Visual arts review: Creativity vs Destruction: Stories of Iraqi Art | Polarcap & Hyperground: Heavy Metal Mouth


THIS year's Venice Biennale contained a modest representation from Iraq. In among the furore of opening week at the art world's biggest jamboree, Iraqi artist Kadhum sat with his begging bowl and a notice which read "I need love". Whatever else it did, it said something about what can happen to art in a country which is being torn apart.

Around 80 per cent of Iraq's artists now live elsewhere (Kadhum is based in Milan), but many are still driven to explore events in their former homeland, as is shown in Creativity vs Destruction, a group exhibition of Iraqi art in Edinburgh that is part of the Reel Iraq Festival. The title pits creativity against destruction, but the work displayed suggests a more subtle relationship between the two.

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Hanaa Mal Allah, who is regarded as one of Iraq's foremost female painters, left Baghdad in 2006 under the Scholars at Risk Scheme which helps academics whose life or work is threatened in their home country. Her two large canvases, from a series called Vivid Ruins, are creative works born of destruction – canvas which has been burned, cut, patched together and pierced with threads and twigs. Hung in the middle of the Roxy's subdued, ecclesiastical space, they are both painful and beautiful.

In a small, darkened side chapel, she presents three smaller works, including a book in which the pages, though similarly damaged, show fragments of Arabic writing and patterns. They speak of the way a culture is destroyed by the looting of its artefacts and wrecking of its sites; how its sense of itself is reduced to fragments. This is complex, mature work, elegiac rather than angry – all the more remarkable for being achieved in the midst of ongoing destruction.

Wafaa Bilal takes a more confrontational approach. Arrested and tortured for his political artwork under Saddam Hussein, he now lives in the United States. He lost his father and brother in the most recent war.

In Domestic Tension: Shoot an Iraqi, an interactive performance work, Bilal lived in isolation for 31 days in a Chicago gallery where visitors – or viewers online via a 24-hour webcam and automatic setup – could operate a paintball machine to fire at him at any time. The response was immense, and polarising. More than 60,000 shots were fired, while a group of self-appointed "protectors" worked shifts online to point the gun away from him.

In the film shown here, he speaks matter-of-factly about that experience while dodging a barrage of paintballs behind a plastic shield. The work captures something of the sense of living under fire, while showing that interactive art, when it is done well, can do what good art has always done: make us understand something important in a new way.

Sama Alshaibi, an Iraqi-Palestinian artist who is now a naturalised American, uses her work to explore the complex issues which arise from her nationality. Her film Diatribes, which intersperses her own dialogue with US broadcasts from the time of the bombing of Baghdad, feels raw and unresolved – understandably so.

Her photographs use more oblique means. In her Birthright series, which focuses on Palestine, and Between Two Rivers, about Iraq, she uses her own body as a symbol of a country subject to damage.

Rashad Selim's installation injects a note of hope. He places a collection of atlases – the textbooks which shape our (often erroneous) view of the world – with a series of found images stuck on a piano. Next to a picture of smart-missile controllers are two images of men playing pianos in bombed-out buildings, one an Iraqi, the other a US soldier. Along with battered piano itself, they are potent images of creativity amid destruction.

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Contemporary art is sometimes described as self-indulgent, but the pressure of the political circumstances give the works in this show an urgency and vitality. Yet it's wrong to expect artists to produce answers; these are individual responses, each is the product of the artist's own experience and concerns.

Creativity and destruction crash together noisily in the aesthetic of heavy metal, which provides an unusual theme for Heavy Metal Mouth, a group show by Dunbar-based Polarcap, co-produced by Alexa Hare's Hyperground, and populating three floors of the former DSS offices in Torphichen Street in Edinburgh.

Not surprisingly, it's loud. Hard to ignore, aurally or in any other sense, is Rachel MacLean's film I Dreamed A Dream, turning a Susan-Boyle-ish appearance on a talent show into a metal-zombie-slasher fest. Meanwhile, Norman Shaw occupies most of the top floor with an installation of album covers in the shape of an inverted cross (what else?) and a sound work which patches together 666 "screams". Given Norway's propensity for heavy metal – much in evidence here – might this be an attempt to translate Edvard Munch's painting into sound?

Liz Adamson is more subtle with Slow Damo, slowed down footage of Krautrock icon Damo Suzuki, while Duncan Marquiss picks out a surprisingly lyrical moment of Led Zeppelin's video for The Song Remains the Same.

Other connections are more elliptical: Neil Clements's chief interest is in minimalism, but he has found a way of exploring it through the shapes of bespoke rock guitars; Japanese Masahiro Kawanaka makes clever pictures made out of cassette tape; Sacha Kahir riffs on the relaxation video, with one which is anything but.

However, ultimately there is a slight mismatch between heavy metal – all that noise, spontaneity, implied destructiveness – and visual art, by nature reflective, considered, often ironic.

Celtic Frost (Rannoch) is a film collaboration between Edward Summerton and Norman Shaw. Referencing music, joyriders and Joseph Beuys's Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch), they parked a car in a lay by on Rannoch Moor and filmed it playing Celtic Frost's Caress into Oblivion until the battery ran out (some 11 hours later). It is making a point about the pursuit of oblivion, of course, but it ain't quite rock'n'roll.

• Both shows until 12 July

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