nothing too see
Kader Attia’s Work Holds a Mirror to the World’s Injustice. By Naomi Polonsky, 2019
A cluster of snails are glued, like barnacles on a ship, to a disused metal post, which stands in a field of dry grass, a shabby apartment block looming in the background. In the photograph, Snails (2009) by French artist Kader Attia, the molluscs are not a culinary delicacy served on a platter with garlic butter, but a symbol of the squalor and degradation of the Parisian suburbs. Attia has a talent for verbal and visual puns, for linking seemingly disparate things and giving them new meanings. He mines history, politics, literature, religion, art, anthropology, and medicine and finds echoes everywhere: between the facial scars of World War I veterans and members of African tribes, between the emotions roused by authoritarian dictators and jazz singers, between a Congolese “sickness mask” and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” But there is nothing distanced or clinical about Attia’s method. The current retrospective of his work at London’s Hayward Gallery, aptly named The Museum of Emotion, proves the artist’s simultaneous capacity for academic rigor and emotional depth.
The Museum of Emotion begins in the suburbs — or banlieues —of northeast Paris, where Attia grew up. It is a bleak and brutalist place. The snails are the only living beings in an urban landscape dominated by grey cement blocks. In the 2018 video work “La Tour Robespierre (The Robespierre Tower),” the camera slowly and shakily rises up a concrete tower block, story by story, revealing the minute differences of decor on an otherwise monolithic facade. The work is mesmerizing and claustrophobic. Another video piece, “Oil and Sugar #2” (2007), shows a stream of black oil dissolving a mountain of sugar cubes, which glimmer disgustingly in the sun. The wall label explains: “For Attia the modular form of these sugar cubes recalls the archetypal form of modernist architecture — the white cube — as well as the Kaaba, the black shrine at the centre of the Grand Mosque, in Mecca.” Contemporary global trade, twentieth-century European architecture, and ancient Islamic devotional practice all converge on the tiny and unassuming television screen. Nearby Greek mythology enters the scene, in an installation comprising a concrete block suspended over a mirror, wittily titled “Narcissus.”
In the next gallery is one of Attia’s best known works, “La Piste d’atterrissage (The Landing Strip),” a photographic series of a group of Algerian transgender sex workers living in Paris in the late 1990s and early 2000s, firmly on the margins of society. The snapshots, which are scattered across the wall as though stuck in the pages of a scrapbook, are by turns joyous and vulnerable. The title comes from the nickname given to the street on which the women work, but also connotes both migration and pubic grooming. Individual portraits of these women are also dotted around the rest of the exhibition: when we first enter we are greeted by Mounira from Oran, who jogs towards us gleefully in a green belly dancing outfit stuffed with banknotes. As we exit, we see Djamila from Maghnia standing on a street corner in leopard print shorts and PVC boots.
Attia, who himself is of Algerian heritage, has often explored the treatment of colonial subjects in contemporary France. In the video work, “The Body’s Legacies, Pt. 2: The Postcolonial Body,” a number of interviewees, including a journalist and an academic, discuss the “Affaire Théo,” the legal case concerning a young French-Congolese man called Théo Luhaka, who was attacked by four policemen outside Paris in 2017. Attia creates a kind of oral history of the event, documenting the legacy of this violent encounter from a number of different perspectives.
This process of memorialization is also at play in “Shifting Borders” (2018). In the three videos, survivors, academics, mental health professionals, and traditional healers talk about traumatic political events in East and Southeast Asia, such as the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea, in which over 600 people were killed by government troops. Amongst the screens are a number of chairs on which are seated pairs of old-fashioned prosthetic legs. For the artist, they are a symbol of the “material and immaterial scars” left by wars, famines and genocides.
Broken bodies appear elsewhere in Attia’s work. In “The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures” (2012), a full-room installation which resembles an enormous archive, Attia compares the different attitudes to facial scarring in Europe and Africa. On industrial shelves, images of soldiers after rudimentary plastic surgery are placed alongside African masks and busts with intentionally visible scars, as well as vintage photographs, newspapers and books, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work of Structuralist anthropology, La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind). Attia’s installation is as much about how we present objects, as about the objects themselves. It is a museum display about museum displays.
Towards the end of the exhibition hangs a work called “Repaired Broken Mirror” — a mirror with a big slit down the middle, which has been stitched back together with wire. It is a fitting metaphor for Attia’s work generally. The artist holds a mirror up to the world, exposing it in all of its ugliness and injustice. But despite the grotesque visions of ourselves which we see reflected back, there is hope of repair. Attia wants the world to be a better place and tries to make this happen through his erudite, emotional, devastating art.
Published on www.hyperallergic.com
Exposition à Londres, l’insatiable curiosité de Kader Attia. La Hayward Gallery présente l’oeuvre de l’artiste, qui se nourrit des faits politiques. By Philippe Dagen, 2019
On appelait autrefois peinture d’histoire celle qui montrait les faits politiques présents et passés. Vélasquez, Goya ou Delacroix furent des peintres d’histoire. On pourrait désormais nommer art d’histoire celui qui montre les faits politiques présents et passés. Kader Attia en est aujourd’hui l’un des créateurs majeurs. Cet art opère par l’assemblage, l’installation, le collage, la vidéo brève ou longue. Un rectangle de papier peut lui suffire pour associer quelques photographies, ou il peut se déployer aux dimensions d’une salle.Cette variété de modes d’expression et, plus encore, l’insatiable curiosité et l’acuité des questions que pose Attia se vérifie dans son exposition à la Hayward Gallery, l’un des rares lieux d’exposition de Londres qui ne soit pas entièrement soumis à la mode et au marché.
Ce n’est pas une rétrospective, mais le déploiement d’une partie des travaux anciens et actuels conçu par l’artiste en fonction de l’architecture géométrique et quasi militaire du bâtiment, survivant du style brutaliste, angles droits, béton rugueux, sols dallés de gris. Entre cette dureté et les sujets d’Attia, la cohérence est totale. Attia est né en 1970 en banlieue parisienne et y a vécu. De la tour Robespierre de Vitry-sur-Seine (Val-de-Marne), il a fait un film d’un peu plus de deux minutes. L’image monte en silence le long de la façade de rectangles et losanges de 81 mètres de haut et passe au-dessus, jusqu’au vertige. Elle occupe tout le mur du fond de la première salle. En face, sur un petit écran, Oil and Sugar, autre usage de la vidéo : des morceaux de sucre qui s’effondrent, rongés par l’huile qui les dissout. Soit d’un côté la représentation nue du monde tel qu’il est et, de l’autre, la transcription allégorique d’une réflexion sur l’ordre et son effondrement.
Cette dialectique du documentaire et du symbolique se retrouve dans toutes les sections.
En 2000-2002, l’un des tous premiers travaux d’Attia, La Piste d’atterrissage, était un reportage photographique consacré à la vie de transexuels forcés de fuir l’Algérie pour vivre – de la prostitution souvent – en France, où ils étaient tenus pour des émigrés clandestins. On les y voyait changeant de corps, de langue, de pays et de vie : l’incarnation paroxystique d’un processus de mutation humaine que les mouvements migratoires tendent à généraliser, suscitant par là tous les nationalismes et communautarismes.
