nothing too see

Fire, Anger and Humiliation in the Museum. By Françoise Vergès, 2019

Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.
 Audre Lorde, 1982

On 2 September 2018, the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro was destroyed by fire, losing perhaps 90% of its vast historical and scientific holdings, including an important collection of indigenous art, and recordings of now-extinct languages. It
was revealed that firefighters had not been able
to access enough water, ladders or equipment,
that the museum had no sprinkler system and was not insured. It was unsurprising to many that the Brazilian elite, heirs of the owners of vast estates built on the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans, had no interest in adequately funding the museum. The government has shown indifference, contempt and ignorance towards the complex history of its country, and the ideology of racial democracy has masked a long history of repression, racism, exploitation and military dictatorship. There is a connection to be made between the loss of hundreds of thousand of objects and the spoliation of lands and destruction of the environment – the fire stands as a metaphor for a conception of the past governed by forgetfulness and erasure. The problem is global: financial neoliberalism sees the world’s resources as limitless. As Kader Attia has explained, injuries – to people, to communities, to the environment – no longer need to be repaired; they are not acknowledged, they are asked to disappear.

What do we do when only ashes remain and there are not even fragments left to repair? In the aftermath
of the museum’s devastation, a group of graduate students launched a campaign to retrieve traces of the collection through images and videos taken by visitors throughout the years. This would create a new collection in which the lost objects could be evoked through images, clips and sounds charged with feelings – a ‘museum of emotions’. The campaign echoes many themes important to Attia, who deals with scars, injury and repair, traces and the memory of objects. His work acknowledges that emotions are stubborn, they make themselves known, disrupting – through contradictory feelings of anger, shame, humiliation, responsibility, desire to escape the past – the narrative of pacification provided by neoliberalist consumerism.

In the video installation Reason’s Oxymorons (2015; p. 61) Attia shows psychologists and other experts discussing the trauma engendered by colonial legacies of devastation and dispossession, and how this has been passed through generations, affecting even those born long after the end of the colonial period. Hence, the importance of the ‘notion of humiliation’ (1) in his practice in relation to colonial trauma, despite claims in Europe that ‘we’ should get over it. This is why this trauma must still be analysed as it was in the mid-twentieth century by Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon, a piece of
work renewed by Algerian-French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Karima Lazali in her 2018 book, Le trauma colonial. Both the French and the Algerian State, Lazali argues, have an interest in keeping colonialism in the realm of the unthought: that
which cannot be thought, formulated or expressed. She looks at colonial and postcolonial processes
that have produced a succession of mutilations of names, bodies and memories that work to alienate the subject from itself. (2) Violence replaces words. The ‘intractable’ situation identified by Fanon in the 1950s not only cast its shadow on the present but has been compounded by the policies of the postcolonial state. (3) Scars upon scars, injuries upon injuries, humiliations upon humiliations, dissimulated, masked, covered
by lies, misappropriations and false truths. Lazali writes that the postcolonial state’s heroic narrative is a camouflage concealing a fratricide war; the present is the past and the confusion of times forecloses any possibility of a future.

This is where Attia’s work intervenes. He shows
the scars, the need for the wounded to exhibit their injuries, and the ways in which they have been repaired – ‘unfinished’ to Western eyes who look
for the artifice of perfect erasure. Interviewing psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, as well as indigenous therapists, Attia’s seeks to explore colonial humiliation and injury and their lasting effects. Whereas in Western museums entire staff painstakingly restore statues, paintings and objects, returning them to what they declare to be their ‘authentic’ state, in works such as The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012) Attia creates the art of the of the repaired injury, of the visible scar and in doing so offers us a museum of emotions. In writings such as The Wretched of the Earth (1965), Fanon looked at the ways in which trances and cleansing rituals done collectively allowed an individual to escape a body occupied and stultified by colonialism; protected by the community, they got rid of their persecuting internal demons, ghosts and specters. We could say that Attia’s work encourages a similar process by inviting the collective pectators to embrace those who bear colonial scars; in fact, all the humiliations inflicted by any kind of abusive power. For humiliation to be overcome, for wounds to heal, the injuries must first be shown and their histories listened to.

Contrary to systems that seek to erase or neglect, conceal or disguise, Kader Attia discloses, lays bare, divulges. Where Western obsession with repair delves into fakery and disguises, Kader Attia offers substance and unease. Objects stolen in the colonies tell multiple stories, of dispossession and uprooting, of forms of display and the history of violence, humiliation and scars. In his art, Kader Attia reveals the skilful art of dissimulation still practiced in most Western museums, especially when it comes to the legacies of colonialism, and in doing so, contributes to the ongoing debate about decolonising the museum and the status of the object.

1 Kader Attia in conversation with Ralph Rugoff in this volume, p. 13

2 Karima Lazali, Le trauma colonial. Une enquête sur les effets psychiques et politiques contemporains de l’oppression coloniale en Algérie (Colonial Trauma: An Inquiry into the Psychological and Political Effects Today of Colonial Oppression in Algeria) (Paris: La Découverte, 2018), p. 8. Our translation.

Ibid., p. 11

Published in: Kader Attia. The Museum Of Emotion, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2019, p.86-87.

The Ambivalent Power of Emotions. By Giovanna Zapperi, 2019

The ways in which emotions are mobilised in the current political climate have become important fields of inquiry in Kader Attia’s recent work, especially as this relates to the legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies. The artist has long been engaged with the idea that we live in a world of entanglements rather than separations, against the widespread notion that cultures are autonomous and self-sufficient entities. In excavating the mutual dependence of modernism and colonialism, he has revealed the ways in which specific objects
and practices acquire new meaning once they
are dislocated from their original context. Attia’s anti-essentialist understanding of culture is
crucial to navigating the contradictions of a time marked by rampant nationalism and racism, with
the accompanying fears and aggressive fantasies projected towards others. As Kobena Mercer has noted, Attia’s work is about admitting that identity can only be lived and experienced under the sign of difference, not within the rigid duality of a narrative in which Europe’s entanglement with its others has been historically neglected. (1) The self, his works suggest, is less autonomous than it is relational, as identity emerges in response to a sense of difference, via an ongoing history of displacements and encounters.

More recently, Attia has tackled the contradictions
of the Western rational tradition in a series of works that explore emotion, healing and mental suffering. As with many of his past research projects, the notion of repair is a crucial point of departure for these later works, which refer to the possibility of healing while keeping the traces of the wounds visible. This notion is relatively open; it can refer to the material object, as well as to a set of historical, cultural and psychic processes. Importantly, it can be understood in terms of a constant regeneration, in which history is always present through a series of traces, as opposed to the forms of denial that characterise Western narratives of progress.

The multi-channel video installation Reason’s Oxymorons (2015) is an inquiry into how subjectivity, human relations and suffering are understood in different epochs and contexts. It forms a vital part of Attia’s endeavour to understand psychic processes
of injury and repair in modern societies. The work is conceived as a video archive, comprising a series of interviews conducted over a period of two years with a number of psychiatrists, ethnologists, philosophers, healers and patients living in different parts of the world. (2) The dialogues are organised according to
 18 thematic sections, such as ‘Ancestors-Neurosis’, ‘Modernity-Capitalism-Schizophrenia’, ‘Genocide- Colonisation’, ‘Exile’, ‘Reason-Politics’, ‘Real-Virtual’ and ‘Totem and Fetish’. Across a diverse range of perspectives, the discussions address the possibility of a transcultural understanding and representation of the human psyche, while expressing a certain distrust towards the possibility of providing a unitary notion of the subject. (3) As historian Serge Gruzinski observes in one of the interviews, in the West ‘people feel that the ego is some kind of fortress shut off from the surrounding world’, whereas in other contexts the self can be conceived in its multiple connections to the outside world. Hence, one of the themes emerging from the discussions has to do with the possibility of expressing subjective experiences
and mental suffering within the context of cross- cultural encounters, displacement and migration, and the problems of how to translate systems of knowledge and belief across different historical epochs, geographic contexts and power relations. Ideas of entanglement and mutual dependence emerge as crucial features within Attia’s research into repair, exposing Western rationality as a cultural and historical formation, albeit a dominant one.

According to Attia, in order to counter the current politics of fear and hatred of the other, we need to understand emotions as crucial political actors. This has become particularly relevant since the attacks targeting the Paris population in 2015, which resulted in growing racism and Islamophobia and the adoption by the French State of a series of repressive measures aimed at restricting individual liberties. This was a turning point in Attia’s career, not just because
it accelerated his decision to open La Colonie, an independent space located in the multicultural area of northern Paris, (4) but also because opposition to the politics of fear from a progressive postcolonial perspective has been one of his main endeavours ever since. While boundaries seem to characterise our contemporary societies, Attia tries to build inclusive spaces of hospitality, discussion and knowledge production, proposing an experiment of social recomposition against the pernicious effects of both terrorist violence and state repression.

Conceived as a direct reflection on the ambivalent potential of emotions in legitimising (or struggling against) inequalities and political violence, the installation The Field of Emotion (2018) juxtaposes a series of photographic portraits depicting a number of male dictators and right-wing politicians – from Adolf Hitler to Slobodan Milošević, George Bush to Jean-Marie Le Pen – with others showing iconic female singers and activists, such as Aretha Franklin, Oum Kalthoum and Maria Callas. In both cases, the person is portrayed during a public speech or concert, emphasising the moment in which an audience is addressed affectively. Sometimes the artist has chosen a book cover or a newspaper clipping displaying a photographic portrait, while other pictures are simple black-and-white photographs. The contrast between the male dictators and the female singers and activists highlights the difference between propaganda and artistic expression, as the politicians’ calculated gestures contradict the emotional conviction that can be observed in the singers’ portraits. However,
in bringing together this assemblage from politics
and art, Attia also seems to point to the ambivalent entwinement of the visual language of propaganda and the range of affects conveyed by speech or song.

In a text written in 2018, Kader Attia explains that
he was interested in observing the techniques of propaganda and the manipulative power that modern political leaders have exerted over the masses. In his view, their appeal is always linked to the fantasy that something lost can be restored, therefore operating as both a psychic and a social force. (5) 
At the same time, The Field of Emotion seems to suggest that in our late capitalist society, the way
an image moves us affectively can never be entirely separated from the commodification in mass culture. This is perhaps the reason why each portrait is covered by a vacuum-sealed transparent plastic food- storage bag, suggesting that the person’s charisma is ready for consumption.

The Field of Emotion brings to mind one of Attia’s previous works, Narrative Vibrations (2017), as both delve into the ambivalent power of emotions across the fields of art and politics. Narrative Vibrations’ main focus is the socio-cultural dimension of sound and its political and emotional resonances: in one of the installation’s spaces, circular plates containing couscous are connected to monitors that broadcast filmed recordings of Arabic postcolonial golden age divas. As the music starts, the couscous begins to vibrate and, literally moved by the singer’s voice through its acoustic vibrations, draws a series
of patterns and forms on the plates. (6) This installation is accompanied, in the adjacent space, by the video Prosody (2017), which shows three women reading
the poetry of Moroccan feminist writer Rachida Madani, while the camera focuses on their emotional responses to the text. (7) The video explores the ability to arouse emotions via the modulation of the voice’s duration, rhythm and intensity; it makes reference
to the experience of the newborn child, for whom meaning is primarily conveyed by the mother’s (or the care-giver’s) voice.

In both The Field of Emotion and Narrative Vibrations, the emphasis on the voice, gestures and facial expression suggests the antinomies between bodily and verbal language, voice and speech. In The Field of Emotion, the language of emotions is primarily understood in terms of its visual representation.

As opposed to Narrative Vibrations’ immersive atmosphere, here the absence of sound allows us to observe with more clarity how the ability to arouse emotions can lead to potentially destructive effects. The presence of singers, however, reminds us of the transformative power of acoustic and non- verbal forms of communication that relate to bodily experience – too readily forgotten in a Western tradition that sees language as the unique bearer of meaning. Even though these works and Reason’s Oxymorons do not refer directly to the current political situation, they suggest the need to address the structural entwinement between the emotional and the political sphere as a way to counter the deadly effects of the politics of fear in which our lives and societies are increasingly enmeshed.

1 Kobena Mercer, ‘After-flow: Kader Attia’s Postcolonial topologies’, in Nicole Schweitzer (ed.), Kader Attia (exh. cat., Lausanne: Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts/Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2015), p. 61

2 The videos comprise interviews with a number of researchers, activists and practitioners based in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and North America, among which are Sister Thérèse Bou Nassif (head of the outpatients clinics in a psychiatric hospital), Souleymane Bachir Diagne (philosopher), Brigitte Derlon (ethnologist), Serge Gruzinski (historian and researcher), Momar Gueye (psychiatrist) and Christine Uwimana (psychiatrist and psychotherapist).

3 See Susanne Leeb’s discussion of this work: Susanne Leeb, ‘Die Kunst der Stunde’, Texte zur Kunst, No. 104 (December 2016), pp. 204–09

4 La Colonie, founded by Attia, restaurateur Zico Selloum and their families, opened on 17 October 2016. The official statement reads that the space
is a place of Savoir-vivre and of Faire-savoir (an untranslatable wordplay implying notions of life and learning, meaning that La Colonie is both a place of conviviality and knowledge production). Statement available at: [last accessed on 11 May 2018]

5 See Kader Attia, ‘The Field of Emotion’ (2018): field-of-emotion/ [last accessed on 30 August 2018]

6 This method of visualising sound was pioneered by Ernst Chladni in the late 1780s, though he used sand rather than couscous.

7 Rachida Madani, Tales of a Severed Head, trans. Marilyn Hacker (Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press, 2012)


Published in: Kader Attia. The Museum Of Emotion, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2019, p.60-63.

‘Reflecting Memory’: In the Hollowness of the Future. By Jean-Michel Frodon, 2019

It is immediately very precise, very factual. Looking at the camera, men and women describe physiological, psychological, mental and bodily phenomena. The men’s and women’s names are stated, and they are scrupulously set in context – geographically and professionally. They are in Paris, Berlin, Dakar, Chicago, London, Vilnius. What they describe concerns individuals – their patients or sometimes themselves. Gradually, through their words, ever- expanding concentric circles extend out around a common centre, an absent centre, which is absence itself. Artists (musicians, a dancer), a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a historian, a journalist and some researchers broaden the resonance of something
that cannot be reduced to a metaphor: the missing
or phantom limb. The complex relationship between individuals and communities, and the possibilities of transposing personal experience and understanding to different scales, runs through the collection of contributions from which Reflecting Memory (2016) is woven. In this practical way, the understanding sets in that for those who suffer from this syndrome after an amputation or accident, it – the real referent – is still there. Bit by bit, through an array of statements from different sources and offering different approaches, connections with other subjects unfold: silence, denial, grief. They help to explore the ways in which the absent real does not become unreal, but quite the opposite – as the philosopher Paul Ricœur has explained so well – and not always for the worst.

What these practitioners of multiple disciplines describe is an invitation, or rather an invocation – just as one might invoke spirits or other references and visions. They do not speak of it but one thinks
of ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’. (1) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work. (2) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. (3) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and even more of his Alienation and Freedom. (4) The revolutionary ideal, the potentiality of the arts, the historical and fantastical construction of the collective, colonial stupidity and suffering are all lurking within these images and words. And the words open up abysses – abysses that are very concrete even if they are ‘immaterial’, like limbs that hurt even though they are missing.

