nothing too see
Installation 2015 at The Injuries are here, Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts de Lausanne, Lausanne
The issue of repair is now one major focus in my artistic research. I thought about it watching a mere piece of raffia cloth a friend gave me in Congo, in 1997. The peculiar thing about this traditional loincloth is that it is scattered with small western fabric “patches”, reminding of Vichy fabric. For years, I thought these elements were “just” decorations with unexpected aesthetics, bits of eastern modern material added like some sort of transplant on a traditional African piece of cloth. One day, I turned this ambivalent item around and discovered that behind each patch there was a hole due to excessive use. The patches are actually signs of both an aesthetic and ethical act: it is a repair. From then on I spent my life looking for such signs… It enabled me to discover the complexity of fixing, in traditional extra-western societies and in modern western societies as well. Objects, masks, intentional or unintentional physical injuries, all carry a repairing purpose changing from one culture to another. As a surgeon working in Paris, how do you understand this description of an inanimate, lifeless object; this loincloth mended by Kuba people in Congo with elements from a western culture? You also worked in Africa, if I am not mistaking.
The repair you are talking about is a passive one, it is the same as what we use in reconstructive surgery when we have to make up for a lack of skin with a self-transplant (meaning taken from the patient themselves). The result is quite variable on a cosmetic point of view because the skin always keeps the characteristics of where it came from; even if it sometimes perfectly merges with the surrounding skin, it can also leave an “imported part” impression, which is obviously not the expected result for a patient, who always dreams of an ad integrum restoration. The most elegant repairs often make use of what can be very complex scraps allowing true reconstruction of several tissues at the same time; these can perfectly mimic the original one. The most ancient repairs go back to three thousand years BC, in India, and to the 15th century, in Italy, back when “traditional” punishment consisted of completely amputating one’s nose.
The ultimate stage for this kind of operations was reached a few years ago in France with a complete facial homo transplant (from someone else), under the guise of a very heavy anti-rejection treatment, bringing into light as many technical and ethical issues: as a matter of fact, spending the rest of your life with someone else’s face is not easy at all! However, by checking on the first cases several years later, it appears this integration is absolutely possible. Let us not forget such patients are completely disfigured before the operation and have, therefore, already “lost their original face.”
To some extent, mending a piece of clothing with bits taken from another eventually falls under the same process: you keep one alive thanks to the other and inasmuch as you can sometimes be quite emotionally attached to the former. This reminds me of a Sicilian story I heard from Dominique Hernandez about that very poor woman who owned an apron since her wedding day, and it had been sewn back up so many times that her husband ended up giving her a new one as a gift: as a reaction she did not replace the old apron with the new one but used the latter to cut new bits and complete her patchwork up “to the end” (all in all meaning death)!
I always felt the polysemous characteristic in the repair concept. For from the act to the result, possible interpretations are infinite, as much in who sees the repairing as in who carries it out and who/what is being repaired. Yet, some fixed up cloth has no self-awareness of having been so, just like it is not conscious of being fabric. As for the seer, can they think about the piece of cloth as repaired in itself? Impossible.
What enables the human mind to picture one thing and/or concept, like fabric or wound fixing, is the intellectual and experimental relation existing between the repaired item and its repairer, just like between the repaired item and the seer. This relation called “correlation” by “modern” philosophy is what structures and rules over knowledge. What I find fascinating in this idea is the way the link established between two independent things is what distinguishes them just like it ties them to create knowledge of the thing by inference. Without correlation, knowledge would not exist.
Do you think correlation is a conceptual form of repair specific to intelligence, that it fills the abyss between intelligence and things? Speaking about modern western thought, could we say that, up to our contemporary days, modern western reconstructive surgery would be looking for the ethics of ad integrum restitution as the one and only standard for perfection, because it seems (according to your earlier example) to be the effect the patient wishes?
I humbly admit my intellectual inability to give answer to such a question. Usually, surgeons are pragmatic, not to say down-to-earth people, they are artisans interrogating themselves before, and sometimes even during, the operation. Yet, what distinguishes them from any other craftsman is that they must absolutely “finish the job” once they started! Despite what could be said, even when the patient as a demand for perfection, modesty should make us recognize the fact that the best result also comes from some personal part played by the person undergoing the operation. Ambroise Paré said this astonishingly humble and clear-sighted quote that proves to be a sort of guiding light throughout a practitioner’s career: “I bandaged him, and God healed him.” By the way, on a legal perspective, the final result matters less than what was done to get to it.
I spent a lot of time watching the amazing formal analogies one could find between soldier’s facial reconstructed wounds, such as the “gueules cassées”, or broken faces, during World War one, and African traditional masks. I show particular interest in the early years of the conflict because at the time, physicians like Hippolyte Maurestin, in France, or Dr J. Joseph, in Germany, quickly got overwhelmed by the increasing number of casualties. They had to fix fast and with rudimentary means, because they lacked equipment due to war and certainly to the technology available at the time.
What is striking in those reconstructions is their ethical and especially aesthetic dimension, their expression echoes African masks traditional repairs in which other constraints fashioned almost similar aesthetics…
That aesthetics was limited by the means at hand, and Claude Levi Strauss even called it a “patch-up job.” In Europe, that expressive aspect inherent to reconstructed war injuries, inspired expressionist painters like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. By seizing it they condemned the horrors of war and gave birth to an important artistic movement: German expressionism…
As I carried on my research, I discovered, especially with Dr J. Joseph from Berlin, that reconstructive surgery developed during World War one. A four year conflict is long, for soldiers and doctors as well. I was baffled by the physicians’ talent, not only by their skill but also their creativity that, sometimes thanks to single patch-up work, could do miracles…
Does your story about nose reparation fall under this kind of odd-jobs? What are the results? Could a patient attempting to hide his outlaw past manage to do it?
As terrible as the injuries were and as imperfect as the repairing was, a broken face led to certain respectability (for it brought to mind bravery, sacrifice and self sacrifice for your country, etc.). But things changed during World War two. After this conflict, priority was given to not showing signs or to hiding injuries the public could not have born to look at. At the same time, surgeons’ status changed as well: amputation champions under Napoleon (only chance of survival for soldiers with wounded limbs), claiming rightful status with the creation of the Red Cross by Henri Dunant who had been horrified by the butchery in Solferino, they benefitted from the shy but meaningful progress in anesthesia and the tottering surgery of bits seen during World War one and later managed to establish real rules in taking care of serious injuries during World War two.
I do not know if repairing amputated noses gave the operated victims a chance to change their social integration. We can assume it did whenever the result was skillful and discreet, but it must have been rare… Seeing the evolution of surgeons’ status throughout history is funny: during Antiquity, they were respected for their knowledge and boldness, then they were despised and put down to the same rank as barbers up until Renaissance (it is true they owned intellectual power in colleges but what they knew was based upon absolutely crazy theories that surely took more sick people to the grave than the disease itself). It would have taken surgeons to finally be able to cure Louis XIV’s anal fistula for them to win back a social position worthy of their talent!
Tracking down how some trades evolved in their social position throughout history is fascinating. Architects too have known various levels of acknowledgement depending on the time they lived in. I remember an interview of Auguste Perret complaining about architects’ status in the 20th century. They are not as praised as they used to be. In Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh would greet them almost like demigods, while nowadays they are just employees for local elected representatives or company managers… Still, apart from this acknowledgement you are mentioning with Louis XIV and his doctor, Félix de Tassy, to me, architecture sometimes seems to be sharing the same reason for being as surgery. You can find some kind of repair work in building. I am not only talking about reconstructing ancient ruins or renovating old modern buildings. I mean, what truly animates the human mind as both the factor and messenger of the evolution of its superiority over other species, through instinctive ethics urging it to compete against the laws of nature: building, enhancing, transforming, recreating, etc.
There are many possible analogies between the human body and architecture. According to philosophers like Michel Foucault, who expressed it in his lecture “Utopian Body”, body and mind are almost dissonant. The mind would be an inhabitant in the body the same way a body inhabits an architecture. Bernard, Kader, your relatives, mine, people outside, all the people you assimilate to their earthly body, are something else in reality. What you can perceive, their shell, only is a puppet controlled by their mind. Every living person is above all a “thinking mind.” Your body is not you, but the shell inhabited by your spirit. This idea can be contradicted, and Michel Foucault himself does it in the second part of his lecture.
Nevertheless, I would like to come back to an example you quoted earlier. This story raised up several questions I would like to ask you…
It was about a transplant on somebody who had been attacked by a dog, causing the said person to be disfigured. The operation consisted of transplanting someone else’s face. You said both body and mind could react negatively to such a graft, hence the necessity of complex medical disease prevention along with serious psychological follow-up care. Is there a double consciousness of the repair by the body and also the mind, or is it just a matter of medical ethics? I particularly recall a Cameroonian friend’s father who had been transplanted with someone else’s organ. He never psychologically accepted having something he could not see but that seriously felt like some alien presence inside of him… Eventually, his body never managed to accept the graft and he died. Are there situations where the mind welcomes the graft while the body does not, or vice versa? Does this particular face transplant, along with what it implies in matters of “acceptation and reject” by body and mind, fall under repairing or is it pure creation? In other words, when you transplant a new face, or new hands, on a body that has lost its original parts, does the surgeon only fix it or does he create some new being?
I would like to reassure you right away: there is no such thing as a “Pygmalion-surgeons”…or if there is, such a physician’s behavior is clearly due to pathological perversion. Literature is full of these kinds of myths, from Faust to Frankenstein, where man thinks he can act like God. In this respect, I cannot resist telling you a joke: “do you know the difference between God and a surgeon? There is not, except that God does not think he is a surgeon.” There is a tendency to fantasize about our power as surgeons. Actually, we have none, we only have duties, and the most important one is to act properly for the sake of whoever gave us their trust. Everything else is but literature… We have been overwhelmed for several years now with so many fantastical visions – that tend to be more or less pathological – and they do not help in improving our image. About this (is it coincidence?), for our next convention, set in Tours in late May, ORLAN will deliver a lecture I would gladly attend, but more out of curiosity than real interest mind you. Her trade is not mine, I leave her with full responsibility for that and do not want to be involved in that kind of approach. Still, I know some fellow physicians cannot resist such an extra, and perhaps they would need a bit of psychoanalytical flashlight, too!
No face transplant falls under creation, or maybe “re-creation”, meaning restoration-reparation. Nevertheless, this does not prevent one to wonder, of course, for our actions sometimes have an unexpected impact on a patient’s behavior. We always hope it will be a positive one, but with experience, you get to learn it can also be deleterious, probably because we did not really get what lied underneath this demand for reparation. Once you are more experimented, such consequences are seldom but one never knows! As far as I am concerned, I also chose this specialty for the psychological support it implies, as well as the impossibility to cheat with the result.
Perhaps the myth of Pygmalion surgeons comes from the fact they walk alongside death, and most of the times, cast it back to where it came from. They sometimes have out of size ego. Artists too have variable ego sizes, in the difference that they do not save lives. Their works create a vanishing point with the horizons of thought and emotion, but it remains mere representation, staging. Mankind’s superiority lies in the ability to bring science and art both in harmony and dichotomy… Everything can be measured and then explained with mathematics. Everything but Art. Not only contemporary art, but truly all artistic initiative without exception, from arts wrongly called primitive to the ones excessively considered as “major.” This is the reason why I am interested in the incursion of artistic process into the field of science. I mean, for example, a sculptor reconstructing and imagining down to the last detail what a broken face torn up part looked like in order for the surgeon to follow that lead and fix that face or order resin prosthesis. I saw such prosthetic items from World War one in Val de Grâce Hospital, in Paris.
What I find interesting here, is not only what you humbly mentioned as the artisanal part of your profession, but also the borderline between art and science, and honestly, between beauty and its opposite. All in all, the issue of beauty.
You work in Paris, but I heard you also go to Africa with an association aiming at fixing children’s smiles (or do you also perform all kinds of surgery on adults and children there?). Could you tell us a little more about this fantastic action you carry alongside your Parisian activities? What does it imply to help people who do not have the means to access facial surgery? I guess you involve your professional experience in both an ethical and aesthetical perspective…
And secondly – this question is a bit more sensitive – what can you say about beauty with the example I am about to give you? For several years now, I have been working on what is called “sickness masks” in Central, West, East and Southern Africa, and Asia (from Tibet to Indonesia), and I would not be surprised to find some in Japan as well. A mask representing a sick person’s face has got a very meaningful place. Some of these objects had a real impact on the evolution of 20th century western thought…
Pende people from Congo, even created the legend, and it might be true in fact, that such items directly influenced Picasso’s “The Young Ladies of Avignon”, the iconic painting of cubism golden age. If extra-western societies show sickness, it is surely in order to exorcise it, but especially to give it a noticeable position in public space: it is like acknowledging illness and giving it a social and material, as well as immaterial, almost divine, value. Sickness masks faces are misshapen, twisted and expressive, not to say expressionist. With off-the-wall aesthetics, they mark what the modern western mind finds asymmetric, anomalous, almost repulsive… They remind me of aesthetics concerns and social issues broken faces had to undergo in their after war life. Jacques Derrida said that human physical beauty is certainly what is truly rare. Perfect face symmetry is seldom, therefore it is beautiful…beautiful and rare, perhaps as much as a totally asymmetric face could be.
According to you, what is beauty in reconstructive surgery, is it primarily born from the surgeon’s personal choices or from societal codification?
Now, this is some delicate inquiry, and it questions the very notion of beauty: is it a gift from nature, a product of personal effort, a cultural footprint? Certainly a bit of all that. On the contrary to what people usually think, you must first approach the idea of beauty with lots of doubts and yet, some certitudes. First, beauty transcends the ages: even when you want to bring into contrast Rubens’ voluptuous Venus and Giacometti’s ascetic ones, you soon realize beauty is immanent, it imposes itself throughout history. Be it Nefertiti’s famous bust exhibited in Berlin, Praxiteles’ reproductions, faithful paintings of Agnès Sorel and so many others…who could possibly have a look at them and think “peuh, not that good…” ? Beauty is fascinating and repulsive, attractive and frightening, it is a grace one must use carefully, or a destructive weapon to whoever gets to be seduced (the devil’s beauty).
Strangely, it is rejected by our Judeo-Christian society…and yet it is worshipped by it. To those who tell me “after all, it is nature that made us the way we are, so we should not try and question God’s work”, I reply “our religion allows us to represent God, his son and his sanctified disciples in a glorified way: oddly enough, I never saw a painting of Jesus with sticking-out-ears, a crooked nose, or as a fat person.” And if you happened to be in such disgrace, would not you ask for “reparation” (also meaning “redressing injustice”)? Of course, as far as I know, there are several levels of appreciation according to civilizations…and needs. However, when you travel around the world, you soon realize beauty sometimes compellingly stands out by itself. Like a sort of masterpiece that is unfortunately temporary, but that you agree to behold without jealousy. I find it hard sometimes, but then I just play the part of the spectator who is simply happy to meet grace and exception!
I will conclude by saying that the purpose of aesthetic surgery is not to “bring beauty” (because what standards should we follow?) but harmony. By the way, such a demand is quite reasonable in France and only very few patients come with tabloid pages to use as model! Plus, those kinds of needs are quite dubious because they can lead to dysmorphophobia, which cannot be solved.
I always believed the apex of human civilization was ante-monotheist. As soon as the notion of a unique God appeared, human beings never stopped dogmatizing relations between people, from the social sphere to the intimate one, to finally control them through morals. Homosexuality, for instance, only was stigmatized and demonized after the advent of monotheisms. Greco-roman civilizations left us obvious proof about that. As a humanist photograph, I found interest in people from all confessions and sexual identities. A few years ago, I directed a movie with a transsexual friend of mine, who had been dreaming for years of going in India or Pakistan to meet with the Hijras. Originally, Hijras are men who enter an Ashram where they live with other men who took the decision never to live as males again, but as Hijras. When you do not know about them, they seem to live as women, but when you happen to spend some time with them, they will tell you “I am neither male nor female, I am hijras.”
Progress in plastic surgery does not only concern face, but body and genital organs transplants as well, it goes way further than breast implants we all know about. What does it mean, to a surgeon, to graft elements that were not on a body, but that people want because they utterly need them for personal reasons? When Dr Joseph, in Germany, or Dr Maurestin, in France, fixed broken faces during the war, I guess their actions embodied some sort of an ethical mission, and also some kind of exhilaration, a technical challenge for them to take up. And especially, they mended something that had been destroyed by a bullet or shrapnel. Sometimes, the purpose of transplantation is for a missing part to be replaced. I really like yours mentioning the artisan’s thorough mind and I have one final question for you.
To you, and on the perspective of repair, what does it mean to take male genital organs off a man who always felt a woman deep down inside, or to add flesh on female genital organs on a woman who is convinced to be a man? Unless I am mistaking, for I am not really knowledgeable on the technical parts of the matter, it appears that on the one hand, the surgeon is taking parts off, and on the other hand, he is adding things. From that on, could we say he is repairing?
From a technical point of view, a man-woman transformation is relatively easy and often so well done that it can even deceive your most intimate relatives, even gynecologists. Meanwhile, the other way around is way much harder, even though complicated and bold tricks may give partial illusion…but hardly…
In France, this sort of surgery follows serious rules and the procedure takes a lot of time. Indeed, you need a surgical-psychiatric-endocrinologist collegial permission for the act to be taken into consideration; this requires years of patience, mostly because of the psychiatric expertise, which actually is the key in such a situation. Once you have this permission, change in identity must be granted by State administration before the operation. The operation proves to be a major part of the process, but when making a man a woman, it is common to perform a reversible act, such as grafting breast implants or reducing Adam’s apple, in order for patients to get used to inhabiting their new personality beyond mere clothing. Also note that if you follow these official rules, the intervention is taken care of by healthcare services.
In margin of this “authentic” process certainly are less official operations with no psychological or psychiatric care. Those can lead to dead ends you have absolutely no control upon, to utter sexual misery and often suicide. So, as far as I am concerned, it seems fundamental to wrap this process up with long and thorough follow-up care during which the surgeon, though he seems to be playing the most essential part, has no right to say anything about the actual decision.
As for saying we mend things, this is what a psychiatrist could say about our trade. At best, surgeons bring balance between patients’ personal convictions and the attributes they are claiming! This enthralling issue inspired so many pieces of literature, and it obviously has nothing to do with what the public usually confuses with transvestitism. Then again, the fantasy box is wide open and the technical surgeon must remain careful…yet open-minded!
Bernard Mole, Plastic Surgeon, in France, is a founding member of the French Society of Plastic and Aesthetic Surgeons (SOFCEP). Former Paris Hospitals’ intern and later head of the Faculty Clinic, he has conducted research and fellowships on several topics such as clinical applications for the human epidermis growing. A precursor practitioner, he’s the main IMCAS Paris Course Coordinator regarding Plastic Surgery teaching materials for several years. As of today, he’s a renowned physician, specialized in plastic and reconstructive surgery. He is the national secretary for France of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS). He divides his time between his local practice and his humanitarian activities.
