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After Surviving Marathon, Curator Revisits His Exhibit About War

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Wafaa Bilal "Piano," 2003-2013. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Wafaa Bilal “Piano,” 2003-2013. (Courtesy of the artist.)

BOSTON — Not quite two weeks ago, curator Ian Alden Russell opened an exhibition of photographs of models of bombed-out buildings by the Iraqi-raised, New York-based artist Wafaa Bilal at Brown University’s Bell Gallery in Providence.

“One of the things Wafaa’s project has always focused on,” Russell says, “is how can I slow down and resist the numbing effect of the mass syndication and reproduction of these [news] images of destruction so I can actually think about and understand what they mean for me and the way I am with other humans in this world.”

After Russell ran the Boston Marathon Monday, Bilal’s art would take on added resonances.

“I was really lucky. I ran a really fast race. I ran a 3:32. So I came in about 2:15 p.m., 35 minutes ahead of it,” Russell tells me the day after the marathon.

After grabbing some water and his bag, a volunteer with the cancer charity for which he was running to raise money escorted Russell over to their post-race recuperation zone at the Boston Marriott Copley Place.

“So I was there. And I was just sort of relaxing. And it percolated through the room that something was going on,” Russell says.

A pair of bombs had exploded near the finish line.

“I had two friends and my girlfriend supporting me. And my two friends were literally at the spot of the first bomb. My girlfriend was right across the street from them,” he says. But luckily after he’d finished the race, they’d left to find him, before the bomb blasts. “If I had run a slower race, I don’t even want to think of it.”

Russell says, “What was really weird for me was I was there, I was a block away, but I learned about it by looking at a TV. When my girlfriend went down to get our bags from hotel storage, she said the whole place was full of police. It was intense. It was really, really crazy. We were there, we were locked down, right next to the scene. None of our phones could get a signal. Our only source of information was the TV, where they kept replaying the footage of the blasts. Eventually they evacuated us, and we just got out of Boston as quick as we could.”

A policeman stands in a deserted Boylston Street, at Arlington Street on Tuesday morning. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

A policeman stands in a deserted Boylston Street, at Arlington Street on Tuesday morning. (Joe Spurr/WBUR)

He finally got back home to Providence late Monday night, feeling confused and sad. “I’ve got guilt for being safe,” he says. He felt angry that he and his loved ones had been targeted. He was angry at the violation of the civic, public, peaceful democratic assembly that is the marathon.

“But obviously there are people who don’t have that feeling and don’t see this event that way,” he says. “I want to understand what that perspective is. Because I need to. I want to make the world be a world where this never happens again. And if that’s opening up to something that these people are saying that they need to say then I want to hear it.”

As he tried to go to sleep, he also thought of the faces of all the kids he’d high-fived as he ran the 26.2 miles. Any one of them could have been 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester, who was murdered by the blasts.

And somewhere in there Bilal’s photos took on new resonance.

Wafaa Bilal is best known for his 2007 performance “Domestic Tension”—sometimes referred to as “Shoot an Iraqi”—in which he spent a month in Chicago gallery in range of a paintball gun that visitors and online viewers could fire at him.

In 2003, Bilal began collecting news photos of sites in Iraq blasted by war. He recreates them as miniature models, which he then reproduces in photos.

“The Ashes Series,” on view at Brown through May 26, offers eerie scenes of blasted streets and palaces, empty of people, with light shining in through holes ripped through walls and ceilings. Bilal’s images look real and yet there’s something off about them, something about the scale, the lack of people, something is not what it seems. And of course it isn’t.

In building these models, Bilal, who lost a brother in the Iraq war, seems to be trying to go home again, to howl in outrage at “the aftermath of atrocity,” to recreate and reconcile the Iraq he knows with the ravaged war zone documented by news photographers.

Wafaa Bilal "Chair," 2003-2013. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Wafaa Bilal “Chair,” 2003-2013. (Courtesy of the artist.)

“Wafaa’s images have always felt to me very haunting,” Russell says. “And there’s something about the smoke in the still photographs of what happened in Boston that is equally haunting. There’s all these photos of the empty finish line. There’s no runners. There’s no supporters. It’s an empty bandstand. And some wreckage. Maybe there’s two policemen or something. And those are the exact same type of historical images that Wafaa has used in his works in ‘The Ashes Series.’ And seeing those photographs was really quite difficult for me. Specifically because the marathon is so much about people. It’s about the people. So the removal of people after the event, I found that really affecting.”

Tuesday Russell says, “When I woke up this morning, of course I was tired. I was going to come into work, but I asked my boss if I could take the morning. So I slept some. Then I just really got sucked into numb space, just e-mailing people to tell them I’m okay and all that stuff. Then I had a meeting with a student at 2, and I decided that I’m not going to let this break my commitments. That is not acceptable. I’m not going to stay at home and be traumatized and have that affect more people. I’m going to a memorial service tomorrow night, and I’m going to be part of how we move forward. I’m not going to have this make me do less. Because that’s not okay.”

He revisited the Bilal exhibition when he returned to work.

“For me, the show helps me make a little more sense of everything,” Russell says. “And not in the sense that it makes it okay. It definitely doesn’t make it okay. But it makes me feel a little less alone in some of the feelings I have.”

Police and investigators examine the area around the finish line of the Boston Marathon on an empty Boylston St, in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Police and investigators examine the area around the finish line of the Boston Marathon on an empty Boylston St, in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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