Interview with Amin Alsaden (2020)
– What was your main intention behind this specific work? Would you say that it focuses on the so-called “civil conflict” in Iraq (i.e. violence between Iraqis), or the aftermath of the 2003 invasion (i.e. focuses more on the collateral damage of the war waged on Iraq)?
“Touching Reality” is – as its title says – about ‘touch-screens’ and the way we are engaging with reality throughout touching a screen with our hands. The reality in “Touching Reality” is represented by destroyed human bodies, by a lot of destroyed human bodies. “Touching Reality” is about how we go over this reality. “Touching Reality” is about us, humans, about human beings, it’s not about Iraqi-people, about American-politics. “Touching Reality” is about a human gesture – the hand touching a screen on which human destroyed bodies are represented. Nothing in “Touching Reality” indicates that the destroyed human bodies are belonging to a specific country or a specific event and in no text of mine you can find any indication to this. It is important to look precisely at the artwork, it’s important to have confidence on what you see, as me the artist gave clarity and preciseness to my artwork, and it’s important not to believe any commentary about the artwork, it’s important not to pay attention to any superficial critique and it’s important not to give confidence to the press-communication of the exhibition-maker. As artist I have to put clarity, complexity and engagement in my artwork and I take responsibility for it but I cannot take responsibility for the often stupid, cheap and superficial media-response or press-communication about my work of art. The war in Iraq is a disaster, as every war is a disaster, and – as every war – it’s an announced disaster. Already 200 years ago, Goya titled the fantastic series of work he made during the Spanish Independence War “Disasters of war”. My work is not about any specific war in Iraq. I have the ambition to work beyond this, I want to work beyond facts, beyond historical facts, beyond the actuality. The problem is: How can I give a universal form that asserts truth? How can I resist the dictatorship of opinion and of esthetical convention? How can I escape becoming a prisoner of social, of cultural, of religious, of economical particularisms? “Touching Reality” is a try for a response to those questions.
– It seemed to me that the work was largely about the optics of how war is represented — or, in this case, how certain representations are repressed or censored. But I understood it as a critique of how Western media represents the war, more than local Iraqi or regional Arab media. Would that be a fair reading?
I am doing artwork – I am an artist. I am not criticizing medias, I am not an Editorialist, I am not a commentary-maker. I am asking myself, and with “Touching Reality” I try to give form to the question: With how much easiness and non-concernedness do we go over representation of reality, and even more thanks to touch-screen-technology ? In today’s newspapers, magazines and TV news, we rarely see images of destroyed bodies because they are hardly ever shown. These pictures are non-visible and invisible: the assumption is that they will hurt the viewer’s sensitivities or only satisfy voyeurism, and the justification is to protect us from this threat. But this invisibility isn’t harmless. The invisibility is the strategy of supporting, or at least not discouraging, the war effort. It’s about making war acceptable and its effects commensurable, as was expressed by, for example, Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense (2001–06): “Death has the tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” But are there really any views of war which aren’t depressing? Looking at and showing images of mutilated human bodies is a way of campaigning against war and its justification and propaganda. Since 9/11, this phenomenon of invisibility has been reinforced in the West. Refusal to accept this invisibility as a given fact or as a ‘precautionary measure’ is why it’s important to look at such images. Therefore I wrote the text: “Why is it important to see and to look on images of destroyed human bodies?” (cf. here).
– When did you create it, and does it relate to previous work you produced?
I have integrated, since the very beginning of my artwork – around 1989/1990 – pictures of dead human beings in my work. “Touching Reality” which is from 2012 does not stand alone because I have always wanted to attain the complexity, the beauty, the violence, of the inseparable world, my world, our world. I always wanted to glue together, in a collage, the beauty and the violence of the world I am living in. This is my problem, this is my work, this is my mission. I remember that at one of my first group-exhibitions at ‘Shedhalle Zürich’, in Switzerland, 1992, someone from the “art world” asked me if I couldn’t do a work leaving out those images of destroyed human bodies, death and destruction, adding that, maybe, it would be more successful? That’s when I realized once again, as I have been ever since the beginning of my work, that as an artist you need to do what you think should be done, what only you think should be done, and what only you think needs to be done. I try to stay true to this.
