Writing published with the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne in the comprehensive monograph: Kader Attia, edited by Nicole Schweizer, edition jrp-ringier.
Post … refers to the aftermath or after-flow of a particular configuration. The impetus which constituted one particular historical or aesthetic moment disintegrates in the form we know it. Many of those impulses are resumed or reconvene in a new terrain or context, eroding some of the boundaries that made our occupation of an earlier moment seem relatively clear … and opening in their place new gaps, new interstices. Stuart Hall (1)
Encountering the two-channel slide projection in which tribal carvings patched with materials that came to hand are paired with the broken faces of World War I veterans who have undergone reconstructive surgery, one instantly sees the umbilical bond that made these figures ontological siblings. Both are survivors of modernity’s onslaught, but these visual twins were separated at birth by ideologies that blocked our recognition of their common DNA. Open Your Eyes (2010) announces a moment in which, as its title implies, we can now recognize the mutual interdependence between modernism and colonialism, which for more than a century was a relation hidden from view by the idea that the world’s cultures were each entirely autonomous, self-sufficient wholes that conferred identity by means of discontinuous boundaries of belonging. In the act of pairing, Attia reveals a continuum in which modern art movements that demanded a transformative role for art in response to social realities blown apart by global war in the 1914-1918 period arose in mutual genesis with colonial lives that survived the death-driven violence on which capitalist modernity relies, in Congo Free State during 1885-1908, for instance, for these interconnections are made visible, and critically intelligible, in each of the morphogenetic resemblances that Attia’s double slide projection puts forward.
Just as the verb to “pair” nestles within “repair,” one might say that alongside archival materials arranged on storage shelving, and sculptural busts carved in marble and wood, which all contribute to the installation The Repair from Occidental to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), first shown at dOCUMENTA 13, Attia’s visual twinning of damaged faces and neo-tribal bricolage is a signal work for our global contemporary age as it singularly upholds Paul Klee’s dictum that “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” (2) Where topology is a branch of modern geometry that describes unbroken inter-connectedness among points, lines, and planes in a vast range of space-time configurations that escape the intelligibility of the Euclidean model, in which subject/object dualities render the viewer discontinuous from a world viewed as a visual field available to human mastery, Attia’s ability to make visible the networks of interlocking dependencies that our present inherits from the past makes him a topologist of the “post” condition that shapes our global contemporary lives. His art is postcolonial not because of his individual biography alone but because his aesthetic choices and moves position him as an inheritor of an agonistic modernism. Asking art not to express or to represent, but to interrupt the habitus which determines what is seeable, sayable, and thinkable, Attia is also a post-medium artist working with photographs, film, drawing, collage, and installation, although it is revealing that “if you ask him to define himself … he would say that, above all, he’s a sculptor.” (3)
Spatial relationships have primacy for Attia as the investigative starting point for works that probe the colonial foundations of modernist architecture and urbanism, where questions of dwelling and place-making are cast in new light from the vantage point of migration and diaspora. Space also matters as the medium through which Attia engages viewers as participants in immersive encounters that put embodied perception into contact with site-specific histories in the contexts where his exhibitions are installed. But what distinguishes the sculptural dimension that encompasses Attia’s defining interests in architectural intersections of modernism and colonialism is the unique way in which his spatial interventions initiate a series of displacements that profoundly alter our perception of the temporalities by which our global present is archivally entangled with the deep imperial past.
