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No giving up, no lies: Hiwa K

INTERVIEW! Berlin-based Kurdish Iraqi conceptual Hiwa K confronts capitalism and Kurdish existentialism in "Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet" at KW. Catch it before it ends August 13.

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Photo by Sarhang Hars

Berlin-based Kurdish Iraqi conceptual Hiwa K confronts capitalism and Kurdish existentialism at KW.

The 42-year-old artist, who moved to Germany as an asylum seeker 17 years ago, is known for powerful installations and video works that combine his personal history with larger political issues. Through August 13, the KW exhibition Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet presents a selection of his work from the last 10 years and a new video installation, The Existentialist Scene in Kurdistan.

What inspired your new project?

We had an existentialist scene in Kurdistan in the 1970s and 80s, influenced by thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Camus – it was a reaction to the Soviet influence of the 1950s-60s. My question was about the difference between the existentialist understanding of the free individual, which is attached to discipline, and the neoliberal economic notion of the free individual, where you don’t have the same responsibility – you can consume as much as you want. As Naomi Klein says, Iraq is a neoliberal project. The Kurdish people in northern Iraq are pro-American and pro-capitalist because they want to live the same way that the West is living, and they don’t know that’s not possible.

You’ve also mounted older works at the exhibition, like 2015’s The Bell – a massive bell made from melted-down weapons. Why a bell?

First of all, I want the viewer to hear the sound of it. It is a beautiful bell, and it is a beautiful tone. To get this deep sound you need 21 percent tin and 79 percent copper. I asked Nazha, an entrepreneur from Kurdistan in Iraq, to extract it. He buys weapons from the American army and melts them down to sell them the metal to other countries. I got 300 kilos of the metal cubes from him and brought them to a foundry near Milan to make this bell. There is no message behind this work, but you get the story from many perspectives. Nazha is in the position of the blind slave who is listening, who is more ear than a voice.

That wasn’t your first attempt to combine art and sound. You studied flamenco guitar, right?

Yes, in 1998, after 14 years, I stopped making art as such and decided to start studying flamenco with Paco Peña. Actually, one project I have been trying since 2010 is called “Flamenco Guitar Lesson with Paco Peña and Tony Blair”, because Paco Peña has been teaching Tony Blair flamenco guitar for 20 years. I approached Paco and asked if he could give me and Tony Blair a lesson for 45 minutes, and he agreed, but said that I’d have to convince Tony. We tried, and he rejected my request two times.

At last month’s Documenta in Kassel, you showed a video installation that reflects on your own journey into Europe 20 years ago. What’s your take on today’s refugee crisis?

Kassel is a city where, just a few kilometres away, they produce tanks and weapons and they send them to Iraq and Syria. It is important to talk about the refugee situation in a general way, as opposed to a personal way. It’s an outcome of a capitalist system which is not functioning and has to produce wars and export them to survive. I’m not interested in being sentimental about the child who lies dead by the shore. We need to talk about the people who cannot even afford the luxury of getting drowned in the sea.

Is this art’s role – to take a political stance?

I think this is a very urgent issue. We are living in a moment when a stance should be taken – right now. Unfortunately, in the last 40 years or so, artists haven’t done anything, besides decorate the façade of the capitalistic system with a varnish of democratic colours. We’re living parasitically from this system, even as we criticise it. So I feel pessimistic about what I am doing, whether it’s making any difference. If the situation keeps getting better for the elite and worse for the majority, we artists are probably doing something wrong. I don’t give up, but I don’t lie to myself either.

Hiwa K, Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet. Through Aug 13 at KW Mitte