Published in the Kader Attia Catalogue : Signes de réappropriation, BlackJack Edtions
Any plastic material conveys socio-political meanings, even when its forms are clean, simple, seemingly anodyne and neutral, as though completely transparent. Donald Judd amongst others never ceased to assert this, thereby showing the error of excessively formalist readings of his work. In addition to the fact that a majority of receivers feigns time and again to separate content and form, content and appearance, or meaning and representation, such an attitude pushes us into the trap we wish to avoid, since the dichotomy is due in large part to socio-political prejudice. Seeing only form at the expense of content is not the result of the « intention of the piece », much less of its author who always produces form to some degree, but of a prior decision on behalf of the receiver who does not question himself as to the possible or impossible aesthetic legitimacy of the break, nor on the implicit criteriae which, conversely, might drive him to highlight the moral, ethical and socio-cultural stakes of the object in ignoring shape. Strictly remaining on the practical-sensorial or on the practical-moral level leads to two fatal errors : aestheticizing the object for various purposes which de-semanticize it and not being able to judge of its success or failure as a piece of art.
Kader Attia’s pieces bind the autonomy of the work and the social fact together not only because we produce all sorts of things which are full of various meanings – at this level the work of art cannot distinguish itself from these things other than by a certain qualitative measure – but especially because the artist works in a field where politics, economics and religion intersect, and he therefore cannot ignore the ideologies and visions of reality which arise from it under the pretext that we are in the supposedly magnifying world of art. Beyond the issues of Muslim culture’s more or less conflictual relationships with secularism, finance, money, democracy, civil liberties, women’s rights, among many other contentious issues, Kader Attia’s work touches on deeper structures of our imagination, our values and our practices. Structurally or anthropologically speaking, we find similar problems at the point where we thought they had disappeared, all the more so in that they move around, modify themselves and emerge elsewhere in forms which, literally and figuratively, ultimately express the nature of these very same problems.
Thus, in the Halal series with its products and its voluntarily derived by-products, we saw the conditioned reaction to the commodification of everything and anything, since clothing could become a brand under the powerful pressure of supply and demand. Whether they were food or clothing items, or objects originally intended for a use defined by religious rules, it appeared that not only did being labeled «halal» endow them with an aura that the trading system couldn’t give them, but that furthermore, this whole merchandising operation was fully accepted, recognized, justified, and sanctified. Religions, monotheistic or not, give a symbolic and market value to hundreds of objects, usually junk, supposedly in order to strengthen faith while at the same time filling coffers. A number of dominant religions impose their earthly power simply because they have money, either clean or dirty, involved in the vast system of neoliberalism. This was evident, for example, during a period of the severe financial crisis (2010-2012), when civil society, institutions, industries and banks had to tighten their belts, submit to restrictions and economic austerity, but it was in no way possible to touch the material assets of either the Greek Orthodox Church, or those of the Vatican. This makes sense, since «his kingdom is not of this world.» The money from the other world must not, therefore, be given to the needy who ultimately must take responsibility for the financial mistakes of their earthly world.
All religions are also businesses which make a profit because symbolic power is one of the communicating vessels of commodity fetishism that is greatly abstracted into the highly symbolic value of capital. It is neither an inevitable reversal nor an error, but a perfect match between the material spectacle of goods and the symbolic spectacle of belief. In order for the miracle of the transfiguration of the material into the symbolic, and in particular, as fundamental dramaturgy would have it, for the transfiguration of the symbolic into the material to take place, the spectacle must occur. Common man is neither an ascetic, a hermit, a martyr nor a penitent. Contrary to what is often argued, faith requires tangible, palpable, and concrete proof which can attest to the unverifiable, the hereafter, and the transcendent. The unseen is proved by the visible. The intangible by the material value. Or, as Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable: «It is easier to build a temple than to make the deity appear in it.» Thus, we increase the number of temples we build in inverse proportion to the absence of their object: the presentification of the void.
But is it so strange to think that religion and the capitalist system are both based on symbolic and abstract values which exist because we believe in them? In the eyes of someone who believes in heaven, the presentification of the void is the essence of his faith and it could not be otherwise. For the atheist, this void and its presentification are confined to superstition coupled with market fetishization, which extends to the socio-political field. As can be seen on a daily basis, it is absolutely wrong to say that the spiritual is separated from the material, that being is not contaminated by having. It is no secret that Islamic religious practices in the middle classes and the upper classes are very often a front and that what is done in private is exactly the opposite of what these practices prescribe. Depending on whether one is rich, comfortable, modest or poor, precepts have neither the same weight nor, indeed, the same value. This situation is echoed in other religions and societies. Instead of being emancipatory, religions continue to be the main engine of social hierarchy (think of the caste system in India), of maintaining order, of permanent constraints, senseless rules, heavy and obsolete prohibitions, of a kind of contemporary feudal system in which the spiritual promises supposedly made to one and all create a huge system of market equivalence. Ultimately the owners of capital always benefit and accumulate material wealth which is not redistributed to the general public. In the main, the public feeds on spirituality, as is the case, for example, in the majority of the population of Latin America, which, in fact, has no other option.
If, as many economists believe, the violence of human passions has been diverted to benefit the search to satisfy one’s own interests and the maximizing of one’s own material well-being, it is clear that self interest dominates the quest for disinterestedness, for gratuity, altruism, and mutual aid. Moreover, these ideas may only be found in a text that prescribes the true path. Islam still forbids usury and interest, but it has not been difficult to circumvent religious law, and therefore morality and ethics, to increase property and investments in order to speculate without remorse and develop capital by making significant gains. The accumulation of capital is thus consistent with Islamic law. By means of an often twisted interpretation along the lines of the dominance of material values, these naturally lead to various hedonisms to which the capitalist system is supposed to give us access, so that none can be surprised that Kader Attia’ neon sign, where the word «mosque» alternates with the word «nightclub» (Mosque / Night Club), represents two sides of the same coin. Through ironic, sarcastic, and especially lucid pieces, one of the characteristics of Attia’s work is to expose the double bind in which the contemporary generation is caught. It isn’t so much that this generation has a hard time choosing between so-called modernity – the wonderful neoliberal world – and such and such traditional society, but because it chooses the capitalist society as if there were no other solution. As leaders on all sides and all religions continually repeat, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s sinister formula: “There is no alternative”.
Capital and religion have in common, at the very least, the fact that they are based on an absence, an abstraction, an imaginary construct, or an emptiness, what Marx called “the supersensible sensitive” drawing an analogy between both terms. For Marx, fetishism, and even the «mystique of the goods», are imaginary and abstract representations in which the relationships between men are substituted with the value ratios between things. The more importance is given to the supersensible things the greater their persuasiveness.
Hence the analogy between religious fetishism and commodity fetishism : «The religious world is but a reflection of the real world. A society in which the product of work usually takes the form of goods and in which, therefore, the most frequent relationship between producers is to compare the values of their products and under this envelope, to compare their private work with each other as equal human labor, such a society may find in Christianity with its cult of abstract man, and especially in its bourgeois types such as Protestantism, deism , etc., the most suitable form of religion.»(1) In today’s terms, when Kader Attia literally shapes the supersensible out of the sensible – i.e, the work he creates – he deals with that which is the central concern of people torn between being and having, spirituality and materialism, namely with an empty signifier. This signifier is a product of the human imagination understood as a temporary and material substitute for a supersensible world, also entirely invented, which thus creates a double fetishization of goods and the invisible. Nonetheless, it is a meaning that almost everyone wants to achieve in order to possess it and especially to use it in order to improve their existence, although it is empty by nature, will remain empty and will deliver only emptiness.
But which emptiness are we talking about? Kader Attia’s work is situated in the Chinese philosophy of Lie-tseu’s True Classic of Perfect Void, of Lacan’s empty signifier, or also in the criticism of the great void of the speculation that enables Capital to function at full power. Having understood the double discourse of other notions of the mortified voids, since they are made up of pure appearance and illusion, and as if he were adopting an attitude of non-action in relation to them, Kader Attia opposes them with work which is just as equally empty, but which is not filled, so to speak, with a similar void.
With an efficiency worthy of a Taoist aphorism, Kader Attia plays subtly and quite literally – hence the dialectic of action and non-action – with real life situations. These situations are depicted, for instance, in The Void, a photograph showing arches through which we see a mosque, and in its counterpart, The Complete, where huge slabs of concrete block a street in the neighbourhood of a Palestinian territory, specifically in Ramallah. We might obviously think of, wit almost obligatory reference, Yves Klein’s exhibition Void which was immediately followed by the exhibition Complete by his friend Arman who filled that same gallery with rubbish. Additionally, the socio-political importance of Klein’s material, spiritual and mystical Void both opposes and complements Arman’s material and disgusting Complete; in short, two antagonistic visions of society.
For it is indeed a representation of the social, its practice and its uses, which we tend to quickly move away from in favour of post- and neo-eclectic movements derived from pop, from assemblage, and Dadaism, movements which are themselves already embalmed and museified even though they expressed and still express socio-political positions. To paraphrase Marx, our relationship to human history is not mainly about the true or truth but about practicality. And the void is an integral part of practicality, as has already been said for a long time in the Tao To King (2):
«Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub,
But it is the centre hole
That renders the care useful
We shape clay to make vases,
But it on the hollow space within
That their use depends
We build a house by cutting out
Doors and windows,
But again it is on the void which
Its use depends.
Thus «what is» constitutes
The possibility of every thing,
«what is not»
constitutes its function.»
Philosophical meditation like artistic creation is therefore above all practical. We have to invent, imagine, and think, but especially to be doing, to be in action, embodiment, and effectuation. In order for this to happen, there is no need for huge aesthetic machinery or grand objects, simple grocery bags are enough, placed just as they are in a venue, or given shape through drawing. The bags presented and designed by Kader Attia are empty, dangling, soft, and perfect. Their total banality and platitude cannot even qualify as a postmodern conceit. Because they are empty, they can be used for all kinds of uses and functions, and therefore it is indeed on the «internal void that its use depends», which any follower of the Way would certainly recognize.
This void creates uses ranging from the most detrimental to the most convenient, so it is quite clear that their utility depends, in the literal and figurative sense, on what is placed inside it. Their outer form will be based on the things they contain. When they contain nothing, they take on, paradoxically, the shape of this thing. And because there is nothing in these bags, all kinds of imaginary projections, more or less fair and legitimate, are allowed. They are then filled with these things imagined by the audience, which, hopefully, are not nothing, of nothing or nothing. The belief that these bags are uninteresting is immediately contradicted by the vast socio-economic and socio-political processes through which environmental, commercial, advertising, and ethical issues are synthesized by this strange profession we call “packaging”. We can sell you anything and everything if the packaging is attractive. It is more important and valuable than its content. Packing void reaps millions on a daily basis. These millions are themselves quite real.
In the installation Ghost, the empty aluminum envelopes which remain after the bodies of the models are removed also pertain to what the receiver places there. The emptying may be viewed as both that which takes part in the external material form and in a symbolic form literally built around this void and its envelope. We do not know if in fact they were men or women, although we inevitably think of women’s clothing, such as molded on women in prayer. Usually, only the women wear several scarves – like leaves here – that hide and cover their hair, whether in Islamic practices or in some Christian practices such as during Holy Week in Spain. If we refer to the title, Ghost, then we might have figures of prostrating – or at least kneeling – ghosts. Why women ghosts, and why so many? Why those sheets of aluminium, a ductile and lightweight material, often used for protection? Kader Attia has achieved one of his most striking and plastically successful pieces with almost nothing, with a void to be filled with meaning. Or emptied of meaning. The strength of this work lies precisely in the absence of the body of which only the ghostly shell remains, a final avatar of the concrete presence of missing beings, broken, faded, and dead. Upon initial viewing of the piece we might actually think of of dead women. Specters of women. Absence is part of presence.
In order for the artist to fill the empty space with void – as he claims to have done – it was necessary to appropriate and occupy the venue in order to make present the void which, paradoxically, could not have appeared and become visible if these carnal husks had not been placed there. If you see these hundreds of bodies or figures of bodies in prayer from the back, their mass and luminosity fill the place powerfully. As seen from the front, so to speak, since they do not have faces, the same elements reverse immediately into their opposites since these contours, these envelopes, and these clothes do not contain anything. It was necessary for the nothing or the internal void to take on an external shape – as in the vase, or in architecture – for that which is not there, not seen and yet which addresses us like a human figure signaling itself as absent, to become sensible. Each envelope seems to say: I’m here in my absence and by my absence. I am my absence.
We can not elide readings of Ghost which might view it as a denunciation of some of the servitudes of woman – including religion and morality – because in fact we are dealing with a large group of women in close ranks who seem to be either submitting to an authority, or, conversely, ready to rebel. We can only reject these possible interpretations if we are wary of the fatal separation previously discussed in which we only see the content at the expense of form. The notion of «content» is apt here since it refers to an empty content for each object and a content filled with voids with regards to the locus of representation. The language is also misleading: they are not women nor even metaphors for women, they are above all fictional objects. For everything that we see plays on this ambivalence in which we perceive both an excessively present object and an absent being. These things are not literal, precisely because they are things, nothing but aluminium foil to be filled with what we want like common plastic bags. The object is present but the being is defective. The Being is literally hollow – a person was a living model for an envelope which thus refers to it – without delivering a figure, a face, that which grants human beings their humanity. No face, no being. But these women whose faces are hidden, or who willfully conceal them, are not things. Kader Attia absolutely knows this, artistically and as a citizen, and it would be a reductive assessment of this work to view in it only a denunciation of the status of Arab women. To the extent that one could quite understand this deletion of the face from a Jewish perspective, specifically that of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose thinking attaches fundamental importance to the face of others. This is an unexpected connection but no more so than those established by Levinas between the Jewish tradition and the contemplation on phenomenology from which he philosophically originates and through which the idea has developed – from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty and Sartre – that I am constituted by the gaze of the Other. I exist in large part through the gaze focused on me, through a vis-à-vis, a concrete flesh and blood face-to-face. Once we get past our surprise at the objects in Ghost, which are ultimately only rolled up and stacked up materials which have taken on a human shape, our confusion, embarrassment, perhaps our discomfort arises from the fact that I am not viewed by others as might be expected, and in return, I can not watch a full representation of another. The void constitutes me, or more exactly, the gaze of the void or of this empty thing constitutes me. The great plastic and aesthetic intensity of Ghost stems from the fact that I am perceived by all these assembled voids, and the question is literally to know by which void I am in turn constituted.
No faces or bodies, no interiors or consistency, yet this group, which one hesitates to refer to as people or beings, has an overwhelming presence. In fact, these hollow sculptures are true impressions of someone, their form is that of a living being, the trace or residue of this contact and a temporary recovery. The material is extremely fragile, ephemeral, very malleable, very resistant, it can be reduced to almost nothing, a few balls or heaps, as we know through use. We are ultimately neither stronger nor more permanent than these aluminum sheets, these sculptures of void in which we can see the final image of our emptiness.
These bright, luminous, frankly spectacular sculptures which capture the reflections of the surrounding lights, are reminiscent of a certain tradition of baroque silver statues on which the scarcity of material vies with the vanitas. One cannot also help but think of the Western iconography that represents Death, usually a skeleton, completely covered from head to toe in a long cloth. However much fun we poke at these aesthetic games which seem distant, from a bygone era, it does not change anything to our condition, we will all die. We’re here, walking in the room and looking at these ghostly things and we can disappear forever in the blink of an eye.
What affects us physically in the empty presentified void of Ghost is a possible shape, although palpable and present, of our finitude. It is not the skulls, flowers and hourglasses which give us the image of the passage of time, the fragility of our existence, but precisely that which seems to wrap up existence, contain it, hold it inside until the container fades away. The presence is part of the absence. The aesthetic and artistic experience of the sculptures is diverse, and must primarily be an aesthetic and artistic experience, a most material and sensory experience that does not point to the supersensible, since it is, on the contrary, a live interaction between our own bodies and these envelopes of absent bodies. The number of sculptures also affects the presence-absence games and makes us feel even more sharply that we don’t amount to much against this army of ghosts. We all know that life is fleeting but we still do not see it. We prefer denial. Ambition, wealth, and power do not protect us from death, and all these themes that are considered trite cannot change our status, our destiny, and our purpose.
We have learned nothing from multisecular formulas, such as the the Latin adage which asserts:»certain Death, uncertain hour» (Mors certa, hora incerta). Ghost’s great achievement is to make sensitive, to shape esthesiologically so to speak, the confrontation with our finitude, and our futility. In this sense, the envelopes may certainly be understood as that which surrounds and contains the void, and the void is that by which they took shape, but also the incorporation of the void. The envelope does not truly have an inside or an outside, but is rather, the thin, weak and fragile joint between being and non-being, visible and invisible, presence and absence and, quite naturally, between full and empty. These experiments are supported by sheets that are 0.02 mm thick.
They are clearly feminine forms, and only feminine (no men or children), so that the risk of a literal understanding can reappear again and drag a gendered interpretation of the work. The first is that women are physically separated from men during prayer and that we might have a representation of such a moment here. This is a possible reading and in fact a legitimate one which should be approached from a critical angle: religious inequalities may take the form of these envelopes making manifest the objectification of women. That clothes which are more or less closed are recognized by some activists or intellectuals (such as Tahar Ben Jelloun who has spoken on this issue several times) as indeed being a reification of women’s bodies and, more broadly speaking, a denial of their civil liberties, immediately involves an attack on the shapes of the body through that which covers it. We have a plastic body, a shape, a physical structure, a configuration – what Merleau-Ponty sums up perfectly by saying that we are also a Gestalt – and controlling this external shape inevitably leads to a grasp on what it contains, both on the moral and on the physical levels. The forms are not only here in the pieces and as though detached from the concrete Gestalt of the models, rather, they are their image and their imprint.
Both perfectly singular and repetitive, these forms apply to each individual body and to all the bodies in Ghost, to the bodies of human beings in general. If, as Roland Barthes remarked about clothes that they are «a self-image that is worn on our selves», it is quite different if the image, that is this form, is imposed on me by another that is not always benevolent, friendly and my equal. I am then truly attacked in my image and in my representation. It is then no longer the forms I have chosen that are delivered to the gaze and the touch of others, but a social image that has been adopted for me without my consent. This imaginary form is also a void that is filled by good will, projections and fantasies that are foreign to me. My real and tangible body is then emptied of its substance, of its flesh, feelings and desires, and I present only a meaningless external image in all respects, since it is not connected to my true – i.e chosen – self-image. This refers of course to societies where strict religious rules are applied, and where it happens, as it does in Sudan, according to Article 152 of The Criminal Code adopted in 1991, that «whosoever commits an indecent act, an act that violates public morality or wears indecent clothing” is liable to forty lashes, most notably for having worn a simple pair of trousers(3). The law refers to «any person», but in most cases, it refers to women, since men are, of course, never indecent.
Let us repeat: those who choose and adopt clearly and knowingly the wearing of, in every sense of the word, forms and images of themselves through their social and cultural codes are fortunately free to do so. However, to authoritatively impose on others their forms and their images goes beyond the framework of a free and tolerant faith, freedom and the self determinations of each and every person. To attack mundane forms of clothing, simple envelopes of signs that, by nature and definition, must circulate in order to freely make sense of duty and power, attacks the various forms of life. Having power over or thinking that one has some rights on the forms of life of others is therefore not only spiritual, mental or intellectual. Control wants to appear in a concrete form, and in order to do so, must itself take shape inside other shapes, even if it creates empty forms which it will fill according to necessity. In order to become that power and control, taking on a form is necessary, which proves once more, that forms, all forms, are not neutral. By controlling the form it is already possible to enslave a large part of the container, thereby enslaving a being, a life, a psychophysical form. Ghost is an immanent critique – in the formed and forming object – a taking shape that can shift other forms of life which are by nature, mobile, modifiable, changeable and which continuously escape a definite representation into submission.
