Writing published in the Kader Attia Catalogue : Signes de réappropriation, BlackJack Edtions 2013. ©All Rights Reserved.
There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
The term “No Man’s Land”–originally used to designate the area between two enemy trench systems which neither side could claim as its own; a stripe of mud, gravel and barbed-wire, under gruelling artillery fire. During World War one, trench warfare resulted from the asymmetry between firepower and mobility, and quickly consumed many lives: more than 1,000,000 were wounded or killed in the Somme, there were an estimated 975,000 casualties in Verdun. Roughly one century later, the space separating trenches has expanded to include vast swathes of the planet. Like the ill-fated infantry on the Western Front, waves and waves of migrants and refugees perish while attempting to cross no man’s lands such as the Sahara desert, the Sonora desert, the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, across which they will face border fortifications, barbed wire and armed police. The in-between-trenches are not an anomaly or an aberration, they are an emblem for uneven development and asymmetric power; the ever-recurring zone of abrasion between the human and the techno-economic complex.
Suffering –as Theodor Adorno stated– is born from unreason: it is an experience of harm that cannot be coded into a discourse on injustice, the part that has no part in our inconsistent totality. Suffering is everything and nothing simultaneously – the identity and non-identity between industrial exploitation and colonial terror; between empire and periphery; between the ever-increasing pile of consumer goods and products and the human lives they are made of; and the missing link between art and history.
In his work “Prisms”, published in 1982, Adorno wrote that “In the open-air prison the world is turning into, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one.” I understood the meaning of his words in October 2012, when I accepted an invitation to visit the Qatari capital, Doha. Our press-trip itinerary started with a walk around the pier, which culmination point is Richard Serra’s ‘7’. Seven massive steel plates arranged in a Heptagonal shape, ‘7’ is the greatest public art commission ever made by the Qatari Museum Authority. The sculpture was installed at the tip of the man-made pier adjacent to the Museum of Islamic Art, built by star architect I. M. Pei. As we approached the towering colossus, a journalist walking by my side confided, “I was here last year while they were building it, you should have seen the Indian workers, those poor folks, toiling under the blazing sun.” As I looked into her eyes, she became apologetic. “I know it’s an amazing artwork, but I am only human…” she explained. Her expression betrayed genuine concern, yet she could not bring herself to disavow the sculpture. While circling around the metal edifice, I came face to face with another journalist who whispered, “After the HRW (Human Rights Watch) released a report condemning their labour policies, Qatari authorities issued a ban on outdoor work when the temperature rises above 50 degrees Celsius. But ever since, it has never officially been over 50 degrees Celsius!” He shrugged and kept snapping pictures. For all their qualms about labour rights, there are two things that my fellow travellers do not seem to question: that Richard Serra’s ‘7’ is an artwork; and that an artwork is a good thing.
Introduced into the philosophical lexicon during the eighteenth century, the term “aesthetic” is predicated on discontinuity; the aesthetic experience is somehow severed from usual conditions of sensible experience. From Kant onwards, detachment becomes the hallmark of the aesthetics, which always entails a double negation: its object is neither an object of knowledge nor an object of desire. By introducing the notion of disinterest, Kant brought the concept of taste into opposition with the concept of morality. At the beginning of his “Critique of Judgement”, he illustrates his reasoning with the example of a palace, in which aesthetic judgement isolates the form only, disinterested in knowing whether a mass of poor workers toiled under the harshest conditions in order to build it. The human toll, Kant says, must be ignored in order to aesthetically appreciate an artwork.
But one could also say that, in the guise of a Hegelian totality, an essence manifests itself in its alienation, and any phenomenon is also defined by what it negates or denies. Kantian aesthetics mirrors British utilitarianism – Whereas Adam Smith bracketed out the sociological conditions that necessarily precede the contractual conditions in his parable about market-place interaction, Kantian philosophy brackets the issue of power being out of the question of representation; and the command to “look but don’t touch!” severs the eye from the hand, following the scopophilical logics of advertisement.
Either way, in Qatar, Kant acquires an unwitting materiality. Whether or not one chooses to ignore it, ‘7’ stands at the unstable borderline between art history and labour history; at the tip of a vortex of transnational capital flows that relentlessly hauls bare life into the unyielding machinery of autocratic power. In the Gulf, social division of labour conflates with global division of labour generating a so hierarchical hierarchy that only a culture of terror can sustain it. Not the terror of chaos that rules in slums and shanty-towns all over the world but the terror of absolute order. The man-made pier, the outdoor cafeteria protected by sailing canopy, the designer museum, Serra’s sculpture, all exist inside what Michael Taussig would have called a “space of death”, in the sense of the death of collective memory and communal experience –running parallel to the occasional death of migrant labourers or domestic aids, whose work is always external to the art-works they labour to erect.
