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...and Counting

[Wafaa Bilal. Photo by Brad Farwell.] [Wafaa Bilal. Photo by Brad Farwell.]

Sabah Mustapha Ahmad / Ahmed al-Fahel / Ahmed Subhi al-Fahal/ Ahmad Subhi al-Fahl / Waddah Saadi Saleh al-Obeidi / Brothers of dead man / Daugther of dead couple / Wife of Dead man / Daughter of dead couple…and Counting: Failure and Loss in Wafaa Bilal’s Body Modification Work.

In Wafaa Bilal’s recent performance, …and Counting, the artist utilizes tattoo art to document the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis killed since March 2003, which marked the start of the US-led invasion in Iraq. Over a twenty-four-hour period, tattoo artists methodically rendered the names of Iraq’s major cities in Arabic script on Bilal’s back, and embedded 5,000 red dots to symbolize the American death toll. The next stage of the work imagined 100,000 dots, representing the estimated number of Iraqi deaths, distributed across his back in invisible ink, which would be rendered visible only in ultraviolet light. In this project, Bilal endeavored to enact and embody a monument that captures the significant loss suffered in Iraq since 2003. It was an effort that ultimately failed. In the course of the performance, only a fraction of the total deaths were marked on his skin before the pain became too great and his back too inflamed for the patiently inked renderings to appear. Bilal’s performance imagines and articulates an impossible task: restaging the monumental loss of life in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Of his own project, the artist reflects, “I didn’t want to create another physical monument that’s going to be abandoned after a few years or few months, a few days maybe. And how do you remember a human being that’s been killed by an aggression? And what I wanted to do, I wanted to create that monument, one I could carry it with me. [sic]” Bilal’s performance, which renders onto his back the loss of untold lives by a fraught democratization project, evokes an open-ended and incomplete expression of mourning through his very failure to contain the immense number of deceased; it is in fact continual and unceasing.

The performance stages an uneasy tension between the scale of loss in wartime and the methodical tattooing of dots on a single body. The artist’s attempt, and subsequent failure, is manifest in two ways. First, there is Bilal’s inability to codify the totality of deaths within the conceived time frame of the performance (twenty-four hours). Second, there is his body’s failure to contain the massive number of dots denoting the lives lost since 2003.

Each dot embedded onto Bilal’s back marks a single loss, even as it captures the felt pain associated with an individual’s death and the immeasurable loss to their community. This attempt to toggle between the loss of many by way of a single reiterative sign (the dot) risks obfuscating and eliding the multiple, varied, and nuanced encounters with violence perpetuated by Iraq’s transitional state. Efforts by the United States to install the rule of law, draft a constitution, and install protections for human rights sustain a cycle of brutality by codifying violence as the necessary short-term response against threats to state security. The specific security mechanisms installed in Iraq, and the rhetoric that perpetuates an understanding of the war as one intended to “combat terror,” appropriates violence and normalizes the massive number of deaths in Iraq to fulfill neoliberal notions of peace. As such, statistical claims on the loss of lives become a measure of the regime’s success in containing violence, while violence becomes the basis for securing the nation. These are claims that Bilal undermines by attempting to stage the impossible task of capturing the lives lost.

Can there be a form that stands in for or signifies the multitude of lives lost? How does the body of a single man make sense of such death? The inability to memorialize death, a powerful theme in Bilal’s work, is echoed in Jacques Derrida’s “The Deaths of Roland Barthes. In this work, Derrida grapples with the impossible task of hailing a dear friend lost. Derrida reflects on the inherent challenge of capturing the death of just one person within a singular narrative. Rather than attempt to eulogize Barthes through a teleological model, Derrida underscores the need for uncertainty. It is within this expansive topography that Bilal’s project attempts to stage the impossible, which becomes a rite of mourning in and of itself. The pain of loss, in no way analogous to the physical pain Bilal takes on, operates as an affective link that braids together the massive scale of the deaths in Iraq with its very irreconcilable nature.

