Mythical Histories and Narrative Possibilites: a review of Mariam Ghani, A Brief History of Collapses, dOCUMENTA (13)

Mariam Ghani, A Brief History of Collapses, 2010-2012, 2 channel video and 7.1 audio installation, exhibited at dOCUMENTA (13), 9 June – 16 September 2012, Kassel.

There is something within great tales that leaves them lingering in the mind. Stories and myth have the power to enchant, to transcend the everyday and present the otherwise unfathomable. This is exactly how I would describe Mariam Ghani’s A Brief History of Collapses.

A two channel video narrative, A Brief History of Collapses entwines the tales of two buildings and two cultures: the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany and the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. Through Ghaniʼs narrative, however, these tales appear not as two, but as a meta-narrative set in two varied yet similar buildings, locations and cultural positions. Two richly complex histories become one larger, interconnected fable of destruction and rebirth, hope and transformation.

Connecting the two buildings and cultures, Ghani questions the creation of myth and history, emphasising the possibility of these two otherwise varied cultures (Afghani and German) as being ultimately united, doing so through a constant comparative narrative.

Within the lull of Ghaniʼs voice, the Hilderbrandlied and tales of the Brotherʼs Grimm become enmeshed with the Shanameh, the tale of Rabiʼa Balkhi and the bloody history of Afghan graffiti. Attendants will not capture every word, and not all are fact. Stories will ebb and flow, slowly becoming one. Fact and myth come together, unified to explore the relationship between the two, highlighting the way both myth and historical fact feed equally from one another.

Utilising the narrative devices she questions, Ghani shows history and myth as cyclical motions of ideas and thoughts, of forgotten dreams and social constructions. Her fable speaks the histories that cannot be named, creating new histories built upon a merging of social eras. History is no longer a linear passage, but rather a mirror-ball, self-reflective and spinning.

As a viewer, this cycle is more than apparent. Not only does Ghaniʼs narration lull enchantingly, the visuals encircle similarly. Following a constantly moving figure, the two videos weave seemingly parallel trajectories through each building, showing the closeness of architectural layout within, but also the clear differences. The Dar ul-Aman is a ruined palace, its graffiti and collapsing walls the scarring marks of war.

The Fridericianum, meanwhile, is clean white walls and smooth surfaces; it is the image of a building regenerated. More so, it has become the home of the pivotal Documenta series, a point further enforced considering the works presentation as part of dOCUMENTA (13) (the work was also exhibited simultaneously in Kabul at the Queenʼs Palace in Bagh-e-babur gardens). Ghaniʼs fable becomes entrenched in its own creation, exhibited within the Fridericianumʼs refurbished galleries.

The Fridericianum, however, was not always so pristine – just like the Dar ul-Aman, it has a history of violence and the destructive force of war. Bombed out during World War II, its interior was not redeveloped until 1977. Ghani does not forget this history, considering it a key element to the museum.

Bending time to her will, Ghani considers both buildingsʼ present states not as a definite, but as one possibility in the constant flux of time. As she aptly states, “the past and the future both inhabit the present.” The Fridericianumʼs recent revival, therefore, is not seen as a definite, but as a result of its dark past and possible future.

The Dar ul-Aman, similarly, is not understood only through its present state as rubble. Uniting its tale with that of the Fridericianum, Ghani emphasises the Dar ul-Amanʼs once majestic past and possible future. Destruction becomes a means towards ends. Both buildings, having been constructed and destroyed in a series of events, become stronger in historical narrative through the lingering ghosts of what was once past, and what may still come.

As both buildingsʼ histories are bent and reformed, not only is history realigned, but also the myths that surround the two. The myths become the one, strengthening the bond of the overall meta-narrative. Connecting these buildings, Ghani shows the way in which history can be re-written simply through a re-imagining of thoughts. Seeing history not as a linear progression, more as a cyclical process of relationships and repetitions, the possibility of these two buildings being connected metaphysically becomes a plausible myth - historical truth even. Ghani opens the mind, allowing truth to be questioned, re-imagined and ultimately redefined.