Ces scènes quotidiennes et ces portraits sont ici associés aux analyses du film The Body’s Legacies, dont celle du philosophe Norman Ajari sur les relations entre esclavage et musique. Ce sont deux façons complémentaires de rendre intelligible une question centrale des études postcoloniales. Une autre de ces questions est celle de l’invention du musée ethnographique en Occident dans la deuxième moitié du XIXe siècle, au temps de l’expansion coloniale. Dans un premier temps, ces
musées ont traité les Africains et leurs cultures comme des éléments d’un exotisme général au même titre que les animaux empaillés : ce qu’Attia résume dans des vitrines où cette promiscuité est réalisée matériellement. On pourrait penser qu’elle est définitivement proscrite aujourd’hui, mais quiconque a vu l’Africa Museum, récemment réouvert à Tervuren (Belgique), ex-Musée du Congo belge, sait qu’elle s’y maintient, sans aucune gêne.
Dans un deuxième temps, statues et masques sont devenus des objets d’art, beaux et muets. Aussi Attia recouvre-t-il des masques d’éclats de miroir ou les pare de chapelets de prière. Aussi glisse-t-il d’autres miroirs entre des statues que l’érosion a partiellement dévorées ou fait-il couler des larmes d’étain dans les fissures du bois. S’agit-il d’une simple restauration matérielle ? D’une esthétisation de ces sculptures qui étaient plus que des sculptures ? D’une réappropriation poétique ? D’un détournement criticable au nom de l’authenticité ? Ces mots et ces notions sont sans cesse agités dans les débats actuels, qu’ils portent sur la spoliation du patrimoine africain et sa restitution ou, plus largement, sur la réécriture de l’histoire des rapports entre l’Occident et le reste du monde. Alors que tant d’auteurs et d’autorités se permettent de trancher sur des sujets aussi difficiles, Attia donne à voir et à mesurer, pour qui veut bien y passer le temps nécessaire, leur complexité et les sous-entendus qui s’agitent par en-dessous. Montrée à la Documenta de Kassel en 2012, puis à Lausanne en 2015 et au Palais de Tokyo en 2018, la proliférante installation The Repair from Occident to Extra Occidental Cultures (2012) qu’il constitue autour de la notion, elle-même polysémique, de réparation, réunit des dizaines de livres et des journaux de la fin du XIXe siècle à aujourd’hui, de l’artisanat de tranchée de la première guerre mondiale – coupe-papier et crucifix fabriqués avec des douilles de balles et d’obus –, des photographies de soldats mutilés et d’autres de masques « de maladie » africains et aussi des objets hybrides, tels ces bijoux montés en Algérie avec des monnaies françaises à l’effigie de la puissance coloniale. Selon les versions, tel ou tel point vient plus particulièrement au premier plan : la mémoire de la Grande Guerre à Kassel et ici à Londres, le terrorisme et l’islamophobie à Lausanne et à Paris. Mais le fond demeure identique : l’incapacité des uns à comprendre les autres et la construction d’identités et de mythologies destinées essentiellement à définir un « nous » contre des « eux » qui seraient nécessairement dangereux ou méprisables, « sauvages », « barbares », tous « assassins ». Le mot installation n’est plus suffisant pour désigner ce système d’archives qui fonctionne par corrélations et contradictions alternées et interdit à la réflexion de se figer. Cette gigantesque machine à dérouter et déstabiliser la réflexion fonctionne à plein régime. Depuis 2018, Attia en assemble une deuxième. L’Afrique n’en est plus le lieu, mais l’Asie. Nous sommes dans la seconde moitié du XXe siècle : guerres de Corée et du Vietnam, divisions et
réunifications, interventions militaires françaises, japonaises et américaines, massacre d’étudiants commis à Gwnagju (Corée du Sud) en 1980 par la dictature militaire et mémoire actuelle de ces tragédies que l’Europe connaît mal et oublie souvent. Shifting Borders se compose d’écrans vidéos et de collections de prothèses de jambes. Celles-ci rendent sensibles jusqu’au malaise physique les mutilations des combats et des mines.
Les vidéos rapprochent des propos recueillis auprès d’anthropologues, chamans et parents de victimes. Ce qu’ils disent est souvent stupéfiant : autant les récits d’exactions que ceux qui démontrent avec évidence la permanence de cultes chamaniques là où l’on supposerait que communisme vietnamien et consumérisme coréen les ont éliminés définitivement. C’est là la création la plus désorientante et captivante qu’il nous ait été donné de découvrir depuis longtemps.
Published in Le Monde, 14.02.2019.
How Kader Attia Demonstrates the Radical Healing Power of Art. By Jane Ure-Smith, 2019
In 2009, when Kader Attia visited ‘Picasso and the Masters’ at Paris’s Grand Palais, he was surprised to find that the show included works by Caravaggio, El Greco and Cézanne, yet made no mention of the African art that inspired Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). His response was to dig out a mask he’d found in a Dakar market and cover it with mirror fragments – to ‘show how cubism was invented’.
‘Mirrors and Masks’ (2013–15) – an exquisite series of small, mirror-tiled sculptures made a few years later – is one of many delights in the first full-scale UK survey of work by the Algerian-French artist at London’s Hayward Gallery.
‘The Museum of Emotion’ is an impassioned, defiant show that explores the two key words of its title from many different angles. Museums, as Attia sees it, are based on the ‘obsession of the Western mind to organize the universe’. For classification, read control: just as, historically, museums have accumulated objects in cabinets of curiosity, post-colonial France now amasses the descendants of people from its former colonies in the ‘open-sky jails’ of the banlieues, north of Paris. That is where Attia, now 48, grew up and into whose drab, claustrophobic embrace he draws us in the video La Tour Robespierre (2018).
The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), which garnered the artist much praise at Documenta 13, plays more literally on the cabinet-of-curiosities idea. Arranged on the shelves of what seems to be a vast museum storeroom are a dozen or more, larger than life, rough-hewn wooden busts, surrounded by books, pamphlets and vintage photographs. Those at eye level invite closer inspection before you recoil from their scarred, distorted visages: these are the ghosts of World War I soldiers, who became known as the ‘broken faces’.
Set alongside Open Your Eyes (2010), a startling slideshow that juxtaposes images of soldiers treated by pioneers of plastic surgery with images of patched-up African masks, The Repair… makes us question our notions of beauty and wholeness. And, prompted by the title, we are invited to ponder our attitudes to repair, a theme that has long intrigued the artist. In the West, people commonly discard damaged objects, valuing only those in pristine condition. By contrast, in traditional societies, items are mended and restored – often retaining a trace of the damage. In Reflecting Memory (2016), a film about ‘phantom limb’ syndrome that won him the Marcel Duchamp Prize, the artist pursues the theme of reparation into the realms of psychological healing.
For Attia, repair has become a metaphor for cultural re-appropriation and resistance. When I met him at his studio three years ago, he showed me a Berber necklace dotted with French francs that he’d acquired. Similarly, The Repair… includes fine examples of ‘trench art’ Attia collected, where cartridges and artillery shells have been ingeniously repurposed as ashtrays and button hooks. Better still, a helmet has been turned into a lute.
‘If we do not resist society, we become its slaves,’ Attia tells the show’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, in an interview for the catalogue. But defiance is only part of the story. The artist’s exploration of emotion generates huge warmth as well, most notably in his photographs of Algerian transgender sex workers in Paris (‘La Piste d’atterissage’, The Landing Strip, 2000–02). Having met the group by chance, he won their trust by helping them with their efforts to stay legally in France. ‘They became like my sisters,’ he says. ‘I wanted to represent the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.’