Fixing a form consists in preventing the container from being able to modify itself, and in doing so, of modifying the external envelope. Hence a completely different reading could be made of Ghost, which the installation exposes literally: in order to prevent the external form from changing, the container is emptied out. This omits the fact that the formative form is corelated to the formed form; a form is always a form of something else or of a person. Without being formalistic, Kader Attia does not forsake this problem, which attracts even more attention because the hollow of each sculpture immediately leads us to ask of what or of whom is this form the form?
Every artist manipulates shapes practically, as is Kader Attia’s case here with sheets of aluminum foil, which relates to forms of life which are reconfigured, sometimes in very different art forms. We are beings who take shape daily in order to live, and this recurrence of taking shape, which we might also call plasticity, can be found in the forms we produce, make, and manipulate, in order for them to keep at varying degrees, the traces of our own forms.. All the objects around us are just the negative taking shape of our bodies, they are our own inverse corporeal shapes. Architecture and urbanism, on which Kader Attia also works, are perfect examples of the complementarity of forms. If the forms of Ghost are the practical result of forms of life, practical in that the form must be accomplished, must be formed in the literal and metaphorical senses, life is essentially a practice of forms, by forms and with forms. In insisting upon the envelope and thereby highlighting the hollow, Kader Attia eradicates any formalist aestheticising of the sculptures, so that their voids become, so to speak, their principal form. The void is that which enables what we see on the outside. From the void emerges the being of the forms. Since this void is also physically invisible and relates to non visible or present bodies, we might think about the proof of the visible by the invisible.
Generally speaking, every day things, such as the air we breathe, our daily acts of freedom, are so present and obvious that they are no longer perceptible, and have become invisible. Speaking in strinkingly plastically similar terms to Kader Attia’s process Gunther Anders comments on those things which form the basis of our existence through the voice of a character in his novel The Catacombe of Molussia (4). Of those actions and facts which are the positive aspects of existence – contrary to sickness, for instance, which is a negative aspect immediately visible and perceptible – it can be affirmed that «the positive is invisible». The benefits of life, our individual and social freedom, our lives, are so evident that they are invisible to ourselves, and it is only when they are restricted or when we miss them, that we become aware of their existence. In this way, the invisible, the loss and the void, revive their dynamic roles. Our carnal presence in the word is a primordial source of the fullness of our beings, and the positive in Ghost is the body which is both form and container of our life and our existence which is also invisible. If the body is lacking – because it may be stigmatised as guilty and guilt making – our whole being lacks those hollows which are as many absences of the positive of corporal interaction. The other is also lacking, but this lack is understood as a call to presence which highlights the positive character. The relative negativity, absence or obliteration which could be perceived in Ghost can thus materially reverse itself in the sculptural object, because our carnal positive is so present that it becomes the invisible which has become visible through the void. An invisible and empty positive is the possible definition of the ghost of the other.
Translated from french by Vanessa Ackerman
Jacinto Lageira is professor of Aesthetics at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and art critic.
1. Karl Marx, Capital (1867), Volume 1 “The development of capitalist production, 1st section: merchandise and money. Chapter 1: Merchandise, IV- The Fetishization of merchandise and its secret. Translation J Roy, reviewed by K Marx.http://www.marxists.org/francais/marx/works/1867/Capital-I/kmcapI-I-4.htm
2. Lao-Tseu, Tao-tö King, transl. Liou Kia-hway, reviewed by Étiemble, Paris, Gallimard, La Pléiade, Philosophes taoïstes, 1980, p. 13. (translator’s own)
3. http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2009/11/28/ ; http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/DEPAFP20091128T130142Z/
According to Amnesty, thousands of women are arrested each year: tp://www.amnesty.org/fr/node/18595
Read about a different perspective at: http://lecoran.over-blog.com/article-soudan-20-coups-de-fouet-pour-2-femmes en-pantalon-38571189.html
4. Die molussische Katakombe. Roman (1932-1936), C. H. Beck, Munich, 1992. Some extracts of the text, included the text quoted here, were used in Nicolas Rey’s film, Autrement, la Molussie, 2012.
Writing published in «RepaiR«, edited by Kader Attia and Léa Gauthier, BlackJack Editions
The legal notion of reparations for historical wrongs is a product of US jurisprudence that is now recognized and applied internationally. Its claim is that History is now subject to trial, that reparations can now be sought on the basis of historical prejudice materially, politically and symbolically.
Sculpture, cabinet, stuffed animals (monkeys), Dogon mask, various objects
MMK Frankfurt 2016
Sculpture, wooden Dogon mask, mirror, metal base
CCC de Tours
Installation 2015 at The Injuries are here, Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts de Lausanne, Lausanne
Kader Attia’s large, multi-media installation The Repair: From Occidental to Extra-Occidental Cultures, shown at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany in 2012, was articulated around a series of striking, unsettling juxtapositions. On the one hand, there were photographs of horribly mutilated, scantly reconstructed faces of survivors of the battlefields of the First World War. On the other hand, there were artefacts – totems, sculptures, toys and tools – from different cultures of the former colonies in Africa that had undergone different processes of makeshift repair. In a projection at the far end of the exhibition space, images detailing the gruesome results of improvised, desperate attempts at reconstructive surgery – faces torn apart by gunshots or shrapnel, then pieced together with remnants of live tissue and skin– were thus shown next to pictures of shattered wooden pots simply sutured with cord, or a sculpture whose eyes were replaced with buttons from a French overcoat.
In Kassel, these images were shown in a room filled with archival shelves and old-fashioned display cases, in a design evoking a storage space and an ethnographic museum from the age of the empires. On the shelves were books on topics ranging from anthropology to African (‘primitive’) art and the history of surgery, bolteddown, as if to signal that the installation was a system of signs rather than a library or an archive (which would have entailed a wholly different mode of spectatorship). There were also artefacts as well as new busts, commissioned by Attia from artisans in Bamako and Brazzaville, which were apparently modelled from the reconstructed faces from the First World War photographs. For Attia, the installation at dOCUMENTA (13) announced a new sequence of projects, all working from the bold assumption that repair, rather than progress or evolution (or decline, for that matter), is the very principle of historical development, in culture and nature alike – in politics, botany and similarly in art.
For his project at the Whitechapel Gallery – a building that formerly housed a library – Attia has devised an installation that according to him, extends this research into a different register. Here, a system of open bookshelves surround a large cabinet, on top of which is placed a fluorescent light tube. Mirrors above and below the tube create an endless reflection, suggesting a staircase leading upwards, infinitely. Engravings and books in the cabinet spell out Attia’s implied reference: Jacob’s ladder, the staircase that, according to the Book of Genesis (28:12) appeared in a dream before the patriarch, on which he saw angels ascending toward heaven. The titles on the bookshelves indicate that the biblical image is employed here for its metaphorical value – as an event of miraculous rupture with continuity and the logic of ordinary existence – as much as for its properly doctrinal significance: there are books on everything from the theory of evolution and the structure of scientific revolutions to the psychology of artistic creation or cenobitic life.
How do we understand the relationship between these two projects? Above all, how do we relate the image of Jacob’s ladder to the general theme of repair? Of course, the notion of repair as an all-encompassing,almost mystical principle of historical development does lend itself squarely to theological interpretations. In fact, it seems to correspond rather directly to the basic structure of a messianic understanding of historical time: a time that passes in anticipation of redemption. In this understanding, repair as historical principle would entail the positing of a double origin of history. First, it obviously and necessarily implies the existence of an original defect, a fault or imperfection that historical development then attempts to repair. In biblical terms this would be the original fall, the first catastrophic event that opens human history as a successive series of actions and events that all belong to the order of sins, and which are all therefore subject to the ideal of penitence, that is of moral repair.
But the principle of repair also presupposes a second, more fundamental origin, which is of course the wondrous state of unity and perfection that preceded the original defect. If the first imperfection is the first event, the historical origin of subsequent human history, then the preceding moment of perfection – the paradise before the fall – is the origin of history as such. That is, it is a condition of history that is itself outside of history, and that corresponds to a realm which we can only access through a miraculous event, a momentous rupture that breaks with the continuity of historical development – like a ladder appearing in a flash of light, providing access to heaven. Doctrinal interpretations of Jacob’s dream must account for this double origin (and consequently double
end): the ladder is a great journey reassembling people under the blessing of God (for Jacob is one of the fathers of the people of Israel), or it is the long path of penitence (for the story of Jacob’s sins is an allegory for the sacrifice of Christ); in short, the ladder is a figure for history understood as the struggle to atone for the first defect, for original sin. But its sudden appearance, in a state of dream, beyond the control of the active mind, also suggests a miraculous event of redemption, the transition into a time beyond time, into a sacred garden, or a mythical, reconciled homeland that awaits us at the end of history as such.
This messianic understanding of repair corresponds in a very general way, to the historical structure underlying the civilizing missions of the colonial empires. The moral and eschatological understanding of historical time, where redemption demands submission under a strict code of behaviour and beliefs, of course entails a corrective, rectifying attitude toward indigenous people, toward the heathens living in primitive conditions: they must be brought to the right path, they must be directed towards penitence; their ignorance and wrongdoings must be repaired. We can note that this colonialist view of history is a central topic in Attia’s work, evident not least in an ongoing project where he examines the remarkable collection of the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum, composed of 100,000 objects ‘offered’ to the pope from missions and Dioceses all over the world – a collection of whichonly a fraction has ever been shown publicly and whose origins remain largely obscure.
In this sense, it is obvious that the understanding of historical development that is at work in The Repair differs from the messianic model. The notion of repair suggested by the juxtaposed images and artefacts in Kassel does not in any obvious fashion correspond to the desire for a return to a state of paradisiacal perfection, or reinstatement of an original wholeness. In fact, The Repair was precisely not alluding to any such conditions, but to the impure state in between, where the additions, subtractions or rearrangements of surgery and repair are disconnected from the ideal of the origin. The African sculpture or doll whose eyes have been replaced with buttons from a French overcoat was not a provisional or incomplete reconstruction of a local totem with the help of an element from a foreign culture, but a creative re-appropriation that generated a new object of positive hybridity. The deformed survivor of the trenches was not just an example of imperfect, emergency medical care, but instead announced a new figure of human existence, forged out of the fateful alloy of modern technology and obsolete habits of warfare.
The Repair, then, suggests another model of historical time: a time where development is understood not as decline, evolution, or messianic anticipation, but as a sequence of combinations and reconfigurations,convergences and bifurcations. It is a non-essentialist, non-eschatological time, which posits no origin andno end: a time of duration, of in-between, becoming and difference. Here, actions and events do not draw their meaning from their distant or close relationship to a primordial emergence or an ultimate goal. Instead, the sense of history is constantly generated anew, in the confrontations and juxtapositions that inevitably occur in the midst of cultural and social existence. In many respects, we can derive the concept of this understanding of history from the very principle of composition of The Repair, from the assemblage of images, words and things, the great play of similarities and dissimilarities, that filled up the room in Kassel’s Friedericianum exhibition space; history is an ongoing montage that creates significance out of encounters between more or less commensurable signs and worlds.
The ladder of light at the Whitechapel Gallery, I believe, could be seen as a confrontation between these two models of historical time or understandings of repair as a principle of development and change. Attia’s version of the biblical motif of Jacob’s ladder reinterprets the classical figure in a way that withdraws it from its adherence to the messianic model, and reverses its significance, undermining the eschatological, teleological edifice’s claim to validity. We could imagine two ways in which Attia’s ladder suggests such a reversal: one that remains within the religious register and centres upon a traditional explanation of the image as a path of atonement and penitence, proposing a reversal of authority; and another that extends the image metaphorically to a wider field of references, where the ladder becomes the general figure for a telos that imposes reason and order upon history, and the very sense of the miracle is reversed.
With regards to the first understanding, the ladder in Attia’s installation seems to engage, however distantly, with an ecclesiastical legacy. A traditional reading, as we saw, posits that the image in Jacob’s dream is a figure for the path of penitence, for the struggle to atone for the sin at the origin of historical development, whose final aim is to gain access, through a miraculous event, to the
paradisiacal origin of history. But how does active penitence bring about a miraculous event – an event, that is, which should precisely be beyond the reach of active will? The answer is simple: through penitence so severe that it suspends desire and volition as such. In other words: through ascesis.
A form of religious self-discipline, of practice of the self upon itself, upon its own body, the aim of ascesis is ultimately for the believer to attain a state of complete apathy and indifference, where she is bereft of interest, wanting nothing, not even salvation. Because it is only when the believer does not want God, that is, does not subject God to her base desires, that the light of grace can shine down upon her.
Attia has consistently been interested in practices of the self which make the body a site of resistance or emancipation, of more or less utopian transgressions or transformations. In this respect there is a direct connection between his early photographic works documenting the everyday existence of a group of Algerian transvestites in Paris (La piste d’atterrissage, 1997-99, pp. 44-5) and the images of the distorted, reconfigured faces in The Repair.
The ladder of light belongs to this sequence to the extent that it can be seen as a figure for the path of penitence and ascesis. Because asceticism can also be a practice of resistance, a counter-conduct that reverses authority. By subjecting oneself to a strict regime of ascetic trials and exercises one not only submits to the command of another, to the pastor,or ultimately divine power. One also asserts an extreme form of mastery over one’s body and self: the subject vanquishes itself, gaining complete control over its needs and temptations in a way that places it out of reach of the governance of the pastorate. Obedience, in short, becomes self-mastery. The image of the ladder conveys this double reference,where the path of penitence and ascesis is at once a practice of submission and an assertion of autonomy.
Secondly, Attia’s ladder of light reinterprets the significance of the miracle in Jacob’s dream. Jacob’s ladder, of course, can be seen as the image of the ultimate goal, the telos that guarantees the validity and coherence of historical development as a struggle for redemption. In a more general sense, it can be understood as a figure for the transcendental principle that imposes reason and order upon history, that subjects the heterogeneity of historical development to the monologue of a single rationality, whether it is through the messianic promise of final deliverance or the scientistic vision of a mathesis universalis that encompasses all phenomena in a single explanatory framework. Throughout his practice, Attia has been critical of such all-embracing, ‘totalising’ models of understanding. In a series of works he has studied some of the more infamous modernist attempts at implementing universal solutions to social and political problems, notably by the International Style architects and city planners. Works such as Kasbah (2007) or Untitled (Skyline) (2008, pp. 32-3) evoke the projects that Le Corbusier and his disciplesdevised in Morocco and Algeria, and uncover behind their veil of rationalism and purity a history of multiple influences and origins, as well as a multitude of vernacular uses – indeed, repairs – that re-appropriate, transmute and distort standardized constructions.
Against the understanding of the miracle of the ladder as telos and universal principle of reason and organization, Attia consequently sets another one that reverses its logic and direction. Here the miracle is not a primordial event that takes place at the limit of history and guarantees its order and coherence but the exact opposite: an event that occurs inexplicably, without sufficient reason, in the midst of history, and disrupts its calm course. It is in this sense that we can grasp some of the more strained metaphorical extensions of Attia’s ladder of light, suggested by images on display in the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition space: the relationship between the biblical image, realised with the help of two mirrors and a fluorescent light tube, and a scientific experiment designed to study the properties of photon particles. This experiment was conducted by quantum physicist Serge Haroche using two concave mirrors and a light source, where the particle inexplicably disappears after an instant, as if it reclaimed autonomy, thus affirming the sovereign volatility of nature. For Attia, this notion of the miracle of the ladder as an event that upsets the continuity and rationality of history, this image of the rogue particle that defies the powers of science and eludes their command, seems to serve two purposes. On the one hand, it functions as a figure for the event of repair, that is, for the creation, within the midst of existence – and without sufficient reason – of meaning through the juxtaposition, combination and collision of separate worlds. On the other hand, it serves as a profession of allegiance to the legacy of the modern concept of art; to art as a non-instrumentalised activity.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, 2013-2014, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. […] In the hallway there isa mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite…
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’1
A towering structure of open steel shelves fills the room piled with thousands of books from floor to ceiling. Kader Attia’s installation at the Whitechapel Gallery offers the viewer the opportunity to discover an extraordinary library. At times the publications seem casually stacked, awaiting further use or re-ordering. Some are carefully displayed on book stands, their covers offering a rich array of illustrations and conveying a sense of their varied subject matter: from a beginner’s guide to new technology, to the arts of Africa. It traces the evolution of book publishing: from leather bound tomes with engravings such as d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751), to mass-published textbooks. It also charts the development of human knowledge, from early astronomical tools, through printed books and their impending obsolescence due to online publishing. The books are in many languages; they have been gathered from flea markets, international online sources but also from publishers and booksellers’ surplus stock in London where this piece was first exhibited.
In a space that was previously a library, the shapingof the project epitomises how books are as precious as they are obsolete, and knowledge is as valuable as it is disposable.
Attia has responded to the space, the former central reading room of the Whitechapel Public Library, which is steeped in history. The endless stacks of books on various subjects record the accumulation of human knowledge. Moreover, this library is a repository but also a display of knowledge. Attia says: ‘the display is both a celebration and critique of the library’, as Michel Foucault wrote in his Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) ‘the more you know, the more you control’.2 At the centre of the installation lies a wooden display cabinet, or cabinet of curiosities, filled with scientific instruments such as microscopes, telescopes and precious books. In the past, influential collectors would have carefully selected objects for display in their Wunderkammer or tomes for their libraries. These legacies later formed the basis of civic libraries and museums, which are still today carefully mediated for the benefit of the public. Attia is aware of the archive’s legacy, drawing upon an archival aesthetic in his work. By carefully orchestrating or re-enacting our encounter with the corpus of books and the central cabinet, Attia highlights how books and libraries have been used to collect, mediate but also, ultimately, to control knowledge.
The piece is titled Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (2013). Here, Attia is alluding to two important concepts. Firstly, to Jacob’s dream as told in Christian, Judaic and Islamic scriptures, of a ladder of light with angels descending and ascending from heaven. Attia uses a minimal strip light between two mirrors to create a Jacob’s ladder, or a mise en abyme 3 reflection. This story offers a powerful metaphorical image of the link between the terrestrial and celestial, in other words man’s search for God or enlightenment.4 The second key subject is the Continuum of Repair, the artist’s idea of physical and cultural processes of repair.5 Here, the word ‘continuum’ refers to a continuous process of experience or to the repetition of history.6 Indeed, Attia problematises the concept of a single universal trajectory by inferring that nature can be cyclical, yet also unpredictable.7
The image that Attia uses to reinforce the idea of the continuum in his work is the loop. Indeed, the bookshelves are organised in a thematic loop, offering a progression through a series of subjects: mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, architecture, archaeology, art history, non-Western cultures, medicine, war, philosophy etc.