The link between political and cultural representation was never straightforward, but nowadays, “a growing number of unmoored and floating images corresponds to a growing number of disenfranchised, invisible or even disappeared or missing people”. As a result, the term “art” acquired two contradictory meanings; it can refer to ways of effectively claiming representation, or it can refer to a mode of expression, employing a set of formal tropes so as to limit ways of effectively claiming representation. But this conflict is not a conflict between the art market and contemporary art, nor is it a conflict between art and politics, it is a conflict between two different sensible worlds and their political correlation.
Throughout modern history, the worker and the artist have always been kept in dialectical tension. As a consequence, art’s ontology was never settled; art always divided into two. The Romantic ethos was built upon the opposition between art as a totalization of experience and labour as an alienation of experience. Hegel’s “end of art” is not the end of art as such, but the end of one of its facets: art as a pedestrian activity engaged with mundane wishes and needs, which must be superseded so that the other side of art can be freed to “lay a claim to the absolute” . Because, in order for art “to be art at all, art must be something beyond art”.
In his essay “Modernist Painting”, American critic Clement Greenberg argued that Kant was the first real modernist. In his view, the essence of modernism, inasmuch as that of Kantian critical philosophy, lied in the use of a discipline’s own methods in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. The article achieved a canonical status and, in retrospect, turned “Modernism” into a synonym for artistic autonomy –a self-sufficient, abstract and hermetic form. Greenberg also implied another Kantian idea, that of progress. Modernist art seems to move forward in time, away from manifestations of extraneous content and towards a specificity of means, and, as such, becoming a purely aesthetic experience. In Greenberg’s own words: “Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity (…) Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”
Emerging out of the horrors of trench warfare, the early 20th century movement Dada wanted to be anything but art. Dada’s emphasis on rupture was not an aesthetic gimmick, but the allegorical doubling of a material trauma, a gash literally inflicted on the surface of the picture reciprocating the lacerations on broken faced soldiers’ flesh and the craters scarring the land, gorging up the living. Around 1918-19, the movement adopted the term “Photomontage” in order to distinguish their politically oriented practice from the fantasist postcards and dioramas so popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Victorian fantasist postcards were, typically, the product of combination printing, a technique –howbeit more complex– similar to the dual-negative photography invented by Hippolyte Bayard. Bayard had initially used the technique to achieve higher photographic realism –namely to solve the problem of overexposure which would cause the sky to appear like a blank slate, by juxtaposing a perfect cloud abode over his street photographs– but it did not take long for this usage to explode in a myriad of fanciful compositions. During World War I, it was popular amongst young soldiers’ families or fiancées to copy-paste themselves onto the plane cockpit of the soldier they knew, in an illustration of the adage “always with you” –if not in body at least in image. Another common habit would be to include juxtaposing photographic elements onto watercolours or creating fictional landscapes. But whereas the photographic montage used in traditional postcards created an illusion of continuity by artfully fusing all elements together, the Dadaist collage made the artifice visible by fully displaying the sutures and the cuts their images were subjected to; upon viewing, the illusion was shattered and the gap between sign and referent became apparent. The choice between photographic illusion and photomontage is not merely an aesthetic choice between kitsch and avant-garde. What is at stake is the insertion of a diegetic element onto the imagetic plate; recounting instead of just showing. That is, the commitment to a synchronic, rather than diachronic, understanding of art and life. Photocollages –Walter Benjamin noted– typically interrupt the context into which they are inserted, making it manifest that the present is composed of manifold irreconcilable states; that every actual thing is a concrete unity of opposed determinations.
The first ready-mades emerged out of the Dadaist assemblages, the three dimensional counterpart to the collages and photomontages. Objects were nailed, screwed or fastened together, in tortured makeshift compositions, exposing shards, knobs and wire mesh. The broken bones and incongruous experiences of shell-shocked soldiers were codified as fractured images and fragmented objects. Reminiscent of the concept of bricolage (patch-up job), introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the assemblages make do with a universe of heterogeneous elements, which “bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project”. Instead of obedient objects, subservient to the designs of the people they are meant to serve, the assemblages confound and reverse the respective positions of dead materials and living beings. Whereas Greenberg proposes a neat historical chronology, in which all fundamental antagonisms are solved by rearranging the conflicting terms into a temporal succession; Dada makes it plain that modernity never ceased to be a battleground, and that the present is constantly at war with itself.
In the pictures Henri Pierre Roché took between 1916-18, Marcel Duchamp’s studio appears littered with industrial debris and every-day objects hung to the ceiling or nailed to the floor. The small porcelain urinal hangs over a doorway. Its origin is unclear. “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture,” Duchamp would later write to his sister, probably referring to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Either way, the choice of ready-mades –he claimed– “is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.”