– I know that you examined war as a subject, but is this the only work you have produced that tackles the Iraq war/invasion specifically?
I never did – I want to insist with it – an artwork specifically on one single war, I just didn’t. Not with forms, not in words. If – again – in the press-release of some exhibitors of my work there is a mention of a specific war – it’s an easy or superficial simplification. Perhaps its easier for them to ‘communicate’ about exhibitions this way? As artist, I have never made this and if somebody really looks on my work it is easy to understand. But of course, war, the wars, the wars of today, in my life-time are concerning me, are interrogating me, are challenging me – the artist who works today – more than the 2nd World war, the 1st word war or all other, thousands of thousands of wars, violences, injustices. Me, the artist who works today and who wants to use the tool ‘art’ in order to confront with reality, in order to face with the time I am living in and in order to encounter the surrounding world. Therefore I use the pictures coming from – as example – the gulf wars, because they are the wars I am contemporary of. My challenge and will with “Touching Reality” is: To confront the chaos, the incomprehensibility and the unclarity of the world, not by bringing peace or quietness, not by working in a chaotic way, but by working in the chaos and in the unclarity of the world. I want to do something that is charged and that, in its density, attains beauty. I want to work out of urgency. The images that I use in my collages are an attempt to confront the violence of the world and my own violence. I am part of the world and all the violence of the world is my own violence, all the wounds of the world are my own wounds. All the hate is my own hate. I have used and included pictures of mutilated human bodies -such as the ones shown in “Touching Reality”- for all times and more recently in works such as: ‘Superficial Engagement’ (2006), ‘Concretion’ (2006), ‘The Incommensurable Banner’ (2007), ‘Ur-Collage’ (2008), ‘Das Auge’ (2008), ‘Crystal of Resistance’ (2011), ‘Collage-Truth’ (2012), ‘Easycollage’ (2014) and “Pixel-Collage” (2016-2017).
– In the video, there is a hand that zooms in and out, or flips images. Is that your hand (i.e. are we to understand it as the artist’s hand)?
It’s the hand of a human being, it’s the hand of somebody who did it for me. I wanted to avoid the narcissistic comment of ‘artist’s hand’. I wanted somebody else to do it and if you are looking with attention you can see that it is a woman’s hand. Who does it is – to me – not really important. What is important is what the hand is doing and how the hand doing it.
– Most or all the images were still images if I recall correctly, and the only movement was that of the person navigating. Did you avoid film clips intentionally? Why only still images?
“Touching Reality” – as every artwork – owns its logic. As artist I want to give my very own logic. To decide its logic is an artistic decision, and therefore “Touching Reality” is a kind of ‘moving’ collage. If I am doing collage it means to applicate the logic of doing collage: Creating something new – a new world – with elements of the existing world. One element is the moving hand and the other element is the pictures stored in an ‘iPad’. To use film-material or other video-elements would make it too complicated, therefore it was important to use only two elements. I love to do collages, a collage is resistant; it escapes control, even the control of the one who created it. Making a collage always has to do with headlessness. I love Dada and the collages of the Dadaists; I love the beautiful collages of Hannah Höch and the grand “Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama” by Johannes Baader. I love John Heartfield and his work. He said “Use photography as a weapon!” A collage is charged and always remains explosive. I often stand dumbstruck before it, and as an artist, in particular, it is a matter of enduring this “looking dumb”.
– If I recall correctly, something about the scale of that hand vs the images makes the viewers get the impression that the images were being viewed on an iPad or a similar device. Does the specific device matter here?