I have seen more dramatic Attia shows – not least at Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst in 2016, where the artist rearranged the busts from The Repair… to form an ‘audience’ for Abel Gance’s powerful anti-war film J’accuse! (1938). The triumphs of this exhibition, however, are its coherence and the thoroughness with which Attia delves into the assumptions that underpin museums. What shine through are his political optimism and his belief in the radical healing power of art. His work really does, as Rugoff puts it, ‘illuminate the possibilities of a new idea of repair’.
Published on www.frieze.com; 25.02.2019.
Kader Attia at The Hayward Gallery. By Tabish Khan, 2019
A camera pans slowly up the height of the Robespierre Tower — a rather grim looking residential block in Paris. Once it crests the top it’s a relief to see the city beyond, rather than a claustrophobic close-up of the building. The effect garners sympathy with artist Kader Attia and his description of it as inhuman modernism. Opposite a cinder block hangs delicately over a mirror, one slip and the whole thing falls apart — it captures exactly how we often feel, zipping along London just about trying to keep our lives together.
Kader Attia’s exhibition is full of impressive installations but they’re often confounding. Sometimes they resonate, like the cinder block, but other times they don’t — a wall of photos of famous individuals from Lenin to Ella Fitzgerald all express different emotions. It’s not entirely clear what you’re supposed to take away from this wall: that all humans have emotions? We think most people already know that.
Then there’s an equally baffling pair of shoes reflected in a mirror before we arrive at our favourite two rooms. Attia examines the lack of acknowledgement of African art in Western art by placing a mask next to a book featuring Edvard Munch’s The Scream. A taxidermy cheetah and an African mask in a vitrine show how both wild animals and African culture have been placed in museums as recognition of European dominion over both worlds. It’s a challenging statement, executed in an intelligent manner.
The largest installation is made up of rows of shelves that look like they’re out a museum storage facility. Stacks of books and busts reference the first world war and the facial reconstruction surgeries carried out to those injured in conflict.
The artist is drawing a link in the similarities between the facial modifications of certain African tribesman and the post-war facial reconstruction surgeries. While it’s clear they look visually similar and there’s a general thread of modification and repair throughout a lot of Attia’s work, it often feels like the connections he’s drawing are very loosely affiliated.
Attia’s work is extremely diverse and often very powerful, although there’s sometimes a sense that despite the artist knowing what he’s trying to convey to the audience, the communication just isn’t clear enough.
Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion, The Hayward Gallery, London. By Julia Schouten, 2019
Kader Attia offers an impassioned critique of the enduring effects of colonialism. Central to the French-Algerian artist’s sculptures, installation, collages, videos and photographs is the idea of post-colonial repair, as both a physical and symbolic act
Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion opens at a time when the subject of colonial restitution has become an internationally publicised issue. In November 2017, on a visit to Burkina Faso, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, pledged to enable the “temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa”. Macron subsequently commissioned a report from the academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr. Published in November 2018, it recommended that all objects looted during the colonial era be permanently returned to their countries of origin.
The report and Attia’s practice correspond in many ways (the artist is cited in the text on more than one occasion), most notably in that they address the historical, psychological and political effects of Europe’s colonial legacies, and the complexities of reparations. The report notes that speaking of the restitution of African cultural heritage “is to open merely one chapter in a much larger, and certainly vaster, history”. Yet, questions around restitution also get to the crux of the problem: “a system of appropriation and alienation – the colonial system – for which certain European museums, unwillingly have become the public archives”.
It is this same crux that defines much of Attia’s work: a critique of unabated colonial (western) systems of control and organisation. For example, the artist draws parallels between the colonial treatment of objects in museums and the design of modernist housing blocks, such as the Parisian banlieues where he grew up.
The exhibition begins at this intersection of modernism and colonialism, bringing together a selection of works that point to an incompatibility between the utopian ideals of modernist architecture and the realities of social housing. An Untitled (2013) work resembling a metal, cage-like, architectural model stands opposite the video projection La Tour Robespierre (The Robespierre Tower) (2018), which shows a seemingly infinite scroll of monotonous balconies on a housing estate. Attia draws attention to the alienating and oppressive effects of housing blocks, and of a divided society that pushes its immigrants to the fringes, cultivating an inhumane hotbed of humiliation and exclusion.
In the video The Body’s Legacies, Pt. 2: The Postcolonial Body (2018), Attia deepens his investigation into how descendants of people from former colonies are treated. He speaks to four people, among them a philosopher and a journalist, primarily about the case of Théo Luhaka, a French-Congolese man who, at the age of 22, suffered appalling injuries at the hands of four French police officers in 2017. They discuss the differing public perceptions and opinions that the assault engendered, interwoven with their personal experiences growing up in France and wider analyses.
One of the video’s speakers describes what he calls a “theatre of domination”, and this feels similarly relevant to the western compulsion to exert a sense of order and control in cultural institutions. In Measure and Control (2013), Attia ironically mimics the 19th-century mode of display common in natural history or ethnographic museums. In these displays, objects are classified into arbitrary cultural hierarchies. Non-western cultural heritage is divested of its original significance and co-opted to consolidate western notions of quality and superiority. The artist furthers this institutional critique in his juxtaposition of a taxidermy cheetah with a mask that depicts the animal. The comparison highlights that while one culture chooses to imaginatively depict, the other is predisposed to capture and stuff: a theatre of domination.
The vast installation The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012) also plays with theatrical western modes of display, with its dramatic lighting and resemblance to an archive or museum storeroom. The shelving units and vitrines display hundreds of objects relating to Attia’s research into the concept of repair.
Here, as with the projected slides in Open Your Eyes (2010) towards the back of the installation, he juxtaposes facial scarification with severe, and quite disturbing, facial injuries suffered by soldiers in the first world war. Attia shows two distinct approaches to treating injuries, but also to beauty – traditional societies choose to keep scars visible, while western societies do their best to erase all signs.
Alternative approaches to healing are also explored in the three-channel video installation Shifting Borders (2018), in which Attia interviews mental health professionals, academics, traumatised survivors of conflict, and traditional healers. The narration oscillates between accounts of tremendous suffering and scholarly dissections of individual and collective traumas suffered in Vietnam and South Korea. Together, they explore the therapeutic role played by spiritual and shamanistic practices, offering other possibilities for dealing with trauma, outside the ostensible primacy of western medicine.
The prosthetic legs that surround the screens allude to the exhibition’s concluding video, Reflecting Memory (2016). In this work, Attia considers phantom-limb syndrome, a physical and psychological phenomenon where amputees experience sensations in a missing limb, as a metaphor for unresolved, collective trauma. The Savoy-Sarr report references Reflecting Memory in their chapter Of Compensation and of Reparation. They suggest that restitution can repair “the absence of the objects of cultural heritage and their effect on the collective psyche”. Yet Attia’s video is not so clearcut. While some of his speakerssuggest the possibility of healing the pain of mourning, others state that, sometimes, the phantom limb cannot be repaired – there is no effective treatment to stop the pain.
Attia’s work demonstrates the lasting material and immaterial scars caused by colonisation and its insidious spread of influence and control across the present day. He compassionately investigates means of repair through his meticulous research, which he presents through works that are intellectually compelling, but also accessible and emotive. His videos feel notably collaborative, making space for voices that offer alternative modes of thinking, of knowledge. They demonstrate a curiosity that is not tinged by an outsider’s or colonial gaze, but defined by an openness to see the world differently, through the eyes of others.