The images of ‘talking heads’ seem simplistic and minimal: they are primarily there to frame words, to document the telling of these stories that are always based on experience. But they are not alone. They
are in turn interspersed, inhabited and haunted, with strange shots whose gentle violence is increased by their initially inexplicable status. A man standing motionless on a railway line where trees are growing. Another sitting at a table in a café. Yet another, standing in front of some industrial wasteland. An elderly woman praying in church. Someone whose back is turned to an enormous statue of Lenin. There is something strange about these images, beyond their indeterminate reason for appearing. We do not know what it is – not yet. Later, after seeing the whole of Reflecting Memory, when we have understood that a mirror is repeating the image of a half-body, the other half of which has been subject to an amputation, we will be able to see these images again with the same sense of unease and concern. Ultimately, spotting the clues that could have hinted at this device is of little importance. There is no secret to reveal here,
no virtuoso incitement to congratulate the artist. There is a mystery that remains and that grows.
And a sense of suffering. For the moment, as we
see these static shots of static and silent people for
the first time, what is intriguing and disturbing is
the perception of a strangeness in the image. This strangeness – the barely discernable presence of the mirror – is to the image that it takes on what these images themselves are to the flow of statements by the film’s participants. As if it were nourished from within by this association of factuality and mystery, Reflecting Memory broadens out, incorporating into its insidiously circular movement the bases of communal life (the community needs its deceased and its absent members, not only to build itself but also for it to thrive and develop), key historical reference points (slavery, colonisation, the Holocaust, the gulags), contemporary schisms (racism, Islamist fundamentalism) and the multiple-versus- individual dialectic.

The very simple yet decisive gesture effected by the shots as they now show the amputees next to the mirror operates in relation to this immense, complex, heterogeneous combination that cannot be made continuous – between past and present, tragic and everyday. The side step taken by Kader Attia here – the shift in viewpoint that makes the subjects’ incompleteness visible (and with it their physiological, mental and often also social suffering) – brings
about an opening, a hollowness, that is shocking and moving. This so very physical flaw accommodates, literally on the surface of the skin, the unbroken chain of these absences that simultaneously order and contaminate our individual and collective existences – from the most intimate (part of a person’s body) to the most universal (history’s darkest moments).

On the level of the human face and body, the dark side that is thus revealed makes palpable – in both the sense of visibility and of affecting feelings (emotions, empathy) – what some other cultures know better than our own: that emptiness is not nothingness. Indeed, emptiness may well harbour the very essence, in forms that are forever unstable, always mysterious, never able to be assigned to an explanation or definition; and for this reason, the statements of the interviewed specialists are restored to their rightful place, as legitimate contributions that are effective
up to a certain point, but that could never cover
the entirety of what is involved in this physical and material non-presence of which they speak.

And it is up to artists – in this case Kader Attia himself – to give us access to it, as a mystery that should certainly not be elucidated: there can be no resolution for a mystery, as mysteries are nothing like whodunits to be solved or secrets to be revealed. Instead, it is about extending the power of the questions that they raise. Nor is there a ‘+’ or ‘–’ sign that can be unequivocally associated with a mystery. And although the thoroughly factual referents (an accident, an injury, a collective tragedy) that brought about the absence are all in varying degrees a matter of misfortune, the act of representing and thinking through it cannot be reduced to this, and is not engulfed in this sombre source. This act also reverses the direction of the temporal and political arrow of the presence of absence. It shifts from melancholy inspired by what has been lost, to a call to what is to come, and to bring into existence, including through what has been there – suffering, brutality, History. It
is an act that echoes Gilles Deleuze’s concept when he wrote that ‘the missing people are a becoming’ (5): in the half-open abyss of what is painfully missing, there can also be found that which is to be constructed, with what has been – that is, both literally and figuratively – the dead (to which the living cling). The dead, but not death. That is what is suggested by the film’s first speaker, the surgeon who strangely sees in it a human trait that he calls ‘repair’. But it is not only a question of repairing; it is also a question of inventing – as the surgeon says, too, when we see him again at the end, describing how he dedicates a great deal of time to explaining to his patients: ‘You won’t be like you were before.’ And nor will we be like we were before – none of us, ever. But, together with the past, the dead, memory and suffering, it is possible to go forward, to make a start. Through and beyond what is missing, what we miss, that is what Reflecting Memory invites us to do.

1 The opening sentence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto of 1848.

2 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, first published in Italian as Opera aperta (Milan: Valentino Bompiani, 1962)

3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983)
4 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, first published in French as Peau

noire, masques blancs (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952); Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, first published in French as Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2015)

5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 209


Published in: Kader Attia. The Museum Of Emotion, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2019, p.94-95.

Reason’s Oxymorons. By Chad Elias, in: Kader Attia, The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, 2018

Over the course of two decades Kader Attia has developed a multimedia practice that investigates the cultural, political, and social transformations unleashed by colonialism. Central to this enquiry is the idea of “repair,” a concept that the artist uses to connect otherwise disparate fields of human activity: anthropology, architecture, craft, medical science, and psychiatry. Consider his installation The Repair: From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2013), which juxtaposes wooden sculptures made by traditional sculptors in Senegal with archival photographs of wounded World War I soldiers, whose faces have been subjected to rudimentary cosmetic surgery. In a Western cultural framework, repair is often understood to entail returning something or someone to an intact state. This is embodied in the methods of plastic surgery where the aim is not only to repair facial injuries, but to efface the traces of physiological reconstruction. Thus, according to this logic, “the beauty of the act of repair is represented by the

of scars altogether.”1 By contrast, Attia relates his discovery of a Congolese sculpture whose original shell-shaped eye had been replaced by an ordinary button. In foregrounding the aesthetics of its own repair, this artifact inhabits an impure state between cultures. Here, repair does not mark a return to origins but a further evolution in the life of objects and the people who shape them.

Attia’s longstanding preoccupation with repair is also manifest in Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), a work that analyzes how different cultures both conceptualize and treat psychiatric disorders. Filmed over two years in Africa and in Europe, this eighteen- channel video installation consists of interviews
that the artist has conducted with psychoanalysts, ethnopsychiatrists, art therapists, ethnomusicologists, and traditional healers. Arranged in individual cubicles, the recorded dialogues examine the psychological injuries caused by genocide, migration, colonization, and capitalism. The value of this comparative approach is twofold: the issue of mental illness offers a highly useful lens for analyzing the inner dynamics of African societies, while also eliciting a critique of a Western psychiatric methods and principles—particularly the division it sets up between reason and unreason.

In Madness and Civilization; A History of Insanity 
in the Age of Reason (1961), philosopher Michel Foucault traces the invention of madness as an

object of medical categorization. Foucault argues that in the European Middle Ages, conditions like melancholia and delirium were associated with insight. The affliction is what “permits the sufferer to predict the future, to speak in an unknown language, to see beings ordinarily invisible.”2 In this world, insanity was still considered part of everyday life, and fools and lunatics walked the streets freely.

However, beginning in the seventeenth century madness would come to be defined as the anti- thesis of reason (déraison, unreason), and would progressively be pathologized. This period culminates with what Foucault calls the Great Confinement. With the institutionalization of the asylum in the nineteenth century, the mad and other social deviants are routinely incarcerated and forced to confess their ills. However, Foucault insists that the shift from premodern mysticism to modern rationality does rest on not a simple break or rupture in history. Rather, the notion of madness as a state of possession by the spirits will continue to haunt the discipline of psychiatry long into the twentieth century. This is particularly evident when the question of madness becomes entangled in European imperial projects.

In his interviews, Attia casts light both on the role
of traditional healers in mental health care in Africa and the adoption of Western psychiatric practices
in the wake of colonialism. At the same time, Reason’s Oxymorons interrogates the fraught relationship between psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious and the premodern religious beliefs that persist in many postcolonial nations. Sigmund Freud’s infamous description of female sexuality
as a ‘‘dark continent’’ and his theorization of the conflict between “primitive feelings” and the repressive demands of civilization in Totem and Taboo (1913) both rely on a conception of the Other that
is made possible by the European expropriation of African territories in the nineteenth century. Yet it would be reductive to see psychoanalysis as a mere instrument of the late colonial state. In the hands of radical thinkers, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was also enlisted as a tool to challenge the authority accorded to the bourgeois-rationalist ego. More to the point, the supposition of the unconscious as
a forbidden zone of irrational desire and libidinal violence became important in thinking about the repressed underside of the so-called “civilizing mission.”

One of the more notable locations featured in Attia’s Reason’s Oxymorons is the Fann Psychiatric Hospital in Dakkar. In the 1950s, French psychiatrist and military doctor Henri Collomb initiated experimental treatment methods there that aimed at the psycho- logical reintegration of an individual in his or her cul- tural milieu.3 Championed as a form of transcultural psychiatry, the Dakkar School sought to incorporate traditional healers into its day-to-day practice. Indeed, the “healing villages” established in post- independence Senegal positioned psychiatric medicine as a supplement rather than an alternative to local knowledge. The villages’ open-door policy also attempted to take advantage of what Collomb saw as a more accommodating and flexible approach to madness in African societies. In seeking to incorporate family and community participation into the treatments, these villages recognized the therapeutic value of socialization.

In a video filmed in Dakkar, Attia engages in an extended dialogue with Professor Momar Guèye, who is now head of the psychiatric clinic at the Fann Hospital. Noting the comparatively low rates of reported schizophrenia in Africa, Guèye connects this to the high tolerance for certain forms of behavior that might otherwise be considered pathological. He explains that in Senegal, “people with mental illnesses are not systematically hospitalized. They see that person not as a problem that needs to be confined but as someone we should learn to live with.” When asked if the rituals associated with spirit possession can be seen to prefigure Freud’s idea of the unconscious, Guèye responds that it perhaps parallels what people in Wolof society

call the “rab.” Although this term has proved very difficult to translate, it is commonly understood to refer to an ancestor spirit that watches over a family or village.4 Certain symptoms of mental illness are often attributed to the rab, but Guèye also connects the rab to the psychopathology of everyday life. Thus, he describes it as a “superior force that drives us all . . . something that makes us do things with- out us meaning to.”

The insights produced by psychoanalysis made it possible to question the individual as a sovereign, autonomous entity who is completely in control
of his or her actions and thoughts. As I have suggested, this decentering of the ego drew on anthropological studies of the so-called magical or irrational thought of “the native.” However, there remains deep resistance to analyzing the workings of the psyche outside of a scientific framework. In a racialized hierarchy of knowledge, non-Western subjects are still cast as “second-class citizens in psychological modernity, poorly understood and crudely enculturated.”5 This presents a serious obstacle to the global translatability of curative analytical work based on the social life of the unconscious. Moreover, while the discipline of transcultural psychiatry was progressive in its attention to questions of culture, its crossing of boundaries threw up some unexpected contradictions. As Megan Vaughan observes, the Senegalese psychiatrists and nurses who took over at the Fann Clinic in the late 1970s “were deeply ambivalent about Collomb’s collaboration with traditional healers” and equally wary of “delving into the spirit world.” Ironically, the French doctors could draw on local therapeutic practices without necessarily risking their professional reputations, but their African counterparts were not afforded the same freedom.

The question of madness takes on a different inflection when seen alongside Attia’s parallel research on art therapy. Here, the artist considers the legacy of Art Brut, a term devised by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s to refer to the art produced by untrained, isolated, and in some cases mentally disturbed individuals. In his essay “In Honor of Savage Values,” Dubuffet challenges the tendency to pathologize the work of these unschooled artists. This connects with his larger critique of the demonization of madness in European culture. While Christendom views it as a sickness, “in many other civilizations, madness is on the contrary a highly honored value.”6 Taking inspiration from ethno- graphic art collections, Dubuffet opened up a dis- cursive framework in which the work of institutionalized patients would be appreciated not as objects manifesting a psychiatric diagnosis but as an open- ended aesthetic act that challenged cultural norms. In Reason’s Oxymorons, one of Attia’s respondents, Dr. Francis Théodore, a physician who heads the Ethnopsychiatry Department at Ville-Évrard Hospital in Paris, conjectures that many of the practitioners of Art Brut spent years in psychiatric hospitals. He concludes that art making in this context equipped subjects with a way to externalize and give form to inner obsessions that might otherwise be all consuming. Along the same lines, Théodore explains that for patients who suffer from psychosis and who typically have trouble determining what is real and what is imaginary, art can function as a crucial mediating object between inner states (for example, delusions or hallucinations) and external reality. When the topic turns to delirium, the psychiatrist notes that “there are day hospitals where patients can paint, but not as long-term projects.” As he goes onto conclude: “patients are no longer given the time to go completely mad.” Here Théodore echoes Dubuffet’s arguments against the inhibiting effects of institutionalized psychiatry.

Reason’s Oxymorons also explores what Warwick Anderson designates as “the globalization of the modern psychoanalytic subject.”7 The growth of ethnopsychiatric clinics in hubs of south-to-north migration such as Paris and London suggests a move beyond the dichotomies imposed by a colonial structure of knowledge/power. They also offer a crucial means for addressing the traumas produced by contemporary forms of mass displacement, deracination, and culture shock. Attia interviews several therapists who work with diasporic Meghrebian and sub-Saharan African communities in Europe. One of these, Abdelhak Elghezouani, is a Swiss Moroccan psychologist who works with newly arrived migrants from North Africa. Many
of his patients exhibit symptoms that do not correlate in any simple causal way to the mental injuries inflicted by exposure to war or oppression. Elghezouani gives the example of refugees who have fled violence but who only develop physical or psychological illnesses after receiving asylum in Switzerland. As manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these maladies cannot be traced back to an original trauma experienced prior to or during departure from their home country. Rather, the sufferers’ condition is the result of the stress that they experience upon arrival. In the case of migrants arriving in Switzerland, Elghezouani contends that the stress caused by acculturation relates to a growing cultural, civilizational, and social divide in the world.

In larger terms, Reason’s Oxymorons points to the gap between the rhetoric of market liberalization and democratic participation, and the growing inequalities that stem from the global financial crisis and the destabilization of developing nations in the global south. The attendant influx of stateless people from war-torn nations like Syria has given rise
to an infrastructure of borders, checkpoints, and camps that functions to screen out “undesirables.” Attia’s use of the office cubicle—a potent symbol
of atomized labor and the corporate exploitation of the mind—would seem to replicate this system of segregation. Indeed, viewers who enter the installation are forced to negotiate a maze of parallel
and perpendicular lines that restrict movement and obstruct interpersonal exchange. Yet the same assembled interviews offer an alternative to the divisive logic of contemporary geopolitics. The African patients who inhabit two worlds simultaneously—accepting modern medicine (for example, to treat epilepsy) while continuing to see a traditional healer—move between what many in the West would see as heterogeneous or even incompatible realities. By calling attention to these forms of boundary crossing, Reason’s Oxymorons stages more than a bipolar confrontation between Us and Them. Rather, this work suggests that “universalities” might exist in imperfect acts of cultural translation. This too is a matter of repair.


  1. Kader Attia, “Scarifications, the Self-Skin’s Architecture,” 2015, -architecture-2/.
  2. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (London: Routledge, reprint 2006), 98.
  3. The Clinique neuro-psychiatrique de Fann opened in 1956. Senegal attained independence from France in 1960. For a useful account of the Fann Clinic, see René Collignon, “Some Aspects of Mental Illness in French-Speaking Africa,” in The Culture of Mental Illness and Psychiatric Practice in Africa, ed. Emmanuel Akyeampong et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 163–85.
  4. Margaret Lock and Vinh-Kim Nguyen, An Anthropology of Biomedicine (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 292.
  5. Warwick Anderson et al., Unconscious Dominions: Psycho- analysis, Colonial Trauma and Global Sovereignties (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 9.
  6. Jean Dubuffet, “In Honor of Savage Values,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 56 (Autumn 2004): 264.
  7. Anderson et al., Unconscious Dominions,





Kader Attia. Sacrifice and Harmony. By Klaus Görner, 2016

Kader Attia, who was born in Paris in 1970 and grew up in Algeria and the suburbs of the French metropolis, takes the experience of his life in two cultures as the point of departure for his artistic praxis. For his investigation of the far-reaching impact of colonialism and Western cultural hegemony on non-Western cultures he adopts a poetic symbolic approach and enquires into the identity politics of historical and colonial eras against the background of a globalised world.