Born to Algerian parents in 1970, Attia grew up in the banlieues of Paris while frequently visiting relatives in North Africa as well, and his studies in Barcelona, along with two years in Democratic Republic of Congo prior to his first exhibition in 1996, gave him cross-cultural insight into the porous character of nation-state boundaries that need to be enforced in the name of territorial sovereignty, but which often fail to conceal their arbitrary and precarious nature. Intimately aware of the spatial relations through which social flows of race, class, and ethnicity are channeled into fixed patterns of exclusion and hierarchy, Attia has been attentive to cross-currents in a post-9/11 world where Islamophobia and anti-immigration policies have met their match in unpredictable eruptions such as the clashes between French-Arab youth and police in the banlieues of Paris and other cities in 2005. Under such circumstances, spatialized relations of power and subordination that are ordinarily administered by regulatory norms reveal fluctuating potentials for alternative possibilities that lie beneath the city’s paving stones. In the counterpoint whereby a migrant perspective shuttles back-and-forth across spatial fixities, making moves that interrupt archival relations as a result, Attia’s topologies cut through ideologies which fail to see that multiculture is nothing new, merely a reconfiguration of elements brought together under colonialism. He thereby introduces critical optimism in answer to the view that “our condition is largely one of aftermath,” as Hal Foster puts it, describing how “we live in the wake not only of modernist painting and sculpture but of postmodern deconstructions of these forms as well.” (4) Since art historian Terry Smith also regards contemporaneity as a state of “aftermath,” (5) where there are no fully-fledged substitutes for discredited worldviews that lie all around in ruins, it is striking to note Stuart Hall’s countervailing emphasis when he argues that “post” is best grasped not “to mean ‘after’ in a sequential or chronological sense,” but rather as a turn for, “a turn is neither an ending nor a reversal … all of the terms of a paradigm are not destroyed; instead, the deflection shifts the paradigm in a direction which is different from … the previous moment.” (6) Tracking Kader Attia’s reparative turn as it has developed from his early concept of “signs of re-appropriation,” I would like to draw attention to the hopefulness put into play by his inventive topologies, especially as what they make visible in unfixing the modernism/colonialism nexus is best understood in terms of his conversations with conceptualist paradigms that enacted the shift from sculpture as autonomous object to installation as architectural intervention.
Cutting through Closed Limits
Documenting concrete blocks on the Algerian shoreline installed by the government at France’s request, so as to act as a barrier preventing clandestine emigration across the Mediterranean, Attia’s Rochers Carrés (2008) photographs reveal the paradoxical interplay between law and transgression whereby rules that forbid an action, in fact, generate the desire to break the rules. Drawing on Edouard Glissant’s notion of the lieu-communs as a “fertile zone of inexhaustible energies, where relationships are continually generated and woven between one place and another,” Manthia Diawara pinpoints Attia’s discovery of such a common ground where youths show “their refusal to accept the state’s attempt to control their movement from Algeria to Europe” by reclaiming a site where, “they have created subterranean connections and relations with other people in other places confronted by nationalism, incarceration, anti-immigration laws, discrimination, and barriers to boundary crossings of all kinds – places including but not limited to Lampedusa, Palestine, and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.” (7)
Rochers Carrés maps a topology connecting viewers with “other people in other places,” but what also comes to mind for me is an after-trace of Spiral Jetty (1970). In earthworks such as these, Robert Smithson’s dialectic of site (Utah’s Great Salt Lake in this case) and non-site (gallery exhibitions and photographs that are the viewer’s primary access to the work) set up topological relays among real-world distances of space and time. Where the non-site is the “other place” that allows for critical reflection so as to denaturalize the site, the photographic rectangle which mediates the dialectic led to Smithson’s use of mirrors, most notably in his Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969). Giving rise to an experience of landscape in which “vision sagged, caved in, and broke apart,” such “anti-vision” (8) decenters the Euclidean subject. Along similar lines, Attia’s Holy Land (2006) precipitates a crisis of optical positions in colonial space.
Placing forty five arch-shaped mirrors on Fuerteventura beach in the Canary Islands, Holy Land activates a topological circuit on the land/sea borderline. Approached from the land, one apprehends a scene of emigration, for the Canaries are Spanish territories, hence part of Europe, but only 100 kilometers from Morocco. Seeing the non-reflective side, which makes each mirror resemble a gravestone, thus calls to mind the treacherous risks of oceanic crossings. Coming from the sea, on the other hand, the mirrors suggest instead a scene of immigration, in which arrivants would see themselves reflected in arched surfaces that evoke Islamic ornament and Gothic architecture simultaneously. Bringing multiple geo-historical points into connective relation through the sculptural mediation of the mirrors, it is “as if someone had punched holes in space and a second reality had come to light.” (9) Whereas Smithson’s Yucatan travels sought to denaturalize the optical co-ordinates of Euclidean geometry, Attia, for his part, punctures the epistemological partitions that dualistically separate East and West, Islam and Christianity, Africa and Europe, in spaces governed by the master codes of colonial discourse.