While the works in the exhibition do not explicitly deal with the restitution of African cultural heritage, it seems significant that Attia’s research is referenced in the Savoy-Sarr report. It demonstrates that the artist’s practice exceeds the traditional boundaries of art, and the healing potentials of his work transcend the gallery’s walls.
12th Gwangju Biennial: Imagined Borders. By Amy Zion, 2018
What is art’s role when geopolitical tensions run high and technology makes it difficult—perhaps even irresponsible—to tune out of the perpetual state-of-emergency news cycle that promises, and often delivers, news that impacts the daily lives of people near and far. That’s a reasonable question on many curators’ minds when they are tasked with organizing a large-scale exhibition like a biennale. In Gwangju, the small Korean city’s well-respected biennale, currently in its 12th edition, was concerned with geopolitics from its inception, and the title of the inaugural exhibition was “Beyond the Borders.” It opened in 1995, amid great political change in the Korean government, and the Biennale itself was founded as a memorial to the May 18, 1980 student uprising, which took place in Gwangju. This year’s iteration reflected on that first exhibition, and reopened the theme of “borders” with the title “Imagined Borders.” In April this year, the US-North Korea Summit in Singapore began the discussion to end the war that has divided the Peninsula. And on the weekend of the Biennale’s opening, the South Korean President crossed the Korean Demilitarized Zone for the North’s Independence celebrations, making the exhibition’s title seem more and more like a speech act. However, the theme was interpreted by eleven curators in seven exhibitions, along with special commissions and pavilion projects, all of which allowed the idea of borders to take on a far more abstract register. In sum as well as in parts, “Imagined Borders” highlights how the impact of trauma from 73 years of separation and two wars will not be erased if and when the map changes.
This year, four exhibitions are installed in the Biennale’s sprawling main hall, and three in the newly built Asia Cultural Center (ACC). In the main hall, the exhibition opens with a more traditional, arguably conservative interpretation of the theme with Clara Kim’s focus on artists whose work addressed modernist architecture and its role in nation building. The standout work in Kim’s exhibition, titled “Imagined Nations/Modern Utopias,” was The Lost Voyage (2011–18), a 50-minute video by Hyun-Suk Seo in collaboration with Ahn Chang-Mo about Sewoon Sangga, a brutalist megastructure built in Seoul in 1968, and how contemporary history—war, dictatorship, and economic growth—impacted the way it has been seen and used by Korean society. The last exhibition in the main hall was titled “Returns” and organized by David Teh. His contribution came out of an invitation to conduct research in the Biennale’s archives and was thus retrospective, meant to function like a “walk-in magazine,” that was heavy on archival material from previous iterations of the Biennale. It included new artist commissions as well, but functioned less like an exhibition than a place for visitors to sit and reflect on the current edition with respect to the history of the Biennale since 1995.
Between those two bookends in the main hall, Rita Gonzalez and Christine Y. Kim and Rita Gonzalez’s “The Ends: The Politics of Participation in the Post-Internet Age,” looks at how the internet’s promise of freedom and open borders has played out unevenly throughout the globe. The show broadens the typical roster of artists associated with this topic with compelling, large-scale installations from newer voices, including Julia Weist and Nestor Siré who research and produce a range of multimedia related to internet access and the distribution of information in Cuba, and Kim Heecheon, whose video Every Smooth Thing through Mesher (2018) relates Pokemon Go to Instagram to Bitcoin through the form of casual Facetime conversations between friends. Over at the ACC is a whole exhibition of North Korean chosonhwa traditional painting, curated by art historian BG Muhn, who reflected on his eight years of research in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and how it challenged his South Korean anti-communist attitude and trepidation toward “the North.” Through a selection of works like the simple, solo portrait A Smelter at Rest (2015) by Ri Chol, in which a helmeted figure lifts a steaming bowl to his lips, or Kim Chol’s Tiger Dashing in Winter (2014), Munh’s selection highlighted the humanist and less straightforward themes that share a longer history and set of references with the South, alongside the message-driven elements popularly associated with DRPK art in general. This selection framed the 73-year separation within the span of a much longer history and deeper, shared human experiences, and offered an image of the DRPK alternative to its homogenous and controlled press coverage.
Back in the main hall, Gridthiya Gaweewong’s surprising and captivating exhibition, “Facing Phantom Borders,” interpreted and spun out from this edition’s main theme with attention on artists working in Asia. Gaweewong focuses on work that was scaled down to human-to-human, one-on-one relations, for the most part, over grand narratives. It includes Tom Nicholson’s uneven series of video interviews between the artist and 10 asylum seekers (installed with a diorama of cast figures), titled I was born in Indonesia (2017). Nicholson is transparent in the videos about his goal to influence policy concerning asylum seekers in his home country, Australia. In one video, addressing a young Afghan, he wants to know, “Why do you want to live in Australia?” to which the young asylum seeker answers, “I don’t, I want to live in a peaceful country.” The artist then invites the young man to ask him anything; the young man smiles and says: “What is it like to live in a peaceful country?” The question is so simple, so disarming, that the artist grapples to respond, unfortunately resorting to a script addressing his own privilege, laden with a subtext of guilt, instead of answering the question directly. Still, the exchange, and the work as a whole, size front-page political issues down to personal interactions and expose the vast inequities between people, made palpable on an emotional and uncomfortable level.
Gaweewong’s exhibition also includes Kader Attia’s Shifting Borders (2018), part of a new Biennale initiative of commissions by international artists. The unassuming, three-channel video installation runs over two hours and is arresting throughout. The space is darkened with theatrical spotlights illuminating chairs Attia took from another Biennale site, the Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, with antique-looking, full-leg prostheses “sitting” on top. The legs are a recurring motif in Attia’s artwork, as his interest in the relationship between western and non-western societies—which is informed by his experience growing up and living between Paris and Algeria. Each part of the trilogy could be watched in any order and each monitor is equipped with headphones and a place for two people to sit at a time. Attia interviews shamans, researchers, art historians, psychiatrists, and survivors of state violence and/or personal trauma in South Korea and Vietnam, weaving together a mind-bending portrait of the region that not only crosses geographic boundaries (between the two countries) but also explores a range of threshold crossings: between the living and the non-living, the “hell in the mind” and the world outside, the idea of oppressed and oppressor, referring specifically to Korea’s relationship with the US (oppressed) and Vietnam (oppressor). The interviewees repeat across the three screens and each of their stories or expertise unfolds in nonlinear sequences as the artist managed to juggle and sort the single-camera, single-subject interviews that made up the bulk of the material, by interspersing them with each other and organizing them into several thematic threads.
Shifting Borders is an argument for that illusive and often pejorative term “artist research.” By connecting stories of trauma survivors, doctors, researchers, shamans, and ethnologists, Attia demonstrates how interdisciplinary approaches to healing rely on art and religion as much as science and historical understanding. In the video, Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, director of the Center for Research and Preservation of Vietnamese Cultural Faiths in Hanoi, notes that ritual ceremonies for healing require light, color, music, and lyrics, which, he says, “all combine and affect the psychology and physiology of the sick.” But just as each subject’s testimony was connecting the science behind the rituals with elements of faith and creating a picture of how the region’s cultures dealt with the traumatic legacy of colonization and war, and how it affects not just those who were victims or witnesses but whole societies into the present—the subjects also offered conflicting interpretations of history. For instance, one video opens with a young historian who speaks of colonialism and says: “Korean history is a destroyed history.” Later on, art historian Joan Kee notes that in Koreans’ self-portrayal as the oppressed, they fail to acknowledge how their experience relates to their own activities in Vietnam as US-allied troops, or how they discriminate against North Korean defectors. But the work wasn’t about assessing whose argument is stronger, as it all plays out in front of a stage set with prosthesis; trauma slowly emerges as a character among the cast, one that plagues the psyche like a phantom limb.
