View of “Bani Abidi,” 2019.

View of “Bani Abidi,” 2019.

Bani Abidi

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, and Bani Abidi possesses the uncanny knack of driving this dictum home more vividly than almost anyone else. Her sources are news reports and human-interest stories to which she lends a twist, spotting the absurdity in these situations and weaving fictional narratives around them. Her single-channel video An Unforeseen Situation, 2015, for instance, is based on a series of mass events organized by the Punjab Ministry of Sports in 2014, in which multiple world records were ostensibly broken by Pakistanis. Abidi focuses on the patriotic fervor displayed by a youth who aspired to enter Guinness World Records via the eccentric act of breaking walnuts with his head. But she also injects a subversive note, conjuring up another story line in which Pakistani citizens were bribed by the state to take part in a record-breaking feat of collectively singing the national anthem—a project ultimately doomed to failure as the crowds thought better of turning up. Nearby, a suite of watercolors, The Man Who . . . After Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man who flew into space from his apartment, 2016, depicted both real and invented characters—among others, a man who clapped for seventy-two hours and another who split hairs. “Absurdity is rife all around us, in the way political realities are unfolding across the world,” Abidi says in the exhibition catalogue. “I think it’s quite poignant to be able to laugh at what we bear witness to. There is a certain agency in laughter”—which must be why her show was titled “They Died Laughing.”

The works in the exhibition, created by the artist over two decades, interrogated notions of nationalism, imperialism, and state-ordered mechanisms of control. In early videos such as Mangoes, 1999, and The News, 2001, she ridicules the rivalry and one-upmanship displayed by the neighboring countries India and Pakistan. Gesturing critically toward a heightened neoimperialism in Pakistan, Abidi persuaded a band of local musicians to play the unfamiliar American national anthem in the two-channel video Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner, 2004, with comical results. But Pakistan’s alliance with the US in its “war on terror” has not been without repercussions, as is evident in the beefed-up security measures in the country’s cities. Abidi held up the various forms of barriers and checkpoints for scrutiny in a set of twenty-six ink-jet prints, Security Barriers A-Z, 2008–19, which emphasize formal aspects, such as structure and color, by unmooring these objects from their normal surroundings.

Not all the works in the show put the accent on Abidi’s acerbic wit. The textual component of the poetic soundscape Memorial to Lost Words, 2016, mounted in the rotunda of the Gropius Bau, is based on intimate letters written by Indian soldiers who were conscripted and shipped to Europe by their British colonial masters to serve in World War I, while the evocative music that rippled through the space drew from Punjabi folk songs of the sort that would have been sung by the women they had left behind. Though some of Abidi’s recent works—such as The Lost Procession, 2019, a video focusing on the persecution of Pakistan’s minority Shiite Hazara community—adopt a documentary format, the most compelling ones were those in which historical truth is spliced with orchestrated scenes, complicating the boundaries between fact and fiction. The strategy is all too appropriate to our post-truth world.