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Exploring "The House of Osama bin Laden"

The Imperial War Museum in London is showing works by a British artist duo who covered the aftermath of the Afghanistan war. DW-WORLD spoke to one about the trials of making art in a former war-zone.


Black Hawk helicopters in Eastern Afghanistan, part of the exhibit by Langlands and Bells.

If war-inspired art evokes images of Paul Nash’s First World War oils or Picasso’s terrifying Guernica, the Imperial War Museum in London is the next place to watch for art emerging from wars in the 21st century, notably the last U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

That’s where Ben Langlands and Nikki Bells, London’s famous minimalist conceptual art duo, are showing the results of their two weeks spent travelling around Afghanistan in October last year armed with still and digital video cameras.

Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to research the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the pair roughed it out in terrain familiar mainly through television images. They visited the headquarters of the multinational peacekeeping force, ISAF, in Kabul, the U.S. airbase in Bagram, the murder trial of a notorious war commander and the site of the massive Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in Bamiyan.

"We tried to keep an open mind when we went there, but even though we had a superficial idea of what it would be like from accessing media in the west, we were shocked by the daily reality with which people live there. This is one of the things we’ve tried to express in our work," Ben Langlands told DW-WORLD.

The House of Osama bin Laden

The work in question consists of an assorted collection of interactive digital installations, films, photographs and digital animation. The exhibit that’s likely to grab the most attention is an interactive digital model of a former house used by Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, in the late 1990s.

"The House of Osama bin Laden" allows visitors to move through three rooms made of earth and stone, an external kitchen, a bunker built from used ammunition boxes filled with stones and a small mosque used by the most wanted man in the world.

Much like in a video game, viewers can manipulate images using a joystick and even wander through tranquil surroundings that include a lake in the mountains west of Jalalabad. Langlands and Bells took hundreds of photographs for the digital model of the small house, occupied by local Afghan militia at the time.

The interactive model has a surrealist quality as it appears recently deserted and gives visitors the impression that Osama bin Laden could appear at any moment behind the rusty pick-up trucks or ammunition boxes outside the house.

Artist Langlands says that bin Laden could well have been plotting the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in the very same farmhouse.

"If we think of architecture as kind of symbolic language, this very simple group of structures in remote Afghanistan is an entity so far removed from the twin towers -- in fact it’s the complete opposite. This farmhouse with its mosque and bunker has a kind of strange simplicity and beauty," he says.

Langlands is not worried about making bin Laden a hero or fueling the mystery surrounding the secretive terrorist through his artwork. "It’s a natural human inclination to want to understand a bit more of the mystery. He’s (Osama) is a kind of quasi-mythic figure already, a kind of pimpernel -- here one minute, gone the next, we don’t know if he’s alive or dead."

He’s sure that the fascination with such a elusive person who is still a dark presence in the West’s collective consciousness is what will interest people in his work. "We all want to go to a place where a famous or infamous or notorious person has lived, to stand in the spot where they stood, have the same view and see if you can discover what makes who they are," he said.

Finding the global connection

Veering away form militaristic images and the pathos of human suffering, Langlands and Bells instead set upon approaching their subject at three different levels.

"We reflected the human dimension at a local level, the almost quasi-mythological dimension personified by bin Laden and at the global level, we focused on the NGOs," says Langlands.

Elaborating on the latter, Langlands spoke about how the pair was struck by the plethora of aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over Kabul, who moved in as the media moved on. "There were so many of these organizations, 120 international and U.N. agencies, 150 local NGOs. In a way it seemed to us like the other side of the coin of globalization with NGOs from all over the western world -- it almost felt like a kind of neo-colonization."

Taking inspiration from a previous project that used the acronyms of the world’s airports, Langlands and Bells took hundreds of photographs of the signs displayed by the various NGOs to advertise their presence.

These images are now shown as a slide sequence and an animated film where the acronyms of one aid agency blend slowly into another -- CARE becomes HOPE becomes WIN becomes ECHO. It’s a work that speaks volumes about the massive international NGO industry that silently slips into place in places of need and changes the dynamics of communities.

The human dimension of war

One of the few works by the London-based artist duo that does show staggering human pain and injustice and the human dimension of war is a silent five-minute film called "Zardad’s Dog".

It shows live footage from a five-hour murder trial of a notorious Afghan commander at Kabul’s Supreme Court. The title of the piece was the nickname of the accused, Abdullah Shah, who served in a militant faction. He is believed to have earned his chilling sobriquet for savagely biting travelers who passed his territory before murdering them.

Langlands say that the atmosphere in the courtroom was charged and tense with armed soldiers nervously standing around.

Artists, not "war artists"

Langslands doesn’t want to be know as a war artist, not even an unconventional one. "We see ourselves as just artists, who volunteered to go and work in a situation. When you go to a place where you’re witness to the consequence of terrible events, you can’t do that without being complicit to a certain degree. I think it’s just a more extreme version of the same situation really that most artists are in," he says.

"We’re not going to another war zone, unless we really want to," he said. "We’re just going to carry on with our work as artists, but I think it was an interesting journey of exploration and a challenge."

The exhibition "The House of Osama bin Laden" is showing at the Imperial War Museum in London from April 10 to May 26, 2003.

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