Shifting Borders is an expansive, historically informed, and cross-disciplinary portrait of the region that could only be crafted by an artist and a foreign agent. Like many works in “Imagined Borders,” it pierces through the neon lights on the energetic streets and the cartoons and smiling characters that adorn signs and product packaging. It also goes beyond the rigorous formality and emphasis on hospitality one experiences as a foreign art tourist in these spaces and takes you straight to the wounds, the anxieties, and the pain that persists from state violence and will persist regardless of the outcome of contemporary geopolitics.
In the Service of Repair: Kader Attia on Systems of Belief and ‘Reason’s Oxymorons’. By Robin Scher, 2017.
In 2007, the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia created an arresting installation with sculptures of hundreds of disembodied chadors—large pieces of cloth of the kind wrapped around the heads of many Muslim women—rendered in aluminum foil and splayed across a gallery floor. The piece, titled Ghost, tapped several of Attia’s recurring themes, from the clash of civilizations to belief systems reliant on what he himself calls “non-knowledge.” The poignant quality of the work owed to the paradoxical plea within its spectacle: a call for self-reflection invoked through a dissolution of the self. Attia has described experiences of the sort as an act of “repair,” with the term extending far beyond the connotations associated with a simple fix or restoration. For Attia, repair is a constant, evolving, holistic operation—in his own words: “an endless process of intellectual, cultural, and political adjustments that humanity carries on in parallel with its natural process of evolution.” In his work, Attia has spent over a decade attempting to elucidate his conception of repair through a variety of media, from photography and sculpture to installation and video. In its range of realizations, his art can appear disparate, but beneath it all lies a rigorous, research-based practice that forms the foundation from which his encoded, existential ideas emerge.
His inquisitive inclinations are on display in Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), a multi-channel video installation on view for the first time in U.S. at the Lehmann Maupin gallery on New York’s Lower East Side through March 4. The installation features a “video library” made up of 18 screens placed within an array of empty office cubicles, like a cube farm in which isolated workers sit and toil for productivity’s sake. In the midst of such an environment—and from the perspective of an upraised balcony adjoining the room—Attia asks that the installation be seen from the point of view of the personal (through one-on-one videos conducted with subjects involved in the field of psychiatric pathology) as well as the political (through subject matter that fits within a broader social construct of productive systemization).
Filmed over two years, the videos involve conversations Attia had with psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, philosophers, ethnographers, and religious practitioners from Africa, Europe, and North America, all discussing different approaches that Western and non-Western cultures have taken in their attempts to understand and treat mental-health disorders. Arranged into categories such as “Language,” “Trance,” “Magical Thinking,” and “Reason and Politics,” each video comprises a fragmented collection of conversations that connect various ways different cultures attempt to define complex matters of the mind.
At a push, Attia labels himself as a sculptor, but his main material might be juxtaposition. Before delving into the topic of psychoanalysis while in New York a few weeks ago installing his current show, he began with thoughts about modern conceptions of beauty. “It’s fascinating to see how much this culture of hedonism, beauty, and eternal youth has been capitalized,” Attia said, citing an example of how repair has been interpreted by a modern capitalist society. “Nowadays it’s normal that people use very expensive products, creams, and Botox to kill cells and paralyze their skin.”
Attia attributes this to an “unspoken ideology of flawlessness.” But, in trying to remove wrinkles and return skin to an unblemished state, modern Western culture has developed a fundamental misunderstanding of repair. “It has something to do with this illusion that, in controlling the injury by removing it, you have superiority over time and history,” he said.
Attia is no stranger to injury. Born in France in 1970 to Algerian parents, he grew up with dual nationalities, bouncing between countries where his mother and father separately resided. Later, he would spend four years living in the Congo as part of his Algerian non-military service. Through these experiences, Attia witnessed firsthand the physical and psychological toll of colonization. What he observed was that, unlike physical scars, marks of psychological injuries are immaterial and thus in need of different kinds of repair—a path that would later lead to Reason’s Oxymorons.
“Subconscious,” the title of one of the installation’s 18 videos, is understood as a concept in very different ways by Western and non-Western societies. “In traditional non-Western societies they often attribute [the subconscious] to ancestors,” Attia said, noting how this belief continues to be used as a descriptive mechanism for explaining psychological illnesses like depression. The presence of such maladies are lent a supernatural quality, which may not directly solve the problem but does help patients living with the condition. “When I discovered that the legacy and power of ancestors is still present in Sub-Saharan Africa, it was really something. It’s this very deep and dense link—which still exists through a kind of animism—to traditional societies and the very darkest and primitive age we all come from.”
Comparing the efficacy of this line of thinking to psychoanalysis as each relates to possible forms of treatment, Attia became fascinated by one question: How do practitioners of traditional non-Western medicine effectively convince patients that their psychological suffering is rooted in something supernatural? The best answer he found came from a French ethnologist named Brigette Derlon. In the video focused on the subconscious, Derlon explained to Attia that a person can be convinced of anything from ghosts to the spectral presence of ancestors when influenced by the cultural group that surrounds them. This suggestive notion led Attia to the conclusion that psychoanalysis, rather than an exact science, is best considered something more fluid and dynamic, influenced by contextual factors.
This realization is central to the purpose that guides Reason’s Oxymorons. The piece, for Attia, is about avoiding easy categorization: the kind of proverbial cubicles that keep ideas and beliefs separated from each other. Offering his ideal for an alternative by way of example, Attia suggests that in a different society our understanding of psychiatric pathology would be treated as less “a science to heal disease or illness[and] more as a philosophy to understand.” By embracing this approach, Attia believes modern society would be better equipped to deal with social problems that continue to arise from our increasingly interconnected world.
Like much of Attia’s practice, then, Reason’s Oxymorons can be read as a stand against rigidity—a point emphasized by Attia through his parting words: “Without repair, there would be no movement. I think repair is the movement. Descartes explained that life is movement, a change from one space and time to another. This is a fundamental understanding that applies from the arts to sciences.”
He continued, making the link explicit: “What is an artwork if not a repair? Why do we create art? We just unconsciously continue this agency of nature that is repairing. We just want to improve one space and time, by proposing another space and time.”
Published on www.artnews.com, 24.02.2017.
Kader Attia’s ‘Reason’s Oxymorons’. By Andrew Stefan Weiner, 2017
Despite their enigmatic, aloof character, most of the works in Kader Attia’s current exhibition at Lehmann Maupin are relatively easy to make sense of.
Whether in their medium (neoconceptual sculpture), their mode of facture (readymade assemblage), or their topic (cultural hybridization), they exemplify what we now expect of “global contemporary art.” This isn’t meant pejoratively; the sculptures are poetic, spare, and subtle, compelling attention while frustrating reductive interpretation. They show why the artist is receiving ever- broader acclamation, and they make clear that he deserves it. Attia’s inventiveness and spatial intelligence are evident from the show’s outset, most memorably in an arrangement of Styrofoam packing materials upon a wooden table (Untitled, 2017), a piece that looks like it might have taken minutes to assemble but that reads as a mordant update of Constant’s designs for New Babylon (1959-74).