For several years, Attia has been focusing his research on the concept of repair as a constant in nature and human culture. In a variety of areas that appear heterogeneous at first sight – for example, architecture, science, philosophy, economy and gender – he examines the contrary systems of the modern West and traditional non-Western cultures. And what he observes is that every system of life is an endless process of repair. Attia had already shown his work in many exhibitions before his sensational installation The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures on the occasion of dOCUMENTA 13 earned him worldwide recognition in 2012. Since that time he has been invited to continue his approach in numerous solo and group shows.



Kader Attia uses the example of things he finds in the storerooms of ethnological museums – objects repaired by their original owners and therefore usually not placed on display – to illustrate two different models of repair. The patched vessels, statuettes, writing tablets and so on openly display their seams and pegs and thus their respective histories. The Western concept of repair, on the other hand, is guided by the ideal of the flawless recreation of the original state. In the consumer society cycle, defective objects are disposed of and replaced by new ones. The repair itself remains invisible, and is thus tantamount to an obliteration of history. In many of his works, Attia is now applying these two models to a wide range of different areas of knowledge and techniques while at the same time depriving them of unambiguous classification by pointing out comparable phenomena in the respective other cultural realm. He thus pursues a kind of reappropriation that makes reference both to the foreignness of the other culture and to elements of our own culture that are isolated and repressed. Here his concern is not with a reconciliation of cultural differences but with the keener perception of each culture’s inherent pluralities.

For the exhibition designed for the first floor of the MMK, Kader Attia developed a new work group. Sacrifice and Harmony describes a path of experience and a path of cognition. The artist considered the individual works and positions in the circular tour with the greatest care and repeatedly changed them. He attaches the utmost importance to their sequence. In this respect the architecture of the MMK presents a challenge as it does not dictate a strict succession of rooms. The central hall alone offers the visitor seven options for continuing through the museum. It is a space that does not support the idea of chronology, nor does any space in the building. The open structure adheres to a different principle.

Why this insistence on a fixed sequence? The reason lies in the idea that forms the core of Kader Attia’s work: the idea of repair. Every repair – and the term is to be understood here in its broadest sense – implies a non-arbitrary sequence, is a ‘story’, a sign of a history. It indicates an (initial) state which has undergone breakage, disturbance or injury, a trauma. Through the act of repair, a new state is attained. Attia’s interest in methods of repair that do not try to erase the signs of repair derives from his interest in the ‘history’. The majority of his works have a more or less obvious relationship to historical facts and artefacts.

As a process, repair thus denotes a development. The changes brought about by a repair link two states with one another; they represent an evolutionary process. For Attia, it is not the concept of adaptation that is crucial but that of repair. Because of the fact that he conceives of the evolution of species, of societies – indeed, of civilisation and cultures – as an unending process of creation, destruction and repair, we can justifiably speak here of a continuum of repair.


The Continuum of Repair

The term ‘continuum’, which derives from ‘continuo’ – to connect, unite, string together – virtually comprises the act of repair. At the same time, seen from the opposite point of view, it denotes a ‘whole which maintains itself as such regardless of the possible breaks and boundaries it can be subjected to’.[1] The continuum thus has two uses: it designates, on the one hand, the inconcludable process of repair itself and, on the other, the whole that results from that process. In this second sense, we can recognise an artistic method of Attia’s when he brings phenomena from different cultures, techniques or fields of knowledge together in a single context that makes precisely those distinctions appear as non-final, as bridgeable, perhaps as non-existent. The whole that comes into view in the process, however, is not an undivided whole merely awaiting discovery but a whole with ‘seams’ which forms itself anew – or emerges anew, as the case may be. In a spectrum ranging from the ability of the human body to close a cut in the skin to the ability of societies to reform again and again, to respond to other societies and merge with them, we can observe an analogous principle. The methods of repair, however, are multifarious and in the case of sacrificial rituals paradoxical. The idea of coping with crisis through renewed loss initially seems absurd.


Sacrifice and Harmony

‘Sacrificial feasts are traditional means of overcoming social crises of all kinds. Again and again exceptional emergency situations, hunger, epidemics and so forth can lead to human sacrifices. The customs that have to do with the recurring crises of society, with the young generation’s succession of the old, are more firmly established: there is no initiation without sacrifice. The constant renewal of the year is likewise dramatically accentuated by sacrifices celebrating the annihilation of the old in favour of the new.’[2] The paradoxical structure of sacrifice – recreation through annihilation – is the subject of Kader Attia’s deliberations in this show. He writes, ‘Contrary to the original perception of sacrifice as the repair of collective pain (to intensify and soothe the latter), the act of sacrifice in present-day societies serves the politics of fear as a key instrument in the negation of peaceful coexistence and social harmony. The depiction of this history of thought gives us an opportunity to better understand the responsibility we bear in the present situation and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.’

In times of escalating horror and fear, of the terror spreading throughout the world and producing new and more shocking images every day, the artist undertakes to rethink the ideational history of sacrifice in connection with his concept of repair.


The exhibition

As Attia himself expresses it, he investigates the consequences of ‘the centuries-old modern repressive colonial and hegemonic politics to which the West subjects technologically inferior societies’. To do so, he takes architectural examples, various concepts of the healing of traumatic experiences, and the world wars still relevant today as his models, which will be considered more closely in the following.

The path described by the exhibition begins with Los de arriba y los de abajo, a huge installation from 2015 which the visitor must walk through. Wire mesh has been stretched over the space between two rows of metal roller blinds to the left and right and is strewn from above with rubbish and refuse. This oppressive, claustrophobic situation of confinement and abasement was inspired by the actual conditions in the city of Hebron. The horizontal division of entire streets into Palestinian shops on the ground floor and the flats of Jewish settlers on the upper floors led to such construction measures. To counter the settlers’ habit of throwing their rubbish out of the window, the streets are covered over with wire mesh.

Walking through the ‘tunnel’, the visitor experiences the physical and psychological effects of a divided society. Attia sees not only daily humiliation in this situation but also an attempt to draw a psychological boundary between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ and a dissociation from the ‘bad other’.

The traumatic consequences of such experiences are also the subject of the video installation Reason’s Oxymorons, which can be described as a video library. Attia conducted numerous interviews with philosophers, ethnologists, historians, psychoanalysts, musicologists, patients and healers on topics such as “genocide”, “reason and politics” or “totem and fetish”. In its entirety the work represents an essay on psychiatric pathology as it is perceived in traditional non-Western cultures on the one hand and modern Western societies on the other. All of the interviews address various forms of injury with regard to their ‘repair’. The approaches and possible interpretations differ, however, in both the description of the causes and the methods of treatment. Every one of the films is assembled from fragments of the respective interview. This results in collages of the approaches and viewpoints that bring home the fact that neither the conflicts nor the proposals for their solutions can be deduced from a single cause. What is alluded to here can perhaps be described as the ‘pensée du tremblement’ (thought of trembling), to quote Édouard Glissant. It is a kind of thought that resists the force of its own respective system. This mode of thought conceives of the thinker’s own identity in relation to the other. It does not resist change through exchange without losing itself in the process.

The concept of visible repair is directed against amnesia. Seams and scars are testimonies to a history. For the MMK’s large triangular hall, Kader Attia created the monumental installation J’accuse. Eighteen larger than life-size wooden busts stand as silent observers before a wall projection showing a brief excerpt from a film by the French director Abel Gance (1889–1981). Even shortly after the First World War, Gance made an anti-war film entitled J’accuse; in 1938, in view of the imminent threat of war, he produced a second version. The second film closes with a powerfully eerie scene in which the protagonist – as a last resort in his efforts to warn the world – summons the dead of the battlefields of Verdun to set out in a gruesome parade. Not only do the graves open up; monuments erected to commemorate the soldiers killed in action also come to life. To the horror of the people living there, the ghastly procession makes its way through cities and villages.

Whereas for his first version Gance had used footage of real combat operations, for the second version he persuaded wounded war veterans – gueules cassées – to join the admonitory procession of war dead at the end of the film. Gueules cassées is the term used for the many thousands of soldiers who suffered severe facial injuries during the First World War. After that war, the shocking photos of these victims had frequently been published in anti-war literature, for example War against War! by the pacifist Ernst Friedrich, first published in 1924. The scarred faces of the wounded, which plastic surgeons had attempted to salvage in countless operations, bear horrible witness to a suppressed past while at the same time presaging the coming atrocities.

Kader Attia has used the gueules cassées images in many of his works and installations. They are testimonies to injury and attempted repair. By translating the photos into wooden busts, a different act of repair has now been performed. Under Attia’s guidance, sculptors from Senegal carved the sculptures, taking the historical photographs as their models. The artist thus reminds us that several African countries were involved in the First World War as colonial territories of the belligerent parties and had suffered thousands of losses. The wood from which the busts were carved was chosen according to its age: it is approximately as old as the people it depicts.

The exhibition closes with a work to which the meaning of a sum can be attributed. Attia sums up his conception of evolution in the equation Chaos + Repair = Universe. Every change is preceded by a disruption, decline or demise; the parts constituting the former state merge in an unforeseeable manner to form a new whole. The sphere consisting of many fragments of mirrors alludes to the concept of repair as a universal principle. The sphere has been used since antiquity as an image of the cosmos, unity and continuity. Yet unlike the gapless sphere of being described by Parmenides, the wholeness of this work by Attia is full of seams and cracks. The gaps between the shards afford a view of the interior and the infinite reflections that render both the individual fragments and the repairs an inconcludable process of refraction. It is a creative process of renewal in which – as we are repeatedly reminded by the mirrors in Attia’s oeuvre – the beholder is always a constitutive element. The plurality of perspective, it would appear, counters the ossification of thought and feeling. It shows every ‘whole’ as something composed from parts, and every separation as preliminary.

[1] Norbert Herold, ‘Kontinuum, Kontinuität’, in: Joachim Ritter (ed.), Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Schwabe: Basel, 1971–2007, vol. 4, col. 1044.

[2] Walter Burkert, ‘Griechische Tragödie und Opferritual’, in: id., Wilder Ursprung: Opferritual und Mythos bei den Griechen, Wagenbach: Berlin, 1991, p. 25.


Published in: Kader Attia. Sacrifice and Harmony, exh. cat., MMK Frankfurt, ed. Klaus Görner, 2016.

Destruction et réparation. By Philippe Dagen, 2016

En se saisissant de la notion de réparation et en plaçant l’essentiel de ses réflexions et de ses travaux sous ce signe, Kader Attia accomplit un geste très singulier. Jusqu’alors, cette notion n’était pas apparue dans le champ de la création et de la réflexion artistique, et le mot n’y avait pas cours. Or elle touche à l’essentiel de notre temps. Par cette voie qu’il est le premier à suivre, Attia accède et fait accéder à une compréhension particulièrement pénétrante de notre monde et de ce que les arts en donnent à comprendre, bien au-delà du champ artistique au sens strict du terme. Ce sont quelques observations et déductions conduites en ce sens qui seront présentées ici. Elles ne prétendent pas épuiser le sujet, en raison même de son étendue, mais en rendre manifestes les enjeux principaux.

Le mot réparation s’entend de plusieurs manières, dans plusieurs registres de vocabulaire et, par conséquent, de sens. Délibérément, on commence par celui qui paraît le plus apparemment trivial. Par réparation, dans la langue du quotidien, on entend le fait de remédier à des dégâts ou à des malfaçons qui privent un objet de ses fonctions, quels que soient cet objet et ses fonctions. Il s’agit, par des opérations variées, de lui rendre ses propriétés perdues ou diminuées. Ceci suppose soit d’avoir recours à des pièces de rechange prévues à cet effet, soit d’employer d’autres moyens plus empiriques et imprévus. Dans ce second cas, la réparation s’opère sur les modes de l’invention seconde, du détournement, du bricolage souvent. A l’évidence, c’est ce cas qui retient l’attention. Le premier, celui de la réparation anticipée, n’est qu’une opération préalablement intégrée à un système par précaution : la roue de secours en cas de crevaison – au niveau le plus bas de complexité – ou les processus de rectification et d’autorégulation intégrés aux programmes informatiques – au niveau le plus haut. Il s’agit chaque fois d’opérations anticipées qui n’exigent aucune part d’invention de la part de ceux qui y procèdent, puisqu’il suffit de suivre des procédures prédéfinies.

Infiniment plus intéressante est l’autre situation : comment rendre à nouveau opérationnel un objet en pratiquant sur lui des interventions qui n’ont pas été prévues par ceux qui l’ont produit ? C’est évidemment à cette situation que s’intéresse Kader Attia quand il attire le regard sur une calebasse cassée et réparée au moyen de ligatures et de résines, ou sur un masque fendu et renforcé à l’aide d’agrafes de fer ou de pièces découpées dans des vêtements usagés. Ces exemples sont pris à des sociétés artisanales, à un stade préindustriel. Mais il est évident que d’autres pourraient être pris dans des sociétés à d’autres stades de développement technique. Quiconque a roulé en Afrique ou dans nombre de pays d’Asie a fait l’expérience de véhicules qui, initialement fabriqués en usine, ont par la suite été réparés dans des ateliers qui tiennent plus de la forge que de la chaîne de fabrication. Dans ce cas, il n’est pas rare que des pièces métalliques soient élaborées pour remplacer les pièces défaillantes. Elles sont parfois fabriquées avec du métal de récupération. Ou ce sont des adaptations pratiquées à chaud ou à froid par des spécialistes de cette économie de la transformation. Ce qui est vrai des automobiles et des trucks l’est aussi de beaucoup d’autres produits, notamment les armes.

Que l’on évoque des exemples pris en Afrique, en Inde ou au Pakistan – mais ils pourraient être pris en Amérique latine ou en Asie du sud-est – est en soi un indice. Ce qui se joue dans de telles réparations, aujourd’hui, est la rencontre entre des niveaux de développement, des temporalités et des idéologies différentes. Et ceci est vrai, comme on le verra plus loin, aussi bien dans le champ de l’art que dans ceux des autres activités humaines.

Schématiquement, on distingue deux modes de fonctionnement : celui de la production-destruction et celui de la réparation. Par production-destruction, on entend le système économique global contemporain qui repose sur des structures de production rationalisées et standardisées grâce, désormais, aux capacités des ordinateurs et de tout ce qui va de pair – robotique, modélisation, impression 3D etc. Ces structures et les méthodes d’exploitation qui leur sont associées fabriquent dans des quantités régulées par le marché des articles tous identiques. Ceux-ci ont atteint ces dernières décennies des niveaux de complexité qui étaient inconcevables il y a un siècle – et l’étaient encore pour beaucoup il y a un demi-siècle. Ces articles s’abîment et courent le risque de la panne, que ce soit en raison d’un accident, d’un usage intensif ou d’une obsolescence plus ou moins programmée par l’industrie elle-même. Ils doivent alors être abandonnés et de nouveaux objets doivent être acquis pour les remplacer : c’est ce que l’on appelle la société de consommation. Celle-ci fonctionne sur un rythme de renouvellement dont chacun a pu s’apercevoir combien il s’est accéléré, accélération en grande partie déterminée par des découvertes et améliorations technologiques incessantes. Votre tablette numérique, votre smart phone sont d’ores et déjà périmés au regard de ce qui se fabrique à l’instant même. Il va falloir en changer. Et si vous les avez cassés, ils ne sont pas réparables : en raison de leur structure même, il serait aberrant car infiniment trop long et délicat d’essayer de les remettre en marche. Abandonnez-les et leurs composants seront recyclés selon un processus industriel qui n’a rien à voir avec la réparation : il procède à la destruction de l’objet et au reconditionnement de ses matériaux. La temporalité propre au mode production-destruction est donc rapide, de plus en plus rapide.