The list is not exhaustive, however it does follow a specific sequence; this library is organised according to different disciplines or approaches to understanding the world: through the sciences to the arts and back via philosophy. For centuries, science and art subjects have been seen as polarised approaches to capturing and conveying reality, through objective or subjective means. According to Attia, these are not so distinct, both subjects aim to understand the world. What is more, he conceives philosophy as a bridge to these different approaches, and has placed the subject matter at the entrance to the inner sanctum, linking both sides of the installation.8 From the entrance you can also see the father of European Rationalism René Descartes’ Discourse on Method (interestingly published by the Religion of Science library in 1637) in prime position in the cabinet.
Another image associated with a continuum or loop is the idea of infinity. The Jacob’s ladder reflection in the two mirrors creates an impressive infinite ladder of light, which induces vertigo when stepping up to look at it closely. In the work, Attia harnesses the illusory and immersive potential of this endless reflection. Nonetheless, beyond making the viewer become highly aware of their spatial positioning, it also offers an impressive moment of existential self-reflection. On the subject of mirrors Attia has said, ‘what interests me is a direct relationship [with the viewer] […], people don’t really look at the work – they look at the mirror it holds up to them’.9
The idea of infinity can also be seen in the towering and cyclical shelving structures displaying thousands of books in multiple languages. «is reference to infinity is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ library in the short story ‘The Library of Babel’10 where an indeterminate number of possible books seem to extend to infinity. As we have seen, Attia’s work subverts the modernist idea of the library as a comprehensive space, a neutral conveyor of total or infinite information. Attia, like Borges’ story, shows that humanity’s vain attempt to reach enlightenment, either through the study of the infinitely small (biology, quantum physics…) or the infinitely large (astronomy, cosmology , philosophy…), will never capture knowledge in its entirety. Thus, the idea of total knowledge proves itself untenable and unfathomable.
The idea of the infinite library also extends Attia’s concept of continual repair, which has resonances with theories on the push and pull of chaos and order or on endless return, where history or time is seento repeat itself. By repeating chaos, does it become order? Borges employs the term ‘unlimited and cyclical’11 to discuss his concept of the infinite. Indeed, Attia’s library is not a static
repository, it is a living library. It is balanced between order and disorder, between being organised and disrupted. The public can leaf through these publications. People may unconsciously or purposefully move the books. Some will no doubt disappear. The books can also vary according to where the piece is shown. The library can transform and accumulate new books from the locations where it is exhibited. What is more, the creator of this library knows that it will never be able to contain all the books ever published.
Does the impossibility of creating a universal or total library make it redundant? Since the advent of the web, we can now potentially access all these books at the touch of a fingertip. Whilst the Internet is expanding at exponential speed it is not a universal source of knowledge, nor is it geo-politically neutral. Here, Attia encourages us to pause for a moment and to reflect on our traditional forms of capturing, recording and collecting knowledge, to look closer at how it has been conveyed
to us. At the same time, in the face of the plethora and the weight of this information, it highlights how knowledge is a continuous process of repair, helping us look into the unfathomable future, albeit with a bit more reflection.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, 2013-2014, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Acts of Cannibalism
Around 1510 the Portuguese painter Jorge Afonso (ca. 1470–1540) put the final touches on a depiction of the Annunciation. The painting, in the Italian style, is an early exercise in central-perspective composition. The Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel kneeling before a lectern take up the foreground, while the Holy Spirit floats above the scene like a round lamp. A suite of rooms, stairways, furniture, and porticoes attempts (with quite limited success) to give an impression of spatial depth. In accordance with contemporary taste, the clothing, physiognomy, and architecture are apparently of modern provenance. The same is true for the book being read by Mary and the vase of flowers in the background. Viewers of the time would not have had difficulty understanding it. Presenting the other in the mode of the self was common practice—and would remain so for several centuries.1
Of interest, however, is the question of what functions as “the self” in Afonso’s Anunciação. Maria and Gabriel are kneeling on a mat that at first glance looks rather unspectacular, like a patterned mat made of bast fiber; upon closer examination, it turns out to be a raffia mat in the typical design of the Bakongo from the region at the mouth of the Congo River. Portuguese sailors under Diogo Cão reached the region in 1482 and soon intensified peaceful relations with the local ruler, the Mani-Kongo Nzinga. He had already been baptized in 1491 and sent the first emissaries to Portugal. His son and successor, Afonso I, elevated Christianity to the status of a state religion and is considered to be the first indigenous king of a Christian, African kingdom south of the Sahara.
Relations between Portugal and the Kongo would, however, already cool down considerably during Afonso’s reign, and by the mid-seventeenth century at the latest, the Kingdom of Kongo had become just one part of the broad Portuguese colonial empire. For a few brief decades, however—including the one in which Jorge Afonso painted his Annunciation—the European-African encounter in the Kongo took place on equal terms, and Occidental painting at this time worked with “African” motifs with the same lack of prejudice as African artists integrated Christian symbols into their works.2 Neither direction of transfer is in any way an expression of a search for exoticism or of inspiration by a “primitive” other, as was typical of the assimilation of African aesthetics in the art discourse of classical modernism in the early twentieth century. What concerned Afonso and the African artists, who remain nameless, was not so much the enrichment of form by means of a radically foreign aesthetic, but rather a simple integration of objects, forms, and motifs that were perceived as beautiful or practical or important into their archive of materials.
“Appropriation” is what one would call this today in ethnology, making reference to how every form of cultural contact inevitably leads to manifold instances of blending and reinterpretation. One might also call the same structural principle cannibalism, “antropofagia,” as per Oswald de Andrade. When Andrade laconically declares “Tupí or not tupí: that is the question” in his Manifesto Antropófago, he is overwriting the monologizing presence of the skeptical Danish prince with the phonetic mimicry of the Tupí Indians, who in the European imagination came to be perceived as prototypical cannibals. The thought might be taken even further here: “to be” means “Tupí.” The only conceivable form of being is thus that of the cultural cannibal, who devours and transforms the surrounding world. Or to again cite the words of Andrade: “Cannibalism alone unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically. The world’s single law. . . . I am only concerned with what is not mine.”3
Andrade’s cannibal is not the wild other of European horror stories about foreign regions of the world; his practice is the “absorption of the sacred enemy. To transform him into a totem.”4 The self and the other thus enter into an inseparable alliance. As a visible external boundary of cognitive awareness, the human body must relinquish its illusionary autonomy and intermingle in order to be able to survive. For the cannibal, “his food is prior and subsequent at the same time,”5 and he draws his polyculturalist strengths from precisely this paradoxical constellation. From such a perspective, the pure, the unmixed, the original can only arise as a utopian phantasm. Culture, language, and art are always already mixed, are hybrid evocations of an origin that has never existed. If it is true, however, that the examination of the other inevitably implies an incorporation thereof, then the opposition of self/other, inside/outside, I/you dissolves at the very moment that it comes into being. A raffia mat from the Congo then becomes a quite natural element in a European scene that reconstructs an event from the Near East. Culture, one might instead say, requires contact with an other so that it does not ossify.
Incorporation, introjection, and internalization are not one-way streets, of course. A critique of colonialism that originates one-sidedly from an assimilation of the other into “European” values and norms would therefore be just as mistaken as one that exclusively denounces the exploitation of indigenous knowledge by the global North. “Cultures” that come into contact with one another devour each other reciprocally, and in doing so generate different hybrid forms in each case. “Africa in Europe” is something different than “Europe in Africa,” even when both are indebted to the same contact situation. The critical analysis cannot be limited to mourning lost origins but must instead work out the different accentuations of two-way appropriation, observe power structures and drawings of boundaries, and show the unavoidable dialogic dimension of every cultural practice6 in its own particular combinatorics.
Europe long viewed itself in the mirror of its non-European other and discovered its inner self not least by means of this exoticizing gaze.7 A look back to when Europe played the role of the other was thus largely ignored. Discursive processes and the balance of power simply seemed too obvious for a serious examination of practices of appropriation to have been deemed necessary. Therefore, it was not until recent decades that a change in thinking evolved, with this rethinking at first involving only a few disciplines in addition to ethnology.
A central intermediary role for the new way of thinking about cultural contact as a combinatory and recombinatory practice can be assigned to art. The French (?) installation artist Kader Attia addresses the corresponding questions in his work under the title Reparatur/Repair (2013). It is therefore worthwhile to briefly consider the origins of the term. The German reference work Duden describes “Reparatur” simply as “work that is carried out in order to repair something.” This at least makes reference to the associated verb, which defines the process somewhat more narrowly: “to bring something that no longer functions, has gone to pieces, has become defective or damaged, back to its previously intact, usable condition again.” The related German term “Reparation” also denotes, in addition to financial transactions compensating for war damage, the “natural replacement of corrupted, necrotic body tissue by means of granulation and scar tissue within the framework of the healing of wounds.”8
Semantically, the definition is comparatively unproductive. Much more interesting here is the English definition. For the verb “repair,” the 2008 edition of Webster’s New College Dictionary names four main meanings: restore, remedy, renew, compensate for. Differentiated in the case of the identical noun are: the process of repairing, the general condition after repairing, an instance of repairing. The etymological root of the term is the Middle English repairen, which found its way to the island via the Old French reparer (from Lat. reparare). In English, there is, however, also a homonym, “repair,” which is not derived from reparare (to bring back into order again) but instead can be traced back to the Late Latin repatriare (to return to one’s country).9 If we also consider Attia’s French mother tongue, it is possible to add the folk-etymological aspect of “pairing or mating,” the (re)uniting of people and things that have been torn apart or (randomly) brought together by the vicissitudes of time. The title of Attia’s exhibition can thus be read as: restoration, remedy, renewal, compensation, returning, pairing . . .
Attia himself defines repair as “reconstruction in an extended sense, and thus as a kind tool which can be applied to political, cultural, and scientific topics to examine their various interactions.”10 The five acts, through which he negotiates various aspects of such reappropriations, each address different facets of the motif and situate it in a broader context: in addition to the “continuity of repair” already addressed, these are “culture,” “politics,” “science,” and “nature.” In some, it is a cultural debt that is addressed, or exploitation and oppression, racism and discrimination. Others stretch the theme of appropriation much further and impressively show that when two do the same thing, it is still far from being the same.
What might therefore come to mind is Jorge Luis Borges’s both brief and absurd short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which the narrator has a French Symbolist prepare to write the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first volume of Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Not to copy or imitate, and in no way to adapt or set in a new time, but rather truly to write—as an author of the twentieth century, but in a way that would ultimately allow him to produce at least a couple of pages that “coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”11 The Menard of the short story destroys all outlines and preliminary stages of the finished text and in this way effaces the traces of its creation. At the end of years of work, there are therefore only the two chapters, which superficially cannot be distinguished from those of Cervantes. Here “superficially” is used because: “The Cervantes text and Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.”12 And what is even important: “I have reflected that it is legitimate to see the ‘final’ Quixote as a kind of palimpsest on which the traces—faint but not undecipherable—of our friend’s ‘previous’ text must shine through.”13
It is a truism that what matters is who says something. Attia’s Repair shows this exemplarily in the example of the Banania totem pole in the second act, Politics. Banania was a chocolate drink that was sold primarily in France and advertised starting in the nineteen-thirties using the picture of Senegalese tirailleur (the “L’ami y’a bon”), who holds a spoon in his hand and says “y’a bon . . . Banania” in the style characteristic of the petit nègre. For Frantz Fanon, trailblazer and coiner of keywords relating to postcolonial critique, European racism achieved its most perfidious form in the belittling “y’a bon”: “I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Y a bon Banania.”14
The Banania totem pole moreover makes reference to yet another aspect of Europe’s debt to Africa. It is not without reason that the totem pole shows a picture of an African soldier under the bust of a European military man. In both world wars, the European colonial powers made plentiful use of their “colonial subjects” and sent large numbers of African soldiers to the battlefields of Europe. There, the tirailleurs paid not only a high toll in lives; they were sometimes even denied pay for their period of service and the pensions to which they were entitled after the war ended. It was for this reason that soldiers returning from the war staged protests at Camp Thiaroye near Dakar in December 1944, protests that led the French commandant of the fort to have shots fired at the demonstrators and to allow them to be massacred. An animated short film by Rachid Bouchareb from 2004 takes on this topic—its title: L’ami y’a bon.15
The aspect of repetition plays a role in the case of “y’a bon” above all when dealing with the allocation of speaker roles. While the sentence might have been quite natural as expressed by a tirailleur in the thirties, its effect in advertising is decidedly racist and provocative as the title of the animated film on the events at Camp Thiaroye. The variance in meaning is thus to owed to more than just the different historical contexts, the different speakers, and different addressees. It also essentially results from the “Wiederholen,” or repetition, which is never exactly what it seems to be: a “Wieder-Holen,” or, literally, a taking or summoning once again. Whether only imitation or strategic citation, the repetition seems reinforced with new meaning, contaminated by altered context, and saturated with parasitical meanings.
Imitation without variance in meaning is not possible. When the Australian songbird Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) imitates chainsaws and the clicking of camera shutters as it does during its courtship display (Act 4: Nature: Mimesis as Resistance ), these sounds no longer make reference to forestry work or tourists taking photos, but rather to the male’s desire to mate. In the text accompanying Repair. 5 Acts at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Kader Attia emphasizes that the bird is the only animal that has incorporated the sounds of its habitat being destroyed.16 However, at the same time, one must add that it has also cannibalized the sound of its being preserved in the act of being photographed. A bird that sounds like the click of a camera shutter practices a form of mimicry that apparently has no practical utility (driving off rivals for food, mobilizing “auxiliary troops” to fight off predators, etc.) beyond the purpose of purely impressing. As an index, the sound has lost its referents; as a simulacrum, it remains linked to the system of value and of imitation.17 The hyperreal character of human acts of simulation remains out of reach.
Something similar arises in connection with the stuffed animals in the same section of the exhibition (Act 4: Nature: Mimesis as Control ). A stuffed cheetah, taxidermied apes and birds, a wooden box with mounted beetles—they are only weak echoes of the living creatures that once animated these physical shells. Taxidermal appropriation thus represents not only a considerable reduction of an original complexity, but also a very European one as well. The taxidermist’s seemingly self-evident, limited focus on the external appearance and on one facet of the haptic quality of specimens would not be possible without the Cartesian separation of the discerning mind (res cogitans) and corporeal substance (res extensa). The essence of the creature that is preserved can thus, in the best case, be partially comprehended. Although a stuffed animal is certainly similar to a living one in many respects, similarity as a category still remains much too vague for it to be presumed as a basis for a sphere of shared experience that transcends cultural divides.
The relationship of human beings to their environment can be conceived in various ways. Ethnology has shown that modernist naturalism in the tradition of Descartes represents only one such way. In addition, there is a range of other ontological concepts on equal footing that assume completely different boundary lines between the realms of the human and the non-human.18 The fact that the sense of sight is ultimately an unreliable representative when dealing with the localization of meaning is also something that Tobias Wendl convincingly presented in a comparative cultural study on photographs and other graphic forms of representation nearly two decades ago.19 If, however, even the reading of images with a central perspective takes effort to learn and is not inscribed in our sensory organs as a “natural” form of perception, then to what extent does this apply to the privileging of visible over “invisible” qualities (strength, endurance, sharp-sightedness, cleverness, etc.)? The African masks presented by Kader Attia in glass cases might provide a first impression of the fact that a “correct,” a “true to life” representation of living beings, does not perforce have to approximate them in the mode of the visual.
The modern Western ideal of repair aims primarily at an effacement of its trace. In the best case, a repaired object is “like new.” Neither the interim damage nor the vestiges of its being corrected should catch the eye of the observer. In repair, an attempt is made to divest the repaired object of its temporality and to return it to an “original state.” Here, an ocular-centrism that is similar to the simulation of living creatures by taxidermists prevails. It is paired with the ideological positing of a normal state, which the repair strives to achieve once again. Although this concept is in no way universal, with a view to the European appropriation of the world it proves to be quite symptomatic. It often appears coupled with a deeply rooted yearning for authenticity, a fetishizing of the original, and a rejection of any type of hybrid forms. It is the same characteristic normalizing mode about which the ethnologist and photographer Hugo Bernatzik once complained, asserting that the indigenous people of New Guinea spoiled his photographs because they integrated into their facial ornaments the colorful packaging material of the film canisters that he carelessly discarded, which has tourists today searching for “authentic” masks at African art markets. To put it in a nutshell: purity is good, amalgamation bad. This yearning for originality, however, fails to recognize the hybrid character of all culture and silences the polyphony of objects by attempting to force them into the straightjacket of a monologizing narrative.
This can never completely succeed. Objects, practices, and ideas do not exist independently of contexts, and every juxtaposition gives rise to new layers of meaning. The identity of objects and persons thus cannot be read as an intrinsic quality, but rather as a result of dialogues—of dialogues between things, dialogues between persons, dialogues between “cultures.” With regard to the identity of Africa and its diaspora since the sixteenth century, Paul Gilroy asserted the concept of the “Black Atlantic” twenty years ago.20 He describes a (black) “Atlantic” culture that does not lapse into specious essentialisms but instead has its basis in the movement of goods, people, and ideas over the Atlantic. Not “African,” not “European,” not “American,” but rather a bit of all of them, and none complete. Here, the question of origin loses its meaning. The fact that Afro-Americans in the nineteen-seventies combed their hair into prominent Afro hairdos or turned dreadlocks in order to celebrate their Africanness and cultivate what they considered to be a genuinely African style is just as legitimate in a culture of the “Black Atlantic” as in the countermovement on the African continent, where the same hairdos were cultivated as an expression of the connection to American modernism.21
Tracing such discursive contradictions and fault lines is undoubtedly worthwhile, and the documented history of the European-African encounter since ancient times provides innumerable further examples.22 Depending on the political goals of the particular time, Africa functioned as the noble savage or the barbarous-cannibalistic other of Europe, and vice versa—as a bright or dark mirror in which one catches sight of oneself shining brightly in the light of a higher civilization or else savage and degenerate.
As a good medium, the mirror, when we look into it, remains below the threshold of perception to a great extent.23 It evades being seen as a result of a specific form of “aisthetic neutrality”24 and/or “an-aistheticization and self-neutralization.”25 Generally speaking, it first becomes visible (like all media) when it does not function (anymore), when it “murmurs.” In the linear communication model by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, every murmur is conterminous with dysfunctionality. The fact that the media themselves speak is not anticipated here, hence it is neither precluded. The design of a dialogic reality breaks with the metaphysical illusion of the communication sciences. In it, things, messages, and thoughts are no longer simply for themselves but instead only still exist “as part of a process that cannot be concluded . . . , as a result of an eternal dialogue . . . , as a continuous becoming.”26 The becoming-visible of the medium is an important step toward this form of dialogic examination.
When Kader Attia “repairs” mirrors or books, he achieves precisely that: he generates dysfunctionalities and in this way forces a conversation between object and viewer. The masks studded with mirror shards and mended mirrors in Repair. 5 Acts refract wounded images and prompt viewers to consciously assemble the fragments of their mirror images into a whole. Allusions to injuries and scarring, to physical deformation and growth, are intended here. Seemingly fixed discourse positions are questioned or mixed up. Black becomes white—white becomes black. As in the case of the teak and marble sculptures that are juxtaposed in the second part of the exhibition, where on the one side there are gleaming white busts of African men and women made in Italy from Carrara marble, and on the other, dark heads of injured World War I veterans have been carved in dark teak in Senegal.
