Interview with Walid Siti – Padiglione Iraq – 54th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia
The examination of how the inanimate survive, and its shifting place and engagement with the local imagination is the ongoing subject of Walid Siti’s current installation work. Siti, who has long identified and used the mountain (as a central point of Kurdish identity) to derive his painted mediations on the intersections and formations of collective history and personal experience, here takes a tactile approach to water.
While these particular pieces mark a break from land to water, Siti continues to use highly identifiable, natural landscapes as a point of inquiry and accessible engagement through the familiar. From the northern city of Dohuk, Siti has lived in exile in London for decades. The relationship of familiar and foreign, precious and turbulent, is a common prescription of “the artist in exile,” yet it brings a particular focus to Siti’s work. The thing that cannot change, that will always be recognizable (the mountain, the river) becomes a means through which to dismantle and reconfigure seemingly immovable myths as well as economic and social constructs.
Though the mountain has been replaced by the river (in this case the Great Zab which flows through Erbil region and joins the Tigris, there remains the awe and grasp for connection with something immovable, immune from extinction or change. Immunity from change, however, is a dangerous expectation, and in Iraq, changes affecting lived and built environments have been taking place through volatile cycles of de- and re-construction marked by struggles for power and control of resources.
The Great Zab river that rises in Turkey, flows through area near Erbil, and join the Tigris, was first seen by the artist while flying into Erbil. The curves of the Great Zab, still flush with water, moved in live warning to the static, dried out riverbeds and streams that once grew from it. Visible even from the air, these emptied reminders of a once active network of waterways belie the wistful imagining of a mountain or river as a timeless constant.
In “Beauty Spot,” Siti continues his work (initiated in the 2006 installation, “Handle with Care!”) on the monetization of natural resources and national landmarks in Iraq. Here, the monetization of a landmark is literally and explicitly made, not originally by the artist but by the Iraqi government, whose currency now features the Gali Ali Beg waterfalls on its 5,000 Iraqi Dinar Note.
Gali Ali Beg, made up of seven waterfalls, is a popular tourist destination. When its waterfalls ran dry specially in summer due to a drought, the Kurdish government enlisted a company to pump water into the falls. The measures taken to restore the falls to its “natural” state were unique considering the nation’s ongoing water crisis, and the lack of funds that have been directed towards reconstituting water resources for public use.
The projection of the Ali Beg onto the 5,000 Iraqi Dinar Note is an illusion of water, and part of the façade of an Iraq manufactured by the government and printed on its currency. Here, Siti presents in full color and sound the manufacturing of a reality that no longer exists for mass consumption as an acknowledgment of the monetization of collective identity, and the propaganda that enables it.