Media is big business in Iraq. For decades Iraqis had to rely on a handful of strictly controlled state newspapers and TV channels. However following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 over 300 newspapers were launched (although many shut down) along with 50 TV channels thanks to the lifting of the ban on satellite dishes.
According to a study by the Arab Media Forum, total TV penetration of Iraqi households stood at 80 percent in 2011 making television an influential medium. The study found that in 2012 Arabs spent over three hours a day watching television, a slight increase from the year before. Due to the continuously unfolding political events one can assume that a significant portion of viewers tune into news channels.
Television news in the Arab world is a crowded space with over 500 TV channels in total. It may be the only region in the world where foreign powers compete so vociferously for viewers. In addition to the numerous national news channels there are a number of private channels, as well as pan-Arabic news channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. A number of foreign governments have launched Arabic language news channels in order to inform and/or influence Arab publics such as Britain, France, Turkey, China, Israel, Iran, Russia and the US. With so many conflicting messages no wonder many people in the Arab world are left a tad bit confused when it comes to news coverage.
For Immortals, Iraqi-Finnish artist Adel Abidin has chosen to employ the classical and familiar medium of painting to depict a 21st century industry. "The idea decides the medium" he says, "I didn't see any addition from my side in depicting video by video or any other medium, in only painting I can discuss this issue, as I wanted to zoom in on the
mics and enlarge them, as they are the only element in the formula of manipulation which is always there, rather immortals here. I wanted to find the details among them, allowing my subconscious to connect what's missing and the spaces between, maybe bringing them to life with act of a hand". And so Abidin has gone back to the essence of art, a medium he had almost abandoned a dozen or so years ago.
It is not uncommon to count several dozen TV microphones during press conferences in Iraq. Microphones have become a status symbol. A symbol of prestige. The more important the politician the more TV news channels would show up to his (and it is invariably a male politician sadly) press conference and the more microphones would be placed on the podium.
JTV news channel correspondents jostle for a space to prominently display their news channel microphone. Location, location, location. It is cut throat industry competition where visibility is king. As a result microphones have first started to appear with colorful stickers that then became little boxes and most recently ever expanding sponges. The most serious TV news channels have stickers, cubes and sponges. The decking out of TV news channel mics is not unlike pimping motor vehicles. The star of the press conference isn't really the speaker, the star is the mic. It's as if other mics are there to listen to the most prominently placed microphone amongst them and not to the politician.
As a result of this strict competition between news channels the colors of these mics have become brighter, the sponges bigger, their positioning ever so higher. Closer; closer still; as close as possible to the speaker.
"Lollipops" Abidin calls them. "They're like candy". Indeed, eye candy.
And yet, it is almost as though there is an inverted relationship between the size of the sponge and the performance of the channel. In this case, performance is measured by accuracy and objective news coverage. The media personalities depict themselves as prophets who relay a higher message. Speed of delivery and placement of the TV news channel mic are supreme.
Mics have repeatedly featured in Iraqi contemporary history. One incident during a press conference in 2004 saw a US general in Iraq faint as his head slowly tilted and rested on a microphone. On a more serious note an Iraqi journalist recounted an incident when he was briefly abducted by masked men at the height of the insurgency. He said, "I asked them 'Why did you kidnap me?', they replied 'Because you work for the US TV news channel Al Hurra Iraq, we knew so from your microphone'". In some instances it is challenging to identify the speaker standing behind a tall bouquet of microphones.
Many of the channel mics depicted in Adel Abidin's paintings are real, some are made up while in others Adel took artistic license with their names. "I decided to give one of the channels the female name Hawa (Eve), they are all so masculine".
There is no doubt that the past few decades have been trying on the Iraqi people who have been subjected to the devastation of numerous wars. "People in Iraq always say that things used to be better in the past" says Abidin, "so I decided to reflect this in Breaking News." In the news ticker of that artwork, the artist shrewdly uses lyrics from a 1965 Beatles song giving them a political twist. "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay." In The Absence of the Cleric the viewer is confronted by a giant studio room that acts as an extension of a cleric's body thereby cementing the link between both parties.
Abidin's well executed pop painting exhibition Immortals is a social commentary by the artist not only on the current Iraqi news gathering industry but also a questioning of who exactly decides who is handed the mic, the ultimate reflection of power in a 24 hour news world.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi