Book Club with Abdul Abdullah

Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at which Book Paper Catches Fire and Burns
Our first edition of Book Club is with Abdul Abdullah, an Australian artist who has faced heated debate and censorship of his artworks. So this month, we're reading Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury wrote this dystopian classic in 1953 during the McCarthy era, concerned about state-based censorship in the USA. The book follows protagonist Guy Montag, a fireman employed to burn outlawed books, as he struggles to conform to the increasingly illiterate and mass-media indoctrinated society. We met up with Abdul, dressed him in a fiery digital collection from Non-Flam, and chatted about Fahrenheit 451 and Abdul's controversial and purposeful art practice.

Hey Abdul. Welcome to Book Club. Do you like books?

Haha. I love books! There is a particular way of consuming a book that I like. It's a slower, more detailed form of consumption. I try to do that in my work. Force the audience to slow down by confusing or obfuscating their experience so that they spend more time with the idea and hopefully engage with it at a different level. Books do that perfectly - the author takes your brain for a walk. It's not always leisurely, but they control the pace.

It's the physicality of it too.

Yeah, I can't read e-books. I feel like bookshelves are a portrait of yourself or experiences. It makes me so suspicious if I go to someone's house and they have no books.
Yeah, no books, and I'm out! On to Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury said one of the biggest takeaways he wanted for readers was the book's commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature. He felt books were being abridged and degraded to accommodate short attention spans, which leads to the hedonistic, illiterate society we see in the novel.

Yeah. And trying to pacify society by distracting our attention spans and stopping us from being as critical of the world. Bradbury has created a world where the ultimate desired outcome is happiness instead of purpose. People look for what makes them happy, essentially a distraction from what makes them sad. I think a lack of critical analysis replaced with 'happiness' as the desired outcome is problematic. I try to combat it with my art practice, and I think it's explored pretty well in the book. There's that scene with Mildred talking to the three walls of the TV, chit-chatting with her' family', who are just the on-screen characters. As the reader, it's disconcerting feeling the entirely surface-level niceties as her form of happiness.

It feels like she's being lulled into submission through escapism.

But later, she tries to commit suicide by taking too many sleeping pills. And she never addresses that. It's an interesting subplot that is never fully expanded but gives a lot of interesting texture to the story.
Another parallel I saw between the book and you was the theme of state-sanctioned censorship. A few years ago, an Australian gallery pulled your artwork from its walls.

Yeah! I'm one of the few artists in Australia who have had work censored after someone in the government called for it to be taken down because it was 'potentially offensive'.

Ahh, your parents must be so proud!

Thrilled. When Sky News and Channel 9 got involved, the RSL, and a local motorcycle club went to the Mayor and called for the work to be taken down. And so, it was! They were offended by a particular political take which was anti-war. It was a mischaracterization of the art. They were embroideries of soldiers with smiley faces across them and a criticism of the government, not of veterans or soldiers. But in the classic government spin, if you criticize any military action, they'll be like, "how dare you have a go at our soldiers!". Censorship is a slippery slope! When friends of mine have called for the removal of works in Sydney that they find offensive, I’ve cautioned them that it sets a precedent. The people in power do the removing. And it could be used against us artists. We have to be conscious of the way we choose to criticize. It's got to be open discourse instead of removal.
“I feel like bookshelves are a portrait of yourself or experiences.”
— Abdul Abdullah —
You opened up some interesting discourse with your painting Legacy Assets (2022), exhibited in Ngununggula Gallery in Bowral, outside of Sydney. You painted an Australian landscape painting with the words, "What would our public collections look like if we divested them of sex pests and paedophiles” over the top.

Yes! I like to see my works as opinions and positions that I'm contributing. I'm not saying this is how it is. I'm saying this is what I think. This work is me getting frustrated with my industry and wanting to express that. I don't find the statement that controversial! And I think that if people do, they probably have to look at themselves and their relationship to that statement.

Your work often brings uncomfortable conversations to light.

For me, art serves a similar function to journalism but without being burdened with objectivity. I can be as reactive and emotional and responsive as I want. It's a different type of critical analysis. Art doesn't need to be explicitly critical or political, but it's what interests and motivates me to participate as an artist.
What did you think of the book's ending? Where Granger is talking about man and the Phoenix - the way the Phoenix and men make mistakes and burn over and over, but says, "… we've got one damn thing the Phoenix never had... We know all the damn silly things we've done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we'll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them."

The theory I have is that with art, the people who can make a difference and those who can enact change by holding artists accountable are those who have invested their money into their works. If someone were to be exposed, the value of their art would go down. So the people who can make a difference protect their kids' inheritance. There's a greater network of legacy assets - valuable objects. And if the artist's behaviors were to be judged publicly, the value would dip. It's an ongoing and frustrating thing. I share the opinion with many Australian art colleagues that the #metoo movement didn't impact the Australian visual arts industry as much as it should have. The stories are as prolific and disturbing within visual arts as in any other industry.
“Censorship is a slippery slope! The people in power do the removing.”
— Abdul Abdullah —
It calls to question what you put first - your values or your wealth. Do you want to stand up for holding pedophiles accountable or care more about your estates? It's wild that anyone would be the latter. If I didn't respect the artist who created the artwork on my wall, I don't think I could get any pleasure from it!!

Yeah! People still have Anthony Lister's art pieces on their walls!

It kind of reminds me of Faber in the book. When the policy of book burning was set into place, he says, "I did not speak up and thus became guilty myself."

Yep. If that type of policy swept over a nation, it would be easier to hope that it passes than to resist in the moment. That's why I like Faber as a character. I think the way he reacts is the most realistic.

That's sad.

Photography: Abdul Adbullah
Interview: Sally Paton