Pour prendre une comparaison du côté des industries de divertissement : cette temporalité est celle du cinéma et des séries. L’économie de ce secteur exige que soient sans cesse mis en circulation de nouveaux films et de nouveaux épisodes, afin de soutenir la consommation. Autant dire que ce système exige l’hyper-productivité, seule capable de satisfaire une consommation excitée par la publicité. Il vit dans un temps court, segmenté, privé de continuité – le plus souvent privé de mémoire. Il a pour discours explicite ou implicite une idéologie – si l’on peut employer ce terme lourd de son passé philosophique – qui est celle de la nouveauté et de la perfection technique : une forme d’idéalisme qui rêve d’un monde où tous les désirs de consommation sont instantanément satisfaits par le surgissement ininterrompu de produits toujours plus performants, toujours plus savants, au design et à l’ergonomie toujours plus « purs ». Si l’on souhaite étudier cette idéologie, qui est celle dans laquelle sont immergées les sociétés des pays les plus avancés et les plus riches, il suffit de se reporter aux spots publicitaires conçus pour faire vendre des produits du numérique – Apple excelle dans cet exercice – ou encore aux œuvres de Jeff Koons. Ce dernier est, par excellence, l’artiste de ce monde. Ses premiers travaux se plaçaient explicitement à l’enseigne de « the new » sous forme d’aspirateurs d’un modèle alors très perfectionné, présentés dans des caissons lumineux semblables à des vitrines. Ses travaux plus récents, dont les très connus Balloon dogs, donnent à voir des surfaces réfléchissantes parfaitement lisses et propres, des couleurs brillantes et attrayantes et des formes courbes biomorphiques. On sait – on doit savoir même, car l’artiste insiste volontiers sur ce point – que la production de ces sculptures exige des technologies savantes, des investissements lourds et une application de tous les instants. Elles cristallisent les qualités essentielles des industries actuelles, dont elles sont les meilleurs symboles. La seule différence est qu’elles échappent au cycle production-destruction en raison de leur statut d’œuvre d’art, elle-même fondée sur leur fonction symbolique.

On ne répare pas un Jeff Koons. On ne peut imaginer un Balloon dog aux flancs griffés, au vernis écaillé, aux volumes cabossés. Si de tels accidents venaient à se produire, aucune restauration ne serait tolérable. L’idée d’agrafes suturant une coupure ou d’une sorte de rétamage a quelque chose du sacrilège – ou du comique. Quel serait le résultat ? Il finirait par ressembler à ces globes irréguliers que Kader Attia obtient en attachant par des fils de fer des fragments de miroirs brisés, qui ne célèbrent pas la perfection d’une sphère au poli « miroir » digne de Koons – ou de Kapoor – mais portent à son paroxysme la pratique du ramassage, du remaillage – la réparation à son stade ultime.

Simple opposition de styles ? Nullement. Ce que cette pratique engage, ce qu’elle énonce par le visuel et le tactile, c’est la distinction que l’on a formulée précédemment entre deux modes antagonistes de fonctionnement, entre deux mondes. Par nature, par principe, la réparation refuse et réfute l’idéologie du neuf et de la forme parfaite, la temporalité brève de la production-destruction, la précipitation de la consommation. La réparation propose une alternative au remplacement. Elle s’ingénie à rallonger la durée de vie des choses. Elle a pour dessein de préserver ou de rétablir leur efficacité, leur valeur d’usage, quel que soit cet usage. Ainsi considérée, la notion de réparation, a une force critique que l’on n’attendait pas d’elle : elle s’oppose aux principes selon lesquels fonctionnent les sociétés dites avancées. Le plus souvent, dans les régions du monde qui ont été citées plus haut, c’est par nécessité économique, faute de moyens, faute d’instruments.

Temporalité accélérée et discontinue, a-t-on dit de la temporalité de la production-destruction. Un objet réparé porte les traces d’une histoire. Sur le vase brisé le mieux recollé, la ligne de la fracture demeure perceptible. Or cette ligne suggère non seulement que du temps a passé et que l’objet a traversé une durée, mais elle est aussi le signe de sa fragilité. Il s’en est fallu de peu qu’il ne disparaisse. Les peintres de vanité du XVIIe siècle plaçaient parfois dans leurs natures mortes allégoriques des vases ébréchés ou des verres en déséquilibre, parmi les fleurs fanées, les fruits à moitié pourris, les chandelles éteintes et les crânes humains. La chose réparée porte la marque de la blessure et donc la pensée de la mort. Quand, dans son installation Arab Spring, Attia brise des vitrines parfaites, ces vitrines prenant pour modèle celles qui se trouvaient au musée de Bagdad, il fait certes allusion à la guerre en Irak, au pillage du musée et au trafic de pièces archéologiques. Mais il confronte aussi le spectateur à la vue et à la pensée de la disparition et du désastre : rien ne résistera, tout sera dispersé ou réduit en miettes. Face à cette destinée, l’idéologie du « new » et de la perfection pèse peu. La comparaison, qui a pu déconcerter, entre les globes d’éclats de miroir d’Attia et les Balloon dogs de Koons, ou entre les vitrines de The New et celles d’Arab Spring, met en évidence un antagonisme infiniment plus large : les formes artistiques sont aussi des formes idéologiques et le concept de réparation est aussi opérant dans un champ que dans l’autre.

Une réflexion de nature plus historique doit alors intervenir. La réparation comme technique domestique semble avoir été pratiquée depuis des millénaires : probablement depuis les sociétés humaines les plus anciennes. On connaît des silex qui, au paléolithique supérieur, ont été retaillés dans une forme nouvelle après une cassure accidentelle ou réaffutés parce que leur tranchant s’était émoussé. Il n’en est pas de même dans l’histoire des arts. Les procédés artistiques les plus précoces pouvant être mis en rapport avec la réparation apparaissent entre cubisme et Dada. Des éléments disparates, usés ou cassés pour la plupart, sont assemblés par une sorte de bricolage qui attribue à chacun d’eux une efficacité nouvelle. Le morceau de pied de chaise se change en signe : il désigne, par allusion, métonymie ou analogie, un meuble ou un instrument de musique. Même changement de statut pour le manche de couteau qui avait perdu sa lame ou la boîte privée de son couvercle. L’assemblage, le montage leur confèrent une nécessité nouvelle en faisant d’eux des éléments d’une structure imprévue : une structure à faire apparaître une nature-morte par exemple. Ce qu’assemblage cubiste et dadaïste et réparation ont en commun se nomme généralement bricolage : un processus allant de la récupération à l’intégration dans une structure qui suscite des réactions visuelles et mentales, une structure qui crée du sens. Que l’on se réfère à Picasso, à Tatline ou à Haussmann ne change rien au raisonnement. Et le fait qu’Haussmann intitule L’esprit de notre temps le bricolage qui associe une tête de mannequin à des débris métalliques variés, trouvés dans la rue ou dans un atelier abandonné, ce titre incite à formuler cette remarque : l’art de la récupération et de l’assemblage apparaît au moment où l’industrie fait pour la première fois triompher à une échelle jamais atteinte auparavant le système production-destruction. Ce moment se nomme Première Guerre mondiale, première guerre industrielle de l’humanité.

Il est éminemment significatif que Dada, art du bricolage approximatif, surgisse au moment où la productivité des moyens de destruction devient le critère principal qui décide de la victoire et de la défaite. Il est du reste tout aussi significatif que les soldats des tranchées n’aient eu de cesse de développer des bricolages avec des douilles d’obus ou de balles pour obtenir des bibelots d’intérieur, des souvenirs modestes ou même des instruments de musique. Avant d’être anéantis par les progrès de la physique, de la chimie et de la balistique, ces combattants sans illusion et sans grand espoir bricolent des assemblages. Ces manipulations pauvres et approximatives sont à l’opposé des opérations massives et assurées que les machines de guerre accomplissent quotidiennement et dont ils sont les victimes en masse. Autrement dit : de même que la réparation s’oppose aujourd’hui au cycle consumériste de la production-destruction, de même, il y a un siècle, l’assemblage de menus débris et vestiges s’opposait de son mieux au triomphe de la mort rationalisée et industrialisée.

Ceci aussi, Attia l’a compris et l’a rendu visible. On ne s’expliquerait pas sinon l’intérêt qu’il manifeste depuis longtemps pour la Première Guerre mondiale, l’art des tranchées et ce que l’on nomme en français les « gueules cassées » : les combattants défigurés mais vivants dont la chirurgie devait s’efforcer de « réparer » les irréparables blessures et mutilations. Chirurgie « réparatrice » dit-on en effet en français pour désigner la chirurgie qui tente de recomposer un visage ou de restaurer l’équilibre d’un corps. Il est aussi des thérapies qui tentent de « réparer » des souffrances et des lésions moins visibles : les traumatismes psychiques qui affectent les victimes militaires et civiles.

Or c’est dans cette situation que nous vivons désormais, de plus en plus, partout, sans protection assurée, sans sécurité durable. A peine est-il besoin de signaler que nous vivons à l’ère des terrorismes, des « purifications ethniques », des guerres civiles et étrangères. A l’inventaire des champs de bataille sans cesse s’ajoutent de nouveaux lieux, de nouvelles villes, de nouvelles régions. Aucune distinction entre civils et combattants ne tient plus, dans la mesure où tout membre d’une société – femme ou homme, jeune ou vieux – peut être tenu pour un ennemi et éliminé comme tel au nom d’une idéologie, d’une religion, d’une haine. Ecrire que nous vivons dans un monde déchiré est un euphémisme. Ajouter que nulle prévision ne l’annonçait il y a un quart de siècle, au moment de l’effondrement des régimes communistes, est un autre euphémisme. Vues d’Europe, les guerres étaient dans les années 60 et 70 du siècle dernier un passé qui ne se reproduirait pas – les deux conflits mondiaux, les conflits de la décolonisation – ou un ailleurs assurément douloureux mais lointain – le Vietnam, le Biafra. Depuis trois décennies, les guerres, c’est partout, y compris en Europe : des guerres nationales et religieuses dans ce qui fut la Yougoslavie à cette autre forme de guerre qui procède par attentats partout, 11 septembre à New-York, 13 novembre à Paris. Attia en est naturellement pleinement conscient, lui qui suit d’aussi près que possible les évènements au Moyen-Orient et en Afrique, lui qui se rend aussi souvent à Beyrouth qu’à Dakar.

Ce bouleversement mondial, dont on ne saurait conjecturer aujourd’hui quand et comment il prendra fin, après quels désastres et quelles révolutions, a ainsi fait revenir au premier plan de la mémoire et des travaux historiques la Première Guerre mondiale, parce qu’elle a été la première du monde moderne et qu’elle demeure, si l’on peut dire, pour ainsi dire « exemplaire ». Quand, en 2012, Attia contraint les visiteurs de la Documenta de Kassel à s’arrêter devant les photographies insupportables des soldats défigurés entre 1914 et 1918 et place à proximité des exemples de l’ « art des tranchées », il prend acte de la façon la plus violente de cet état de fait. En 2012 encore, le Centre Pompidou-Metz consacre une exposition à l’année 1917, manifestation à laquelle l’auteur de ce texte a lui-même participé dès sa conception. Il ne s’agit pas d’une simple coïncidence de date, mais d’une prise de conscience simultanée : d’une convergence « en aveugle ». Plus tard, elle se change en convergence concertée et réfléchie entre les protagonistes, qui s’aperçoivent qu’ils vont dans la même direction, qu’ils suivent les mêmes intuitions et les mêmes obsessions. Il y aura ici matière à réflexion pour les historiens de la culture et des arts qui, dans quelque décennies, s’apercevront que la réapparition de la Première Guerre mondiale au premier plan des sujets d’intérêt et d’étude a été l’un des symptômes des bouleversements de la fin du XXe et des débuts sinistres du XXIe siècle et l’un des éléments de leur compréhension par les artistes et les intellectuels. Après Kassel, Attia a continué dans ce même sens. Ainsi, dans son exposition lausannoise intitulée de façon explicite Les blessures sont là, le regard du visiteur tombait-il sur des prothèses de jambes du genre de celles que l’on confectionnait pour les mutilés qui devaient être « appareillés » _ du genre de celles qu’Otto Dix fait apparaître dans ses œuvres de 1920, Prager StrasseDie Skatspieler ou ce cortège de blessés qu’il exposa lors de la Dada Messe de Berlin et qui a été détruit durant la période nazie. Ainsi revient-on du reste à Dada et il serait aussi juste de citer ici Les automates républicains de George Grosz, autre œuvre de 1920, autre représentation satirique d’une impossible réparation qui finit par la transformation de l’être humain en machine obéissante et meurtrière.

Ces observations tendent toutes à mettre en évidence combien les travaux d’Attia répondent à l’état actuel du monde, non seulement en collectant les signes et les représentations les plus caractéristiques de notre temps, mais encore en proposant des comparaisons et des analyses. Ainsi, à Lausanne encore, avait-il conçu un dispositif qui tenait visuellement du dépôt d’archives et d’images et établissait des analogies entre les représentations de l’ « Arabe » et du « Nègre » dans la presse française au temps des conquêtes coloniales – dans le dernier tiers du XIXe siècle – et celles que diffusent désormais les médias occidentaux et ceux qui assurent la propagande de l’Etat Islamique. Leur forte similitude, à plus d’un siècle de distance, était en soi une réflexion instructive. Mais il était plus encore instructif de mesurer combien les stéréotypes de la cruauté, de la barbarie ou de la lâcheté dominent les représentations à ces deux époques : parce qu’elles sont profondément inscrites dans la mémoire collective occidentale et parce que les metteurs en images islamistes les exploitent en connaissance de cause afin de mieux réactiver terreurs et dégoûts. L’orientalisme des temps coloniaux fournit la propagande djihadiste en images obsédantes qu’il ne leur reste qu’à réinterpréter presque à l’identique : décapitations en musique sur fond de désert, drapeaux claquant au vent.

En concevant une telle installation analytique, en compilant les images qui soutiennent son interprétation, Attia met en pratique une conception de l’artiste que l’on peut dire celle de l’artiste-anthropologue et historien. Très récente, elle répond à notre présent. Il est flagrant qu’elle n’a plus rien en commun avec les définitions de l’art qui avaient cours jusqu’aux années 1980. Celles-ci, au nom de l’autonomie de l’art, affirmaient que l’objet de l’art était l’art lui-même, l’étude de ses moyens et de ses concepts, leur décomposition, leur mise à nu. Ou bien, à l’inverse – mais toujours dans le champ circonscrit de l’art – des citations, des variations stylistiques, des jeux avec le passé de la peinture par exemple : les maniérismes savants de ce qui a un temps été nommé postmodernisme. Vue d’aujourd’hui, cette période est révolue et il apparaît de plus en plus clairement que le dogme de l’autonomie de l’art n’était soutenable qu’à une époque où la situation géopolitique maintenait la paix et où la situation économique garantissait la prospérité des pays industrialisés et consuméristes. Serait-il scandaleux de soutenir que les pratiques et les théories minimalistes et conceptuelles se sont développées aux Etats-Unis et en Europe occidentale parce qu’il n’y avait aucune autre urgence, aucune inquiétude, mais, au contraire, une stabilité garantie ? L’œuvre de Stella, du pré-minimalisme du début des années 1960 au baroque ornemental des décennies suivantes, est l’exemple d’une création qui n’est à aucun moment sollicitée ou ébranlée par des circonstances extérieures : par ce que l’on appelle communément l’histoire. Et pour cause : celle-ci était alors immobilisée, gelée dans le face-à-face de deux superpuissances qui ne s’affrontaient que dans des conflits périphériques. Rares ont été dans cette période les artistes qui ont osé s’engager dans des réflexions politiques, bien au-delà des limites du champ artistique, à l’exception des artistes allemands qui ont engagé dès les années 60 un travail sans concession sur le passé de leur pays natal, Richter comme Haacke, Baselitz non moins que Beuys.

