Hiwa K, View from Above, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 12 minutes 27 seconds.

Hiwa K, View from Above, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 12 minutes 27 seconds.

Hiwa K

Hiwa K, View from Above, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 12 minutes 27 seconds.

One of the stronger works on view in last year’s Documenta 14 was When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017, Hiwa K’s installation consisting of a stack of large clay drainage pipes. In one pipe—each had a diameter of roughly three feet—viewers found a used washing table; in others, an unmade bed, some furniture, and daily utensils. The work evoked an absurd housing project for refugees. The artist, who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan, fled his native country during the Gulf War of 1990–91. Traveling by foot through Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, he ended up in what became his new home country, Germany. Since then, he has returned to Kurdistan several times. On one occasion, in April 2011, he participated in a protest march in Sulaymaniyah, his hometown. Activists and journalists shot copious footage of the event, and Hiwa K later edited this material into the video This Lemon Tastes of Apple, 2011.

On display in Hiwa K’s exhibition “Moon Calendar,” this video shows the artist playing the well-known theme music from the film Once upon a Time in the West (1968) on a harmonica, accompanied by a guitarist. Ennio Morricone’s simple melody takes on the power of a protest song and seems to boost the enthusiasm of the ever-growing crowd. But then, at one moment, you feel that there is something going wrong without exactly knowing what. It becomes clear that the civilians are being attacked by soldiers with tear gas. One protester after another starts coughing and vomiting. They use sliced lemons to help limit the painful effects of the gas, which smells like apples—hence the work’s poetic title.

Closer to the European context is the Kafkaesque story told in View from Above, 2017, which was also seen at Documenta. Its subject is the interrogation faced by refugees who seek asylum in Europe. To prove they come from an unsafe area, they are often asked to describe the place in minute detail. Hiwa K tells the story of an Iraqi deserter who tries to gain asylum but is unable to answer the interrogators’ questions, which are based not on daily life, but on a bird’s-eye view of his town: The officials know its structure and street layout as seen from the air, not the horizontal perspective the refugee experienced. Denied asylum, he then asks other refugees where they came from and starts to study the maps of those locations. By memorizing a city’s structure, he is able to obtain a residence permit.

In Moon Calendar, 2007, the performance that gave the exhibition its title, Hiwa K tap-dances on a street in Sulaymaniyah in sync with his heartbeat as he hears it through a stethoscope. While we hear the clacking sound of Hiwa K’s tap-dancing performance, in the background another sound is present: Pile cranes and breakers are busy transforming what was formerly the notorious Amna Suraka prison into a museum of war crimes. The artist’s modest gesture becomes in this context something of an exorcism, the cleansing of a tarnished place. Taking on heavy topics such as the refugee crisis or Iraq’s history of authoritarianism, Hiwa K does so in a very personal and indeed musical way that became apparent here despite its having been somewhat obscured in the last Documenta’s overwhelming emphasis on topicality.

Jos Van den Bergh