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Reza Abdoh’s Theatre of the Absurd

A retrospective of the late Iranian-American director at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art shows society in ruin

‘Unqualified filth!’ Father screams to no one in particular during the opening scene of Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman (1991). What unfolds over the next 90 minutes is a systematic inventory of pretty much everything you should avoid at dinner: violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia, addiction, desperation, more violence and, of course, lots of cock. Father is, after all, a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover. Set in a squalid reconstruction of an apartment complex, the characters are outright caricatures, and the frantic dialogue feels like crossfire as the action jumps from room to room. Cuts come at a blinding pace; tone remains gleefully sordid: Dara Birnbaum does William S. Burroughs on stage.

But what starts as a jarring barrage of obscenity is quickly replaced by that peculiar mix of boredom and morbid curiosity that keeps you aimlessly flicking between channels late at night. Returning to Bogeyman now, more than 25 years after its stage premiere, it doesn’t seem like Abdoh was interested in shocking us out of our complacency in the face of deep-seated societal hypocrisy, as some suggested at the time, but bringing us closer to it.

Reza Abdoh, Bogeyman, 1991, video still, installation view at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy: Adam Soch and the Estate of Reza Abdoh; photograph: Frank Sperling

The current exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art is devoted to Abdoh’s late work, although ‘late’ is something of an exaggeration here, as the Iranian-American theatre director died of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 32. Abdoh was averse to having his work performed after his death and was even reluctant to circulate documentation during his lifetime. But, thanks to the efforts of his long-time collaborator Adam Soch, there is no shortage of the latter. Given that Soch has also made much of the documentation freely available online, the curators – Negar Azimi, Tiffany Malakooti and Babak Radboy of Bidoun magazine, alongside KW’s Krist Gruijthuijsen – seem keen to explore the possibilities of collective spectatorship.

Pride of place goes to Bogeyman, presented as an immersive, four-channel video installation projected onto the ceiling and one wall. There are three large beds that visitors can snuggle into as they stare upwards, with the chance constellations of bedmates offering unexpected moments of intimacy. The rest of the first floor is peppered with videos of early works and backstage footage, presented on tiny CRT televisions in a tame nod to the multimedia onslaught of Abdoh’s sets. (Tight Right White, 1993, perhaps Abdoh’s most acclaimed and offensive work, is shown on such a television, which seems a wasted opportunity considering most visitors were content to spend mere seconds with each and ignore the provided headphones.) The second floor conforms to familiar exhibition conventions, with large-scale projections and only one bed. Luckily enough, it’s positioned in front of The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice (1990), a chamber drama that, while boasting its fair share of screaming, feels almost staid in comparison to Bogeyman. At some point, the play’s patriarch, Captain, promises to cure the eponymous heroine of perversion by boring the desire right out of her.

Reza Abdoh, Quotations From a Ruined City, 1993, video still, installation view at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy: Adam Soch and the Estate of Reza Abdoh; photograph: Frank Sperling

Bracketed by two exhibitions of work by David Wojnarowicz and Frank Wagner, both of whom also died of AIDS, Abdoh’s plays are framed by reflections on loss and memory. Yet, for all the spectacular turns of his own biography, his plays refused to illustrate them. If anything, they serve less as a reminder of his ailments than of the society that ailed him: the rightful object of Abdoh’s scorn was US president Ronald Reagan’s administration, while the violence of his work dissected the sanctimonious union of big business, family values and unrepentant militarism that remains the bedrock of US policy to this day. But his was a realism that rejected the psychologized interiorities of Henrik Ibsen in favour of a scathing ‘objectivity’ along the lines of George Grosz. When, in 1994, the critic John Bell questioned him about the politics of Quotations from a Ruined City (1993), Abdoh retorted: ‘I believe that one has to not be a victim.’

‘Reza Abdoh’ runs at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, until 5 May 2019.

Main image: Reza Abdoh, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, 1990, performance documentation, Sigma Festival, Bordeaux, 1992, photograph: Patrick Veyssière

Stanton Taylor is an artist and writer based in Düsseldorf. His show together with Tobias Hohn, ‘Reproduction (Coins = Smile = Food = Cry)’, runs at Galerie Max Mayer, Düsseldorf from 16 November – 21 December, 2018.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019
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