This art review responds to Aziz Hazara's audio-visual work Bow Echo, exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney, 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia. Considering anechoic chambers and stifled sound, this review explores the individual experience of warfare in Afghanistan. By metaphorically associating natural storms with military devastation, this review pays close attention to the mechanics of tone and the choreography of movement within the video work. Overall, Hazara artfully merges digital technology and installation design to create an affecting environment in memoriam of lives lost.
In 2020 Aziz Hazara’s artwork, Bow Echo, was suspended mid-air in the centre of a large exhibition space at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Installed in the form of a pentagon, five screens create an enclosing theatre that audiences duck under in order to enter and view the work. The film itself depicts five boys blowing on cheap toy bugles in the foreground, with the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, in the misty background. The toys emit a shrill sound that is intermittently blocked by a windstorm blowing against them; the gale so strong the boys struggle to stand upright on the boulders, falling into neighbouring panels to catch their balance. From the outset the artwork does not appear to be immersive, however, it becomes so through the choreography and sound. As the audience views the video work they too find themselves being directed by the wind, turning and catching the gaze of each individual boy as he moves from screen to screen. Halfway through as a drone sound slowly starts to build over the viewers, signalling to them that an oncoming threat is coming, they watch the boys continue their attempts to play the game (Fig. 1).
Debuted at Nirin, the twenty-second Biennale of Sydney in 2020, Bow Echo is a multimedia installation made by Aziz Hazara. Hazara was born in 1992 in Wardek, Afghanistan, and presently moves between the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul, as well as Ghent, Belgium. Concerned with issues of conflict, memory, and identity, Hazara responds to the phenomenon of suicide bombing in the artwork by metaphorically associating a natural and unavoidable storm to the unending warfare in Afghanistan. A Bow Echo is a type of storm that verges on tornado and the radar echo of the winds move in an arc, causing severe devastation to a city in a short period of time. The differences between these two phenomena are the storm eventually passes, yet even after the Taliban successfully took over government in 2021, suicide bombing has continued to occur. Known as a common cost- and time-effective method of waging war, suicide using Improvised Explosive Devices is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of terrorist groups. The artist refers to living in Kabul like being in a horror game, where the sounds of self-immolation are just as much a part of the industrial landscape in Kabul as car horns beeping and trains passing and the context’s language normalises simple mathematic equations to be worded as, “One bullet plus one bullet, equals two.”Despite the artwork first forming in 2018 at Campbelltown Arts Centre, the tragedy is the artwork’s concept speaks to events today.
The frame of each screen is empty as the film begins, with the windy peaks of a mountain in and the city of Kabul in the distance. One by one the boys appear on a rocky platform and it is once they do the strength of the wind is noticeable because of how difficult it is for them to stand up straight. Although it is challenging and they are unable to sustain their balance, the boys blow on cheap-looking, toy bugles. The hypocrisy of toy weapons and military paraphernalia produced by Western manufacturers is they are distributed in Kabul, where the real versions of these toys are not playful, but lethal. As the four minutes of the film’s running time passes, the boys swap and move between each other’s mountain podium keeping the intention of the game and blowing on their whistles. The boys do not appear to show any clear emotion apart from mild concentration, and as the work ends they slowly start to disappear from the frame.
Where the visual elements of the artwork are subtle, Hazara manipulates the element of sound to elicit a dimensional quality bringing the audience closer to the people of Kabul. Developing sound as form of memory, Frances Dyson distinguishes the similarities and differences between producing sound and producing language in her chapter, “Resonance Anechoica and Noisy Speech,” from the book The Tone of Our Times. According to Dyson, the creation of sound and noise from within the body is part of language that is sometimes recognisable as speech. Yet, with no direction from interior to exterior sound that originates from inside a subject can be indecipherable. With no apparent listener the sound suffocates and strains inside the throat, resulting in a sound that is more of a strangled or echoing cry. Hazara adopts this phenomenon of sound that does not reach the potential of fully realised utterances into the artwork, as the boys’ cries are metaphorically siphoned through the plastic toy and henceforth drowned out by the droning soundscape and howling wind despite their best efforts to be heard. The surround sound produces a reverberation in the audience’s bodies, affecting them with cries of distress. The dramatic crescendo of sound, therefore, provides the artist with a tool that encourages Western audiences to empathise with the reality of children who live a life of war (Fig. 2).
The immersive and affectual qualities of the artwork are further emphasised by the installation of the artwork on five screens in a pentagonal shape, opposed to simply a flat screen. The size of the screens is designed to loom up around the audience, creating a visceral experience that situates one in the eye of the storm. During the film, the boys switch between screens changing between the rocks they originally stood on. This choreographic decision orchestrates the circulating movement of the audience, conducting them to move like leaves in the wind and transforms the audience from stationary observer to active participant. Hazara acutely foreshadows danger as well as positioning viewers to experience what it is to be at the whim of something greater with little consciousness or autonomy to change the oncoming threat of what is larger than they are.
Nirin proposed that creativity is an important means of truth-telling, of directly addressing unresolved anxieties that pervade our times and ourselves. If we aim to address these anxieties by knowing the world by what we see, then how the world is framed may be as important as what is contained within that frame. Hazara’s five-panelled screen in Bow Echo, acts as a ribboned window that gives its audience an affectual perspective of Kabul and the memories of lives that were lost there and is a harrowing reminder of the forces that continue to threaten the people there today.
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Carlisle, M. Bow Echo: surrounding memories of loss. Digi War 3, 154–157 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42984-022-00057-2