By and large, the other sculptures in the show successfully achieve the objectives they seem to set for themselves, reworking established tropes of the Western neo- avant-gardes by interrogating their assumed universality; the precedent of artists like Jimmie Durham and David Hammons is clear. With that said, the piece that stands out is the one that doesn’t really work, at least not in the way art is typically assumed to work. This self-contradictory aspect is clear in its title (Reason’s Oxymorons, 2015), and even more so in its borderline impossible objective: to conduct exploratory research into the relation between Western European modernity and some of the numerous cultures that have served as its Other. The terms of this investigation are sprawling, even utopian: the time frame ranges from initial colonial encounters to the present; the geographic focus centers on sub-Saharan Africa (but is not limited to this already enormous region); and the definition of culture includes not just art, music, and narrative, but ontology, sociality, ritual, religion, bodily sensation, and collective trauma. Such concerns are not themselves new; they were in fact the subject of Anselm Franke’s pivotal 2010-2013 set of exhibitions “Animism: Modernity through the Looking Glass,”(1) which constellated critical scholarship, research-based art, and artist-theorist collaborations. What distinguishes Attia’s approach is his diverse, engaging roster of collaborators, which includes historians, philosophers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and traditional healers and shamans. Many of these people are positioned between former colonial centers and their subjugated territories; some of them work as ethno-psychiatrists or as psychologists treating migrants and refugees.
After recording video interviews with these individuals, Attia edited their responses into 18 groups under such headings as “Exile,” “Genocide,” “Trance,” and “Modern Science and Traditional Therapy.” These compilations then became part of a massive, maze-like multi-channel installation, which used generic store- bought workstations and office partitions to construct a warren of individual viewing cubicles. If this environment clearly recalled the atomized, coercive architecture of the huge conglomerates that operate across global divides—not just multinational corporations, but also aid organizations and NGOs—it also brought to mind the much more modest space of a university A/V library. However coincidental, this resemblance spoke to the work’s reliance on documentary, archival, and didactic procedures: modes quite distant from the relative formalism of the sculptures Attia was showing. It’s debatable whether this difference marks a stylistic discrepancy or a more radical contradiction; much more could be said about the critical stakes involved in such questions, which might seem confined to terminology but ultimately concern nothing less than the sociohistorical ontology of art. Yet regardless of how one views such matters, it seems clear that the effectiveness of works like Reason’s Oxymorons depends on how they negotiate the tensions between how art looks and what it means or says or does.
In the case of Attia’s installation, resolving this question meant evaluating how the piece worked on two planes: both as art and as research. For this viewer the work’s material, sculptural dimension seemed secondary, not so much an afterthought as a means toward an end. Its artistic character resided rather in the labor of conceiving and executing the project—a more difficult (and interesting) object of judgment. On that score, the most successful part of the piece wasn’t so much the manner in which the videos were recorded or grouped or edited, but the way the artist was able to find compelling speakers and elicit their stories and thoughts. While sculpture is still often described with an implicitly gendered rhetoric of agency—sculptors carve, find, construct, assemble, install, and so on—
Attia’s approach made clear that sculpture can also depend on attunement, empathy, and listening, or on the spatial arrangement of narratives and concepts. This stance assumed a particular resonance in light of the artist’s ongoing interest in the practices of repair and reparation, and the meanings such activities can have in the context of intercultural encounter, violent or otherwise. Similarly, when it came to research, the interesting aspects of Reason’s Oxymorons weren’t what one might expect. Whether as history or ethnography, as theory or reportage, Attia’s recordings didn’t supply much new information, and they seem unlikely to change the thinking of anyone familiar with these complex, much-studied subjects. Several crucial topics weren’t really dealt with head-on or in meaningful detail: the continuing impact of colonization and decolonial struggle; the politics of neoliberalization under regimes of global governance; the relation between migration and the emergence of new nationalist and quasi-fascist regimes in the global North. It was strange to find hardly any discussion of Frantz Fanon, given his irreplaceable contributions to the fields of ethno-psychiatry and postcolonial studies. Without more clarity on such matters, it was hard to discern a stable argument within the piece or to regard it as a decisive critical intervention.
Despite these shortcomings, many of Attia’s subjects spoke in ways that were both erudite and poignant, deploying established Western concepts even as they questioned them; such an approach conveyed a different kind of knowledge than the sort of quantifiable “outputs” that the term “research” often connotes. An anthropologist explained how certain Mesoamerican cultures lack the concept of an afterlife: for them, “the dead dissolve.” A Cameroonian psychotherapist convincingly demonstrated how a traditional African saying proves the existence of an indigenous concept similar to what Sigmund Freud would much later theorize as unconscious projection. A Rwandan psychiatrist who survived the genocidal violence in her country reinterpreted the work of Primo Levi in a moving account of her own struggle with nightmares and flashbacks. These voices linger in one’s mind well after leaving the show, along with seemingly insignificant details, like the strangely empty drawers in all those desks. Ultimately, that fact seems much more important than the questions of what kind of art the installation is, or whether it’s successful in the terms we typically apply to art. It seems fair to think of Attia’s recent work in the same terms many researchers use for their own activities; on this view, Reason’s Oxymorons reads as something like an interim progress report from a much longer project. One hopes that Attia can find ways to bring the thoughtfulness of his video investigations into closer contact with the refined but somewhat safe aesthetic of his sculptures. If he succeeds in doing so, he could produce work that might transform not just how we judge particular artworks, but how we think about art, the way art “thinks,” and the powerful role it plays in our own thinking.
(1) “Animism” was a cooperation between Extra City – Kunsthal Antwerp;
Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp; Kunsthalle Bern (2010); Generali Foundation, Vienna (2011); and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2012), later also presented at e-flux (2012), and the Ilmin Museum of Art, Seoul (2013-14). Andrew Weiner is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism in the Department of Art and Art Professions at NYU-Steinhardt.
Published in: Art Agenda, 28.02.2017.
In No Man’s Land. By Ana Teixeira Pinto, 2013
There is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
The term “No Man’s Land”–originally used to designate the area between two enemy trench systems which neither side could claim as its own; a stripe of mud, gravel and barbed-wire, under gruelling artillery fire. During World War one, trench warfare resulted from the asymmetry between firepower and mobility, and quickly consumed many lives: more than 1,000,000 were wounded or killed in the Somme, there were an estimated 975,000 casualties in Verdun. Roughly one century later, the space separating trenches has expanded to include vast swathes of the planet. Like the ill-fated infantry on the Western Front, waves and waves of migrants and refugees perish while attempting to cross no man’s lands such as the Sahara desert, the Sonora desert, the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, across which they will face border fortifications, barbed wire and armed police. The in-between-trenches are not an anomaly or an aberration, they are an emblem for uneven development and asymmetric power; the ever-recurring zone of abrasion between the human and the techno-economic complex.
Suffering –as Theodor Adorno stated– is born from unreason: it is an experience of harm that cannot be coded into a discourse on injustice, the part that has no part in our inconsistent totality. Suffering is everything and nothing simultaneously – the identity and non-identity between industrial exploitation and colonial terror; between empire and periphery; between the ever-increasing pile of consumer goods and products and the human lives they are made of; and the missing link between art and history.
