t really have a job. They keep telling me I have to find some work.

The final piece in Abidin’s Kiasma exhibition is Memorial, a harrowing three-channel animation video that builds on Abidin’s recollection of a bridge in Baghdad reduced to rubble by American bombs in the Gulf War. It works as a departure point for a more universal contemplation of our need to belong and be with others.

You’ve said that you weren’t initially planning to settle in Finland. What made you stay?

I first came here with my ex-wife, and the plan was for her to study for a few years and then we’d move back to Iraq when she finished her Master’s degree. But then we got divorced, I was accepted into the art academy, the war broke out in Iraq – all of these things happened at once. So I stayed.

How has moving to Finland influenced your work as an artist?

In many ways. First of all, as you shift from one culture to another, if you’re clever enough you will be able to discover for yourself a sort of third hybrid culture. You start viewing the world through a wider angle lens, because you can no longer be local, neither in your own culture nor in the new one. You observe both cultures from the outside looking in. I think that has been very important in my work and in my personality as well. And there’s one thing I mention all the time – and I’ll mention it again: What’s most valuable to me in this country is the honesty. That makes you go forward, because you don’t waste energy on conspiring between people and all that rubbish.

How about your career, do you think you would have become an artist if you’d stayed in Iraq?

I might be dead, who knows.

OK. Now let’s talk about humour. What makes you laugh?

Very stupid jokes.

Such as?

Why is six afraid of seven? – Because seven ate nine. (Chuckles) I think this is a brilliant joke. Really, I rarely laugh at smart jokes, but if you tell me a really stupid one, like a children’s joke – oh my god, that’s hilarious! I mean, I laugh. But not a lot. Many people think that I am a very serious person. I don’t know, maybe it’s my features. And when someone’s taking a picture I can’t smile.

You also say that there should be no taboos, that everything is fair game?

Yeah. When you do art, your strategy is freedom. That is the only venue, for me as an artist at least, where I could say anything – if I have a good concept behind it. That’s different from wanting to provoke just for the sake of provocation – that in my opinion is banal, it’s stupid. But if you provoke with an argument that will make people think, I think that is the right way to break taboos. You have to have a good thought behind it. But there are many who don’t think the same way, and they end up forgotten like this (snaps fingers).

”To Mohammed!
To Mecca!” (2009).
Instead of detracting
Islam, the reverse
Coke sign contains a
toast in its honor. The
conspiracy is on the
side of the Muslims
after all.

Do you ever worry that you’re misread as making light of heavy topics, like the war in Iraq in your work Abidin Travels?

Very few people misunderstood that. I could count them with one hand. When it was shown in Venice, most of the art scene in the world saw it and they got the point. But there were a few who didn’t really connect the humour and the situation, there was a link missing in the chain there. With my works I don’t think people will misunderstand my sarcasm. Like I said, I don’t like to provoke just for the hell of it. And I might sound a little idealistic here, but I really believe that if you’re not confident with a thought, it doesn’t matter what kind of presentation you make, the audience will sense it. They will look at the work from a fresh perspective and immediately see the weaknesses, the mistakes. You have to really respect the audience and keep in mind that you’re not showing your work to stupid people.

How did you come up with the idea for Abidin Travels? 
In 2004 I went to visit Baghdad to check on my family, as I lost contact with them during the war. The first thing I faced at the border was an American check point, where an American soldier said to me “Welcome to Baghdad”. It was the most ironic and sarcastic situation. After coming back, that scene never vanished from my mind. Then I came up with this idea of making a travel agency. Actually, I would like to thank that very soldier for inspiring me of making such a powerful piece that took me to be representing Finland in the Venice Biennale.

Is humour applicable to everything?

Of course there are things that are not funny. If you force humour into everything you lose the idea. You know, humour is a means to deliver a concept, not the aim of the piece. It’s like the brush when you paint; it’s the tool you’re working with. But sometimes the idea can’t handle that and then you decide to use a different tool.

You’ve had shows around the Arab world. What’s the state of contemporary art there?

I would say there are very nice contemporary artists, but there is no such thing as a contemporary Arab art scene. There are individuals who are doing really interesting projects, some are really good but they’re scattered here and there. There is a French collector who compiled a wonderful three-volume book on current Arab artists. It was printed in France and the people who wrote it were not Arabs. People from Arab countries would never have done that. There is no organisation or institution for such things. So yeah, there are some really good individual artists, but of course they travel a lot. (Laughs) I’m being so honest today!

How about Iraq, are you hopeful about the future?

Of course, I mean Iraq or any other country; I hope that no crisis happens.

Until 25 April
Adel Abidin solo exhibition
Kiasma, 4th floor

How about the current situation in your homeland?

We were expecting this. I mean, we knew that if the Americans came and occupied the country like they did it would be a mess afterwards even if they left. Because for almost 30 years the words freedom and democracy didn’t exist in our dictionaries, we don’t really know what they mean. The people don’t know what to do, they get confused, and that’s natural. So I think what’s going on right now is sort of normal for that situation, coming out of 30 years of dictatorship, and I hope it will end soon but I don’t think it will. These things take time. But I’m not a politician. This is just my opinion as an individual.

What do you hope to achieve as an artist?

If I dream of something, I hope I will be able to make it happen. I don’t like to have a dream and not be able to realise it. And so far all my dreams have come true, luckily, but I’ve worked my ass off for them. In the art scene I’m very young – not in terms of age, but my first video work was only six years ago. So I feel like as an artist I’m still a baby.

Matti Koskinen