Irrespective of what they may convey or symbolize, Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s artwork being displayed at her exhibition titled No One Harms Me …, (March 12-May 3) at Experimenter is certainly very striking visually, and compelling as well. And even more so as the media she uses are diverse — from the strong and the durable to the delicate and the fragile. Kaabi-Linke is from the city of Tunis, where mass protests in December 2010 touched off the Arab Spring, which has become a byword for popular movements against oppressive regimes. Tunis also brings to mind the ancient city of Carthage and its history, which is melodramatic on an operatic scale.
Kaabi-Linke’s two large exhibits that occupy most of the space in this tiny but neat gallery bristle with aggression, literally and metaphorically, although, ironically, (typical of this artist) they are associated with repose and rest.
Parkverbot (Looted Art) is the largest and most noticeable of all the exhibits basking in the spotlight. It is a harmless bench but woe betide anybody who tries to sit on it. For its surface is a forest of spikes that reminds one of hair standing on end, a furry caterpillar viewed under a microscope, a prickly pear, a porcupine, or a bed of nails ideal for a yogi (this is not to suggest that it is jokey), and it is impossible to sit on it. This piece of street furniture that holds the promise of relaxation turns into an object that is quite as menacing as any medieval instrument of torture. This is typical of the artist, who does not think twice about bringing together stark opposites such as violence and beauty and delicacy and brutality that has a streak of sadism — a trait that runs through all the exhibits.
The contradiction between comfort and cruelty becomes even more apparent in No One Harms Me Unpunished, which is a spring mattress that has, instead of upholstery, a bed of thorns, quite literally. This one is even more lethal than the spiky seat, for the mattress is layered with dry thistles that look quite inviting and fragile, like dried hay. But actually this could have a deadly effect. It is a classic case of the beautiful, scented rose whose stem conceals a thorn.
According to the gallery handout, the title is borrowed from the insignia of the Order of the Knight of the Thistle and from emblems from the Scottish regiments of the British army. And the beastly bed is an obvious extension of the phrase.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of impact and size are the imprints of hair in black and white and white on white and the series on the impressions of wounds resulting from domestic violence on glass plates. Kaabi-Linke has a talent for avoiding direct depictions of violence. The traces it leaves behind are what matter to her most, and they add poignancy and strength to her body of work. These are not sensational like the two large works. They are subtle — almost insubstantial — for here she is trying to depict something that is related to our tactile sense than to our vision.
In Torn and Ripped, she had taken impressions of strands of human hair that stretch across the width of the paper creating prints similar to a cardiogram with their nervously wavering lines formed by stray unruly tendrils. There is another set where the impressions of hair have not been inked. These are visible only when held at a certain angle against the light, and bring back to mind Somenath Hore’s Wounds series. In Kaabi-Linke’s work, the violence is only implied. One does not get to see an actual gash.
In Impunities, she eschews depiction even further. The impressions of scars on glass slides are as muted as the clouds of moisture left on a windowpane when one has breathed on it on a winter morning. She has scraped out all extraneous information to produce a concentrate of pain.
That Kaabi-Linke’s work defies classification is proved by the inclusion of The Short Story of Salt and Sun. It is a largish canvas that carries the impression taken from a wall exposed to the sea in Tunisia. It is an intriguing piece of work as it could have been the handiwork of a cartographer mapping the sensational history of Tunisia. One finds this perception of violence provocative and disturbing.