Yes, I am interested in the suggestion the use of ‘iPad’ is making. I am interested in the easiness, the coolness, the non-implication that the use of an ‘iPad’ is proposing, or provoking.
– Did the scale matter here? Did this have to be a projection the size of an entire wall, or could it have been viewed on a smaller monitor?
Scale matters, scale matters very much. Please take also notice of the “Touching Reality”-exhibition-conditions I worked out and I always send with the artwork or before the artwork is exhibited (cf. here).
– Where did you get all these gruesome images from? Did you have an assistant or associate who searched Arabic sources for you?
They are images of ‘destroyed human bodies’: This is the name I use for this kind of pictures. I do not use terms such as ‘gruesome’ – I try to avoid terms of journalists or politicians. I found them on the internet. Myself or my assistants searched those pictures. Most pictures are visible exclusively on the internet – which is an interesting point – regarding the contemporary schizophrenic capacity of being informed and knowing the facts, but at the same time not wanting to see the reality of facts and to look at the real information : Blood, flesh and tears. These pictures are pictures of the world, of our world, of my world – pictures of today. The pictures of human beings, of dead people, of destroyed bodies are part of our world. Art production is not only fun, not only glamourous and not only fashionable – not only ! I want also to work and to struggle with what is non-positive and the destroyed bodies are a testimony of this non-positive.
Pictures taken from newspapers, magazines or more recently from the Internet have always been one of the materials I work with, for collages but also for other works. I use them either as material – integrating them directly into my work – or as “References” to remember some specific details or elements that I refer to in my work. Most of these pictures are taken by witnesses and have a status of testimony. Their origin is often unclear and unverifiable, there is no source and this unverifiable provenance reflects today’s uncertainty. This is what I am interested in because I want to affirm the world in which I live and I want to affirm also the negative side of this world. I affirm the world in which negativity is also shown and in which the hard core of reality, of negativity is not bracketed off. I want to show also this hard core. I want to turn towards the negative; I do not want to be cynic or a cunning devil. I do not want to look away. I want to be attentive and I want to create a new world alongside and in the existing world. Therefore to see pictures, to look at pictures of destroyed bodies matter to me. Looking and seeing is what matters, and not ‘knowing’ or being ‘informed’, because today how can one ever ‘know’ and how can one ever be ‘informed’? That’s why the context or circumstances of pictures do not interest me; I am rather interested in the pictures as such.
– Was it your choice that the work should not be photographed by the public during the exhibition? Or was it the museum’s choice? Either way, why was that decision made?
This was a decision from the museum, according to their ‘principles’. I don’t – as artist – agree with the principle of: “Warning”. Sometimes my will is respected, sometimes unfortunately not : I am always fighting and unfortunately often losing this battle against specific ‘Warning’. My proposition is: If the museum-institution wants to be ‘covered’ they could do a ‘Warning’ at the entrance of the museum – even before the museum-shop – a “Warning” saying: “Art can, art must, art should hurt you!” I am against distinction between artworks, this kind of false self-distinction of artworks which ‘hurt’ and others which ‘do not hurt’! I am against a comfortable and luxurious oversensitivity or hyper-sensibility, it’s just not compatible with art, real art! These over- and hyper-sensitivities have to do with self-protection and with self-enclosure, perhaps with narcissism, but not with art and surely not with confrontation throughout art. There are so many people in the world who don’t even have the choice to be sensitive or not. I am for sensitivity but when hypersensitivity and oversensitivity become a way of excluding problems, I do not agree. I don’t agree, not only about the personal reaction of oversensitivity, but also because these small personal reactions are corrupted by the political reaction [in whose interest it is] not to show these kind of images. With the will to avoid big questions, questions which concern us all, questions that could be aroused by pictures, oversensitivity and hypersensitivity turn into reactionary attitudes and incapacity to act. As artist, I am not alone, we have today, more and more, to confront the hyper-power of security and safety and we have to struggle for our own logics, materials and forms. It has even reached to the point that security and safety rules tend to influence the form and the aesthetics of works of art. I sometimes ask myself whether the cleanliness and space suitability of some artworks aren’t what they are just because they comply with all the security and safety regulations. But as artist I believe in the positive part of: ‘Art can hurt you’. I really want art to hurt, to move, to change, to transform me! I really want to be transformed by art and I want my art to transform the whom who is implicating with. As always, I need grace, and grace, in art, comes from the strength and courage needed to create something despite its precarity, despite the precarity of all things, including of life itself.