It is not least different aesthetics and conceptions of man that collide with one another here. Can scars be beautiful? How does the perfect human body look? Does the prevailing ideal of beauty demand preservation or modification? Should human beings preserve their bodies in the “natural state” or culturize them by means of scars, tattoos, deformations, or amputations? When and in what way does man become human?
The answers to these questions vary depending on where they are asked and of whom. Europe looks back on a long tradition of collecting, appropriating, and exploiting. In past centuries, it was mostly the white European man who told people in other parts of the world how things were to be done. Others were expected to listen and follow. Although this might still be the case in a large part of the world, the times where this was seen as the natural, correct, and only conceivable world order are now fortunately a thing of the past.
“The Empire Writes Back”27
At the beginning of this text, I placed a question mark in the phrase “French (?) installation artist.” Kader Attia was born in France as a son of Algerian parents and grew up between the banlieues of Paris and Algiers. He is thus a part of that majority of the world population whose lives have been shaped in one form or another by European colonialism and its aftereffects. He studied in Barcelona, spent several years in Congo-Brazzaville, and has now been living and working in Berlin for some time. In light of this résumé, it comes as no surprise that cultural essentialism is alien to the artist, nor does the fact that he makes use of cultural artifacts of different origins for his work with great naturalness. Polyglot and polycultural, Attia evades clear-cut classifications and presents himself as a wanderer between cultures who is at home in many locations in the Eastern and Western world, in the global South and the global North.
His “identity” is that of a postcolonial subject, an identity that is informed not by traditions and lore but by the complex interplay of roots and routes.28 The concept of culture for which he stands is not one that is organic, that has its specific location and its specific era, but rather one of competing historicities, of displacements and interferences—an ex-centric concept of culture that is defined not from a center but rather by its margins.29 Homi Bhabha even speaks of the nearly universal practice of creating “symbols of the elsewhere” for oneself, behind which the postcolonial subject of a globalized world rallies when a physical change of location, for whatever reason, does not come into question. As a result, for him, even people in the peripheral areas of non-movement become “travelers” within an economy of global movement.30
Displacement, rootlessness, diaspora—if there is something that unites the concepts, then it is their refusal to be tied down to one specific place. Their mode of being is that of a permanent in-between. They first acquire meaning in being reflected by what they are not.
In The Continuity of the Debt (2013), Kader Attia presents numerous “repaired” books. They come from the peak stage of the colonial project and tell stories of the heroism of European colonialists, who brought the light of civilization to the poor heathens in Africa and Asia. The repair that Attia has carried out—by “mending” their open edges with wire—silences them, just as they once condemned the “colonial subjects” to voicelessness. The stitched volumes can no longer be opened and can no longer disseminate their poisonous message. They nonetheless remain present as a memory trace and encourage us not to forget the past. Do they therefore speak? Can, as Gayatri Spivak once asked, possibly even “the subaltern speak” in this way?31 In the end, probably not. But uncomfortable art like that of Kader Attia can, in any case, encourage us (as the other of the subaltern) to listen to them.
1 This becomes quite clear in the wonderful woodcuts and etchings found in the collections of travel accounts by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598). While these collections have had an enduring influence on the colonial archive of images, they do not deal further with the distinctive features of non-European physiognomies but instead generate foreignness solely through an alienation of the self by means of nakedness or adornment.
2 What should be considered here in particular are the nkisi nkondi, the so-called “nail fetishes,” from the Congo, whose similarity to depictions of St. Sebastian caught the attention of numerous observers quite early on and might indeed represent an indigenous permutation of Christian iconography; see Zdenka Volavka, “The Nkisi of Lower Zaire,” African Arts 5 (1972), pp. 52–89.
3 Oswald de Andrade, “Cannibal Manifesto” (1928), Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (July–December 1991), trans. Leslie Bary, pp. 36–47, esp. p. 38.
4 Ibid., p. 43.
5 Jens Andermann, “Antropofagia: Fiktionen der Einverleibung,” in Verschlungene Grenzen: Anthropophagie in Literatur und Kulturwissenschaften, ed. Anette Keck, Inka Kording, and Anja Prochaska (Tübingen, 1999), pp. 19–31, esp. p. 23. All citations from German sources have been translated into English by Amy J. Klement.
6 See Thomas Reinhardt, Jenseits der Schrift: Dialogische Anthropologie nach der Postmoderne (Frankfurt am Main, 2000).
7 See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London, 1978).
8 “Reparatur : Substantiv, feminin—Arbeit, die ausgeführt wird, um etwas zu reparieren; das Reparieren; reparieren : schwaches Verb—etwas, was nicht mehr funktioniert, entzweigegangen ist, schadhaft geworden ist, wieder in den früheren intakten, gebrauchsfähigen Zustand bringen; Reparation : Substantiv, feminin—1. offiziell zwischen zwei Staaten ausgehandelte wirtschaftliche, finanzielle Leistungen zur Wiedergutmachung der Schäden, Zerstörungen, die ein besiegtes Land im Krieg in einem anderen Land angerichtet hat; 2. (Medizin) natürlicher Ersatz von zerstörtem, abgestorbenem Körpergewebe durch Granulations- und Narbengewebe im Rahmen der Wundheilung.”
Duden: Das grosse Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache in 10 Bänden (Mannheim, 1999), vol. 7, Pekt–Schi, pp. 3173–74. Emphasis added by the author.
9 “repair1 (ri-pâr’) v. –paired, -pair-ing, -pairs. [ME repairen < OFr. Reparer < Lat. reparare: re-, back + parare, to put in order]—vt. 1. To restore to sound condition after damage or injury: FIX. 2. To set right: REMEDY 3. To renew or refresh. 4. To compensate for (e.g. a loss or wrong). vi. To make repairs. –n. 1. The work, act, or process of repairing. 2. General condition after use or repairing 3. An instance of repairing.—re-pair’er n.
repair2 (ri-pâr’) vi. –paired, -pair-ing, -pairs. [ME reparen, to return < OFr. repairer < LLat. Repatriare, to return to one’s country.—see REPATRIATE. ] To betake oneself : GO –n. 1. An act of repairing. 2. A place to which one goes often or habitually : HAUNT. —re-pair’a-ble adj.”
Webster’s New College Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Boston, 2008), p. 961.
10 Cited in Ellen Blumenstein, “Kader Attia: Repair. 5 Acts. Four questions of the curator to the artist,” in the leaflet for the exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin, 2013).
11 Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York, 1998), pp. 33–43, esp. p. 37.
12 Ibid., p. 40.
13 Ibid., p. 42.
14 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), trans. Richard Philcox (New York, 2008), p. 92. See also ibid., pp. 35–36, 116, and 163. The brand has meanwhile been taken off the market after an association of Antillean, Guianese, and Reunion citizens took legal action in 2005 against what in their opinion was a racist portrayal of blacks in Banania advertising.
15 Rachid Bouchareb, L’ami y’a bon, 2004, Tessalit Productions, Thoke+Moebius Film, Tassili Film, available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buqlH2Sblak (accessed January 15, 2014).
16 See also Barbara Wittmann, “Prachtleierschwanz,” in Eine Naturgeschichte für das 21. Jahrhundert: Hommage à / zu Ehren von / in Honor of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, ed. Department III of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin, 2011), pp. 113–16, esp. pp. 113ff.
17 Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London, 1993), p. 71.
18 Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago, 2013).
19 Tobias Wendl, “Warum sie nicht sehen, was sie sehen könnten: Zur Perzeption von Fotografien im Kulturvergleich,” Anthropos 91 (1996), pp. 169–81.
20 Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London, 1993).
21 Philippe Wamba, Kinship: A Family’s Journey in Africa and America (New York, 2000), pp. 95–96; Thomas Reinhardt, “And the tom-toms beat: Figuren der europäischen Imagination und das afroamerikanische Afrikabild von den Anfängen bis zur Äthiopienkrise 1935,” Paideuma 48 (2002), pp. 207–23, esp. p. 215.
22 See Thomas Reinhardt, History of Afrocentrism: Images of Africa and America Made in the USA (Stuttgart, 2007).
23 On this, see Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that it is “typical” that “the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium,” among other sources; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York, 1964), p. 24. A brief overview of the history of “an-aisthetic” media theories is provided by Sybille Krämer in Medium, Bote, Übertragung: Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität (Frankfurt am Main, 2008), pp. 273ff.
24 Sybille Krämer, “Erfüllen Medien eine Konstitutionsleistung? Thesen über die Rolle medientheoretischer Erwägungen beim Philosophieren,” in Medienphilosophie: Beiträge zur Klärung eines Begriffs, ed. Stefan Münker, Alexander Roesler, and Mike Sandbothe (Frankfurt am Main, 2003), pp. 78–90, esp. p. 81.
25 Krämer 2008 (see note 23), p. 274.
26 Reinhardt 2000 (see note 6), p. 226 (emphasis retained from the German original).
27 Title of the book of the same name by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London, 1989).
28 See James Clifford, who declares traveling and the traveler to be the prototype for culture in the late twentieth century: James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1997), p. 6.
29 See ibid., p. 25.
30 “(P)eople caught in that margin of non-movement within an economy of movement,” cited in ibid., pp. 42–43.
31 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL, 1988), pp. 271–313.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Repair. 5 Acts, 2013, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin
Never has the world been so rich, and yet never has it been so out of joint. The gap between the remarkable accumulation of discoveries in technology and science in the fields of biology, neurology, reproduction, archaeology, climate, astronomy, and of evolution is growing—and also between the ferocity of financial capitalism and the difficulties faced by societies in resolving basic problems (access to clean water, to health, to food). We are simultaneously told that the current globalization will bring a world of happiness for all and that the planet cannot support what is presented as the desired way of life for all humanity.
The Promethean ideal of limitless growth and of “man’s” capacity to master all living organisms is with us today more than ever. The notion of “colonization” has contaminated political and economic vocabulary. Despite the twentieth-century struggles for decolonization, which should have contributed to a very careful and critical use of the notion, it has reappeared in governmental vocabularies. We again hear of the colonization of all parts of the planet or of other planets; its logic has become hegemonic. It is easy to trust in science and technology. In recent decades they have opened up new fields, comprehended areas that seemed impossible to explain, resolved problems that had remained unresolved for centuries. Who would not be excited and confident that humanity has a manifest destiny? Yet are not technology and science contaminated by Promethean thinking—promising that we, humans, will always be able to overcome the problems we create? Yet still, the sound of a rumor is disturbing the scenario, the sound of discontent, of anger and frustration, and of a desire for a post-Promethean way of life. At the entry of Chernobyl, an immense statue of a Prometheus now stands alone and forlorn. It is a monument to hubris and excess. The Promethean ideal has provided a frame for the economy, science, governance, and technology; it has even stimulated them, as philosopher François Flahault has written.2 As humans, we do not like to have limits. Modernity opened the world wide to us, yet the “mechanisms that explain the extraordinary of modern society and thus its thirst for energy are the same that explain its tendency toward self-destruction.”3
The current economic geography of exploitation and consumption is seeking to construct a seamless world “in which a continuum of locations is arrayed in a line from north to south and climate,” producing an “equilibrium” rather than a specialization of nations.4 This project, which links climate, demography, geography, and economy, ignores—thanks to the neat clarity of numbers and the fascination brought about by algebraic formulas—the materiality and immateriality of human lives, flesh, bones, language, dreams, hope, anger, joys and sorrows, conflicting passions and interests. In the world of numbers, the technologies of power erase the singularity of each life. Capital mobility and increasing freedom of trade suggest a model of a free place for everybody, whereas the freedom of the few rests on the immobility of the many.
The world of the “free” throws a veil on the world of the billions held in bondage. Gender, race, and class still constitute the nexus through which the global workforce is organized. The figures of the migrant and the refugee have become the figures upon which many of the problems of our age concentrate: new social inequalities, new wars, new forms of xenophobia and racism, new crisis. They flee wars, dictatorship, poverty, desertification, floods. They disturb a global order based on national sovereignty and established borders. Yet, it must be said that their status as “illegals” benefits both sending and receiving countries. They belong to the long history of the fabrication of precarious lives, of superfluous beings, and to the long history of the organization of a mobile, gendered, and fragile workforce on a global scale. The migrant and the refugee stand apart in a world of riches, where a new market has emerged for the increased number of millionaires; exclusive spas, hotels, private jet companies, specialized travel companies and shops, and golf courses dedicated to the rich are multiplying. Parties are once again magnificent, with the rich seeking to outdo one another in lavishness, pomp, and flaunting of wealth. Palaces and châteaux that had become mere museums have now been reclaimed for balls and banquets. Everything must be sumptuous—diamonds and gemstones, silk, satin, cars, tables, dinners, yachts . . . Far away, kept from entering the grounds of such lavish parties, young women and men stare at the sea and set out on flimsy boats, hoping to make the crossing that separates them from the bright lights of the cities. Their corpses litter the deserts of Africa, the coastlines of Europe, the mountains of Turkey, the waters of the Indian Ocean. New borders are being drawn to contain these pariahs, though wealth circulates freely.
The Charons of our neoliberal age are carrying not the souls of the dead across the Styx, but living human beings. Yet, they could cry, as the Charon of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “I come / To take you to the other shore across, / Into eternal darkness, there to dwell / In fierce heat and in ice.”5 Those who succeed in crossing the Styx are taken into the eternal darkness of the seas or into the fierce heat and ice of a life in the margins of society, in the shadows of society. The small boats sinking in the waters of Lampedusa and the kwasa kwasa6 sinking in the waters of Mayotte are the coffins of those who do not make the crossing. The ones who manage to reach the other side will camp at the gates of the rich cities. They will glimpse the beauty of gardens and palaces. But the poor, the vulnerable, are condemned to obscurity. “He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen”, John Adams wrote.7 The lives of the oppressed are denied existence; their lives register when they die in mass—a state that is lamented by Soeuf Elbadawi of Comoros:
There are the dead and there are the dead.
Ours are more easily forgotten.
Because they were born on a forgotten shore of the world.
The world of the powerful has no pity for the People of the Dhow . . . How can I be a foreigner or an illegal in the country of my ancestors?8
What is needed to break the silence is what has always been needed, solidarity. In Tunis, in Algiers, in Dakar, in Mayotte, in Lampedusa, in Calais, and in other cities around the world, associations, artists, jurists, mayors, and scholars are mobilizing to help migrants and refugees. This is why states have been criminalizing solidarity with refugees and migrants. European laws against refugees and migrants have tightened. The projects Eurosur and Frontex have been reinforcing the regulations, protecting Fortress Europe. Italian fishermen who rush to save people in sinking boats are subjected to heavy fines;9 in France, in a 1991 interview, former president Giscard d’Estaing used the expression “immigration-invasion” and proposed to abolish the principle of jus soli whereby a child born in France is automatically a French citizen. Since then, Conservatives and the National Front have lobbied to replace jus soli with jus sanguinis. A 2005 law made it illegal to feed, house, or help the “sans papiers” (the law was repealed in January 2013).10 In 2013, Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared that Roma had “life customs which were extremely different from ours” and thus “had vocation to return to Romania or Bulgaria.”11 Fifteen thousand Roma suddenly became a threat to a nation of sixty-four million.
Although the transnational migrant has become the figure through whom fear and xenophobia are activated by political parties, migrants actually represent only 3 percent of the world total population. And only one third of this 3 percent comes to Europe, while the others move from south to south countries. Other states regulate migration as harshly as Europe. The figure of the migrant and the refugee challenges our certitude and comfort. “One day, I may become that person,” we think, and the sentiment translates either into fear or into empathy. Fear is manipulated by political parties and corporate media, and nowhere is this more glaring than in Europe, where the poor are encouraged to wage war on others living in poverty. The poor are always afraid to become the poorest or to be confused with the poorest. This legitimate fear is instrumentalized by such political parties and corporate media, which seek to racialize rights.
The reasons that European policies about migrants and refugees have been under scrutiny are twofold. On the one hand, Europe has represented itself as the land where human rights were invented, where inalienable principles about the individual were elaborated. On the other, Europe once dominated three quarters of the planet, subjugated peoples, instituted regimes of exclusion and racial discrimination, and pillaged the wealth of conquered countries. Indeed, Europe became “indefensible.”12 Colonization distilled a poison “into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds towards savagery.”13 Europe must therefore enter the process of its own decolonization.
In the eighteenth century, Europe’s surpassing technology in weaponry, acumen to play on rivalry between indigenous groups, and ruthlessness allowed a shift in the cartography of power. Europe’s hegemony lasted until independence was achieved in the second half of the twentieth century, yet it never went without resistance, unexpected contacts and exchanges. Artists, writers, and scholars challenged Europe’s alleged superiority from the first moment of colonization. Their words and images constructed an alternative library. The long history of their critique culminated at the 1955 Bandung Conference. During this watershed event, leaders of the twenty-nine newly independent countries challenged the European cartography of power and provincialized Europe. As Richard Wright wrote:
The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed—in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting. Here were class and racial and religious consciousness on a global scale. Who had thought of organizing such a meeting? And what had these nations in common? Nothing, it seemed to me, but what their past relationship to the Western world had made them feel. This meeting of the rejected was in itself a kind of judgment upon that Western world!14
Africa and Asia reaffirmed their millenary connections interrupted by European colonialism and insisted on the role of culture in constructing a new world. Though Bandung was also pregnant with tension and contradiction, the final resolution mapped a multipolar world.15
Europe is no longer at the center of gravity. It has been further provincialized by reemerging powers in Asia, South America, and Africa, or so we are told. It might be interesting to ponder what has really been provincialized. European thought? Yes, to a certain extent, but certainly not European banks or the arms industry. European peoples? Perhaps. It depends on which social class we are observing. The poorest are trying to survive; they attempt to migrate to the richer countries of Europe, or to move to their former colonies which are now “emerging powers.”16 Should we rejoice? There is certainly an element of comprehensible schadenfreude. However, if we look at the global economic and social model, we may want to rein in our expression of joy. We observe the same Promethean model rooted in European thought at work in the world; and if the axis of power is moving toward Asia, then the accumulation of wealth still rests on forced labor, the organization of a mobile, gendered, and precarious workforce, and the production of goods for global consumption based on the principle of obsolescence. The world has embraced the ideal of limitless growth and of man’s capacity for mastering all living organisms.
Postcolonial states adopted the politics of growth of the West (with the full support of the Western left): industrialization, construction of huge infrastructures (roads or dams, “the new temples of India,” according to Nehru), urbanization, and production turned toward export. Nation-states are now following the European Bank, the IMF, and World Bank policies. The manipulation of nationalism, tribalism, or chauvinism that was connected to European colonialism is now common politics. Frantz Fanon’s lesson about the pitfalls of national consciousness has been forgotten. Fanon wrote that the battle against colonialism “does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism.”17 Otherwise, it will be an “empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been” and soon enough societies will “pass to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism.”18 The “new humanism” invoked by Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, and others may then be neither “an emaciated universalism” nor a “walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.”19
The mobilization of antiracist groups has made the criminalization of migrants more visible. But some of the borders where migrants are retained and sent back are not those we associate with Europe, and they remain invisible. In the Indian Ocean, the border between the French department of Mayotte and the Comoros Islands archipelago; in South America, the longest border of France with a foreign country, the border between French Guiana and Brazil; in the Atlantic, the coasts of the Canaries and the Azores; in the Caribbean, the coasts of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St Martin.