The massification of bodies, embedded on flesh as single dots, denotes the multiplicity of death and the ongoing process of recalling the deceased. Of the multiple deaths of Roland Barthes, Derrida asks: “How to reconcile this plural? How to concede, grant, or accord it? And to whom? How to make it agree or bring it into accord?”[1] In Derrida’s missive, the act of writing fragmentary and incomplete thoughts represents an attempt to reconcile loss by continually revisiting and resignifying the presumed site of death, his lost friend’s name. In containing the site of loss and multiplicity of being within a single name, Derrida offers us a vocabulary to approach such a failure to frame and contain loss as a robust and generative modality.

In his performance, Bilal invites audience members to read out the names of those who were lost while the tattoo artists do their work. In this manner, …and Counting coheres the labor of a multitude to contain and grapple with these statistics and the pain such ruptures cause, to render the performance, and in effect loss, legible. Such participation expands the possibility of the body beyond a singular autonomous form and invites the audience to participate in the very failure they are witnessing.

Capturing death—whether of one, as Derrida attempts, or one hundred thousand—is an impossible feat. Rather than try to arrive at a coherent conclusion, the performance offers viewers a path to approach and identify with such monumental loss. In this way, Bilal’s inability to mark the totality of the official numbers of deaths onto his body also critiques the validity of those numbers, and gestures toward the immeasurable trauma enacted by thirty plus years of totalitarian dictatorships and violent rule. It offers a critique of such quantitative measures, and points to the failure of statistics to truly map the extent of trauma and loss. Bilal’s act of inscribing dots attempts to reclaim visibility for the lives that were both lost and effaced in the course of the war. For the United States, the numbers reflect progress, a quantifiable method to continue to legitimize the war. We cannot consider the violence wrought on Bilal’s body, and the politicized aesthetic project it undertakes, without also reading it within the United States’ “liberatory project” in Iraq.

The notion of taking on pain subverts the torturer paradigm the United States has set up in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, whereby bodies are constituted as threats through the very violence rendered onto them. Bilal, in past and contemporary works (including Domestic Tension and 3rd I, among others), takes on pain as an affective world-making project. Here the connection between the body, pain, and inscription offers the tattoo dot as a written sign that tells the story of an ongoing (unending) loss of human life. The pain Bilal takes on as a result of his body modification project contests the construction and attendant subjugation of terrorist bodies by the neoliberal state. Violence and pain, for Bilal, effectively reveal the relationship between the body and a broader social apparatus; those perceived as a threat must be dismantled through violence. By taking on and embodying pain, Bilal acknowledges the ways in which the state is implicated in censuring/enabling both his work and the clear legibility of lives lost.

This performance, by giving us access to torture and pain via the realm of the aesthetic, allows us to glimpse potential and proposed contestations to the state’s pernicious hold on bodies. The affective braiding of pain, embodiment, and relationality offers up a strategy rooted in performance that is not simply about re-presenting violence, but rather one that imagines an alternative to the present that lies in the social. The labor of tattooing, of collectively reading out the names of each recorded individual murdered, produces a scarred body that vibrates with an eerily beautiful glow of the dots marked in UV ink meant to signify the invisible deaths of Iraqis. This excess subverts the state’s hold on the body by transforming the very neoliberal processes that call for either complete failure (that is, the body perishes under the impossibility of its task) or a successful attainment of its goal. We can never attain a complete monument to loss, or reconcile the loss of a multitude of lives in the Iraq war,

Bilal’s performance reveals that aesthetic processes associated with pain and loss can engender political idealism, and this transformative potential of performance effectively dismantles notions of violence as merely destructive or simply rooted in negation. Bilal’s meditation on death contests the telos of mourning and the way in which closure can create a sense of resolution or end point to the violence perpetuated by the US-led intervention.  By bringing in a live public audience, as well as an extended internet audience via live streaming, Bilal asks each of us to consider the scale of deaths in the Iraq war, and the impossible task of marking them all. We are all implicated in this failure, as Bilal’s ritualized telling of trauma opens up a variety of avenues and inroads to consider about the landscape of death in Iraq, and the continuing impact on Iraqi society.


[1] Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003), 35

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