Holy Land is a “site construction,” in Rosalind Krauss’s vocabulary, and such “practice is not defined in relation to a given medium … but rather in relation to … logical operations on a set of cultural terms.” (10) The topologies Gordon Matta-Clark created by means of “building cuts,” which introduced voids to make the skeletal structures of architectural edifices visible, are dramatic “logical operations,” although a work such as Conical Intersection (1975), which cut a projectile of voided space through two buildings adjacent to the Pompidou Center in Paris, was criticized for its complicity rather than critique of property relations in the built environment. (11) Smithson and Matta-Clark made cuts into phenomenological space, displacing the modernist category of the autonomous art object while retaining the category of authorial expression, whereas Attia’s act of cutting “holes in space” is not delimited to an observable site or to a physical structure but takes aim at the discursive formation that hides and obscures the interdependent genesis of modernism/colonialism. Krauss describes practices which interrupt “the cultural determinants of the opposition through which a given field is structured,” (12) yet throughout the twentieth century, modernist architectural history adhered to a narrative that structured the field exclusively within the West, refusing to see the colonial relationships in which Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier, for instance, developed their views. To cut open sightlines into such a closed edifice, as Attia has done, is an extraordinary achievement when we consider how resistant to self-reflexivity the field of modernist architectural discourse turned out to be.
When Hall claims that “multiculturalism has had the effect of unsettling and unmasking many of the foundational assumptions and discourses of liberalism,” (13) his viewpoint clarifies Attia’s trajectory at two distinct levels of analysis. Questioning universalist assumptions in the discourse of aesthetics since Kant, Attia belongs to a generation of contemporary artists who have revisited conceptualist strategies while undertaking a turn toward “context reflexivity” that leaves behind the self-sufficient art object, and the expressive authorial subject, so as to activate engagement with culturally and socially located viewers, thereby renewing art’s capacity for radical critique. (14) Archival research into the modernist architecture of mass housing built in Algeria and Morocco during the decolonization era, moreover, has led Attia to a concept of “re-appropriation” in which subaltern agents who transport materials from one place to another unsettle models of culture as organic totality by revealing instead hybrid flows of translation.
Watching the video piece Oil and Sugar (2007), in which a pristine block built of sugar cubes gradually disintegrates under contact with the oil’s dark viscosity, one anticipates an entropic outcome as a result of the incompatibility of the two substances, yet the hypnotic power of the piece has nothing to do with metaphor or symbol and everything to do with understanding matter not as “thing” but as process. Where the cube, the sphere, and the pyramid provide architecture’s elementary volumetric forms, to which modernists wanted to return by eliminating ornament and figuration in purifying acts of simplification, Western philosophy was often led by Plato’s idealism to think of a realm of unchangable geometric forms whose perfection was only poorly copied in the phenomenal world of appearances available to the human senses. Although his choice of materials is pointed – sugar was the commodity on which Atlantic trade was built, fossil fuels were the precondition of industrialization – Attia’s matter-of-fact documentation lays bare the essentialist mindset behind architectural values that came to dominate twentieth century modernism. The implications are far-reaching. Once essentialist foundations are opened to scrutiny by the countervailing contrast of a process-relational outlook, of the kind one associates with Gilles Deleuze in philosophy today or Baruch Spinoza in the past, opportunities arise to leave behind noun-based definitions of “universals,” as immutable laws having a transcendental existence, and embrace instead a verb-oriented understanding of “universalization” as a worldly process in which categories and values, far from being fixed for eternity, are subject to the flow of becoming that allows for the morphogenesis of forms that can never be predicted in advance.
Attia’s choice of couscous, a non-solid state material, in Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009), is of the utmost importance. Fabricating an architectural maquette of the Mzab Valley city in Algeria that Le Corbusier took as a source of inspiration when he traveled to the region in 1931, the “logical operation” enacted by Attia’s sculptural intervention is postcolonial precisely because it did not set up an opposition to the French modernist architect who is often heroically centred in the received narrative, but placed Corbusian discourse “under erasure.” Making visible the North African context of the Arab city Le Corbusier drew upon as a model for urban planning, Attia’s use of perishable foodstuff entails a performative or event-based dimension, for the maquette is remade each time it is shown, and such a temporal element exposes, by contrast, the desire for durability and permanence that the high modernist architect had built on colonial foundations. (15) Like flat roofs in Mediterranean vernacular buildings that were appropriated in Bauhaus modernism, what is at stake is a split in Western practices of abstraction that took elements out of indigenous cultural contexts without acknowledging the colonial networks of trade and travel that brought dominant and subordinate identities into contact. (16) That Josephine Baker deeply fascinated both Le Corbusier and Loos is no coincidence, for the fetishistic split whereby modernist primitivism romanticizes the other who is placed on an idealist pedestal, while material inequalities of race are subject to disavowal, was repeated in the discursive knots of architectural modernism. (17) Where the modernist mimesis of a medieval Arab city refused to openly acknowledge its dependence on “other people in other places,” even as it claimed aesthetic universalism for itself alone, what got hidden in Corbusian discourse was its inclination to impose its universalist values from above, often in authoritarian terms that were reinforced, after 1945, by the liberal political state.
