Lida Abdul
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A Question of Defense
in Lida Abdul’s ‘Military/Body’

The agency of domination does not reside in the one who speaks (for it is he who is constrained), but in the one who listens and says nothing; not in the one who knows and answers, but in the one who questions and is not supposed to know. (1)

Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence; truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom. (2)

In today’s volatile climate the term defense is the new black, a fashionable idiom used and abused along the longitudes and latitudes of the political stage. Defense is the haute couture that dresses the lives of the privileged and the elite as a highly desirable maker for status which is reflected within its extortionate price tag: $humanity multiplied by the power of infinity. Defense is not readily available, albeit, it does promise a life enhancing, satisfying, and truly memorable experience for those who are fortunate enough to be granted access to this sought-after acquisition. For these individuals, defense is about the preservation of dependency at whatever expense; with no questions asked and no stone left unturned, payment in flesh; and make that a double if necessary. Just remember one thing: this isn’t war, this is defense.

From one political realm to another, Afghan-American performance artist Lida Abdul from beneath the guise of sealed lips, fixed eyes and a constrained body re-enacts the silent body wounded by the defense of others in her video performance ‘Military/ Body,’ 2004. This piece was produced upon return from Afghanistan after two decades of separation, a brutal invasion, the rise and fall of a proxy regime and two unjust wars. The artist had witnessed first hand the repercussions of defense upon the ironic face of a nation bound and gagged by its own defenselessness and exclusion.

Within ‘Military/Body,’ activity occurs with the accompaniment of a soundtrack of army sirens and the sound of helicopters.(3) All the while the body remains inactive and exposed. Abdul stands motionless whilst hundreds of small plastic toy soldiers, all of which are masculine characters, and army planes fall from mid air covering the artist’s body. All the while Abdul stares expressionlessly at the lens of the camera, her body is present, under attack, but she consciously chooses not to fight back. Abdul does not defend herself but retains an astonishing stable and secure position despite being subjected to an obvious state of siege.

Abdul’s unspoken body represents the silent body that has often been termed as the ‘silent majority.’ Abdul portrays the bodies of the countless others who have been made speechless, but have formed new and abstract modes of non verbal communication which suggests that the silent majority is not so still anymore. Abdul does not confess her anguish, though she remains deafeningly and blindingly verbal and powerful. Her narrative reflects the body in a state of trauma and exile dislocated from the mind, which nonetheless retains a sense of control and freedom. Thus, implying that the standard mode of confession is not the one and only viable method of telling the truth. In the work of Abdul, it is the body that candidly speaks and acts as a witness to history and movement. It is the artist’s body that defends this right.

Sara Raza

(1) Michel Foucault ‘The Will to Knowledge, The History of Sexuality'

(2) Ibid.

(3) Some versions of ‘Military/Body’ have sound track, ‘Defense’ curated by Lauren Hartman does not feature this.