Aujourd’hui, cette position d’extériorité revendiquée de l’art ne peut plus être tenue. L’artiste-anthropologue, sur le modèle que réalise Attia, s’empare de tous les moyens visuels, prend à toutes les sources d’information, avance des hypothèses, rappelle des faits méconnus. Son propos : mieux comprendre notre monde et entraîner ses contemporains dans cette recherche. C’est dans cette entreprise nécessaire qu’Attia s’est engagé.


Published in: Kader Attia. Sacrifice and Harmony, exh. cat., MMK Frankfurt, ed. Klaus Görner, 2016.

Kader Attia. The Phantom Limbs in Art. By Clémentine Deliss, 2016

“Ceux qui sont morts ne sont jamais partis:

Ils sont dans l’ombre qui s’éclaire…”

(Birago Diop, “Les Souffles”, mars 1943)

Since his seminal work on the gueules cassées, a two-channel projection that juxtaposed archival photographs of the mutilated faces of soldiers from WW1 with images of broken and mended ethnographic objects, Kader Attia has developed a unique continuum of inquiry between political, aesthetic, and architectural expressions of repair.[i] For Attia this word, with its mechanical, even domestic, connotations of stitching and fixing, extends beyond visible strategies of reparation and the discourse of restitution. He inverts the term to articulate the chaos that lies behind the internalised rendering of that which has been pathologically harmed or forcibly removed. Whether this wound is located on a person’s face or embedded within the socio-political tissue of a continent or a faith, the process of repair generates ambivalence. For while it may succeed in eradicating signs of a damaged past, it also reconstitutes trauma through artificial means creating multiple somatic remainders and prosthetic monuments to that which is no longer there.[ii] Repair, in Attia’s artistic vocabulary, denotes the endless agency of a chtonic, subterranean process of regeneration in contrast to a rationalist affirmation of progress.

Like an activist of the mind, he forges subtle and unexpected paths that penetrate the exclusive portals of occidental bibliophilia. His installations are recognised for their vast structures laden with volumes of twentieth century books and publications. Against these shelved remnants of modernist capital, he produces new unforeseeable dialogues. He manages to cross-fertilize advanced academia with meanings from the periphery by tapping into the experience and folk wisdom located in marginalised territories. Moreover, he articulates these exceptional dialogues through sculptural and poetic form evoking, in the words of Aby Warburg, the symbolic connection between a “culture of touch and a culture of thought”.[iii]

With their tactile geometry, Attia’s sculptures, however immobile, are unusually kinetic. Steel shrapnel, mirror fragments, glass mosaic, wire mesh, copper filaments, iron staples, rubber, string, cardboard and wood together build the fallen matter that Attia engages with. Grand yet humble, like the offerings of a market-stall holder at the end of the day, these small goods, however desolate, represent the world. In “Chaos + Repair = Universe” he stitches together the shards of coloured mirrors to build an improbable globe. Glimpsing through the gaps, a shiny multitude of autonomous elements appears, each with its distinctive colour, shape and geography. His allegorical construction becomes the porte parole of René Girard’s snowballing mechanism of mimetic desire, the mirror-jewels reflecting the spiralling void of consumerist craving, contagious, sharp-edged and inherently divisive.

Built from the “slips and scraps of history (that) know no hierarchy”[iv], Kader Attia’s artworks address what he calls the “metaphysics of everyday objects”. Each thing, fabricated and manipulated by someone, bears the tangible biography of this person and their relations to others. He reinstates the signature of the modest man who fixes the broken calabash, adapting it with care so as to restore its original function. This workshop of life is condensed within a concrete gesture of the hand, expressed through the “minor science”[v] of everyday survival. This is far from the current cycle of “production-destruction”[vi], with which we replace and update commodities at an inordinate speed of consumption. It is about the conservation of common histories, which like “congealed actions”[vii] are gently and poetically etched into the domestic object. Repair makes something operational once again, transforming its ontology in ways that the original maker had not predicated. Whether looped together by hand using the age-old method of embroidery, or soldered through robot-assisted nanotechnology, ultimately this corrective and recursive process produces the same outcome. The archetypal chain stitch of remedial surgery is repeated ad infinitum, its technicity updated in the eternal hope of improving the human condition. Attia’s practice speaks about the mythic relations between harm and healing, often identifying that which we prefer to ignore. He draws us back to the forensic qualities of daily existence located between the macro-politics of socio-religious collapse and the intimate injuries, ruptures and dislocations borne by individuals.

And so it can be argued that the exceptional capacity of Attia’s artworks is that they are intentionally fractured, made to reveal absent organs and missing parts, asymmetries needing to be equalised, or cognitive responses on the verge of being performed. His sculptures and collages incite the viewer to compensate for the epistemic black-outs, handicaps and penalties within visual art’s hierarchical replication of social and ethical injustices. Unrelenting, like the dogged pain of a phantom limb, his sculptures obliterate our critical distance. They inject us with a split-second placebo that both releases and manipulates our expectations. Before we can stop to think, we read Cubism’s tectonic reference to African masks in the modular cardboard packaging of electronic equipment.[viii] And yet Attia’s work is a far cry from any formal trickery or knee-jerk reaction. It’s about introducing a larger poetic and political frame around the dysfunctional relations of longing and violence that have qualified the building of empires across space and time.

Take the city of Ghardaia built in the 11th century by Mozabite architects in the Algerian M’zab valley and viewed as a miracle of engineering. Inspired by the writings of French anthropologist Marcel Mercier, Le Corbusier visited Ghardaia in 1931. There he discovered numerous design solutions, which he later reformulated for his Cité Radieuse. 70 modernist years (and several centuries) later, Attia outlandishly reconstructs a model of Ghardaia out of couscous grain. Like a castle made of sand, once exhibited in a museum, it threatens to crumble and dissolve, demanding impossible forms of reconstruction and conservation. This is where his methodology of analogical thinking becomes so acute. By employing a specific materiality gleaned from daily experience, he turns an aesthetic moment in colonial ideology on its head. The “couscous Ghardaia” reveals African-Berber, working-class sources within French urban planning. This fragile, sculptural chimera represents the unseen neglect that weighs heavily upon Algeria’s post-colonial modernity and is felt right through to the suburbs of Paris today.

So what happens when an artwork consciously invokes the viewer to compensate for the disequilibrium and absence that something or someone else has produced? By extension, what form of intellectual and aesthetic supplement is Kader Attia introducing through his work? Which sculptural syntax does he deploy in order to articulate the extended continuum that characterises the concept of “repair”? For Attia is fascinated by forms that transport their own history and, more specifically, that echo the human body with its somatic charge. Modernity’s dogma of reparation, he suggests, is to revert to the perfect, to hunt for the authentic utopian organism. Cosmetic surgery, for example, seeks to erase the lines of human aging such that the intervention of the scalpel dissolves entirely. But no organ can be sutured without affecting another point in the body. If you stitch skin, you pierce it: you harm in order to heal. Through this incision, the injury is remediated: the subject transgresses its original wounded state and a new topology emerges. As Attia’s investigations demonstrate, repair does not reduce the process of fracturing; it increases it, allowing meanings to proliferate beyond control.

It would be misleading to divide Kader Attia’s practice into an anthropological and an artistic dimension. He doesn’t seek to explain or contextualise but rather to generate new perspectives for the public. To do so, he splinters his artistic identity, cohabiting several disciplinary sectors in order to develop a revelatory technique, a choreography of relations between seemingly incongruous practices. Through his sculptures, collages, installations, performances and photography, Attia experiments with the limits and failures of analogical thinking. By creating constellations that are elliptical, he asks us to recognise the blind spots and chasms in our knowledge of the world’s aesthetic practices. The correlations he sets up between ideas and things extend beyond the formalist affinities inscribed by Primitivism into twentieth century art and through which we have learned to accept correspondences between African masks and fauvist or expressionist painting. His work is an open system of “porous subjectivity”.[ix] Rather than freeze-dry the status quo, he crafts tactile filters that remediate the damages of the past. A Sakalava funeral stake injured by time is embellished and repaired with small droplets of metal alloy; a Dogon mask acquires a shimmering and protective armour of mirrors. Here Attia performs a critique of the policing framework that seeks to control the discourse on African art today, bringing it back at every turn to a reasoning based on ethnicity and provenance. Instead he asks: Can we accept that we don’t know enough? Can we find ways of working with lacunae and absences, the non-knowledge that surrounds these artists and their productions?

Kader Attia is probably the only contemporary artist to have repeatedly visited the extensive holdings of nineteenth century ethnographic museums with their vast collections of non-European art. He has entered the quasi-clandestine cabinets of Josephite missionaries and gained access to the secreted collections of the Vatican. Indeed, this is how we first met, when Attia came to the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt in 2012 to locate further examples of damaged goods. No other artist I can name has managed to infiltrate these guarded catacombs of material culture in such a systematic way. Attia has achieved this by identifying an apparently innocuous area of classification, one that has no status in the data bank. By requesting items that belong to the inexistent category of the “repaired object”, he makes visible the chain of interdependency that links together different cultures and their practices. Neglected within the evolving canons of European art history, the artefacts he selects represent epistemic amputees, specimens of histories that have been dismembered. Scattered around Europe, together they build a reservoir of aesthetic energy held in paralysis. The “spectro-poetic” [x] is engraved on their blighted bodies, rendered inaccessible in the vast stores of ethnographic museums. And so all those glass vitrines, shattered in the performance “Arab Spring”, indicate not only an individual’s desperate attempt to break through the techne of colonial classification with its discourse of display and control. His action, as if opening Pandora’s box, demonstrates the impotence and compromise of today’s social and aesthetic revolutions.

Through his artworks, Kader Attia draws us into the double bind of pride and defiance that accompanies a history of loss and dispossession. And therein lies the contradiction that he seeks to reveal: the dilemma of the 21st century with its residue of a modernist fascination for the soiled, festering underbelly of civilisation’s discontents pitted against the contemporary heroism of a hygiene-centric, post-touch condition. His politically charged production draws our attention to the cyclical agonism between injury and repair. The subtraction of limbs borne by today’s refugees from Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria who, mutilated and handicapped, have migrated to France and other European cities, symbolises not only a breach within the social order, but illustrates the psycho-pathological scars of centuries of religious strife and industrial exploitation.[xi] Apparitions loom behind the secrets of the past and, when suppressed, only discharge further ghosts and phantom references.

Adamantly physical in its execution yet highly conceptual, Kader Attia’s art offers the public a dynamic conduit between political, social and cognitive fields. The normative frameworks of anthropology, neuroscience and medicine are twisted into a new cord of poetic traction. Not unlike the ideogrammatic poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire or Pierre Albert-Birot when he writes, “Nous sommes des circonférences”[xii], or even the lyrics of Lou Reed in “I’ll be your mirror”, Attia’s artworks perform a never-ending surgery on language, image and volume. His concept of the phantom limb in art is situated between Paul Valéry’s “objet ambigüe” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Ready-Made”. From Valéry we retain the poetic uncertainty of meanings, the blurring of nature and culture, the object at the edge of the unknown.[xiii] With Duchamp, the artefact is interchangeable, manufactured industrially and quintessentially anonymous. In contrast, for Kader Attia, a repaired object remains an organ. It displays the active DNA of its own morphology, the wilful marks of appropriation, and the poetic indentures of time’s passing.

And so it is that Kader Attia’s practice as an artist speaks about an intense preoccupation with aesthetic and psychological imbalance, with the disequilibrium created by an ideology of perfection and consumption. Whether we are gazing at stapled shards of mirror that emit only a partial image, or contemplating the bricolage of a cardboard chassis on a scooter, Attia points us to the ideological flaws and material frays that define our conjoined, post-colonial present. His installations appear smooth and coherent, his objects seductive and resolved, yet it is the sensitivity with which he articulates the troubling disfiguration of history and the fracturing of individual memory that makes his body of work so contemporaneous, rigorous, and poetic at once.

Clémentine Deliss


[i] A particularly succinct rendition of the notion of continuum can be found in Kader Attia’s installation „Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder“, Whitechapel Gallery, London, November 2013-2014.

[ii] Interestingly, both Carl Einstein and Frantz Fanon in their very distinctive ways discuss the phenomenon of fragmentation. Carl Einstein takes on a more psychoanalytic approach, writing that, “a far-reaching condition is concentrated in the fragment. (…) This is ecstatic isolation. By decapitation and dismemberment, one isolates that which is decisive: concentrated possession and sadism.” See « L’enfance néolitique (Hans Arp) », Documents II, 8, 1930, translated by Charles W. Haxthausen, in October 105, Summer 2003.

Frantz Fanon, in contrast, speaks of “tinctures of decay” and “mental disorders” that occur when one denies “the other person all attributes of humanity”, in other words, a wholeness to the conception of reality. See Frantz Fanon, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders” from “The Wretched of the Earth”, 1965, translated into English by Constance Farrington, reproduced in Kader Attia, “Repair”, Black Jack Editions, 2014, p. 436.

[iii] “Between a culture of touch and a culture of thought is the culture of symbolic connection.”

Aby Warburg, Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians, 1923

[iv] Walter Benjamin, « ARCHIVE – Images, Texts, Signs”, translated by Ester Leslie, edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, Erdmut Wizisla. Verso, 2007, p. 32

[v] In “Metaphysiques Cannibales. Lignes d’anthropologie structural”, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describes his initial wish to write a book modelled on Deleuze & Guattari’s „Anti-Oedipe“, In his case, he speculates that the academic narcisscism of occidental anthropology might yield to the status of a « minor science », humble to its subject: the very people whom it studies. PUF, 2009, p. 3

[vi] See Philippe Dagen, « Destruction et Réparation » in Kader Attia, Sacrifice and Harmony, MMK, Kerber, 2016, p. 82

[vii] « Les artefacts possèdent une ontologie ambiguë : ce sont des objets, mais ils indiquent nécessairement un sujet, car ils sont comme des actions congelées, des incarnations matérielles d’une intentionnalité non matérielle. » Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Métaphysiques Cannibales’, PUF, 2009, p.28

[viii] « [I]l nous semble que les formes tectoniques, n’étant pas mesurables, sont les formes les plus humaines, parce qu’elles sont les signes d’un homme visuellement actif agençant lui-même son univers et refusant d’être l’esclave des formes données. » Carl Einstein, Notes sur le cubisme, in Sebastian Zeidler, « Life and Death from Babylon to Picasso: Carl Einstein’s Ontology of Art at the Time of Documents », published in Papers of Surrealism, Issue 7, 2007.

[ix] Serge Grusinski interviewed in « Reason’s Oxymorons », Kader Attia, Video installation with 22 films at Galerie Nagel Draxler, 2015.

[x] Jacques Derrida in « Spectres de Marx », Éditions Galilée, 1993

[xi] René Girard writes, “Le corps humain est un système de différences anatomiques. Si l’infirmité même accidentelle, inquiète, c’est parce qu’elle donne une impression de dynamisme déstabilisant. Elle paraît menacer le système en tant que tel. On cherche à la circonscrire mais on ne peut pas ; elle affole autour d’elle les différences qui deviennent monstrueuses, elles se précipitent, se télescopent, se mélangent, à la limite menacent de s’abolir. La différence hors système terrifie parce qu’elle suggère la vérité du système, sa relativité, sa fragilité, sa mortalité ! » in « Le Bouc Emissaire », Grasset 1982, p.34.

[xii] Pierre Albert-Birot, «Poème au mort», La Lune ou le livre des poèmes, 1924, tiré de Pierre Albert-Birot, Poésie 1916-1924, Mortemart: Rougerie, 1992, p. 199-202.