Certainly, Europe is far from being the only continent to criminalize migrants. In Africa, in the last ten years, more than eight million Congolese left their country because of instability caused by armed conflict; so, too, did Sudanese, and many people in the north of Mali with the Touareg group, the Al-Shabab in Somalia, and so on. They have fled to African countries where they experience discrimination and xenophobia. In Asia, female and male migrants are deprived of rights.20 Moments of international celebration—Olympic Games, the World Cup—are built upon the brutal exploitation of internal or external migrants. Rape, torture, humiliation belong to the structure of power. In South Africa, incidences of xenophobic violence are increasing, and migrants and refugees speak of constant police harassment.21
The contradiction between a capital’s need for a mobile workforce and a state’s need for defending its borders against the “invasion” of refugees and migrants is always worked out to the benefit of the neoliberal economy. In fact, “it is a transnational division of labor that is shaped simultaneously by global capitalism and systems of gender inequality in both sending and receiving countries of migration.”22 In many countries, the racialization of the growing industry of care has led to a global trade in women, which “has proven immensely profitable to sending countries’ governments and entrepreneurs, and highly ‘economical’ to the governments that recruit them and the elite who employ them.”23 The majority of migrant women are held in “conditions of debt bondage.”24
The broken lives, broken bones, and broken hopes of refugees and migrants have built an immense library of the intangible and of testimonies about the cruelty and brutality of the economy of predation. Recovering their voices and their words has long been the work of those who want to keep their existence alive. The world of migrants and precarious lives is caught between opposite “trends of ‘denationalization’ of economics and ‘renationalization’ of politics in the new global economy,” which results in their conflicted incorporation as workers whose rights are denied and as rejected citizens of receiving nations.25 The current situation of female migrants reveals clearly the perpetuation of the racialization of the workforce. The new technologies of control (e-governance, biometric identification) contribute to diffusing the microphysics of power that reinforces the process of racialization.
Ya l-babur, ya mon amour
Kharrejni men la misère
oh boat, my love
take me out of misery
(rim-k) going far away
in my country I feel humiliated
I’m tired and I’m fed up
(rim-k) that’s right.26
Among the great cemeteries of the world where disposable and superfluous people are buried, oceans and seas have occupied a special place. Throughout history, they have received the bodies of women, children, and men dead without a sepulture, their flesh food for the fish, their names lost forever. Oceans and seas are the liquid memorials of a forgotten humanity, victim to predatory economy.
When was human life transformed into a good to be trafficked and sold, bought and killed, according to the caprice of its owners? It seems that human society has long been familiar with enslavement. The fabrication of precarious and fragile lives has a long history. The World Heritage list of monuments details monuments built by forced labor, whose foundations rest on the crushed bones of thousands of slaves. The world has been crisscrossed by the routes of the slave trade: the Silk Road, the Road of Cotton, Tobacco, Coffee, Sugar, and Spices. During the “Axial Age” (Karl Jaspers), armies needed to be paid in coins, mines were needed for producing coins to pay mercenaries, slaves to working in the mines, wars for capturing slaves.27 But slavery was not racialized, was not “Africanized.” It was between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, during the colonial slave trade, that being a slave and being black became synonymous. The invention of blackness as a cultural and social status went along with the invention of whiteness.
It started when capitalism had to resolve a conundrum: how to reconcile the immobility of land and labor versus the need for mobility (bringing goods to consumers and seeking to lower the cost of transportation). The immobility of labor was partly resolved through the organization of a mobile workforce on a global scale, which was gradually racialized and gendered. African women, children, and men were enslaved and sent to lands chosen to produce the goods (coffee, sugar, tobacco, cotton, . . .) needed by a growing class of customers. The history of a racialized and gendered mobility has long been a history of murder and exile.
The Atlantic became a vast cemetery for the bodies of millions of enslaved Africans. Their last sight was the view of a vast expanse of water, the ocean their sepulture. On the other side of the African continent, the Indian Ocean also swallowed the bodies of enslaved Africans and Malagasy. Though one could think that a rationalized approach would have sought to bring down the loss of women and men as merchandise, their disposability was part and parcel of the economic system. In the wealthy port cities of Liverpool, Bristol, and Nantes, slave traders were careful to recover their loss using the same claims as those used for manufactured goods. The predatory economy of colonial slavery rested on a logic in which bodies were accounted for along with donkeys and furniture and losses were covered by insurance. When, in 1819, thirty slaves were thrown overboard from the French boat called Rodeur, “a ground was laid for a claim on the underwriters, by whom the cargo had been insured, and who are said to have allowed the claim, and made good the value of the slaves thus destroyed.”28
The cost of transport of disposable people is today absorbed by the victims themselves, an advantage for both sending and receiving countries. As I have said, the need for a mobile workforce and the laws against “illegal migrants” are not contradictory. Both lead to precarious and fragile lives, so that migrants and refugees remain dependent. The process of creolization that was at work in the plantations—the “seasoning” of new slaves by creolized slaves, that is, teaching them how to work, how to act with other slaves or their owner, how to speak—and which was borne by slaves is still at work today. Migrant communities bear the burden of labor market functions (recruitment, training).29 They teach new migrants how to circulate in the city, where to go, and what to do and not do. According to Nathalie M’Dela-Mounier:
Sirens have changed since Homeric times, those who intone their lugubrious cantos have dark skin and braided hair stuck on their skull, brown seaweeds that they tear away by handfuls.30
The Mediterranean Sea and parts of the Indian Ocean are the liquid cemeteries of our neoliberal age. Women and men tell the story of a departure at night, of their dealings with the smuggler, of a boat carrying too many people, of babies and small children forced into silence so their cries do not attract the police, of men or women jettisoned to relieve the boat, of the lack of drinking water, of the fear and the stress, of the boat capsizing, of the panic, of the fishermen who try to save the shipwrecked or those who continue their route deaf to their cries, of those who drown, of the search by the authorities, of the floating cadavers, of the cadavers found later in the fishermen’s nets . . .31 The small gestures of empathy, charging for free the battery of a cell phone, offering clothes, coffee, arms . . .
In the public dump of Lampedusa, a small island in the Mediterranean, closer to Africa than Europe, lies at the moment a small amount of boats, while more than 200 ships have [sic] been burned in September 2010. Someone burned all these boats, canceling de-facto the biggest contemporary evidence of the immigration phenomenon in the Mediterranean, in Lampedusa, and in Europe in general. It is still not possible to rescue nor to buy some of these boats: so they lie abandoned, waiting for destruction, under Lampedusa sun.32
Hundreds of women, children, and men have died since 1988 in the waters of continental Europe. “As things stand we are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean sea,” said the Mayor of Malta when a boat carrying more than two hundred migrants capsized on October 11, 2013.33 The images of overloaded boats strike our imagination.34 They evoke exodus, women and men fleeing terror, misery, torture seeking refuge, hoping that a feeling of common humanity will prevail. Yet, as we look at their visages, as we contemplate their gaze, realizing that they have seen and endured terrible things, we know that the reception is becoming increasingly hostile. The ten to thirty thousand arrivals in Lampedusa each year constitute an invasion for panicking Europe. The “cost” of migrants and refugees is always presented as the proof that they are a heavy burden on societies. We are told daily that they do not want to integrate, they have different values, they lie to authorities, they are not deserving of empathy, they are not thankful enough, they should force their own government to resolve their problems of poverty, lack of health facilities, lack of jobs . . . Nothing is said of the asymmetry of power, of the routes of inequalities.
Studies show that it is the more educated who try to migrate. The journey tests their intelligence, their resourcefulness, their resilience, and their courage. We should admire their bravery and temerity. They go over mountains, survive in hostile countries, reconstitute communities. Their stories should be taught in school as lessons of indomitable courage and hope. We must listen to their incredible journeys, their tales of woe, their humor, their songs. Upon their arrival, the survivors are housed in terrible conditions; in Lampedusa, they are often a thousand in a place built for 250.
Details of the crossing are few. A survivor of the journey between Anjouan and Mayotte tells that a smuggler will leave Anjouan once he has collected 1,500 euros. The price per person is thus around 100 euros, and boats built to carry eight persons will transport between twenty to forty. During his own crossing, the narrator counted twenty-five passengers, two pilots, luggage, and two hundred liters of oil.35 Though many dead are not accounted for, the estimate in the waters of Mayotte is 150 dead per year, mostly women and children who cannot swim.
We must be careful with the term “migrant” or “refugee,” for it tends to subsume under a unified category a myriad of experiences, and it is necessary to remind ourselves that we are speaking both of the experience of one woman, one child, one man, with their own singularity, their private thoughts and dreams, and of a collective experience. Migrants and refugees often do not want to be considered passive victims. During the Lampedusa Festival held each year, their words can be heard breaking the clichés about their reasons to migrate, which are diverse and complex.36
The people and artists of Lampedusa have elaborated different answers to the increasingly hostile Italian and European laws. Contemplating the wrecks that have caused a cemetery of small boats to accumulate in the middle of their city, Giacomo Sferlazzo of the local Askavusa association suggested creating a Museum of Immigrants with his friends. Scraping together the 400 euros in monthly rent among themselves, they found a small place. They collected eight hundred objects on the beach and in the “boat cemetery.” Others are items that less fortunate refugees were carrying with them when they died. The objects are displayed on wooden boards. They are what “the refugees have lost or left behind: a comb, a pot, an ashtray, a telephone book, a mirror, a single sneaker, Korans and Bibles.”37 They also “have a folder full of photographs they have collected. The pictures are washed out from the salt water and yellowed by the sun; only the outlines of faces are still recognizable. Here, a woman smiles shyly into the camera; there, a group of young, confident men flash victory signs.” “The pictures are still beautiful,” says D’Ancona, another founder of the museum. “They’re memories of lost lives.”38 “These aren’t just objects. They’re clues that tell us something about people’s dreams.”39
Yo pa renmen Ayisyen, men yo renmen konpa
yo pa renmen Ayisyen, men yo renmen Ti Payis.40
The “creative destruction” which recognizes change as the one constant in capitalism has become the centerpiece for modern thinking on how economies evolve.41 In June 2013, The New York Times reported that
China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen years [. . .] The ultimate goal of the government’s modernization plan is to fully integrate 70 percent of the country’s population, or roughly 900 million people, into city living by 2025 [. . .] The country’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, indicated at his inaugural news conference in March that urbanization was one of his top priorities.42
The Chinese government declared that its plan was necessary if China wanted to keep its rate of economic growth: “‘If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,’ said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. ‘Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.’”43
Chinese technocrats have adopted an ideology that links production, consumerism, and growth: if more citizens lived in cities, consumption would rise, and raising consumption is considered the key to creating a sustainable economy over the long term because exports and investment-led growth are faltering. Already around twenty million Chinese are moving to cities every year. It has been the greatest shift in human history, with 150 million moving so far from rural to urban settings.44 According to China’s Development Research Center, an additional three to four hundred million people—more than the entire population of the United States—are expected to move from the countryside to cities over the next thirty years, causing China’s urban population to rise from 47 to 75 percent. The Chinese government has absorbed the old lesson of capital well, that wealth rests on the capacity to organize a mobile workforce kept in a precarious state. Indeed, as Kam Wing Chan has shown, “the success of ‘Made in China’ is inextricably meshed with the story of migrant workers toiling for subsistence wages to produce for exports.”45 The 155 million rural migrant workers have been, he said, the “backbone of China’s export industry since the 1990s”.46 And more women and children are now participating in migration to cities.
This formidable and unsurpassed plan of internal migration in a single country adheres to the Promethean ideal. However, this Promethean feat is not rooted in “Chinese” thought. Europe gave it birth. To European philosopher Immanuel Kant, the sublime elevates “the strength of our soul above its usual level,” allowing us “to discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature.”47 The expression “the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” says it all about the refusal to admit the interdependency between human beings and nature. The European idea that man is a natural colonizer, who has received the Earth to tame and colonize at will, contaminated modernity.
To Europeans, the colonization of the world meant bringing progress to unenlightened peoples. Nature was either untouched and virginal, to be preserved without the presence of indigenous peoples unable to appreciate fully the aesthetics of Nature, or savage and in need of being tamed. Nothing would stop progress, neither humans nor nature. The history of colonization was the history of devastation of the environment on an unprecedented scale. This is not to say that before the arrival of Europeans in countries of the “South” there had been no projects which had required forced labor, had deeply affected the environment, and had led to famine, migration, or desertification. Certainly not. But environmental historians agree on the turning point operated by European colonization thanks to European discoveries in weaponry. Colonial environmental change started with colonial slavery.48 European colonial empires witnessed the greater exchange of plants, animals, and human beings across continents. Post-slavery colonization pursued these policies supported by new technologies in agriculture and transportation.
The Promethean ideal was adopted by the Soviet Union and the postcolonial world, dominated global policies during the Cold War, and has found a new life today. The Cold War (1945–89), which was so important in shaping priorities in the economy for decades (and whose legacies are still with us), led to similar policies around the world, influenced by a belief in technocratic solutions, by the links made between demography, agronomy, water management, and botany, by the control of the environment, and by space technology. “The Cold War was the twentieth century’s longest war, fought extensively on a global scale across a range of environments.”49 It was in the Soviet Union that these policies and practices led “to environmental degradation on a scale that may be exceeded only by current practices in China”.50
The Soviet Union fully embraced Promethean thinking. Stalin invited writers to become the “engineers of the soul.” Literature was meant to service industrialization and identify those who resisted, the “enemies of the people”.51 Though nothing would resist the will of the people, for “Soviet rivers they do flow / Wherever the Bolsheviks want them to go”, said a popular song, and deserts would be “liquidated.”52
These policies, whether in the North, South, West, or East, have had similar consequences: reinforcing the power of science and technology (and hence of business) over politics. They have perpetuated a form of killing that has become “commonplace: one that is undertaken through degrading environmental conditions to affect quality of water, hygiene, nutrition and healthcare”.53
If Ghosts Could Speak
In Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010), the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán traveled to the Atacama Desert. In the vast lunar landscape, high altitude and dry climate made it the ideal site for a huge new observatory opened in 1977. Astronomers could start to peer deep into the cosmos in search of answers concerning the origins of life. Nearby lay the remnants of the Chacabuco Mine prisons, the concentration camps instituted by General Pinochet for political opponents. Bodies were buried in secret mass graves in the desert. For years, wives and sisters of the disappeared have sifted through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones, dumped unceremoniously by Pinochet’s regime. They will continue their daunting task in the colossal desert, they said to Guzmán, until death overtakes them. One interviewee suggested that Chile needs an observatory that can look at its own landscape, find the missing bodies, so as to uncover and root out all its unresolved agony. The contrast between the infinite faraway (galaxies of dying stars) and the infinite fragments (bits and pieces of bones mixed with desert sand) forcefully evokes the power of the human imagination and the need for mourning, for giving the dead the sepultures they deserve. The women’s search for a memory of a memory is poignant. It finds an echo in the certitude of a Tunisian mother convinced that her son did not die in a shipwreck, but rather that he has succeeded in reaching Europe but cannot call her. She worries for him, she imagines his loneliness, she prays for him.54
Wandering souls and ghosts are haunting our planet. If they could speak, the words of those fabricated as disposable and superfluous would tear the veil of hypocrisy and reveal the cruelty and brutality of an economic system based on predation.
1 Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” Selected Poems (New York, 2007), p. 139.
2 François Flahault, Le crépuscule de Prométhée: Contribution à une histoire de la démesure humaine (Paris, 2008), p. 25. Translated from French into English by the author.
3 Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Retour de Tchernobyl: Journal d’un homme en colère (Paris, 2006), p. 99. Translated from French into English by the author.
4 Masahisa Fujita, Paul Krugman, and Anthony J. Venables, The Spatial Economy: Cities, Regions, and International Trade (Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 309.
5 Dante Alighieri and Henry F. Cary, Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, vol. 20: Harvard Classics (New York, 1909), p. 15.
6 “Small boat” in shi mahoré dialect.
7 Quoted by Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York et al., 2006), p. 59.
8 From the poem by Comorian writer Soeuf Elbadawi, “Un dhikri pour nos morts,” http://www.la1ere.fr/2013/04/23/un-dhikri-pour-nos-morts-le-drame-des-kwasa-kwasa-entre-les-comores-et-mayotte-30745.html (all webpages cited in this essay were accessed in November 2013).
9 On the Bossi-Fini law (2002), see, for example, the European Roma Rights Centre website, www.errc.org.
10 Léa Ticlette, “Sans-papiers: le délit de solidarité supprimé,” RFI, January 3, 2013, http://www.rfi.fr/france/20130102-papiers-promesse-tenue-le-delit-solidarite-est-supprime.
11 http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2013/12/19/valls-et-les-roms-la-plainte-du-mrap-classee-sans-suite_4337736_823448.html; http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/societe/20130925.OBS8312/9-questions-sur-la-situation-des-roms-en-france.html; http://www.la-croix.com/Actualite/France/Roms-en-France-des-chiffres-inedits-2013-09-26-1026172.
12 Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (1972; repr., New York, 2000), p. 32.
13 Ibid, p. 36.
14 Richard Wright, The Color Curtain (New York, 1956), p. 12.
15 See Modern History Sourcebook: Prime Minister Nehru: Speech to Bandung Conference Political Committee, 1955, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1955nehru-bandung2.html.
16 The Portuguese to Brazil, Angola, Mozambique; the Spanish to South America. The French still have their overseas territories where they receive substantial financial, cultural, and social benefits and higher salaries than in France for the same job.
17 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London, 1990), p. 119.
18 Ibid., p. 165.
19 Letter from Aimé Césaire to Maurice Thorez, October 24, 1956, trans. Chike Jeffers.
20 See http://www.ilo.org/asia/whatwedo/publications/WCMS_BK_PB_64_EN/lang–en/index.htm; http://www.ilo.org/asia/whatwedo/publications/WCMS_170518/lang–en/index.htm; http://asiasociety.org/policy/social-issues/women-and-gender/visible-work-invisible-women; Mary C. Brinton, ed., Women’s Working Lives in East Asia (Stanford, 2001).
21 See the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), http://www.cormsa.org.za.
22 Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work (Stanford, 2001), p. 72.
23 Grace Chang, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA, 2000), p. 151.
25 Ibid., quoting Saskia Sassen, p. 247.
26 “Partir loin,” written by Algerian rappers Reda Taliani and 113, whose first recording dates back to 2005. See http://fortresseurope.blogspot.de/2011/04/partir-loin-musique-cest-parti.html.
27 See David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, 2011).
28 James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery (New Haven and London, 2011), p. 201.
29 See Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge, 1998); Pheng Cheah, Inhuman Conditions (Cambridge, MA, 2006); Chang 2000 (see note 23); Pun Ngai, Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace (Durham, NC, 2005); Parrenas 2001 (see note 22); Saskia Sassen, Globalization and Its Discontents: Essays on the New Mobility of People and Money (New York, 1998); and Saskia Sassen, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York, 1996).
