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Sandee Moore
Wafaa Bilal at the Dunlop Art Gallery
May 17, 2017

Progressing from the violence of the internet-connected paintball gun that made him famous, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal's solo exhibition at the Dunlop Art Gallery consists of two poetic and constructive bodies of work on loss, both personal (his brother was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq) and institutional. The eponymous title of the exhibition, 168:01, is also the literal and symbolic heart of this show. Evenly spaced and standing straight as pickets in a fence, the books ranged along this installation’s monumental shelves are blank, inside and out. Knowledge is also a victim of war, Bilal reminds us. The numbers in the title reference a 13th Century invasion of Baghdad when books from the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) were tossed into the river to form a bridge for an invading army. Ink bled from the pages for 168 hours.

Wafaa Bilal, 168:01, 2016, installation (photo: Frank Piccolo)

More than a pale gravestone marking recent instances of the destruction of cultural property, the artist is using this work to rebuild the library of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad. Visitors can purchase a new book from the university's wish list on and receive one of Bilal's white volumes in return.

The austerity of 168:01 contrasts with the accompanying photographs of barren public spaces and ravaged opulence in The Ashes Series. Light streams dramatically into these scenes from holes in walls and ceilings or through windows and arched doorways. Objects and buildings are thickly dusted with grey ash – twenty-one grams of human ash, the label explains. Close examination reveals something uncanny: the improbably coarse weave of a striped pillowcase or the clumsy proportions of crystals trimming a chandelier present too great an accretion of detail. Created in miniature, these scenes are at once creepily unreal and alluring. Bilal, like the patient of a child psychologist, enacts his trauma through dollhouse play. Bereavement is depicted indirectly, just as the weight of the human spirit, said to be twenty-one grams, can only be weighed indirectly.

Dunlop Art Gallery:
Wafaa Bilal: 168:01 continues until June 25.

Sandee Moore is a nationally exhibited artist, arts administrator, and occasional art writer. She can be followed on Twitter @SandeeMoore.



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