In his work “Prisms”, published in 1982, Adorno wrote that “In the open-air prison the world is turning into, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one.” I understood the meaning of his words in October 2012, when I accepted an invitation to visit the Qatari capital, Doha. Our press-trip itinerary started with a walk around the pier, which culmination point is Richard Serra’s ‘7’. Seven massive steel plates arranged in a Heptagonal shape, ‘7’ is the greatest public art commission ever made by the Qatari Museum Authority. The sculpture was installed at the tip of the man-made pier adjacent to the Museum of Islamic Art, built by star architect I. M. Pei. As we approached the towering colossus, a journalist walking by my side confided, “I was here last year while they were building it, you should have seen the Indian workers, those poor folks, toiling under the blazing sun.” As I looked into her eyes, she became apologetic. “I know it’s an amazing artwork, but I am only human…” she explained. Her expression betrayed genuine concern, yet she could not bring herself to disavow the sculpture. While circling around the metal edifice, I came face to face with another journalist who whispered, “After the HRW (Human Rights Watch) released a report condemning their labour policies, Qatari authorities issued a ban on outdoor work when the temperature rises above 50 degrees Celsius. But ever since, it has never officially been over 50 degrees Celsius!” He shrugged and kept snapping pictures. For all their qualms about labour rights, there are two things that my fellow travellers do not seem to question: that Richard Serra’s ‘7’ is an artwork; and that an artwork is a good thing.
Introduced into the philosophical lexicon during the eighteenth century, the term «aesthetic» is predicated on discontinuity; the aesthetic experience is somehow severed from usual conditions of sensible experience. From Kant onwards, detachment becomes the hallmark of the aesthetics, which always entails a double negation: its object is neither an object of knowledge nor an object of desire. By introducing the notion of disinterest, Kant brought the concept of taste into opposition with the concept of morality. At the beginning of his “Critique of Judgement”, he illustrates his reasoning with the example of a palace, in which aesthetic judgement isolates the form only, disinterested in knowing whether a mass of poor workers toiled under the harshest conditions in order to build it. The human toll, Kant says, must be ignored in order to aesthetically appreciate an artwork.
But one could also say that, in the guise of a Hegelian totality, an essence manifests itself in its alienation, and any phenomenon is also defined by what it negates or denies. Kantian aesthetics mirrors British utilitarianism – Whereas Adam Smith bracketed out the sociological conditions that necessarily precede the contractual conditions in his parable about market-place interaction, Kantian philosophy brackets the issue of power being out of the question of representation; and the command to “look but don’t touch!” severs the eye from the hand, following the scopophilical logics of advertisement.
Either way, in Qatar, Kant acquires an unwitting materiality. Whether or not one chooses to ignore it, ‘7’ stands at the unstable borderline between art history and labour history; at the tip of a vortex of transnational capital flows that relentlessly hauls bare life into the unyielding machinery of autocratic power. In the Gulf, social division of labour conflates with global division of labour generating a so hierarchical hierarchy that only a culture of terror can sustain it. Not the terror of chaos that rules in slums and shanty-towns all over the world but the terror of absolute order. The man-made pier, the outdoor cafeteria protected by sailing canopy, the designer museum, Serra’s sculpture, all exist inside what Michael Taussig would have called a “space of death”, in the sense of the death of collective memory and communal experience –running parallel to the occasional death of migrant labourers or domestic aids, whose work is always external to the art-works they labour to erect.
The link between political and cultural representation was never straightforward, but nowadays, “a growing number of unmoored and floating images corresponds to a growing number of disenfranchised, invisible or even disappeared or missing people”. As a result, the term “art” acquired two contradictory meanings; it can refer to ways of effectively claiming representation, or it can refer to a mode of expression, employing a set of formal tropes so as to limit ways of effectively claiming representation. But this conflict is not a conflict between the art market and contemporary art, nor is it a conflict between art and politics, it is a conflict between two different sensible worlds and their political correlation.
Throughout modern history, the worker and the artist have always been kept in dialectical tension. As a consequence, art’s ontology was never settled; art always divided into two. The Romantic ethos was built upon the opposition between art as a totalization of experience and labour as an alienation of experience. Hegel’s “end of art” is not the end of art as such, but the end of one of its facets: art as a pedestrian activity engaged with mundane wishes and needs, which must be superseded so that the other side of art can be freed to “lay a claim to the absolute” . Because, in order for art “to be art at all, art must be something beyond art”.
In his essay “Modernist Painting”, American critic Clement Greenberg argued that Kant was the first real modernist. In his view, the essence of modernism, inasmuch as that of Kantian critical philosophy, lied in the use of a discipline’s own methods in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. The article achieved a canonical status and, in retrospect, turned “Modernism” into a synonym for artistic autonomy –a self-sufficient, abstract and hermetic form. Greenberg also implied another Kantian idea, that of progress. Modernist art seems to move forward in time, away from manifestations of extraneous content and towards a specificity of means, and, as such, becoming a purely aesthetic experience. In Greenberg’s own words: “Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity (…) Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”
Emerging out of the horrors of trench warfare, the early 20th century movement Dada wanted to be anything but art. Dada’s emphasis on rupture was not an aesthetic gimmick, but the allegorical doubling of a material trauma, a gash literally inflicted on the surface of the picture reciprocating the lacerations on broken faced soldiers’ flesh and the craters scarring the land, gorging up the living. Around 1918-19, the movement adopted the term “Photomontage” in order to distinguish their politically oriented practice from the fantasist postcards and dioramas so popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Victorian fantasist postcards were, typically, the product of combination printing, a technique –howbeit more complex– similar to the dual-negative photography invented by Hippolyte Bayard. Bayard had initially used the technique to achieve higher photographic realism –namely to solve the problem of overexposure which would cause the sky to appear like a blank slate, by juxtaposing a perfect cloud abode over his street photographs– but it did not take long for this usage to explode in a myriad of fanciful compositions. During World War I, it was popular amongst young soldiers’ families or fiancées to copy-paste themselves onto the plane cockpit of the soldier they knew, in an illustration of the adage “always with you” –if not in body at least in image. Another common habit would be to include juxtaposing photographic elements onto watercolours or creating fictional landscapes. But whereas the photographic montage used in traditional postcards created an illusion of continuity by artfully fusing all elements together, the Dadaist collage made the artifice visible by fully displaying the sutures and the cuts their images were subjected to; upon viewing, the illusion was shattered and the gap between sign and referent became apparent. The choice between photographic illusion and photomontage is not merely an aesthetic choice between kitsch and avant-garde. What is at stake is the insertion of a diegetic element onto the imagetic plate; recounting instead of just showing. That is, the commitment to a synchronic, rather than diachronic, understanding of art and life. Photocollages –Walter Benjamin noted– typically interrupt the context into which they are inserted, making it manifest that the present is composed of manifold irreconcilable states; that every actual thing is a concrete unity of opposed determinations.
The first ready-mades emerged out of the Dadaist assemblages, the three dimensional counterpart to the collages and photomontages. Objects were nailed, screwed or fastened together, in tortured makeshift compositions, exposing shards, knobs and wire mesh. The broken bones and incongruous experiences of shell-shocked soldiers were codified as fractured images and fragmented objects. Reminiscent of the concept of bricolage (patch-up job), introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the assemblages make do with a universe of heterogeneous elements, which “bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project”. Instead of obedient objects, subservient to the designs of the people they are meant to serve, the assemblages confound and reverse the respective positions of dead materials and living beings. Whereas Greenberg proposes a neat historical chronology, in which all fundamental antagonisms are solved by rearranging the conflicting terms into a temporal succession; Dada makes it plain that modernity never ceased to be a battleground, and that the present is constantly at war with itself.