30 Nathalie M’Dela Mounier, “Rivage Atlantique,” October 2013, www.africultures.com. Translated by the author into English from the original French: “Les sirènes ont changé depuis les temps homériques, celles qui entonnent leurs lugubres mélopées ont la peau sombre et les cheveux crépus, tressés-collés sur le crâne, algues brunes qu’elles s’arrachent par poignées.”
31 See, for example, “Immigration clandestine Naufrage d’un kwasa-kwasa,” http://mjamawe.skyrock.com/3148815472-Immigration-clandestine-Naufrage-d-un-kwasa-kwasa.html.
32 Askavusa, Museum of Immigration, Lampedusa, http://www.mariotrave.com/projects/civilians/2011/10/16/askavusa-lampedusa/.
33 “Migrant boat capsize leaves 27 dead in Mediterranean,” BBC News Europe, October 11, 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24499890.
34 See the Askavusa blog, http://askavusa.blogspot.fr.
35 Eric Trannois, “La grande traversée: Anjouan Mayotte en kwassa-kwassa,” www.malango-mayotte.fr/immigration_clandestine/traversee.htm.
36 Lampedusa Festival, http://fr.scribd.com/doc/154299567/LampedusaInFestival2013-English.
37 Askavusa blog (see note 34). All quotes from this blog translated from French into English by the author.
39 Ibid. See also Charlotte Bonzonet, “Lampedusa, seule au monde,” Le Monde, 14 October 2013.
40 “They do not like Haitians but they like their music; they do not like Haitians but they like Ti Payis” (Haiti). Declaration by Admiralty, a singer from Guadeloupe, about anti-Haitian racism in Guadeloupe. See “La dispora haïtienne en Guadeloupe – comment l’aider?,” October 30, 2010, http://www.migrantsoutremer.org/La-dispora-haitienne-en-Guadeloupe.
41 A term coined by Joseph A. Schumpeter in his work entitled Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) to denote a “process of industrial mutation . . . that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” See Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 3rd ed. (1942; repr., New York, 2008), p. 83.
42 Ian Johnson, “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities,” June 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/world/asia/chinas-great-uprooting-moving-250-million-into-cities.html.
44 “Invisible and heavy shackles,” The Economist, May 6, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/16058750. The author invited the Chinese government to “unleash the buying power of its people.” It seems that the 2013 decision is going in the direction of unleashing the buying power.
45 Kam Wing Chan, “Chinese Internal Migration,” in The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, ed. Immanuel Ness (Hoboken, NJ, 2013).
47 Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 144–45.
48 See Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment (Cambridge, 2008); Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, 2004).
49 J. R. McNeill and Corinna R. Under, eds., Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Cambridge, 2010), p. 225.
50 Ibid., p. 21.
51 In 1933, Maxim Gorki led a group of 120 writers to a visit to a gulag, more precisely to the camps built for forced laborers constructing the Bielomor Canal between Leningrad and the White Sea, which was 227 kilometers long.
52 See Frank Westerman, Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers (London, 2011), p. 111.
53 Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (London and Brooklyn, 2011), p. 86.
54 “Tunisie: les limbes des rapatriés,” http://fortresseurope.blogspot.fr.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Repair. 5 Acts, 2013, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin
The new Zenon, from Paris or London, called his method “randonnée” because two close and nonetheless differentiated relative words developed from an old word from the language of hunters: the French “randonnée,” wandering or foray, and the English “random,” chance, and because he wanted to unite the two meanings with each other once again, across the English Channel or the St. Lawrence River.
Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest
My place as a thinking being, as a being of this world who is irrevocably enmeshed in the scientific or cultural community, as an epistemology, this place has no place, this point unceasingly decentralized because it is understood as being in constant motion, this here-somewhere-else, the path of my odyssey, on which I traverse a multitude of networks that I constitute in part as a result of my transport.
Michel Serres, Hermès II, L’Interférence
In the late nineteen-sixties, the French philosopher of knowledge Michel Serres set about breaking open the linearity of transmitter, channel, and receiver in favor of a mutually dependent triad. He came to describe communication as a form of transmission in which the medium is decisive since it is what first gives rise to the identities that it seems to interconnect.1 Since then, Serres has been sending this mediating figure through the global networks in the form of a messenger, joker, angel, or hermaphrodite in order to find passages “from exact science to human science” and “from us to the world.”2 Against the backdrop of such an engaged philosophy, which does not, for instance, bemoan the alienation of the individual in the technological age but instead strives to show productive ways for dealing with reality as it is, Serres conceives a complex image of the world that interconnects forms of knowledge in the natural sciences and the humanities. His thoughts range “between rigor and fantasy, between myth and precision, between established and untamed knowledge.”3
The Algerian-French artist Kader Attia is very closely allied with the philosopher Serres, both in this suggestion but also in his approach. Attia comprehends existence as ongoing transformation, posits relationships between the local and the global, tradition and modernity, Africa and Europe, the banlieue and the university. He problematizes seemingly established knowledge by making visible in his works the path between places “of which it is generally assumed that no connection between them exists.”4
Attia thus utilizes hyper-coded motifs like identity, border, face, and migration in both scholarly discourse and public contexts. Over time, this approach has become hackneyed as a truism for revealing rhetorical automatisms in collective language usage.
This text takes up the role of the messenger and, based on Serres’s reflections, traces Attia’s works back to their place of origin—to then from there turn back and show the reader the lines that connect them.
Indeed, the form of Attia’s works does not precede but instead emerges from the immanent comparison. The artist thus attempts to apprehend our ideas of “difference” and “otherness” anew in ever-changing manifestations. Although his works are not dependent on a higher truth, they do endeavor to touch viewers and to establish a relationship between them and the world—and in this they resemble Serres’s “quasi-objects,” yet another of his mediator types.
What quasi-objects are and how they function is demonstrated by the philosopher in his study The Parasite.5 There, the quasi-object only acquires meaning as a result of the fact that it marks a subject in a specific way. Like a ball, which has no function as an object alone and first in the game marks the subject in whose possession it is as the one in the group of players who drives the course of the game, the quasi-object forms a bridge to other subjects. It is in the shared reference to this subject-object, which remains unspecified on its own, that a community forms.6
It is from mathematics that Serres takes the formally most potent motif for the precedence that he gives to interconnections over identities. Until well into the nineteenth century, it seemed self-evident that the space of contemplation, with its three dimensions, was just as immutable as the passage of time. However, since non-Euclidean spaces and the mathematical-physical interrelationship of space and time began to be studied, the prerequisites for this (Western) conception of the world have been radically transformed.
Today there is no longer only the one universal space and the one universal time, but instead a vast number of possible spaces and times that can be constructed in reference to one another. The mathematical discipline that makes it possible to describe these relationships is topology. It specifies the positional ratios of dimensionless points to one another, starting from which a space first opens up, a space that is not preexisting and stable in form but instead has to be produced. With the aid of topology, it is possible to precisely describe any random constellation of points lying more proximate or distant to each other, which nonetheless remains variable. It is also possible to identify such an approach in Attia’s work.
Gender makes reference to the same gesture as distinction: understanding separation and cutting. Phallic law prevails there. What if castrating gender meant as much as: cutting off the cut?
Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite
One of the first places that Kader Attia went to with his art was the “landing strip,” an abandoned bit of highway on the northern edge of Paris. Algerian transsexuals and transvestites who have come to France illegally work there as prostitutes, often under life-threatening conditions. They are discriminated against sexually, socially, and culturally by the society in which they live and work, enjoying no protection under quasi-clandestine and extremely precarious conditions. Nevertheless, they create stable social structures: collective evening meals and excessive parties bring the community together, although they also protect each other in high-risk, everyday working life and give each other warmth and a feeling of security.
Attia observed this world characterized by exile and the sex trade, and he produced a monument to it in one of his earliest works, the installation La Piste d’Atterrissage (Landing Strip, 2000–02). In a diaporama with 156 color slides accompanied by Afro-pop, traditional Arabic music, and street sounds, what develops is a picture of the fringes of French society that seems both alien and familiar to the viewer.
The installation calls to mind Nan Goldin’s intimate portraits of her own transgender surroundings in the nineteen-seventies,7 with which she left behind a “record of my own history”8 and differentiated herself from the artificial world of the media. She deliberately recorded moments that looked different than the pictures that fill bourgeois family albums; her photos are self-confident manifestos for a life beyond conventional gender roles that allow viewers to participate and experimentally immerse themselves in this world.
In contrast to Goldin, Attia does not share this life, even when it intersects with his own experiences. Coming from an Algerian immigrant family himself, Attia campaigns as an activist for the rights of the “Sans-Papiers.”9 The nature of his artistic interest is, however, more structural than identificational.
Attia plays with clichés of otherness and collective fantasies of the “happy life.” He also problematizes the relationship between the observer and the observed, between subject and object, that has become so precarious in postcolonial discourse by making hierarchies and viewpoints fluid and rearranging their relationship to one another. He wants not only to understand and describe his protagonists and the reality of their lives but above all to also place himself and his viewers in a self-reflective relationship to their otherness.
After Serres, it might be said that La Piste d’Atterrissage goes beyond showing difference to be the basis of every construction of identity, which is reshaped or transformed in the relationship to others. This is because the transsexual epitomizes not only deficiency but also abundance at the same time. As a hybrid being who is simultaneously “man and not-man because castrated, hence not-woman, but also pseudo-woman,”10 he no longer falls under “the dominant phallic law”11 that cuts, divides, determines but rather “excludes exclusion”12 and thus stands for a principle that finds in castration not deficiency but excess instead.
As a hermaphrodite—the androgynous offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite who bears the traits of both sexes—he is the messenger, marking whatever he touches without losing himself in it. His position is “to find himself in-between”13 and to bring forth identities appropriate to our present anew.
Mirror / Border
Full of mirrors, worlds and bodies multiply and divide—the universe thus carries its own image with it.
Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite
Just as the transsexuals in Attia’s work repeatedly look at themselves in the mirror in order to scrutinize and, if necessary, freshen up their masquerade, viewers are mirrored in the photographs of La Piste d’Atterrissage, which show their being-a-man or being-a-woman to them in differentiation. Attia organizes these images as tangencies from which one’s own aspirations look back, because they not only lack what one has oneself (a regulated life, citizenship), but they also have what one lacks (being-other, being-both-man-and-woman). The mirror makes visible the otherwise concealed border between right and left halves of the body,14 between I and other, between places, cultures, ideologies, between the real and the possible.
The installation Holy Land (2006) links the waterside, or better, the seashore to Attia’s growing topological network. Within the framework of the Canary Islands Biennale, the artist positioned forty-five mirrors on the beach of Fuerteventura, which, as the crow flies, lies around one hundred kilometers away from the Moroccan border; he situated the front sides of the mirrors facing the sea.15
From a distance, the mirrors seem to be an optical illusion, almost as if someone had punched holes in space and a second reality had come to light behind it. Depending on how the mirrors are positioned and from what perspective they are approached, reflected in them is sunlight, the sky, the sea, or the surrounding landscape. From particular angles, and when approached closely enough, it is also possible for viewers to see themselves.
Drawing a connection between Attia’s interest in mirrors and the mirror stage theory16 of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which is so important for the Western subject, then seems natural. In this theory, the mirror is presented as a central medium in the development of small children, who acquire a self-image—which always remains incomplete—by recognizing their own mirror image.
In an interpretation of the mirror motif that is oriented less individually than collectively and thus politically, and that is based on the geographical proximity to Morocco, the title of the work seems to make reference to the exodus of African refugees to Europe and/or to their search for the promised land. As a result of the orientation of the mirrors toward the sea, those who would catch sight of themselves in them would be immigrants coming from the water, rather than the island residents and the art public who approach them from behind. But since apparently no one will arrive on this coast, visitors to the biennale can ask themselves on which principles this identificatory identity that Lacan describes is based, to what extent it is not constituted more from the difference to the displaced other, and whether this constellation still corresponds to the present reality. This interpretation has also been underscored by Attia himself.17
Upon closer examination, the viewer is only reflected as a whole from one specific position at a relatively large distance, or when he or she bends over the mirror. The setting is moreover oriented too much toward movement and mutual observation for a visitor to remain before one of the mirrors for a longer period of time without embarrassment.
Another interpretation therefore seems possible to an equal extent if one recognizes in the form of the mirror the allusion not only to Gothic architecture but also to the Islamic ornament. In Islam, the use of mirrors—unlike in Western culture, where it is considered to be the medium of self-knowledge per se18—is paramount as an instrument for refracting light. It also fulfills scientific and aesthetic-spatial functions.19 From this perspective, the power of the form and the symbol, as well as the beauty of natural elements (earth, water, air), comes to the fore. Reflected in the mirror is not only the individual but also the whole universe. The “other” of the Western subject is not only the non-Western but also the world—based on which part of its imperial identity can also be explained.
Attia once again takes a different approach to this relationship between light, mirror, and space in one of his most topical works to date, Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (2013), shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The installation is based on the Old Testament story of Jacob, who in a dream catches sight of a ladder by means of which the angels move directly back and forth between heaven and earth. The work consists of several elements: a depot-like shelving structure surrounds the installation like a shell or protective barrier and is filled with literature from the most diverse fields of knowledge that makes reference to the parable mentioned from various perspectives. In this “space” stands a very large vitrine that houses a curio cabinet filled with objects, lithographs, and other found objects that are also connected associatively with Jacob’s Ladder. On top of the vitrine lies a mirror with the same surface area, while a second mirror hangs opposite the first with the mirror surface at a distance of some 180 centimeters from the ceiling. On the first mirror lies an illuminated neon lamp that is multiplied infinitely in the other mirror.
The partial installation made up of the mirrors and the neon tube20 is linked to Holy Land in various respects: in the case of Continuum of Repair, the motif of light refraction as an aesthetic appeal is deliberately utilized as an effect that is meant to captivate the attention of the visitor. Although the installation itself is abstract, its similarity to the image of Jacob’s Ladder is nonetheless irrefutable. The spatial arrangement makes the distance between heaven and earth and/or between man and God tangible in a way that the flat—purely visual—image cannot. The juxtaposition of the two mirrors here raises the undefined space of the infinite to a higher power in comparison to Holy Land. Infinitely multiplied in the reciprocal reflection, the three-dimensional extension of the material form is very easy to comprehend, yet it is no longer possible to apprehend the virtual space with the naked eye. The topos itself as a point without extension from which a space opens up becomes the subject here, while the world at the same time expands infinitely and becomes suspended. The oscillation of the rays of light makes the mediator into an absolute, although without interpreting this as transcendence; identity in fact unfolds in a purely immanent manner, without recourse to external forces.
Shore / Bank
Clear and distinct is alone the border.
Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest
Two other topoi extend Attia’s net further over Algiers and Marseille. As in Holy Land, he uses outdoor spaces in both projects and in doing so takes up the shore theme once again.
The first work, Rochers Carrés (2008), is a series of photographic portraits of male adolescents on the beach of Bab el Oued, one of the poorer districts of Algiers. Called “rectangular rocks” by the residents after the multiple-meter-large cement blocks that are stored there, this narrow section of shoreline is used by young men as a meeting point for watching ships, fishing, smoking, or prostituting themselves.
The second project, Les Terrasses (2013), was realized in the harbor of Marseille within the framework of the European Capital of Culture initiative. On the southernmost edge of the seawall, which crosses the harbor basin between the city and the sea and has been inaccessible to the public for years, Attia erected an architectonic sculpture made up of white-painted concrete modules that are accessible to visitors. With reference to the architect Fernand Pouillon, who rebuilt Marseille’s harbor district after World War II and later realized numerous public buildings in Algiers, and to Cité Radieuse (1947–52), Le Corbusier’s renowned residential project, what interested Attia was designing this part of the public space in such a way that people have the desire to spend time there. The white, abstract forms of varying heights at three different points along the seawall may evoke oversized building blocks, modernist sculptures, Escherian stairwell formations, or the roof terraces, public squares, and shaded niches of old Mediterranean cities. The spatial proportions are nested in one another in such a way that it is never entirely clear on which level of urban architecture the visitor is currently situated—real or perceived.
Both works utilize the phantasma of the shore as the place of departure, of a bridge to another world, which is crossed in leaving the old behind, in beginning something new (better?). But they stand in a complementary relationship to one another: northern Africa versus southern Europe, functional versus model architecture, poverty full of hope versus diffuse financial power dissatisfied with its own life. It is as if the young men shown in the photographs and the art public of the Capital of Culture were looking at each other across time and across the sea.
Yet while the symbolism in the earlier photographs still clearly pictures the coast as a place of longing against which the arriving and departing ships cross like floating spaces of fantasy,21 the disposition of Les Terrasses is ambivalent. The material and form once again cite both Western and non-Western models and allow for associations that are aesthetic and physical, political and cultural, present and historical, but keep them in a state of flux. When the one is noticed, then the opposite simultaneously appears behind it, without offering a decision for the one or the other reading. The sculptural ensemble on the embankment is both a contemplative vantage point and a political memorial to the failed refugee policy of Europe or, completely different, an architectonic amalgam of modern and traditional building traditions. At the same time, it is quite simply a constellation of objects that invite one to relax and look at the blue skies of southern France. Indeed, just like the mirrors in Holy Land or Continuum of Repair, the gleaming white modules have a direct physical effect that routes perception over the body yet precedes any reflection. As a result, this effect has the power to also impact laypeople who are not familiar with art- or architecture-historical references.
Face / Mask
Narcissistic idealism found in the world only its own image, which it stamped on with great effort. Science and technology reduce the real to their representations. Now the soft earth, the stone before the instrument, metal in its matrix, crystalline, in themselves and by themselves conceal hundreds of artifacts as in a cornucopia . . .
Michel Serres, “Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece,” in A History of Scientific Thought, ed. Michel Serres
While for a long time the position of the individual was considered principally from the perspective of his or her role in the community and/or society, or in agreement or interplay with the respectively applicable conventions, laws, and hierarchies, and the mask was thus paramount as an abstracting medium, this changed with the idea of individual subjectivity. As already established in ancient Greece, in Christianity the face became the central attractor of attention.22 Individual identity can be fathomed on and in it, above all in the expression of emotion as a reflection of an inner state. A central motif for this is the connection between the individual and society, which is based not on external laws, but simply on inner convictions.
Attia’s sculptural installation Ghosts (2007) approaches the tension between individual and community from a reverse side and shows not only that this perspective is not inevitable, but also that it is not self-evidently better.
Fascinated by the ambivalent power of collective religious rituals, Attia here selected the topos of the “mosque” and started by first forming a solid-seeming group of Muslim women in prayer. The figures made from commercially available aluminum foil have their backs turned to entering visitors, thus turning the visitors into intruders in a community to which they do not belong, only able to walk along the figures’ collective body as guests. It is first when one turns around that it becomes clear that the bodies are not solid but instead hollow. Each figure was taken as an individual molding from a model kneeling on a table, and what remained is a fragile, ghostly figure without a face. Disclosing the production process, nevertheless, in no way detracts from the effect. Although aware that the malleable aluminum foil is capable of reproducing the curvature of a spine, a particular head shape, or an individual posture in the smallest detail, the physical presence of these empty shells is nonetheless astonishing. On longer consideration, one begins to increasingly differentiate the individual figures from one another based on just such distinguishing characteristics. From the community emerges the individual, who specifically does not become recognizable by means of the—absent—face, but who precisely for this reason is also impossible to conceive alone. The individual figure requires figures like it to produce weightiness in the space. In a mass, however, the figures become so imposing that the confrontation in the museum situation becomes a real bodily experience for visitors, an experience that would hardly be possible as an encounter with foreign rituals in “real” reality.