Clement Greenberg, extolling self-criticism as modernism’s ultimate telos, regarded Kant “as the first real Modernist,” but his claim that “Western civilization is not the first civilization to turn around and question its own foundations, but it is the one which has gone furtherest in doing so,” (18) now reads as nakedly self-serving exceptionalism since the postcolonial turn has made visible a set of ideological positions which, for over fifty years, were widely accepted as beyond dispute. Yet when Hall says of himself, “I am … a child of the Enlightenment. I know what the Enlightenment did to free us from superstition, from religion,” (19) his position of immanent critique, operating in-and-against discourses whose Westernism he calls into question, equally applies to Attia, both in his art-making and in the archival research that informs his projects.
Following the archival topology that conjoined the Maghreb to the modernist metropolis, resulting in works such as Untitled (Couscous) (2009), Attia investigated the path that led Roland Simounet, a student of Le Corbusier, to observe how migrant laborers, building social housing complexes in 1950s Algeria and Morocco, would “at the end of each day … take some materials left in the garbage at the building site” to construct their own makeshift dwellings. While Simounet found “the shantytown’s dimensions were almost exactly the same as those of the Modulor,” (20) thus revealing an instance of universalization in a rapprochment between Le Corbusier’s calculus for private living space and local rule of thumb proportions, his method of participant observation paved the way for the recognition of subaltern agency in the acts of re-appropriation whereby top-down policies of urban planning and mass housing in French colonies met counter-currents from the bottom-up. Such dialectical insights led to the study of vernacular architecture exemplified by Rudolf Rudofsky’s exhibition, Architecture Without Architects (1964), which began to dismantle author-centric high modernism in favor of an overall ecology of the social habitat. (21)
Kasbah (2009) took shape in light of archival passageways Attia’s research opened up. Transposing into the gallery corrugated iron sheets at angles that evoked shantytown structures, alongside television aerials, the installation’s site/non-site dialectic entailed a spatial inversion whereby visitors walked on top of, and around, surfaces that would otherwise be above the heads of those sheltered by such bricolaged dwellings. A topology such as this puts identities into contact by way of a fold, rather than opposition or containment, which is what Attia’s research on Fernand Pouillon uncovered. Responsible for mass housing projects in Algeria commissioned by the colonial administration, Pouillon’s architecture used space as a medium of social control. While residents tried to adapt his regimented apartment complexes to their needs, Pouillon is a figure in a key mid-century moment when modernism was taken up by departing colonial powers as a symbolic gift to be exchanged for continuing loyalty and co-operation after independence. In British colonies, civic structures were built in the idiom of “tropical modernism,” although one-off projects by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry pale in comparison to the mass scale of modernist initiatives in the 1950s Francophone context. (22) As a means of postponing the break toward independence, it is revealing that modernist architecture flourished in Lusophone colonies such as Angola and Mozambique as late as the 1970s. To notice that it was only in the 2000s that artists and architectural historians identified “the colonial modern” as a distinctive site of inquiry is to observe that even when the vernacular architecture paradigm was brought to bear on the signifying practices of the postmodern city, the break with author-centred and object-directed priorities in architectural discourse nonetheless remained locked within the closed limits of a narrowly West-centric outlook that refused to see how dependent global capitalism is on migrant labor flows that connect North America’s megacities to the underdeveloped South. (23)
As Attia conceptualized the dynamics of re-appropriation in the “decolonial” scene, the back-and-forth hybridization whereby given materials acquire new meanings once they are taken out of their initial context, and recycled to gain resignifying potentials, departed from organicist models of culture as self-sufficient wholes assumed to coincide with the nation-state’s territorial borders. Noticing, on returning to the Congo, how an item of raffia loincloth called nshakokot among Kuba women had been repaired with patches of European gingham cloth, Attia arrived at an alternative approach to culture tout court. In a world that has undergone many forms of globalization since Columbus left the closed sphere of medieval Europe in 1492, the recombinant process whereby something new is brought into being, not ex nihilo, but through acts of substitution and displacement among signifying elements that enter into a common repertoire when different cultures come into contact, offers us a more accurate model of what culture actually does as it travels and circulates across the globe. Rejoining Hall’s sense of hybridity as “another term for the cultural logic of translation … which is agonistic because it is never completed,” (24) Attia imparts to the idea of repair a hard-won awareness of the traumatic violence that modernity left in its wake even as the chronometry that flows from Attia’s emphasis on a “continuum of repair” (25) is emphatically future-oriented in its optimism about what global cultures might yet become as a result of their hybrid multiplication.
