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The Black Tower – Nat Muller

Walid Siti’s oeuvre is characterised by a subtle, almost understated, poetics and politics of form. At first glance it is not apparent that his works, defined by abstract landscapes and geometric and architectural structures, draw from his own lived experience of exile and loss. Yet it is the sub-text of repression and conflict – tempered with the human capacity for resilience in the face of adversity – that continues to drive Siti’s practice. Born in the Iraqi-Kurdish town of Dohuk and living in London since 1984, by way of Baghdad and Ljubljana, his journey through art is informed by his journey though life. Siti’s drawings, paintings and sculptural installations speak as much of mourning for a homeland that is forever lost and for the carnage that envelops the Middle East, as they speak to a longing for betterment, however bleak the prospects. It is no coincidence then that a recurring visual trope in his work is that of towers, ladders, stairways and mountains. Whether it is a reference to the majestic mount Zawa that frames the rugged landscape around Dohuk or the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, the suggested climb upwards in never a naïve or easy one. Moreover, it is one fraught with hardship and peril. In Siti’s works the mountain or tower is never a monolith, rather it is rendered fragile, always constructed by fragments that challenge its monumentality.

Named after the 2016 sculptural piece The Black Tower, this eponymous solo exhibition premiers new works by the artist and presents installations that respond site-specifically to the gallery space in the Goethestrasse. The Black Tower is a relative small work size-wise, however it consolidates the curatorial and artistic premise of the exhibition at large, and functions as its interpretative lens. Inspired by the splendid spiralling cone of the Malwiya Minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, built in 851, Siti’s piece shows us a collapsed tower lying on its side, coated in thick black paint and no longer erect. Its distinct architectural features can still be discerned. From this broken tower bursts a violent tangled chaos populated by plastic toy soldiers, like a parasite consuming and overpowering its host. Nevertheless it is unclear whether this new reality born out of the wreckage of an old order will prevail, nor what this new era is. As with so much of Siti’s art there is an open-endedness to it and it is precisely the ambiguity between ruin and hope that directs the tone of this exhibition.

The Black Tower is a timely piece in the light of the devastating destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria by ISIS. It forcefully reminds us how in the quest for power fundamentalist ideologies erase history, memory and anything that hints at difference. Out of this pain Siti has fashioned a wounded object that is also one of beauty with the ability to move us profoundly. The Flag (2016) and Rupture (2016) are two other sculptures that share an aesthetic and thematic with The Black Tower. In the former we see the remnants of what might have been a flag; its pole sticking out and its fabric, heavy in its tattered blackness. It is devoured too by a messy and aggressive organism of spikes and toy soldiers. It is unclear, however, whether this miniature army is fighting for flag and country or whether they are being defeated by the very idea of nationalism, or any other type of –ism for that matter. In these works it seems that we are presented with the relics of a certain type of identitarian iconography, in which adherence to a flag, a nation state, a historical and cultural heritage has all but collapsed. This breaking point is perhaps best symbolised by the work Rupture that shows a different kind of tower, prickly and pierced with shards of glass.

The dark cloud of authoritarianism is implied ominously in Siti’s work. Being a Kurd in Ba’athist Iraq, Siti has suffered first hand the discrimination of a totalitarian nationalist regime. He has witnessed from exile the bloodshed and the many wars that have engulfed Iraq. In the ironically titled Wheel of Fortune (2016) a mechanised wheel of barbed wire filled with toy soldiers turns and turns. The tiny soldiers are occasionally flung out of the wheel. A soldier’s life is expendable, even if not made from mass-produced plastic. Here the industrial-military complex is represented as a self-reproducing mechanism. Survival in war becomes a cruel game of fate, a lottery of the flesh. Siti has said of this project that in war “flesh is cheap like the plastic material made in China. There is a never ending supply”.[1]

In the past few years Siti has increasingly turned to barbed wire in his drawings, paintings and installations. He notes that he explicitly started using it for a 2013 show titled Crossing in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan. In that particular show he wanted to emphasise the physical and psychological difficulties of movement across territorial and other borders. Barbed wire is par excellence a separator between inside and outside and functions simultaneously as a deterrent, as well as a protector. It aggressively divides reality into two dichotomous realms: that of the aspirational and that of the prohibited. This duality is poetically articulated in the wall-mounted barbed wire and ladder installation Rite of Passage (2016). Here rows consisting of short pieces of barbed wire alternate with rows of tiny white ladders; together they form a stairway of curbed ambition. These oppositional materials, one that stops you in your tracks and one that encourages you to move, illustrate again Siti’s interest in how these two existential spheres collide.

