When the Iraqi-Kurdish artist Hiwa K emigrated to Germany 20 years ago, he quickly found that 14 years of his work, influenced by the study of European Modernism and Socialist Realism, were of little relevance to contemporary art practices. Disillusioned, he gave up visual art and turned to flamenco under the Spanish legend Paco Peña.
Later, Hiwa was accepted by the Mainz Academy of Arts with a portfolio borrowed from a friend. With little interest in the curriculum, his aim was to question and challenge the Western art education system and carry out his own artistic projects emanating from engagement with other students and staff.
Hiwa calls himself an “extellectual”—someone who has gained knowledge from the streets, in coffee shops, through conversations and the exchange of books. Dialogue, learning and the dissemination of knowledge continue to occupy a central role within his practice.
Among his works are This Lemon Tastes of Apple (2011), a spontaneous performance that he staged amid violent protests in Kurdistan in 2011; and Moon Calendar (2007), in which the artist tap-dances to the rhythm of his own heartbeat, heard through a stethoscope, in Amna Suraka, a building notorious for hosting the interrogation and torture of many Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
His best known work is The Bell, currently in Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition All the World’s Futures at the Venice Biennale. The project came out of Hiwa’s encounter with a man named only as Nazhad, whose Iraq foundry melts down the waste of war. Eight years in the making, the work involves a dual-screen video documenting work with Nazhad in Iraq on one side, and the casting of a vast bell in a 700-year-old foundry near Milan on the other.
Hiwa is now working on a project for the Documenta 14 exhibition to be held in Athens and Kassel in 2017.
The Art Newspaper: Why did you choose the bell shape?
Hiwa K: Nazhad, the guy who melts the weapons, is the source of many of my projects. Through his work he has registered how many countries in the past 20 years have sold weapons to Iraq and Iran—and sometimes to both of them at the same time. He started off very poor and makes hundreds of thousands of dollars now.
The Bell is the second station of an ongoing project I am doing with Nazhad. But the form itself is not my idea, actually—you go to Wikipedia and learn straight away how the West was busy at the time of wars melting bells into cannons. So there is nothing special about the idea; I just reversed it.
Giordano, one of the two guys who cast the bell, had a teacher called Barigozzi, whose ancestor was a supervisor of cannon-making at the Arsenale [in Venice] in the 18th century. This ancestor had to flee Venice to escape the death penalty for political reasons. I only learned this story two months after we started the project as Giordano never mentioned it before. This story forms part of the videos surrounding the work.
It’s fascinating how the layers of the work meld together.
Yes, and sounds plays a crucial role in that. I come from a musical background, so sound continues to be an important element of many of my works.
If you studied music theory you will be familiar with the notion of vertical intervals in simultaneously sounding tones, such as a bell’s chord, and horizontal intervals in successively sounding tones, such as a melody. As melted metal is cast into the bell, the melody turns into the chord. So for me The Bell represents a rather beautiful alloy between the verticality of the intervals in the bell’s chord and the horizontality of the intervals in the melody of melted metal; between the statement of the object standing upright in the present moment, and time unfolding as the object melts away; and equally, between grieving, voiceless Echo (the numbed people represented by the mute, motionless bell) and self-obsessed Narcissus—the West exporting deadly weapons [Hiwa refers here to a YouTube video he found in which the philosopher Jacques Derrida explains the Echo and Narcissus myth, making a point about all speech being blind].
It’s important to stress that The Bell is not a message of any sort. Some people wrote about the piece saying, it’s a prayer, it’s a message of peace. It’s never a message, I don’t have messages.
You also introduced images of Assyrian gods, clearly referring to the ongoing Isil attacks.
Every bell they make in the foundry has some sort of decoration, mostly religious. In the first two months of the project Isis started destroying those Assyrian and Mesopotamian artefacts, so I thought, we need to register this event.
What we call Isis nowadays is very much made up by the West: the crisis we have with Isis is not something apart from the whole weapons industry that Nazhad is talking about, it’s completely the same. So I wanted to put the pieces back together.
In This Lemon Tastes of Apple and Moon Calendar you made works in traumatic places and situations. Why do you revisit events associated with pain and agony?
I am not thinking about why, I am thinking about how I do it. I am happy I can try to transform a place or a memory of an event by bringing a different way of seeing it. I have never liked to be behind the camera. If the demonstration happens, you cannot but participate. So, for me, actual direct engagement is very important. And sometimes it puts me in certain situations, as in This Lemon Tastes of Apple where Farouk Hardy, the guy right next to me, got shot. It can happen like this, but it’s part of the work: you survive or not.
The sense of unspeakable violence is strong yet subtle in your work.
I am somehow fed up with art which is overdosed with politics. It’s important to translate trauma into other forms and not to victimise oneself. I try never to be self-referential: it’s not about showing the wounds, and it’s not referring [to issues] with the index finger but with the pinkie.
In terms of your thinking and your art making, where is the focus of your attention—in the past, present or future?
My question is: if art keeps doing the same, will we survive the next 40 years? And I say no, we need to be more radical—within my own practice, as well. I don’t want to preach, but something very important has to be done, and it has to be done now. But, for sure, it’s not an individual act.
How do you find a balance between accessibility and profundity?
I am just using my own language. I am very happy when I make a presentation for my family, and everyone understands my works. You don’t need to read Derrida to understand my practice. Nowadays we are in an emergency and we need to find a very simple accessible language and to go and engage directly.
How do you make a living? Do you sell works?
They ask me, do you live from art? I say: “No, I die from it.”
• All The World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale, until 22 November, www.labiennale.org
Biography: Hiwa K Born: 1975, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq
Lives and works: Berlin
Represented: Prometeo Gallery, Milan
Selected solo exhibitions: 2014 Prometeo Gallery, Milan. 2012 Macro (residency), Rome. 2010 Serpentine Gallery, London 2007 Pergamonmuseum, Berlin
Selected group exhibitions: 2014 Here and Elsewh ere, New Museum, New York 2012 La Triennale, Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2008 Manifesta 7, Trentino-South Tyrol, Italy