Futures for the Commons
In a world where identities are contradictorily thrown together on a daily basis by the twists and turns of globalization, art that acts on hybridity’s critical potential is, by default, committed to an ethical as well as an aesthetic investigation of the spatial relations through which a commons is created when people strive to negotiate their multiple differences, for as urbanist David Harvey puts it, “The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and antagonistically, to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life.” (26)
The bricoleur who knows that absolute originality does not exist once culture itself is understood as a universal condition of permanent translation, in which signifiers migrate across arbitrary boundaries, is most likely also aware that “aftermath” did not begin with 9/11 since, for many of the world’s peoples, surviving modernity’s catastrophic advent has been a condition of daily life for centuries. Attia introduces an emphasis on continuity – with its neon tube placed between two mirrors, Jacob’s Ladder (2014) extends light into vertical space ad infinitum – that undercuts the closed dualisms of self/other inherited from the codes of colonial discourse not in the name of a monoculturally assimilative liberalism, which thinks of what is universally human in terms of sameness beneath the skin, but in acknowledgement that everyone’s identity is lived, in the modern age, under the sign of difference, where any closure of the signifying chain is perpetually delayed by cross-cultural translation. It is impossible to understand the presence of Arabs in France, Turks in Germany, North Africans in Italy, Muslims in Spain and Portugal, or South Asians and Caribbeans in Britain in post-1945 Europe without a cognitive map of spatial relations that were historically inaugurated by colonialism. Yet when anti-immigrant discourse cries out that “too many are coming in,” or says the state should “send them back,” as was the case in 1970s Britain when I grew up, the fears that find metaphorical expression in images of spatial boundaries being burst apart depends on a common-sense topology whose closed dualities render Europe’s deep historical entanglement with “other people in other places” invisible and opaque. The counter-assertion black Britons made in resistance – “we are here because you were there” (27) – spelled out an elementary lesson in geography and history. Along similar lines one might say the postcolonial topologies set into motion throughout Kader Attia’s practice lead to a concept of repair that is aligned neither with an idealist call for conciliatory healing nor a legal calculus that seeks reparation for the damage done by slavery and colonialism, but rather with a world-historical outlook in which it is understood that, if our futures are not predestined, then we have the ability to decide what happens next by virtue of choices we make here and now.
Demonstrating a sculptural sensibility attuned to the agency of voids that interrupt our expectations about navigating space, one of Attia’s early works, Ghost (2007), set forth a topology in which the gallery’s secular space was connected to a sacred space of worship, even as any passivity that might be associated with commonplace images of Muslim women in prayer was overturned since the massed figures had enough agency to block the viewer’s entry into the white cube. But the facelessness that confronts us in Ghost’s aluminium-fabricated figures is far from fear-inducing in the strange kind of feeling it provokes. If the face is a surface that prevents the formless contingencies of the human condition from spilling forth, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest when they see “faciality” as a plug that acts as a visual container for the infinite range of potentialities that are open to human identity, then Ghost’s sculptural voids are, in fact, portals into fresh possibilities open to us all. (28) As with each of the entrypoints into networks and flows which interconnect us with “other people in other places,” Attia’s topologies enliven our awareness of the infinities of becoming that are rendered available to consciousness once hidden continuities of point, line, and plane begin to unfold in new spatial constellations.