It was part of the political program of the avant-garde to “replace individualized production with a more collectivized and anonymous practice and simultaneously to evade the individualized address and restricted reception of art,” and, as Elena Filipovic noted, “Ultimately, Duchamp meets the museum’s desire for precision with irony and approximation, its desire for totality with a fragmentary story, its desire for encyclopaedic coverage with “à peu près,” its desire for system and order with volatile taxonomy, its desire for the original with an ensemble of copies, and its desire for linear history with caesura, delay, and ungraspable logic.”
No object is a stable, univocal entity. To be clear, an object is not really something one owns or uses; it is rather a relationship into which someone enters. Fifteen years ago, while living in Congo, Kader Attia was given a piece of Kuba raffia cloth to which patches of Vichy fabric had been carefully applied in order to mend a hole, possibly made by wear or by insects. At length, it dawned on him that there was an intention behind the stitching, that the usage of the Vichy fabric was not accidental or arbitrary –simple raffia cloth would do, had the needle worker merely meant to hide the tear. Struck by the poignancy of this artifact, the French-Algerian artist initiated a decade long research on the ontological status of repaired objects. The project’s first iteration, The Repair, shown at the dOCUMENTA (13), was an essay in comparative aesthetics written from the vantage point of the wretched of the West. In the darkened rooms of the Fridericianum, the disfigured faces of World War I soldiers were juxtaposed to broken fetishes, fractured African masks, stitched up pieces of loincloth, describing a narrative arc, from the empirical notion of repair to the juridical realm of “reparation” as in the replenishment of a previously inflicted loss.
The project of The Repair points to a continuity, but this is the continuity of incision, which cuts across the rural landscape, the draftees’ faces, and tribal integration. As Kader Attia noted, drawing on Oswald de Andrade’s concept of cultural anthropofagia, the repair is not a passive act, but a sort of re-appropriation of the self: the staging of a dialectic of destruction and healing, which aims at replenishing a previously inflicted loss. The act of repair, as a cultural practice, allows the people living in the periphery of Western Empires to appropriate the symbols of the colonizing powers into their own cultural order, and as such, it threatens the totalizing unity of the cultural icon. The repaired objects do not speak of syncretic abstractions, instead, they articulate a new cultural idiom to address the arbitrariness of colonial power and the terror of slavery. But The Repair is not, strictly speaking, a research project, it is an artwork, and, as such, it doesn’t just address the notions of anthropology, artefact or archive; it addresses the concept of aesthetics and the field of contemporary art. Though their sincerity seems at odds with the ironical stance of the ready-made, these objects do come to us as ready-mades, inasmuch as, and somehow ironically, the bullets or coins which compose them came to their makers’ hands as raw materials. By placing the colonial otherness at the heart of the industrial revolution, The Repair makes it manifest that “formalism” and “dadaism”, “modernism” and “postmodernism”, are not historical moments but political positions. In the similar way, colonies and manufacturing centres represent the partial truths of the industrial whole, the repaired anthropological artefacts and the ready-made objects, each of them represents partial attempts to reconcile social function and aesthetic form.
In spite of Duchamp’s intentions, for almost half a century now, the notion of the ready-made or found object has been heralded as the starting point in a long lineage of laboriously crafted conceptual distinctions, which sustained the transition from high modernism to so-called post-modernism. The original act of appropriation signified a rupture, a break with the tradition that preceded it. Mistaking the abstractions performed by aesthetics with a totally abstract aesthetics, the current acts of appropriation signify a continuity, they reclaim the tradition which precedes them, constituting a commercially viable mode of artistic production, from whose perspective work is always external to the artwork, and it is not something born from suffering; just something to be commanded at the click of a keyboard.
Or to put it differently and under the guise of a conclusion: much like the term “art”, the term “modernism” came to acquire two diverging, even conflicting, meanings. The first, which became shorthand for artistic autonomy, sees history as the schematic process through which art rids itself of any reference to political life. The second one insists that there is a correlation between modern regime of representation and the constitution of the political subject. From the perspective of the former, there is no historical dimension to contemporary art, just an explosion of stylistic eclecticism made possible by the demise of media-specific mandates: we are living in a post-critical and post-subjective era. According to the latter, however, modernity has barely begun.
Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon, currently living in Berlin. She is PhD candidate and occasional lecturer at the Humboldt University, and a regular contributor to E-Flux Journal, Art-Agenda, Mousse, Frieze/de and Domus. Her work was also published in Inaesthetics (Merve Verlag), Renaissancen (Archive für Medien Geschichte, University of Weimar) and ISPS (International Studies in Philosophy of Science, Routledge).