[xiii] Paul Valéry writes, “Le hazard, dans mes mains, vint placer l’objet du monde le plus ambigu. Et les réflexions infinies qu’il me fît faire, pouvaient aussi bien me conduire à ce philosophe que je fus, qu’à l’artiste que je n’ai pas été.” In “EUPALINOS ou l’Architecte”, 1921, p.49


Published in: Kader Attia. Sacrifice and Harmony, MMK Frankfurt, Kerber, 2016.

After-Flow: Kader Attia’s Postcolonial Topologies. By Kobena Mercer, 2015

Post … refers to the aftermath or after-flow of a particular configuration. The impetus which constituted one particular historical or aesthetic moment disintegrates in the form we know it. Many of those impulses are resumed or reconvene in a new terrain or context, eroding some of the boundaries that made our occupation of an earlier moment seem relatively clear … and opening in their place new gaps, new interstices.     Stuart Hall (1)


Encountering the two-channel slide projection in which tribal carvings patched with materials that came to hand are paired with the broken faces of World War I veterans who have undergone reconstructive surgery, one instantly sees the umbilical bond that made these figures ontological siblings. Both are survivors of modernity’s onslaught, but these visual twins were separated at birth by ideologies that blocked our recognition of their common DNA. Open Your Eyes (2010) announces a moment in which, as its title implies, we can now recognize the mutual interdependence between modernism and colonialism, which for more than a century was a relation hidden from view by the idea that the world’s cultures were each entirely autonomous, self-sufficient wholes that conferred identity by means of discontinuous boundaries of belonging. In the act of pairing, Attia reveals a continuum in which modern art movements that demanded a transformative role for art in response to social realities blown apart by global war in the 1914-1918 period arose in mutual genesis with colonial lives that survived the death-driven violence on which capitalist modernity relies, in Congo Free State during 1885-1908, for instance, for these interconnections are made visible, and critically intelligible, in each of the morphogenetic resemblances that Attia’s double slide projection puts forward.

Just as the verb to “pair” nestles within “repair,” one might say that alongside archival materials arranged on storage shelving, and sculptural busts carved in marble and wood, which all contribute to the installation The Repair from Occidental to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), first shown at dOCUMENTA 13, Attia’s visual twinning of damaged faces and neo-tribal bricolage is a signal work for our global contemporary age as it singularly upholds Paul Klee’s dictum that “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” (2) Where topology is a branch of modern geometry that describes unbroken inter-connectedness among points, lines, and planes in a vast range of space-time configurations that escape the intelligibility of the Euclidean model, in which subject/object dualities render the viewer discontinuous from a world viewed as a visual field available to human mastery, Attia’s ability to make visible the networks of interlocking dependencies that our present inherits from the past makes him a topologist of the “post” condition that shapes our global contemporary lives. His art is postcolonial not because of his individual biography alone but because his aesthetic choices and moves position him as an inheritor of an agonistic modernism. Asking art not to express or to represent, but to interrupt the habitus which determines what is seeable, sayable, and thinkable, Attia is also a post-medium artist working with photographs, film, drawing, collage, and installation, although it is revealing that “if you ask him to define himself … he would say that, above all, he’s a sculptor.” (3)

Spatial relationships have primacy for Attia as the investigative starting point for works that probe the colonial foundations of modernist architecture and urbanism, where questions of dwelling and place-making are cast in new light from the vantage point of migration and diaspora. Space also matters as the medium through which Attia engages viewers as participants in immersive encounters that put embodied perception into contact with site-specific histories in the contexts where his exhibitions are installed. But what distinguishes the sculptural dimension that encompasses Attia’s defining interests in architectural intersections of modernism and colonialism is the unique way in which his spatial interventions initiate a series of displacements that profoundly alter our perception of the temporalities by which our global present is archivally entangled with the deep imperial past.

Born to Algerian parents in 1970, Attia grew up in the banlieues of Paris while frequently visiting relatives in North Africa as well, and his studies in Barcelona, along with two years in Democratic Republic of Congo prior to his first exhibition in 1996, gave him cross-cultural insight into the porous character of nation-state boundaries that need to be enforced in the name of territorial sovereignty, but which often fail to conceal their arbitrary and precarious nature. Intimately aware of the spatial relations through which social flows of race, class, and ethnicity are channeled into fixed patterns of exclusion and hierarchy, Attia has been attentive to cross-currents in a post-9/11 world where Islamophobia and anti-immigration policies have met their match in unpredictable eruptions such as the clashes between French-Arab youth and police in the banlieues of Paris and other cities in 2005. Under such circumstances, spatialized relations of power and subordination that are ordinarily administered by regulatory norms reveal fluctuating potentials for alternative possibilities that lie beneath the city’s paving stones. In the counterpoint whereby a migrant perspective shuttles back-and-forth across spatial fixities, making moves that interrupt archival relations as a result, Attia’s topologies cut through ideologies which fail to see that multiculture is nothing new, merely a reconfiguration of elements brought together under colonialism. He thereby introduces critical optimism in answer to the view that “our condition is largely one of aftermath,” as Hal Foster puts it, describing how “we live in the wake not only of modernist painting and sculpture but of postmodern deconstructions of these forms as well.” (4) Since art historian Terry Smith also regards contemporaneity as a state of “aftermath,” (5) where there are no fully-fledged substitutes for discredited worldviews that lie all around in ruins, it is striking to note Stuart Hall’s countervailing emphasis when he argues that “post” is best grasped not “to mean ‘after’ in a sequential or chronological sense,” but rather as a turn for, “a turn is neither an ending nor a reversal … all of the terms of a paradigm are not destroyed; instead, the deflection shifts the paradigm in a direction which is different from … the previous moment.” (6) Tracking Kader Attia’s reparative turn as it has developed from his early concept of “signs of re-appropriation,” I would like to draw attention to the hopefulness put into play by his inventive topologies, especially as what they make visible in unfixing the modernism/colonialism nexus is best understood in terms of his conversations with conceptualist paradigms that enacted the shift from sculpture as autonomous object to installation as architectural intervention.  


Cutting through Closed Limits

Documenting concrete blocks on the Algerian shoreline installed by the government at France’s request, so as to act as a barrier preventing clandestine emigration across the Mediterranean,  Attia’s Rochers Carrés (2008) photographs reveal the paradoxical interplay between law and transgression whereby rules that forbid an action, in fact, generate the desire to break the rules. Drawing on Edouard Glissant’s notion of the lieu-communs as a “fertile zone of inexhaustible energies, where relationships are continually generated and woven between one place and another,” Manthia Diawara pinpoints Attia’s discovery of such a common ground where youths show “their refusal to accept the state’s attempt to control their movement from Algeria to Europe” by reclaiming a site where, “they have created subterranean connections and relations with other people in other places confronted by nationalism, incarceration, anti-immigration laws, discrimination, and barriers to boundary crossings of all kinds – places including but not limited to Lampedusa, Palestine, and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.” (7)

Rochers Carrés maps a topology connecting viewers with “other people in other places,” but what also comes to mind for me is an after-trace of Spiral Jetty (1970). In earthworks such as these, Robert Smithson’s dialectic of site (Utah’s Great Salt Lake in this case) and non-site (gallery exhibitions and photographs that are the viewer’s primary access to the work) set up topological relays among real-world distances of space and time. Where the non-site is the “other place” that allows for critical reflection so as to denaturalize the site, the photographic rectangle which mediates the dialectic led to Smithson’s use of mirrors, most notably in his Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969). Giving rise to an experience of landscape in which “vision sagged, caved in, and broke apart,” such “anti-vision” (8) decenters the Euclidean subject. Along similar lines, Attia’s Holy Land (2006) precipitates a crisis of optical positions in colonial space.

Placing forty five arch-shaped mirrors on Fuerteventura beach in the Canary Islands, Holy Land activates a topological circuit on the land/sea borderline. Approached from the land, one apprehends a scene of emigration, for the Canaries are Spanish territories, hence part of Europe, but only 100 kilometers from Morocco. Seeing the non-reflective side, which makes each mirror resemble a gravestone, thus calls to mind the treacherous risks of oceanic crossings. Coming from the sea, on the other hand, the mirrors suggest instead a scene of immigration, in which arrivants would see themselves reflected in arched surfaces that evoke Islamic ornament and Gothic architecture simultaneously. Bringing multiple geo-historical points into connective relation through the sculptural mediation of the mirrors, it is “as if someone had punched holes in space and a second reality had come to light.” (9) Whereas Smithson’s Yucatan travels sought to denaturalize the optical co-ordinates of Euclidean geometry, Attia, for his part, punctures the epistemological partitions that dualistically separate East and West, Islam and Christianity, Africa and Europe, in spaces governed by the master codes of colonial discourse.

Holy Land is a “site construction,” in Rosalind Krauss’s vocabulary, and such “practice is not defined in relation to a given medium … but rather in relation to … logical operations on a set of cultural terms.” (10) The topologies Gordon Matta-Clark created by means of “building cuts,” which introduced voids to make the skeletal structures of architectural edifices visible, are dramatic “logical operations,” although a work such as Conical Intersection (1975), which cut a projectile of voided space through two buildings adjacent to the Pompidou Center in Paris, was criticized for its complicity rather than critique of property relations in the built environment. (11) Smithson and Matta-Clark made cuts into phenomenological space, displacing the modernist category of the autonomous art object while retaining the category of authorial expression, whereas Attia’s act of cutting “holes in space” is not delimited to an observable site or to a physical structure but takes aim at the discursive formation that hides and obscures the interdependent genesis of modernism/colonialism. Krauss describes practices which interrupt “the cultural determinants of the opposition through which a given field is structured,” (12) yet throughout the twentieth century, modernist architectural history adhered to a narrative that structured the field exclusively within the West, refusing to see the colonial relationships in which Adolf Loos or Le Corbusier, for instance, developed their views. To cut open sightlines into such a closed edifice, as Attia has done, is an extraordinary achievement when we consider how resistant to self-reflexivity the field of modernist architectural discourse turned out to be.

When Hall claims that “multiculturalism has had the effect of unsettling and unmasking many of the foundational assumptions and discourses of liberalism,” (13) his viewpoint clarifies Attia’s trajectory at two distinct levels of analysis. Questioning universalist assumptions in the discourse of aesthetics since Kant, Attia belongs to a generation of contemporary artists who have revisited conceptualist strategies while undertaking a turn toward “context reflexivity” that leaves behind the self-sufficient art object, and the expressive authorial subject, so as to activate engagement with culturally and socially located viewers, thereby renewing art’s capacity for radical critique. (14) Archival research into the modernist architecture of mass housing built in Algeria and Morocco during the decolonization era, moreover, has led Attia to a concept of “re-appropriation” in which subaltern agents who transport materials from one place to another unsettle models of culture as organic totality by revealing instead hybrid flows of translation.

Watching the video piece Oil and Sugar (2007), in which a pristine block built of sugar cubes gradually disintegrates under contact with the oil’s dark viscosity, one anticipates an entropic outcome as a result of the incompatibility of the two substances, yet the hypnotic power of the piece has nothing to do with metaphor or symbol and everything to do with understanding matter not as “thing” but as process. Where the cube, the sphere, and the pyramid provide architecture’s elementary volumetric forms, to which modernists wanted to return by eliminating ornament and figuration in purifying acts of simplification, Western philosophy was often led by Plato’s idealism to think of a realm of unchangable geometric forms whose perfection was only poorly copied in the phenomenal world of appearances available to the human senses. Although his choice of materials is pointed – sugar was the commodity on which Atlantic trade was built, fossil fuels were the precondition of industrialization – Attia’s matter-of-fact documentation lays bare the essentialist mindset behind architectural values that came to dominate twentieth century modernism. The implications are far-reaching. Once essentialist foundations are opened to scrutiny by the countervailing contrast of a process-relational outlook, of the kind one associates with Gilles Deleuze in philosophy today or Baruch Spinoza in the past, opportunities arise to leave behind noun-based definitions of “universals,” as immutable laws having a transcendental existence, and embrace instead a verb-oriented understanding of “universalization” as a worldly process in which categories and values, far from being fixed for eternity, are subject to the flow of becoming that allows for the morphogenesis of forms that can never be predicted in advance.

Attia’s choice of couscous, a non-solid state material, in Untitled (Ghardaïa) (2009), is of the utmost importance. Fabricating an architectural maquette of the Mzab Valley city in Algeria that Le Corbusier took as a source of inspiration when he traveled to the region in 1931, the “logical operation” enacted by Attia’s sculptural intervention is postcolonial precisely because it did not set up an opposition to the French modernist architect who is often heroically centred in the received narrative, but placed Corbusian discourse “under erasure.” Making visible the North African context of the Arab city Le Corbusier drew upon as a model for urban planning, Attia’s use of perishable foodstuff entails a performative or event-based dimension, for the maquette is remade each time it is shown, and such a temporal element exposes, by contrast, the desire for durability and permanence that the high modernist architect had built on colonial foundations. (15) Like flat roofs in Mediterranean vernacular buildings that were appropriated in Bauhaus modernism, what is at stake is a split in Western practices of abstraction that took elements out of indigenous cultural contexts without acknowledging the colonial networks of trade and travel that brought dominant and subordinate identities into contact. (16) That Josephine Baker deeply fascinated both Le Corbusier and Loos is no coincidence, for the fetishistic split whereby modernist primitivism romanticizes the other who is placed on an idealist pedestal, while material inequalities of race are subject to disavowal, was repeated in the discursive knots of architectural modernism. (17) Where the modernist mimesis of a medieval Arab city refused to openly acknowledge its dependence on “other people in other places,” even as it claimed aesthetic universalism for itself alone, what got hidden in Corbusian discourse was its inclination to impose its universalist values from above, often in authoritarian terms that were reinforced, after 1945, by the liberal political state.

Clement Greenberg, extolling self-criticism as modernism’s ultimate telos, regarded Kant “as the first real Modernist,” but his claim that “Western civilization is not the first civilization to turn around and question its own foundations, but it is the one which has gone furtherest in doing so,” (18) now reads as nakedly self-serving exceptionalism since the postcolonial turn has made visible a set of ideological positions which, for over fifty years, were widely accepted as beyond dispute. Yet when Hall says of himself, “I am … a child of the Enlightenment. I know what the Enlightenment did to free us from superstition, from religion,” (19) his position of immanent critique, operating in-and-against discourses whose Westernism he calls into question, equally applies to Attia, both in his art-making and in the archival research that informs his projects.