Not only the spheres of art and religion, which are today otherwise strictly separated from one another in museums, meet here. (Artworks from religious contexts, such as altars, sculptures, or paintings, then come into museums, if at all, as art.) Here the museum space as such is transformed by a principle that is just as powerful as the modern white cube, which developed in the nineteen-sixties and still today continues to specify our understanding of museums.23
Attia once spoke in another context of how important space and surroundings are for his artistic activity, of the fact that they are integral to his works.24 Even when he was referring at this time to public space, this description applies to the museum space to the same extent, if not even specifically to it. Instead of merely reacting to the conditions of a space and redesigning it according to its possibilities, Ghosts overwrites space with another order. The systematic rows of humbly kneeling, praying individuals have a different function than, for instance, the “total installations” of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov,25 or environments by artists such as Jonathan Meese, John Bock, and Bjarne Melgaard,26 who make the museum space disappear by means of exuberant narratives and pictorial worlds—for they work in the register of Western concepts of space and subject, which use the museum as a mirror for the realities of their own lives, while Ghosts confronts the museum with its “other.” This other does not eliminate the logic of the museum. But just as Michel Serres in his philosophical work finds new mediator and messenger figures again and again, in this case it is the ghost women who communicate between the two logics and simultaneously introduce a third logic that is neither one nor the other, but rather put together from both: a quasi-object.
Quasi-objects might also be helpful in understanding Attia’s more recent works. The cycle of works Repair, which extends from Attia’s presentation at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), to Reparatur: 5 Akte (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2013), to Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2013–14), no longer places human beings at its center but instead situates them more intensively in context vis-à-vis the things around them.
Repair weaves its own network and connects the most diverse locations with each other: Brazzaville in Congo with the marble quarries in Carrara, theaters of war in World War I and II with the hospitals of the wounded, the Congo Conference in Berlin in 1884–85 with the present era of “Sans-Papiers” street fighting in Paris, South American slave colonies with the Nigerian jazz of the nineteen-sixties, the first hominids in Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 (1968) with the Australian rainforest and the Superb Lyrebird in a BBC wildlife documentary.27
Attia here brings the ambivalence dealt with implicitly in other works to the surface and uses it as an organizing principle for quite diverse artwork. The two-channel slide projection Open Your Eyes (2012), for example, always juxtaposes two pictures: on the one side, mutilated European soldiers from World War I, and on the other, African masks and other handcrafted objects or articles of daily use. Here, the disfigured face as a form of expression already seems to be anticipated in traditional African cultures and/or war in the form of relicts “cannibalized”28 from the African side and transported into the postwar period: a type of aesthetic combination that calls to mind Aby Warburg or that equals a Mnemosyne of violence,29 which, independent of the original contexts, shows the injuries that war and strife leave behind on the human body.
As the first “modern” war, World War I inflicted wounds that had not existed up to that point in time, leaving behind survivors missing entire extremities (feet, hands, arms, legs) and permanently disfigured, visibly carrying memories of the war and their injuries with them. To help the soldiers, but also to find a way for society to deal with these new types of injuries, which traumatized not only the men themselves but also the public, researchers and physicians realized vital developments in cosmetic surgery and prosthetic technology.
In this way, the bodies were supposed to be “repaired” at least outwardly, meaning reconstructed to such an extent that they externally once again looked as if unharmed. Repair Analysis (2013) bears witness to the medical prehistory of this Western cultural technique, points to its weak point, at which the contrasting concepts of individuality and type (face and mask) again meet. Staged as a cabinet exhibition, it juxtaposes illustrations from an anatomical picture atlas from the nineteenth century with pieces of broken mirrors subsequently sewn together with wire—in which viewers look at their own faces. When the physical injuries or natural features of said individuality (crooked noses, very small or large breasts, fat deposits, et cetera) are today compensated for and aligned with the norm, the specific is moved closer to the typical, only that the psychological no longer has any visible equivalent toward the outside. This is an extreme case of a socially ideal image of physical integrity in which individuality becomes a stereotype.
In contrast to this Western ideal of beauty, various African cultures make targeted use of physical mutilation and deformation in order to make courage demonstrated in combat or pride in belonging visible toward the outside (The Repair’s Cosmogony, 2013). Faces here are in no way bearers of individuality but instead embody superordinate principles and qualities indicative of the abilities of the individual. In animist cultures, masks of apes, predatory cats, or birds of prey, for example, incorporate the powers of the animals they portray and pass on qualities like cunning, speed, or a surveying view to the humans who wear them (Mimesis as Control, 2013).
In the African masks with the small pieces of mirror stuck onto them (Mirrors and Masks, 2013), three of the perspectives outlined here even ultimately come together: the cult object (animism) refracts and reflects light in the mirror fragments (Islam), through which viewers are confronted with fragments of themselves (the West).
On Sundays method rests; rambling saves lives every day. If what you need is victory, everything in its place, battles, banks or institutions go by way of the first. The other is there for time and intelligence, the well-being of thought, freedom, peace: the creation of unexpected places. But take both paths, condemn neither; those who love the countryside sometimes need expressways.
Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies
The pivotal point for all these constellations is the museum, the exhibition space, whose immanent conventions of showing have been increasingly addressed by Attia in his works of recent years. His means are the transferring, converting, and reinterpreting of context, as well as the putting together of superficially disconnected individual parts.
Attia explicitly uses museum-like locations to double existing societal—social, political, or historical—locations in such a way that the underlying but possibly unconscious conventions, the naturalized structural principle of these spaces, become visible. At the same time, he also juxtaposes them with an alternative perspective.
For Attia, the museum space as a concrete location with validated conventions of seeing and showing, but also art as an aesthetic space of perception and increased attentiveness, function as a filter through which he is able to unmask illusions and make visible what exists but is yet unseen. In this regard, the subject of migration is a special case in Attia’s oeuvre because it is a connection that links quasi-objects (works) with the topos in which they are located (exhibition space). On the one hand, migration in the sense of the Latin root of the word migrare—in English “wander,” “change,” “transport”—does not settle down in any one location but rather, like the mediator, always produces two or more interferences between space and time.
Where the “landing strip” Algeria and Paris, center and peripheral area, or Holy Land Fuerteventura and the Northern African coast, sky, earth, and water only establish a link between points that are spatially distant from one another, the double slide projection The Debt (2013) also produces connections across different times: the Congo Conference in Berlin of 1884–85 meets the protests of the “Sans-Papiers” in the Paris of the nineteen-nineties, and Senegalese colonial armies from World War I meet Algerian troops in World War II.
On the other hand, Attia shows how forms are also able to migrate. How, for instance, does the modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe behave toward traditional Arab or African buildings (Untitled [Ghardaïa], 2009), or Roman architecture toward the Algerian present (Arch of Tazoult, 2012)? Why do used plastic bags or bottles suddenly become beautiful when they are taken from the street and exhibited? How does the music of Africa travel to the colonies in North and South America and back once again (Sound of Reappropriation, 2013)? What connects Greek statues with Congolese arts and crafts (The Repair’s Cosmogony, 2013), or what do weapon casings have to do with articles of everyday use in the home (The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012)?
What first wanders from the world into a work changes once again in the museal space, whence it in turn refers back to the world. The just over two-minute-long video (Mimesis as Resistance, 2013), in which a short section from a BBC television documentary on the special talent of an Australian Superb Lyrebird is presented, shows this manifold transformation in an exemplary way. In the large exhibition hall of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, visitors are alone in the nearly 600-square-meter space with a medium-size, flat-screen panel over their heads. The specific talent of the bird is its singing, which during courtship display not only attracts female mating partners but also imitates every sound it its surroundings with such deceptive authenticity that other animal species respond to it trustingly. Since human beings have infiltrated its habitat, the Superb Lyrebird has also come to copy the sound of cameras, alarm systems, and chainsaws just as convincingly. Reduced to a minimal intervention by Attia, this space concentrates on the topos—the location and the subject—itself. The bird’s original habitat is the Australian rainforest. The video not only transports the location of the Superb Lyrebird into the exhibition space but also simultaneously documents its own dislocation.
Another strategy of dislocation is the act of migrating the form of presentation. In recent years, Attia has often fallen back on traditions of exhibiting from other museum contexts: scholarly presentations of nature and culture are cited in his installations, just as the curio cabinet or the presentation depot.
There, the exhibition space is structured by means of simple, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves, which as architecture specify the spatial arrangement and the movement of visitors while simultaneously also serving as display space, thus structuring the installation both horizontally and vertically. Objects in depots are generally kept on shelves in this way in order to store collection holdings as efficiently and accessibly as possible for their custodians, or specific segments of the public; however, Attia uses this method to make reference to the difference between public presentation and the professional handling of museum objects. He strips away the hierarchy of access for the viewers, who, surrounded by artifacts, select the ones that awaken their interest for closer examination instead of being confronted with objects that first have to be explained to them.30
Elsewhere (Measure and Control and Mimesis as Control, both 2013), Attia blends the two non-artistic presentational forms used by ethnological and natural history museums and, in doing so, also hybridizes the reference contexts that they represent. Shifted to a third location, the art museum, he alienates the two genres of objects from their original surroundings and thus opens them up to new possible interpretations. For renewed examination, individuals have to clarify their own relationship to the things—which have now both become alien.
An essential function of such sensual materials and spaces is keeping the threshold of access to his art as low as possible. These are close to everyday experiences that viewers have already had, thus making it easier for them to engage with a different or novel art experience. Just like the Serresean quasi-objects, the objects, materials, and forms from which Attia’s work is assembled change their function when viewed. Things that at first seem to come from everyday use or areas distant from art—such as mirrors, concrete, plastic bags, aluminum foil, or even video clips, old magazines, medical documents, and stuffed animals—and that evoke associations particular to them are, when seen as art, initially deprived of their original purpose. The gap that is created by doing so thus has an effect in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, it opens the eye to the alien in the familiar (and not perhaps the other way around!), and on the other it, like the Serresean angel, makes “perceptible the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become.”31
1 Michel Serres, Hermès I: La communication (Paris, 1968).
2 Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest (Paris, 1980), p. 15.
3 Translated from the jacket text of the German edition of Michel Serres, Hermes V: Die Nordwest-Passage (Berlin, 1994).
5 Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis, 2007).
6 See ibid., pp. 224–34. “This quasi-object that is a marker of a subject, just as it is said that a lamb is marked for the altar or the slaughterhouse, is an astonishing constructor of intersubjectivity. We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when we are no longer subjects. ‘We’: what does we mean? We are precisely the fluctuating back and forth of the ‘I.’ The ‘I’ in the game is the token exchanged. And this passing, this network of passages, these vicariances of subjects weave the collective.” Ibid., p. 227.
7 Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York, 2012), p. 145.
9 Migrants with no official residence status.
10 Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite (Paris, 1987), p. 74.
11 Ibid., p. 95.
12 Ibid., p. 94.
13 Serres 2007 (see note 5), p. 230.
14 See Serres 1987 (see note 10): “Why do we again and again forget that our body is mirrored from one half to the other, that our left hand mirrors the right, and so forth with breast, foot, kidney; that a mirror that cuts through the middle of us from the crown of the head through the navel to the perineum invisibly accompanies us?” p. 71.
15 In 2007, Attia installed the work once again in Saint-Tropez on the French Côte d’Azur as part of the Dialogues Méditerranéens à Saint Tropez; in 2010 also in La Moulin, as part of Sphères, and in the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano; in 2013 in Amsterdam, as part of ARTZUID. The analysis only refers to the original context in which Holy Land was created.
16 See Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, 2007), pp. 75–81.
17 See Serge Gruzinski, “From Holy Land to Open your eyes,” 2012. Available online at http://kaderattia.de/de-holy-lans-a-open-your-eyes/ (accessed April 1, 2014).
18 See Hanna Gekle, Tod im Spiegel: Zu Lacans Theorie des Imaginären (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), pp. 33ff.
19 It was the Islamic mathematician and astronomer Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (964–1040) who was thus the first to study the use of curved surfaces and, in doing so, invented the magnifying glass; see David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), pp. 60ff. At the same time, because the mirror has no permanence, it is also not as problematic as, for instance, the painted image or the photo.
20 For the sake of practicability, a detailed analysis of the elements surrounding the center of the work will be dispensed with.
21 See Michel Foucault, Die Heterotopien: Der utopische Körper: Zwei Radiovorträge (Frankfurt am Main, 2005).
22 See Hans Belting, Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 2011).
23 See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco, 1986).
24 “The space and the environment in which my works are displayed are extremely important: they are part of the work.” Kader Attia, press kit, Marseille-Provence, 2013, http://www.mp2013.fr/pro/files/2013/05/CP-Les-Terrasses-Kader-Attia-anglais.pdf (accessed April 1, 2014).
25 See Galerie Arndt, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, http://www.arndtberlin.com/website/artist_1928?idx=k (accessed April 1, 2014).
26 See the installation view of Bjarne Melgaard, A Kidwhore in Manhattan: A Novel, Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin, 2008–09.
27 See David Attenborough, The Life of Birds, BBC documentary, DVD, 1998, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSB71jNq-yQ (accessed April 1, 2014).
28 See Oswaldo de Andrade, “Manifesto Antropófago,” Revista de Antropofagia 1, no. 1 (May 1928), pp. 3–7. English version: “Cannibal Manifesto,” Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (July–December 1991), trans. Leslie Bary.
29 See Martin Warnke, ed., Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE (Berlin, 2008).
30 “In the end, there are still heterotopias that seem to be open but to which only the already initiated have access. Although one intends to gain access to the most simple and most open, in reality one is really at the heart of the mystery.” Foucault 2005 (see note 21), p. 49.
31 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York, 1994), p. 182.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Repair. 5 Acts, 2013, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin.
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).
Published in: Kader Attia, Signes de réappropriation, BlackJack Edtions 2013
«From Antiquity, we have believed that we build, deconstruct, and rebuild, while all we do is repair.» — Serge Gruzinski
1. Reappropriation (más…)
Centre de Création Contemporain de Tours, 2009
Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, 2009/2010
Culturgest Fundação Caixa Geral de Depòsitos, Lisbon
We remember Holy Land (2006), this Canary seashore that Kader Attia turned into a cemetery. It is on a similar strand that motor-boats unship stowaways who are in search of a promised land, at least those who didn’t disappear swallowed up by the waves.
My name is Kader Attia, I grew up between France and Algeria.
Until the age of 12, my parents were not decided to stay at the same place. So I was going back and forth between Algeria and France, between an Oriental and an Occidental world.
According to several postmodern philosophers and other theoreticians of Architecture, from Foucault to Lyotard and Charles Jencks, modernity is said to have started with the Renaissance.If I reach into my cinematographic memory and remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I tend to believe otherwise.
A line cuts through a town square and divides public space in two. As a result of this action a boundary has been created,
Galerie Christian Nagel, Berlin Germany, 2007
Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna / Austria 2008
© maxime dufour
Galerie Christian Nagel, Antwerp, Belgium 2012
Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 2011/12
Centre Georges Pompidou, 2012
Kobena Mercer: Art and architecture have become increasingly closely connected, but in con- trast to artists whose sculpture explores the purely formal properties of space, or architects who have constructed gallery spaces for the exhibition of art, your work has a strong historical or even archeological dimension with regards to our understanding of architecture in colonial or post-colonial contexts. How did your research interests in colonial architecture come about, and how would you characterize the conceptual issues that you set out to explore in works such as Kasbah (2007)?
Our economy is a system in which amnesia and sophism fuel short-term vision and thought. People do not invest in a real thing anymore. Today, it is always about “the option to buy” any and every commodity.
Aesthetic, cultural, philosophical and social theories all buttress the conceptual underpinnings of Kader Attia’s installations, photographs and films.
Kader Attia is captivated by what happens in the space between things. He often inverts the traditional figure /ground relationship, focusing, for instance, on the environment created between two buildings rather than on the buildings themselves.
BERLIN Kader Attia is a French artist of Algerian descent who grew up in the immigrant banlieues of Paris, sites of poverty, crime and, in 2005, massive rioting.
My researches have led me to be more and more interested in the notion of «signs of reappropriation». It is important for me, especially when talking about some «post-modernist» architectural theories that were experimented early 50’s, in Algeria, by Fernand Pouillon, and then implemented in the French banlieues, before being spread all around the world.
My researches have led me to be more and more interested in the notion of «signs of re-appropriation».
The implications of Kader Attia’s installation Kasbah, 2009, extended well beyond the gallery’s bare concrete walls and low, unfinished ceilings.
Kader Attia conceived the sublimely dangerous installation, Alpha Beta at a time, perhaps surreptitiously, when knife crime in London hit headlines in tabloids and dailies in the United Kingdom and abroad.
Octavio Zaya- In a recent statement that you made public during your exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle (USA), you mentioned that you have been questioning political issues through art, and that from the resulting reflections you have taken “a more critical step”, questioning “the limits of these discourses” in the face of everyday life. Could you elaborate on these “critical steps” and on what is it that you understand as the “limits” of these political discourses?
I have been thinking about the notion of boundary — geographical, cultural, sexual, religious, philosophical — for a long time. I am interested in that issue, notably through the way architecture and urbanism have an impact on peoples’ everyday life, and particularly the way power has always used them to oppress pop- ulations.
For several years now, I have been questioning political issues through Art, conducting my researches on these topics always in the light of psychoanalysis and philosophy. As someone born in France from Algerian parents, my childhood, spent between France and Algeria, has led me to feel close to Oriental and Arab philosophy, as well as to Occidental philosophy.
Reason demonstrates that the order of things does not only lean on a system based on comparisons or similarities (Rene Descartes, Les Regulae).Indeed, through inference, we can also assimilate differences between things, as analogies that bind things together.
The body of work which has won Kader Attia recognition and acclaim is customarily considered through the popular cliché concerning the simplistic opposition between East and West.
From La Piste d’atterrissage (The Landing Strip, 2000–02) to Rochers Carrés (Square Rocks) and Casbah (2008), Kader Attia has come a long way.
For Momentum 9, French artist Kader Attia uses simple materials—foam-padded cots bearing the imprints of bodies—create a poetic meditation on childhood, absence, and community (see p. TK). Chief Curator Nicholas Baume spoke with Attia recently about his creative approach, the threads that unite his works, and the importance of emptiness.
One motivating question informs all of Kader Attia’s art: how to find in his own experience a chain of ideas that will lead him to the poetic, transformative work of art.
Kader Attia belongs to a special breed of artists, who in another incarnation might have become anthropologists or scholars of culture. As a member of the north-African community in Paris, Attia examines the conflicted identity of his uprooted culture vis-à-vis the seductiveness of consumer culture and the Western world of material abundance.
For several years now, I am questioning fundamental issues through Art, conducting my research- es on these topics always in the light of philosophy, psychoanalysis and poetry.