The Punch Line of Wafaa Bilal’s “Lovely Pink”Posted: October 22, 2015
On a small pedestal stand two even smaller statues– part of the newest additions to the Stamp Student Union’s permanent art collection — a Barbie-pink David eyes a slick and shadowy Perseus. Both in casual stances, weight shifted to one side, seeming to bear little burden under the objects they grasp, the two figures could be catching up at a cocktail party.
My immediate question inquires the depth that such a seemingly playful visual experience can deliver. In simpler words, why are these, what could be easily mistaken for toys, here? It’s an off-shoot of a much larger question every piece in any gallery, museum, or exhibition, entails about the significance of its featured work, and a question that contemporary galleries continually struggle to simultaneously answer and leave open.
But perhaps the better question is, why does one imagine this comical scene when viewing one of Michelangelo’s greatest gifts to humankind, and Cellini’s illustration of a deeply harrowing moment in Greek mythology? What is the source of the humor seen here? Was it intentional, and if so, why?
In all honesty, any humor that comes from how the pieces are positioned on their shared pedestal is likely beyond the artist’s intentions. The two statues were initially placed facing towards each other, so that Perseus holds out the decapitated head of Medusa towards David, each other by the gallery’s installation crew: a light-hearted reference to Medusa’s ability to turn humans to stone with just a gaze. However, I believe these included, certain pieces from the series present a whimsical air even when isolated.
My initial reasoning for the humorous thread to the two works is the size of the statues, perhaps a more startling deviation from the original works than the bold colors with which they’ve been coated. David stands at nearly seventeen feet in L’Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and Perseus with the Head of Medusa stands at about ten and a half in the same city’s Piazza della Signoria. In The Stamp Gallery, they stand under twelve inches, closer resembling items from a tourist’s kitschy souvenir collection than great artistic and cultural icons of the classical Western era.
And yet, something small is not without beauty — miniature artwork is an emerging practice that offers scrutiny of the world with just as much conviction as its larger-scale contemporary counterparts. And yet, it seems that the Lovely Pink series does not offer its message through details, as smaller works often do, but in the opposite: a deliberate obscurity.
Much of Wafaa Bilal’s work as of late has seemed to play with the disconcerting experience of assumptions, by way of subtle images with a subsequent bite. The photographs that comprise his Ashes Series (one of which is also joining The Stamp’s permanent collection, and is currently on display in The Stamp Gallery) appear to merely capture structures of Iraq’s destroyed buildings; they are in actuality, shots of miniatures of buildings that Bilal created and destroyed himself, and then covered with a dusting of human ashes.
Similarly, the petite statues of Lovely Pink are not wrapped in plastic, acrylic, or any other cheaply traded material, as I and many others first derived from their synthetic color and texture. David and Perseus are shrouded in shrink wrap and crude oil: two Iraqi resources that have historically pushed competitive markets into imperialistic ones. And the effect is just that: a shrouding of details. Bilal’s Perseus does not hold the head of Medusa, he holds a deformed, dripping mass.
Ironically, these materials have great financial value, and yet, they strip the two classical works of art that they coat of their original cultural, artistic value.
Is this Bilal’s civilized form of vandalism? A lesson in the mechanism and art of destruction, like The Ashes Series may be? Or, does he offer commentary on the value systems that humans construct?
Like the touch of humor that David and Perseus present, these questions explore elements of Bilal’s work that I and any other viewer can only speculate upon. What is the overall visual effect of Bilal’s unusual, unexpectedly pointed, choice of materials to create the Lovely Pink? A cartoon-like, “puffed” appearance to the figures that demotes these objects to a lesser degree of power than we have attributed to them throughout history. The punch line of these pretty little mocks is a dark, maybe uncomfortable one. In more than just a physical sense, Bilal is practicing the act of belittling.
When contextualized, I have come to understand that Bilal’s message resonates deeper than simple material experimentation, or art history banter. These pieces come from an artist deeply affected by the destruction of more than just public and personal property by ISIS presence in Iraq. Throughout his career and within projects arguably more controversial than that presented in The Stamp Gallery, Bilal’s voice is one riddled with a sense of dark hum
or towards humanity, but, it is one of both unapologetic passion and conviction as well.
Perhaps, then, Bilal’s playful presentation of global criticism is the bite of Lovely Pink, and it’s anything but sugar-coated.