Following the archival topology that conjoined the Maghreb to the modernist metropolis, resulting in works such as Untitled (Couscous) (2009), Attia investigated the path that led Roland Simounet, a student of Le Corbusier, to observe how migrant laborers, building social housing complexes in 1950s Algeria and Morocco, would “at the end of each day … take some materials left in the garbage at the building site” to construct their own makeshift dwellings. While Simounet found “the shantytown’s dimensions were almost exactly the same as those of the Modulor,” (20) thus revealing an instance of universalization in a rapprochment between Le Corbusier’s calculus for private living space and local rule of thumb proportions, his method of participant observation paved the way for the recognition of subaltern agency in the acts of re-appropriation whereby top-down policies of urban planning and mass housing in French colonies met counter-currents from the bottom-up. Such dialectical insights led to the study of vernacular architecture exemplified by Rudolf Rudofsky’s exhibition, Architecture Without Architects (1964), which began to dismantle author-centric high modernism in favor of an overall ecology of the social habitat. (21)

Kasbah (2009) took shape in light of archival passageways Attia’s research opened up. Transposing into the gallery corrugated iron sheets at angles that evoked shantytown structures, alongside television aerials, the installation’s site/non-site dialectic entailed a spatial inversion whereby visitors walked on top of, and around, surfaces that would otherwise be above the heads of those sheltered by such bricolaged dwellings. A topology such as this puts identities into contact by way of a fold, rather than opposition or containment, which is what Attia’s research on Fernand Pouillon uncovered. Responsible for mass housing projects in Algeria commissioned by the colonial administration, Pouillon’s architecture used space as a medium of social control. While residents tried to adapt his regimented apartment complexes to their needs, Pouillon is a figure in a key mid-century moment when modernism was taken up by departing colonial powers as a symbolic gift to be exchanged for continuing loyalty and co-operation after independence. In British colonies, civic structures were built in the idiom of “tropical modernism,” although one-off projects by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry pale in comparison to the mass scale of modernist initiatives in the 1950s Francophone context. (22) As a means of postponing the break toward independence, it is revealing that modernist architecture flourished in Lusophone colonies such as Angola and Mozambique as late as the 1970s. To notice that it was only in the 2000s that artists and architectural historians identified “the colonial modern” as a distinctive site of inquiry is to observe that even when the vernacular architecture paradigm was brought to bear on the signifying practices of the postmodern city, the break with author-centred and object-directed priorities in architectural discourse nonetheless remained locked within the closed limits of a narrowly West-centric outlook that refused to see how dependent global capitalism is on migrant labor flows that connect North America’s megacities to the underdeveloped South. (23)

As Attia conceptualized the dynamics of re-appropriation in the “decolonial” scene, the back-and-forth hybridization whereby given materials acquire new meanings once they are taken out of their initial context, and recycled to gain resignifying potentials, departed from organicist models of culture as self-sufficient wholes assumed to coincide with the nation-state’s territorial borders. Noticing, on returning to the Congo, how an item of raffia loincloth called nshakokot among Kuba women had been repaired with patches of European gingham cloth, Attia arrived at an alternative approach to culture tout court. In a world that has undergone many forms of globalization since Columbus left the closed sphere of medieval Europe in 1492, the recombinant process whereby something new is brought into being, not ex nihilo, but through acts of substitution and displacement among signifying elements that enter into a common repertoire when different cultures come into contact, offers us a more accurate model of what culture actually does as it travels and circulates across the globe. Rejoining Hall’s sense of hybridity as “another term for the cultural logic of translation … which is agonistic because it is never completed,” (24) Attia imparts to the idea of repair a hard-won awareness of the traumatic violence that modernity left in its wake even as the chronometry that flows from Attia’s emphasis on a “continuum of repair” (25) is emphatically future-oriented in its optimism about what global cultures might yet become as a result of their hybrid multiplication.


Futures for the Commons

In a world where identities are contradictorily thrown together on a daily basis by the twists and turns of globalization, art that acts on hybridity’s critical potential is, by default, committed to an ethical as well as an aesthetic investigation of the spatial relations through which a commons is created when people strive to negotiate their multiple differences, for as urbanist David Harvey puts it, “The city is the site where people of all sorts and classes mingle, however reluctantly and antagonistically, to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life.” (26)

The bricoleur who knows that absolute originality does not exist once culture itself is  understood as a universal condition of permanent translation, in which signifiers migrate across arbitrary boundaries, is most likely also aware that “aftermath” did not begin with 9/11 since, for many of the world’s peoples, surviving modernity’s catastrophic advent has been a condition of daily life for centuries. Attia introduces an emphasis on continuity – with its neon tube placed between two mirrors, Jacob’s Ladder (2014) extends light into vertical space ad infinitum – that undercuts the closed dualisms of self/other inherited from the codes of colonial discourse not in the name of a monoculturally assimilative liberalism, which thinks of what is universally human in terms of sameness beneath the skin, but in acknowledgement that everyone’s identity is lived, in the modern age, under the sign of difference, where any closure of the signifying chain is perpetually delayed by cross-cultural translation. It is impossible to understand the presence of Arabs in France, Turks in Germany, North Africans in Italy, Muslims in Spain and Portugal, or South Asians and Caribbeans in Britain in post-1945 Europe without a cognitive map of spatial relations that were historically inaugurated by colonialism. Yet when anti-immigrant discourse cries out that “too many are coming in,” or says the state should “send them back,” as was the case in 1970s Britain when I grew up, the fears that find metaphorical expression in images of spatial boundaries being burst apart depends on a common-sense topology whose closed dualities render Europe’s deep historical entanglement with “other people in other places” invisible and opaque. The counter-assertion black Britons made in resistance – “we are here because you were there” (27) – spelled out an elementary lesson in geography and history. Along similar lines one might say the postcolonial topologies set into motion throughout Kader Attia’s practice lead to a concept of repair that is aligned neither with an idealist call for conciliatory healing nor a legal calculus that seeks reparation for the damage done by slavery and colonialism, but rather with a world-historical outlook in which it is understood that, if our futures are not predestined, then we have the ability to decide what happens next by virtue of choices we make here and now.

Demonstrating a sculptural sensibility attuned to the agency of voids that interrupt our expectations about navigating space, one of Attia’s early works, Ghost (2007), set forth a topology in which the gallery’s secular space was connected to a sacred space of worship, even as any passivity that might be associated with commonplace images of Muslim women in prayer was overturned since the massed figures had enough agency to block the viewer’s entry into the white cube. But the facelessness that confronts us in Ghost’s aluminium-fabricated figures is far from fear-inducing in the strange kind of feeling it provokes. If the face is a surface that prevents the formless contingencies of the human condition from spilling forth, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest when they see “faciality” as a plug that acts as a visual container for the infinite range of potentialities that are open to human identity, then Ghost’s sculptural voids are, in fact, portals into fresh possibilities open to us all. (28) As with each of the entrypoints into networks and flows which interconnect us with “other people in other places,” Attia’s topologies enliven our awareness of the infinities of becoming that are rendered available to consciousness once hidden continuities of point, line, and plane begin to unfold in new spatial constellations.  


  1. Stuart Hall, “Museums of Modern Art and the End of History,” in Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj, Modernity and Difference, Gilane Tawadros and Sarah Campbell (eds.), INIVA Innovations no. 6, Institute of International Visual Arts, London 2000, p. 9.
  2. Paul Klee, Creative Confessions, (1920), Tate Publishing, London 2013, p. 16.
  3. Lea Gauthier, “Foreword,” Kadia Attia: RepaiR, Blackjack Editions, Paris 2014, p. 6.
  4. Hal Foster, “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” in Design and Crime and Other Diatribes, Verso, New York and London 2000, p. 125.
  5. See Terry Smith, The Architecture of Aftermath, University of Chicago, Chicago 2006 and What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago, Chicago 2009.
  6. Hall, “Museums of Modern Art and the End of History,” p. 9.
  7. Manthia Diawara, “Kader Attia: All the Difference in the World,” Artforum International, February 2014, p. 160-167.
  8. Robert Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” in Collected Writings, Jack Flam (ed.), University of California, Berkeley 1996, p. 124 and p. 130.
  9. Ellen Blumenstien, “Randonée: Objects and Quasi-Objects,” in Ellen Blumenstein (ed.), Kader Attia. Transformations, Spector Books, Leipzig 2014, p. 29.
  10. Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979) in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT, Cambridge MA 1985, p. 288.
  11. See, Gordon Matta-Clark, Phaidon, London 2003.
  12. Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” p. 290.
  13. Stuart Hall, “The Multicultural Question,” Political Economy Research Centre Annual Lecture, 4 May 2000, Firth Hall Sheffield, http: Accessed 20 Feb 2015. The lecture was written up as “Conclusion: The multicultural question,” in Barnor Hesse (ed.), Un/settled Multiculturalisms: Diasporas, Entanglements, Transruptions, Zed, London 2000, p. 209-241.
  14. See Juliane Rebentisch, Aesthetics of Installation Art (2003) trans. Daniel Hendrickson with Gerrit Jackson, Sternberg, Berlin 2012. Attia discusses his approach to an engaged viewership in Kader Attia and Simon Njami, “The Work, the Artist, and the Other,” in Magdelena Malm and Annika Wik (ed.), Imagining the Audience: Viewing Positions in Curatorial and Artistic Practice, Art and Theory Publishing, Stockholm 2013, p. 133-140.
  15. Le Corbusier’s 1931 Algeria trip must also be seen in relation to his 1933 visit to New York, see Mabel O. Wilson, “Dancing in the Dark: The Construction of Blackness in Le Corbusier’s ‘Radiant City,’ in Steve Pile and Heidi Nast (eds.), Places Through the Body, Routledge, London 1998, p. 99-113.
  16. See Paul Overy, “White Walls, White Skins: Cosmopolitanism and Colonialism in Inter-War Modernist Architecture,” in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Cosmopolitan Modernisms, MIT/INIVA, Cambridge MA and London 2005, p. 50-67.
  17. See Anne Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface, Oxford University Press, New York 2011.
  18. Clement Greenberg “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol 4, University of Chicago, Chicago 1995, p. 85-93.
  19. Stuart Hall cited in Laurie Taylor, “Culture’s Revenge: Laurie Taylor interviews Stuart Hall,” New Humanist 121:1, March/April 2006, http: Accessed 20 Feb 2015.
  20. Kader Attia cited in Kobena Mercer, “Conceptualising Modernist Architecture in Transcultural Spaces: An Interview with Kader Attia,” Atlantica: Journal of Art and Thought 50 Spring-Summer, 2011, p. 44-61; see also, Kader Attia, “Signs of Re-Appropriation” in Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali and Marion von Osten (eds.), Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past, Rebellions of the Future, Black Dog Publishing, London 2010, p. 50-57.
  21. Rudolph Rudosky, Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, (1964), University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1987.
  22. See Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire, Ashgate, Aldershot 2003.
  23. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), revised edition, MIT, Cambridge MA 1977.
  24. Hall, “Conclusion: The multicultural question,” op cit., p. 226.
  25. “Kader Attia and Magnus af Petersens in Conversation”, in Magnus af Petersens & Emily Butler (eds.), Kader Attia. Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder, London, Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2014, p. 13-29.
  26. David Harvey, ‘The Creation of the Urban Commons,’ Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, London and New York 2013, p. 67.
  27. I discussed the slogan in Kobena Mercer, “Black Britain and the Cultural Politics of Diaspora,” in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York and London 1994, p. 7.
  28. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980) trans. Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 1987, p. 168.

Published in: Kader Attia, Les blessures sont là, exh. cat., Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, edited by Nicole Schweizer, edition jrp-ringier.

All the Difference in the World. By Manthia Diawara, 2014

  1. Lieux-Communs

I was introduced to the work of Kader Attia at the 2009 Bamako Photo Biennale. At first, I was intrigued by his color photographs of a beach, covered with large sheets of white-grey concrete blocks, like somebody’s bad idea of a conceptual art installation. Then, on looking closely, one discovers that the photos are actually of a real beach, that of Bab El Oued, a poor neighborhood in Algiers, where the government had erected these huge concrete blocks to prevent young men from taking boats across the Mediterranean sea to Europe. So the photo installation by Attia, entitled Rochers Carrés, is not just a quixotic mise-en-scene for the camera, which would have been esthetically limiting, anyway; but an actual architectural structure that sets a boundary, a no-trespassing zone, between the South and the North, which distinguishes it as a found object for the artist’s camera.

The photo installation includes long shots of the multitude of concrete slabs looking like shoreline high-rises, from a bird’s eye view; low and wide-angle close-up shots of them standing on the beach, against the blue Mediterranean Sea; and medium shots with young men sitting or standing on them and looking at the ocean. Thus re-appropriated by Attia’s camera, the blocks on the sand, which were before perceived as masses of lifeless and hostile objects of obstruction, as a kind of wall, or frontier to stop people from crossing-over, are now recharged and invested with new meanings and emotions, that put them in a relationship with other objects of architecture around the world, other poetics of migration, and other imaginary of border-crossings.

In Philosophie de la relation, Edouard Glissant defines “lieux-communs” as those sites where ideas emerge, illuminate and influence other ideas from other places of the world. In this sense, a common site is different from a commonplace, which is made out of naked truths and obvious statements. By contrast, a common ground, (note that the French use ‘lieu-commun’ for both common place and common ground), is a source of creativity and opacity, a fertile ground of inexhaustible energies, where relationships are continually generated between the ideas and poetics of one place and those of another. Sharing a common ground with someone is to be related to him/her through the rhizomes of places and imaginaries, to have the same pulses about the world as him/her. A common ground creates the conditions of possibility for the emergence of unpredictable feelings of resistance against the systematic truths induced by commonplace thinking and reasoning; and against the meanings imposed by the logics of coloniality and governmentality.

The artistic genius of Rochers Carrés derives from Attia’s discovery and revelation of the site as a common ground, a lieu-commun, from where the youth show their resistance to the state’s attempt to control their movement from Algeria to Europe, where they might find a better life for themselves. By re-appropriating the “bétons bruts” as a point in the world for recreation, contemplation and other outlaw activities, they reinvest the place with new imaginaries, poetics and epic heroes. They also reconnect the place to Europe and other places where immigration is impeded by walls. To put it in Glissantian terms, the youth of the Rochers Carrés have created subterranean connections and rhizomic relations with other youth, in other places, confronted with frontiers of nationalism, prisons, immigration and discrimination. Lieux-communs are sites where calls are made about one condition of the world to the other sites of the world, so that they too may relate it to their own conditions and relay it to all the corners of the world.

Attia’s photos, by re-appropriating architectural concretes as lieux-communs or habitat, raise questions of resistance and defiance against walls erected everywhere against immigration and boundary crossing. As common grounds, the bétons bruts on the beach have become sites of contemplation and new imaginaries for the youth of Bab El Oued, a place that link their intuitions of resistance against global imperialism and the barbwires against peoples’ freedom of movement. As a common ground, the Rochers Carrés have become a place, like Lampedusa, Palestine, the frontier between the United States and Mexico, to speak about the walls of immigration and the inhuman laws; a place where a relation is created between the emotions of the people in these different sites; and finally, a place for conceiving new poetics and politics with other lieux-communs; or to put it in Glissant’s words, “un lieu où chaque fois une pensée du monde appellee et éclaire une pensée du monde” (a site whence thoughts and ideas always emerge to call upon and illuminate thoughts and ideas from other sites of the world).[1]

Still following Glissant, we can say that Attia’s work is about finding art in found objects, the Rochers Carrés, and revealing what they have in common with other contemporary propositions about the world; namely the conceptual statements they make about politics and resistance. Attia shows how the Rochers Carrés, a forbidden space, is appropriated by the very same youth it was designed to exclude. The history of the bétons bruts, an architectural structure, is thus turned upside down to signal a critic of anti-immigration laws, to celebrate boundary crossing, and to elect a common ground for relations between differences.

Great artists, before Attia, have played with the subterranean and fertile common ground between different objects. David Hammons, for example, has had to paint Reverend Jesse Jackson with blond hair to show the lieu-commun between him and the white American politicians. Edouart Glissant, too, has eloquently pleaded for the poetics of errantry and nomadology, which he deploys against the discourses of sameness, singularity of identities, and systematic systems. For him, “le Divers, la totalité quantifiable de toutes les differences possibles, est le moteur de l’énergie universelle, qu’il faut preserver des assimilations, des modes passivement généralisées, des habitudes standardisées”. (The diverse, that which constitutes a quantifiable sum of all the differences possible, is the engine of the universal energy that we must preserve from systems of assimilation, from passively generalizable models and standardizable habits). [2]


  1. Poetics of Relation: Bon appetite Monsieur Le Corbusier

We have just seen how important the local is to Attia’s work; and how he puts it into play to revive relations between Arab-African and French-European cultures. Attia incessantly uses art found in his background to think with the world—not for the world, like a conqueror or a colonizer—but with the world, like a person who’s searching for himself in the Other, and vice versa. It is in this sense that I call Attia an Afro-Arab and French artist who is incessantly looking for himself in sites such as the Rochers Carrés in Bab El Oued, the Cashbah, another neighborhood of Algiers, the ancient city of Ghardaia, the masks and sculptors of the Congo, but also in the Cubist paintings Picasso, and the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier. The creative genius in Attia is always after these spaces for the purposes of rediscovering or re-appropriating them as art, or to shed light on them as rhizomes and crucial links that have been ignored in the history of modernism.

