The drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory is lit up like an observatory. A fixed mirror-ball reflects beams from eight different spotlights into a galaxy of stars on the ceiling of the massive hangar. The effect is almost oppressive, like a big sky in summer.
On one end of the room is a plaster statute, a cast of a body in an armchair, inspired by the Lincoln Memorial and almost as big. Projected onto the cast is the full-body image of Mohammed el-Gharani, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee who was captured in Pakistan at age 14, held for seven years, and released in 2009. Though he was never charged with a crime, he can’t come to the United States, so his image is being livestreamed from a studio in West Africa, where he now lives. Gharani—in khakis, a green T-shirt, wire-rim glasses, and running shoes with neon-green laces—alternates between looking forward, stone-faced, and smirking to someone off camera we can’t see.
The statue is the main element of Habeas Corpus, the latest installation from multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. Her work has long explored themes of prison and removal from society, including a 1998 exhibition in which she projected the image of a prisoner from Milan’s San Vittore prison onto a statue in the Fondazione Prada. After she failed to secure permission to do a similar project with prisoners in the United States, a staff attorney at Reprieve, a human-rights group, introduced Anderson to Gharani.
From October 2 to 4, for seven hours a day, Gharani’s image was beamed live to the exhibit on New York City’s Upper East Side. The work is filled with contradictions. In a piece for The New Yorker, Anderson describes Habeas Corpus as “a work of equally balanced presence and absence”—Gharani is both there and not there at the same time. That’s a condition of prisoners broadly, but it’s especially true of detainees at Guantánamo Bay.
A droning guitar playing over the loudspeaker goes quiet, and the man we’re looking at disappears, leaving only the blank statue in its place. It’s time for the real Gharani, half a world away, to take a scheduled break from the performance. From where we stand, though, his image, this time pre-recorded, reappears immediately, reanimating the statue.
“When they built Camp 5 we were living in containers, and then they built a real building with cement,” his pre-recorded image says. “They moved about 100 people and I was among them. So the first day, the interrogator came and told me, ‘You see, this is a real building and we built this for people who are coming to stay here forever and you are one of them.’”