– Were you concerned about the potential ethical issues involved in using found images of victims, especially that these were primarily Iraqi civilians, and many of these images were taken and circulated without consent?
As a human being I am concerned by the ethical question of the destruction of another other human being. Again, I do not know on what is based the idea that in “Touching Reality” most of destroyed human bodies are Iraqi-people. It is not serious – on the base of the experience, the real experience of “Touching Reality” – to assert this. In my work, I want to confront the complexity, the over complexity of politics with philosophy, with love and with form itself – through simple forms. Defending form, the form in general, is the deeply warlike act, the very condition to establish oneself as Actor, as Artist. These images are not here to declare who is the victim and who is the oppressor because each wound is my wound, each war is my war, each violence is my violence, each injustice is my injustice, each sorrow is my sorrow, each death is my death. I want to touch what can’t be touched. I want to invite people not to turn their eyes away from the non-positive. The world is only entire when it possesses all components. I am interested in the healing power of art, therefore my interest in the artwork of Emma Kunz (as reference the work: “Superficial Engagement” I made in 2006) or the writing of Simone Weil. I understand the healing power of art in the experience of art, in the dialogue with art or in the confrontation with art as an action. Art is not a medication that can be used passively and art is certainly not medication you can buy. If I use the tool of art actively, and if I am ready to engage in the experience of art, then art can cast a new light on reality and can then change the world. This is – as artist – my mission.
– When the work is viewed, the viewer assumes that these are real images. Does the veracity matter? Would the work be compromised if all those depicted were actors, mutilated bodies produced by a film-industry specialist?
All images are real images, but they are only images, they are representing a reality but ‘fake’ pictures represents also reality: Fake-reality. Therefore I am working exactly with the images I am working with in “Touching Reality”. These images come from the world around us, they come from the absolute neighborhood, from the internet. These images don’t tell us the “truth,” they are not there to inform. “Touching Reality” is not about actuality, I am not a journalist, I do not want to inform – I give form! I give form as an absolute artistic necessity. The necessity is to look at the world as it is. Nothing is un-showable, nothing is not to see. The only thing which cannot be shown is what has no form. If something owns no form you can’t show it! But everything in our world that is form is showable and viewable, even when incommensurable. To me nothing is ‘commensurable’ or ‘non-commensurable’ and no one can – for me – make a choice what should be commensurable or not to me. Everything is important, everything can have its importance, nothing is unimportant. We entered – I entered – into the “post-truth world” because no more information, no more fact, no more opinion, no more comment, no more photograph, no more picture, no more caption, no more explanation can be taken – today – for granted. To know it, to agree with it – not by approving it – means to enter in the post-truth world. Beyond this, I do know that Truth appears beyond concealment, non-information or counter-information. It is necessary to make a difference between ‘the Truth’ and ‘Truth’. I am interested in the purity of ‘Truth’, I am interested in Truth as such, I am interested in art as Truth. An artwork is ‘Truth’ – an artwork does not tell ‘the Truth’. To illustrate this: The “Black-Square” of Kazimir Malevitch is Truth. In contrary the journalistic ‘Truth’ as the verification of a fact does not interest me. Truth is not the verifiable conclusion or the true information. Something ‘wrong’ can be Truth, something ‘right’ can be only a verified fact. Belief in Truth as such is something essential. Therefore I place Truth at the same level as Universality, Equality, Justice.
“Touching Reality”, sketch, 2012