This incessant search for lieux-communs, an unending search for the Other, can be considered as the very definition of Attia’s art. It is what Glissant calls the poetics for relation, which keeps the poet on his/her toes, hungering for perfections and totalities that are not totalitarian; and knowing fully well that he/she will never reach them. For the artists such Glissant and Attia, working from one’s own location in the world is what enable them to connect their intuition and sensibility with those of others in the quest for totalities, one world in relation, or “le tout-monde.” It is by participating in the revitalization and redefinition of lieux-communs, that such artists feel that they are restoring to the world the vital force that it needs for its equilibrium.

To paraphrase Glissant, artists work from their own locations and think with the world; “ton lieu est incontournable; il n’est pas de lieu qui ne signifie pas” (you cannot ignore your location, because every location signifies something different.)[3] For Attia, too, every one of the sites he choses to work reveals one aspect of the state of the world that needs our full consideration. Because every location reveals to us something about our humanities, it is also center of the world, no less important than Paris or New York. Every location can be used to think through the connections between art, politics and resistance. Thus, to create from your locality is one way of telling about the world, its weaknesses and strengths, it sensibilities, beauty and ugliness.

Perhaps there is no better place to illustrate this idea of the relationship between location and artistic creativity, what Attia calls the re-appropriation of a space in order to make a specific intervention in contemporary definitions of modernistic art, than in the installation, variously entitled: Bon appetit Monsieur Le Corbusier, or simply Ghardaia. Here, using couscous to reproduce the architecture of Ghardaia—a UNESCO classified monument—Attia puts into play the notions of cannibalistic consumption, appropriation, resistance and re-appropriation as objects of creation and self-validation in modernist architecture.

The mimicry of Ghardaia through its buildings made out of Couscous, an exotic Orientalist dish, does not only connote cannibalism, excessive consumption and regurgitation of Afro-Arab elements in modernist art and architecture, but also aspects of artistic influence, imitation and adaptation which are often swept under the carpet, when discussing the sources and quotations in the masterpieces of Le Corbusier and Picasso. Attia’s couscous installation forces the viewer to place Ghardaia in an affective and political relation with Le Corbusier’s buildings for social housing in France. The place has thus become re-appropriated as a site of resistance to theft and annihilation of the original by the copier.

By putting the so-called original, and the copier, Le Corbusier in a Glissantian relation, Attia’s art invites us to move away from such binary oppositions as orinal/copy, same/other, anterior/posterior, superior/inferior/ modern/traditional, exotic/domestic, etc., and to embrace the moment of their encounter—Le Corbusier at Ghardaia, or Picasso upon seeing African masks for the first time—as both moments of relation and equalization. The new architecture and modernistic art born out of the meeting point is relayed later to the word and relativized as modernism, at the center of which Attia puts Ghardaia and the African mask. To quote Glissant, “Dans la relation, ce qui relie est d’abord cette suite des rapports entre les differences, à la rencontre les unes des autres. Les raciness parcourantes (les rhizomes) des idées, des identitées, des intuitions, relaient: s’y révèlent les lieux-communs dont nous devinons entre nous le partage (In the theory of relation, what brings things together is first of all this successive rapport between differences, as they meet, one after the other. The roots, (rhizomes), that cause ideas, identities, intuitions to meet, relay them for the purposes of revealing to us the common grounds that we share.)[4]

For Glissant, the “poetics of relation” is that which relates, links, and relays in the relationship between all the differences that are possible and invisible in the “Tout-monde.” Glissant argues eloquently in the book that the only way to go beyond the boundary set by binary oppositions is through the recognition of the differences that constitute and hold together the tissue of the world into one; a totality that is inextricable, but not totalizing or totalitarian: “La pensee de l’Autre ne cessera d’etre duelle qu’a ce moment ou les differences auront ete reconnues.”[5]

Just as he ties the dualist conception of identity to a hermetic and unfathomable Other, and to the notions of single roots, Glissant posits his theory of identity as something acquired through Relation, through the theory of rhizomes, which, as we know, have multiple roots. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Glissant states that rhizomes are roots that run like currents under the ground or on the surface, and multiply themselves, x-times, into a network of extended relations, without destroying or denaturing each other, unlike predatory roots that can only live among themselves. Rhizomic identities come through rootedness, without a totalitarian impulse.

In this sense, every identity is sustained through its Relation to the difference of an Other identity; every identity “s’etend dans un rapport a l’Autre,” (grows out of its relation to the Other), in a rhizomic manner. With Glissant, we are in the world of multiple identity positions, multiple relationships to the Other, where new possibilities arise and we find the fulfillment of our own identity in our search for the Other, our identification with his problems, etc.

With Attia, too, art must find its rhythm and vitality in difference and the performance of multiple identities. For him, identities find their authenticity through performances and productive repetitions, instead of being true to a singular truth and fixed origin. What is rewarding in Attia’s photo and video installations of “Trans-Sexuals (from Algeria and India),” is the manner in which they cross borders between identities–Algerian and French, for an example—without losing themselves in one single identity, and having it threatened every time they move across the border to the French side, change clothes and mannerisms to play like French transsexuals.

Attia shows us that the meaning of art lies in performances, in which identities become alive through “play” acts. It is in this same sense that Glissant, too, says “Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant,” (which I’ll adapt here, first as: “There’s no truth; it’s all in the living;” and second as, “The only truth is that which comes alive through the relation between differences.”) In Ghosts (2007, 2012), for example, Attia produces an aluminum installation of women bent over on their knees, as if in prayer. The frontal part of each sculpture is hollowed at the level of the head, as if to indicate that the women have no faces, or that the faces were hidden behind a black veil.

The first impression the installation has on the spectator is that of a ghostly and fearful effect, on seeing this multitude of women dressed in a silvery outfit and all turned in one direction. The show connotes not only women wearing veils, but also Moslems praying in a Western space. Then the hollowed faces reveal that there’s no such thing as a fixed identity behind the veil; that such a fixed identity is in fact the projection of the spectator’s own anxieties onto the veiled women. Finally, we begin to appreciate the power and esthetics of the installation, when we realize that what we have in front of us are only empty identities—what Glissant calls “Literatures of traces”—and by multiplying them in the room we perceive a performance of identities that we, the spectators have brought with us to the installations.

The genius in Attia’s art here comes from the way he pushes the museum visitor to search for this Other: be it the Other place, the Other identity, or the Other in us, without which we always feel incomplete and inadequate. Le Corbusier eating couscous in Ghardaia is like the Transsexuals changing clothes between Algiers and Marseille, and the spectators confronting their own desires by filling the hollowed faces of the sculptures in Ghost; they are all forms of anthropophagi, desiring and searching for the Other, which is our own way of searching for ourselves, without any guarantees of satisfaction.


III. Attia, the Artist of Reparation

The reader would have noticed by now that the Other is perceived differently here, than with such postcolonial thinkers as Said, Bhabha and their followers who have remained faithful to the Fanonian definition of this difficult concept. As we know, the Other for Fanon was an Other of decolonization, an Other who was “against,” or “opposed to.” It is an Other that could not be defined outside of the context of national liberation, national culture and national sovereignty. The proponents of postcolonial studies took this Fanonian concept to another level with Said’s writings on the relations between and Orientalism, and Spivak’s definition of the Other as a Subaltern who cannot speak inside a Western discourse, be it Marxist.[6]

As we have seen in Glissant and Attia, however, the Other is someone, or something that we speak with in the One World, that we are all a part of; of which we all form the totality. Just as he ties the dualist conception of identity, that which is opposed to a hermetic and unfathomable Other, to the notions of single roots, Glissant posits his theory of identity, acquired through Relation, in the theory of rhizomes, which have multiple roots. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, Glissant states that rhizomes roots that multiply themselves, x-times, into a network of extended extremities in land or in the air, without destroying or denaturing one another in a predatory manner. It is rootedness, without a totalizing and totalitarian impulse.

In this sense, every identity is sustained through its Relation to the difference of an Other identity; every identity “s’etend dans un rapport a l’Autre,” (grows out of its relation to the Other), in a rhizomatic manner. With Glissant, we are in the world of multiple identity positions, multiple relationships to the Other, where new possibilities arise and we find the fulfillment of our own identity in our search for the Other, our identification with his problems, etc.

Glissant, in an ironic twist, states that Fanon’s search for freedom for Algerians, for example, lead him to discover his own; it shows that identity is not always buried in roots, only found in the recognition of one’s roots, but also through one’s Relationship with Others. Thus, for Glissant, a true decolonization, not only for the formerly colonized, but also for the West, will consist in going beyond the boundaries set by racism, sexism and nationalism. We have to dream of the impossible totality of the one world, in which all frontiers are abolished, except for those of difference and relations. Glissant finds the essentiality of difference through these terms: “I can change myself through exchanging with the Other, without destroying, or denaturing myself.”

It is with his new installation The Repair that Attia fully addresses what Glissant has often called “la complexité monde,” our relation to the Other as subject and object, and the subsequent difficulties that emerge from this encounter. We see all the possible representations of the Other in The Repair project: “les guelles casées” (the Broken jaws) of World War One, the traumatized bodies, the bodies for exhibitions, the repaired bodies, the fetishized bodies, the estheticized bodies, bodies of object, bodies of people, white bodies, black bodies, bodies of Africans, bodies of Europeans, bodies carved in wood, bodies stitched in clothes, masked bodies, tattooed bodies, hollowed bodies, protruding bodies, and bodies locked up in boxes like stereotypes. In this multiplicity of bodies, we find the body as opposition to; the body against; the hyphenated body, the relayed body and the relative body.

The common-ground for all these bodies is that they are all looking for reparation, they all need something else to make up for something missing; they’re all striving to achieving a perfect state in the world, a compensation for some kind of lack, an amputation, or something perceived as a due.

As a reparation artist, Attia makes us revisit, through his installation, Europe’s debt to Africa for the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and the current mutilation of indigenous populations and their environment through mining and wars. Thus the show takes on, at least, two levels of signification. First we see that a broken body is a body that has had a weakness introduced into it, a hole that, if not repaired, becomes a sign of trauma. We need therefore to repair the hole, or the fissure, by covering it up, stitching it, or decorating it with other scars to re-appropriate it and make it familiar. It is in this sense that different ethnic groups in history have demanded reparation for crimes committed against them.

Some of the African masks that Attia uses in The Repair, were also used in traditional performances as symbols of ancestral deities who were called upon to repair damages caused by natural disasters and epidemics. Our understanding of reparation in this sense has the meaning of the restoration of a value that had been taken away. In so far as we think that damage was committed against us that has not only weakened us, but also taken a vital force from us, we feel that that we could only fix it through the payment of a debt, a legal settlement, or a psychological approach to the problem.

There is another level of understanding the show and Attia’s concept of reparation. Walking through the installation, one of the first things we realize is that the broken faces, of black and white, masks and people, utensils and human faces are interchangeable, because their scars are relatable. They each construct a lieu-commun, the myth of which can be shared with the state in which the others find themselves.

We need therefore to change our imaginaries in order to begin to see the relation between the different disfigurations in the installation. We change the way we see the victims of trauma by familiarizing ourselves with the victims, by embracing their scars and letting them embrace ours. By licking the Other’s scars and allowing him/her/it to lick our disfiguration, as Attia has done with every object in the show, we engage in an exchange that change us in the process. This, for me, is Attia’s fundamental discovery in The Repair.

What Glissant had to say about “Reparation” is equally profound. For him, a long and permanent reparation, beyond political and civic actions, is possible if seek out the Other and tremble with him/her. Building on what he has been calling “la pensée du tremblement” (a quakeful or tremulous thinking), Glissant argues in Philosophie de la relation that, faced with the misfortunes that strike people around the world, everyday, a quakeful thinking could open the door to a long term reparation, beginning by changing the imaginaries of the world. He states that myth and poetry find their condition of possibility in the quakeful, and the doubting thought. Even good philosophies must find their vocation in thoughts that are uncertain, timid, intuitive and opaque at first. To Glissant, thoughts that do not tremble are frozen, systematic and sterile. A people that only embrace themselves and their culture as the only culture, embrace nothing.

The quakeful thought is thus the very condition of reparation of our disfigured selves, searching for Other disfigurations to identify with, to tell their stories, and relay them with our own stories. The Repair by Attia tells the story of our guelles cassées and teaches us how to re-appropriate them as vital forces, sites of relation and creolization, as first obscure poetic and mythic scream of man on earth.


[1]             Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Paris (Galimard) 1990, p. 25.

[2]             Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Paris (Galimard) 1990, p. 42.

[3]             Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Paris (Galimard) 1990, p. 87.

[4]             Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Paris (Galimard) 1990, p. 72.

[5]             Edouard Glissant, Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Paris (Galimard) 1990, p. 29.

[6]             See Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (Edward W. Said, Orientalism. New York (Pantheon) 1978; Culture and Imperialism. New York (Knopf) 1993.) and Spivak’s “Can the Subalten Speak?” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana, IL (University of Illinois Press) 1988, pp. 271-313.)


Published in: Artforum, February 2014.



On void and what it contains. By Jacinto Lageira, 2014

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.

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. ;
According to Amnesty, thousands of women are arrested each year: tp://
Read about a different perspective at: 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

Repairing, resisting. By Jacinto Lageira, 2014

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.


Repair as Redemption or Montage: Speculations on Kader Attia’s Ladder of Light. By Kim West, 2013


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.

Kader Attia: The Infinite Library. By Emily Butler, 2013

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.

The Cannibalization of the Other. Mirror, Art, and Postcolonialism in Kader Attia’s Repair. 5 Acts. By Thomas Reinhardt, 2013

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 [2013]), 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 [2013]). 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.

The Mirror
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: (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

“The Sound Like a Rumour”. By Françoise Vergès, 2013

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.

Liquid Cemeteries
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

Promethean Engineering
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,” (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,
10 Léa Ticlette, “Sans-papiers: le délit de solidarité supprimé,” RFI, January 3, 2013,
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,
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–en/index.htm;–en/index.htm;; 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),
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.
24 Ibid.
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
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, 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,”
32 Askavusa, Museum of Immigration, Lampedusa,
33 “Migrant boat capsize leaves 27 dead in Mediterranean,” BBC News Europe, October 11, 2013,
34 See the Askavusa blog,
35 Eric Trannois, “La grande traversée: Anjouan Mayotte en kwassa-kwassa,”
36 Lampedusa Festival,
37 Askavusa blog (see note 34). All quotes from this blog translated from French into English by the author.
38 Ibid.
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,
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,
43 Ibid.
44 “Invisible and heavy shackles,” The Economist, May 6, 2010, 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).
46 Ibid.
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,”


Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Repair. 5 Acts, 2013, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin

Randonnée: Objects and Quasi-Objects. By Ellen Blumenstein, 2013

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).
4 Ibid.
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.
8 Ibid.
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 (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, (accessed April 1, 2014).
25 See Galerie Arndt, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, (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, (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.

Repair: Architecture, Reappropriation, and The Body Repaired, 2013

«From Antiquity, we have believed that we build, deconstruct, and rebuild, while all we do is repair.» — Serge Gruzinski

 1. Reappropriation (más…)

From Holy Land to Open your eyes. By Serge Gruzinski, 2012

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.


The Space in Between. A conversation between Kader Attia and Rebecca Dimling Cochran, 2010

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.

Kader Attia at Christian Nagel. By Gregory Volk, 2010

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.

Kader Attia, Centre de Création Contemporain Tours, France. By Nuit Banai, 2009

The implications of Kader Attia’s installation Kasbah, 2009, extended well beyond the gallery’s bare concrete walls and low, unfinished ceilings.

Kader Attia – Alpha Beta. By Storm Janse van Rensburg, 2009

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.