More darkness is found in the large floor piece A Wasteland (2016), a honeycomb structure that looks like a geographic map. In this maze there seems no way out. Moreover, the installation resembles an organism that is spreading and spilling out and is multiplying itself and its territorial expansion. Smothered in thick black paint as if it were oil, this apocalyptic and abstracted wasteland is a barren force of destruction. Much of the work in the show is black, which resonates with Siti’s training as a printmaker, but also stresses his conviction that now is a time of polarisation that allows for little grey. Despite the carbonised look and scorched earth sensibility of the piece, a closer look also reveals how meticulously and patiently Siti has crafted this installation and its repetitive arabesque-like motifs out of cardboard. His artistic mastery, ever so subtly, counters the total gloom of the actual piece.

In the exhibition the grim, dimly lit room of A Wasteland is contrasted with a room flooded with bright daylight exhibiting the more hopeful works in this show. Its centrepiece Joined Ladder (2016) is a white floor-to-ceiling ladder that consists of smaller ladders. Its open-ended structure starts broad at the base and becomes narrow at the top, suggesting a joined effort by all the components. It looks fragile yet there is a sense of determination about it. The roles of the collective vis-à-vis the individual are questioned through the installation’s form. Here too it is unclear whether the ladder, which seems to be sprouting through the ceiling, is stunted or facilitated by the room. In Siti’s work prospect and freedom are notions to strive for, yet they are never an easy given. A large crayon and acrylic mural frames Joined Ladder. Based on a sketch, here the original vertical sketch has been flipped horizontally and is applied directly large-scale to the wall. A tower is transformed into a fence; ascent has turned into a barricade. Accompanying these two works is a pigment print that shows a close-up of a photograph the artist had taken of a cliff in Kurdistan. The image is overlaid with an open-ended white staircase that, similarly to Joined Ladder, starts broad and grows narrower. Befittingly titled Passage, this print merges the abstracted landscape of a homeland with a symbol of movement, escape and possibility. It is as much a document that expresses a longing for home and roots, as it is a declaration of – artistic and intellectual – independence. While Siti’s Kurdish origin is important for him, he also admits that it is “a network, which provides security and stability on the one hand, and entrapment on the other.”[2] It is this friction that has provided for an interesting conceptual starting point for his work. As an artist Siti navigates these crossings with sorrow and wishfulness, but always with a generosity of spirit.

In the end Siti’s art is one of construction, no matter how uncertain the times. To underline this we have also included fifteen of his working sketches that shed light on his artistic thinking process. Jotted down quickly in black marker or more detailed with crayon and paint, they are ideas and studies for installations and other works, some of them realised, others in the making. Drawn on brown packing paper and creased from hanging in his studio or kept in a drawer they divulge the formal building blocks of Siti’s oeuvre. In each drawing a form can be isolated: a square, a rectangle, an oval, a cone. Together they make up the architectural grammar of Siti’s visual language.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II and a week before his death, the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats wrote his last poem titled ‘The Black Tower”. It is a poem about an oath-bound band of soldiers who do not forsake their guard even if their king is dead and they have become irrelevant in the new era. Yeats was himself not a stranger to conflict in his native Ireland; in these verses he not only foresees his own impending death, but in it we can also read an omen for the ruination fascism would bring to Europe in the coming years. Walid Siti’s exhibition The Dark Tower is a sombre statement in sobering times that are starting to resemble Yeats’ Europe of the 1930s on a global scale. Nevertheless, Siti still offers us a ladder, a staircase, a thing of beauty and of the imagination, for a way out that looks increasingly slim.

[1] Skype conversation with the artist, 22 November 2016.

[2] Nevenka Šivavec and Mojca Zlokarnik. Eds. Walid Siti. Ljubljana Personal. Alternative City Guide. Ljubljana: Artwords, 2012. P.39

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