In the pictures Henri Pierre Roché took between 1916-18, Marcel Duchamp’s studio appears littered with industrial debris and every-day objects hung to the ceiling or nailed to the floor. The small porcelain urinal hangs over a doorway. Its origin is unclear. “One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture,” Duchamp would later write to his sister, probably referring to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Either way, the choice of ready-mades –he claimed– “is always based on visual indifference and, at the same time, on the total absence of good or bad taste.”
It was part of the political program of the avant-garde to “replace individualized production with a more collectivized and anonymous practice and simultaneously to evade the individualized address and restricted reception of art,” and, as Elena Filipovic noted, “Ultimately, Duchamp meets the museum’s desire for precision with irony and approximation, its desire for totality with a fragmentary story, its desire for encyclopaedic coverage with “à peu près,” its desire for system and order with volatile taxonomy, its desire for the original with an ensemble of copies, and its desire for linear history with caesura, delay, and ungraspable logic.”
No object is a stable, univocal entity. To be clear, an object is not really something one owns or uses; it is rather a relationship into which someone enters. Fifteen years ago, while living in Congo, Kader Attia was given a piece of Kuba raffia cloth to which patches of Vichy fabric had been carefully applied in order to mend a hole, possibly made by wear or by insects. At length, it dawned on him that there was an intention behind the stitching, that the usage of the Vichy fabric was not accidental or arbitrary –simple raffia cloth would do, had the needle worker merely meant to hide the tear. Struck by the poignancy of this artifact, the French-Algerian artist initiated a decade long research on the ontological status of repaired objects. The project’s first iteration, The Repair, shown at the dOCUMENTA (13), was an essay in comparative aesthetics written from the vantage point of the wretched of the West. In the darkened rooms of the Fridericianum, the disfigured faces of World War I soldiers were juxtaposed to broken fetishes, fractured African masks, stitched up pieces of loincloth, describing a narrative arc, from the empirical notion of repair to the juridical realm of “reparation” as in the replenishment of a previously inflicted loss.
The project of The Repair points to a continuity, but this is the continuity of incision, which cuts across the rural landscape, the draftees’ faces, and tribal integration. As Kader Attia noted, drawing on Oswald de Andrade’s concept of cultural anthropofagia, the repair is not a passive act, but a sort of re-appropriation of the self: the staging of a dialectic of destruction and healing, which aims at replenishing a previously inflicted loss. The act of repair, as a cultural practice, allows the people living in the periphery of Western Empires to appropriate the symbols of the colonizing powers into their own cultural order, and as such, it threatens the totalizing unity of the cultural icon. The repaired objects do not speak of syncretic abstractions, instead, they articulate a new cultural idiom to address the arbitrariness of colonial power and the terror of slavery. But The Repair is not, strictly speaking, a research project, it is an artwork, and, as such, it doesn’t just address the notions of anthropology, artefact or archive; it addresses the concept of aesthetics and the field of contemporary art. Though their sincerity seems at odds with the ironical stance of the ready-made, these objects do come to us as ready-mades, inasmuch as, and somehow ironically, the bullets or coins which compose them came to their makers’ hands as raw materials. By placing the colonial otherness at the heart of the industrial revolution, The Repair makes it manifest that “formalism” and “dadaism”, “modernism” and “postmodernism”, are not historical moments but political positions. In the similar way, colonies and manufacturing centres represent the partial truths of the industrial whole, the repaired anthropological artefacts and the ready-made objects, each of them represents partial attempts to reconcile social function and aesthetic form.
In spite of Duchamp’s intentions, for almost half a century now, the notion of the ready-made or found object has been heralded as the starting point in a long lineage of laboriously crafted conceptual distinctions, which sustained the transition from high modernism to so-called post-modernism. The original act of appropriation signified a rupture, a break with the tradition that preceded it. Mistaking the abstractions performed by aesthetics with a totally abstract aesthetics, the current acts of appropriation signify a continuity, they reclaim the tradition which precedes them, constituting a commercially viable mode of artistic production, from whose perspective work is always external to the artwork, and it is not something born from suffering; just something to be commanded at the click of a keyboard.
Or to put it differently and under the guise of a conclusion: much like the term “art”, the term “modernism” came to acquire two diverging, even conflicting, meanings. The first, which became shorthand for artistic autonomy, sees history as the schematic process through which art rids itself of any reference to political life. The second one insists that there is a correlation between modern regime of representation and the constitution of the political subject. From the perspective of the former, there is no historical dimension to contemporary art, just an explosion of stylistic eclecticism made possible by the demise of media-specific mandates: we are living in a post-critical and post-subjective era. According to the latter, however, modernity has barely begun.
Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon, currently living in Berlin. She is PhD candidate and occasional lecturer at the Humboldt University, and a regular contributor to E-Flux Journal, Art-Agenda, Mousse, Frieze/de and Domus. Her work was also published in Inaesthetics (Merve Verlag), Renaissancen (Archive für Medien Geschichte, University of Weimar) and ISPS (International Studies in Philosophy of Science, Routledge).
Published in: Kader Attia, Signes de réappropriation, BlackJack Edtions 2013
Lost Boundaries. By Kobena Mercer, 2009
A line cuts through a town square and divides public space in two. As a result of this action a boundary has been created,
Kader Attia’s History of a Myth: The Small Dome of the Rock. By Laurie Ann Farrell, 2010
Aesthetic, cultural, philosophical and social theories all buttress the conceptual underpinnings of Kader Attia’s installations, photographs and films.
Upon Pillars of Sand, Pillars of Salt… Kader Attia’s Holy Land. By Octavio Zaya, 2008
The body of work which has won Kader Attia recognition and acclaim is customarily considered through the popular cliché concerning the simplistic opposition between East and West.
Life on the surface of everywhere. By Hannah Feldman, 2008
Space seems to be constricting in Kader Attia’s recent work. What little room there was to navigate the already crowded cityscape that the artist forged out of more than one hundred scavenged refrigerators at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (Fridges, 2006) has buckled beneath the glittering refraction of the same slab-and-fridge skyline tiled with tiny mirrors at the BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art (Untitled (skyline), 2007). Even the scant volume that remains between these shimmering towers is little more than illusion, a mise-en-abîme of surfaces reflected off of other surfaces to present a spectacle of depth and light, to conjure a pretense of breathable air. No longer does there exist any margin for bodies in this urban grid, even as it is only the spectators’ reflection from without that animates the fractured, mirrored surfaces, giving contour, color, and a sense of life to the ‘buildings’ and the cities they mean to evoke. Architecture and the cities it constructs, Attia’s work intones in an increasingly dramatic register, live off more than they provide for.
Such is certainly true of the French banlieues that provide the most immediate architectural inspiration for these installations. Originally meant to provide housing for a burgeoning immigrant and working class population following World War II and the second swell that ensued at the end of the Algerian War of Independence, the housing projects of such townships as those within the département of Seine-Saint-Denis—‘le 93’ for short—where Attia spent his childhood, had, by the early 1980s, become the site of massive discontent and unemployment, fragmentation and isolation. Today, the technophilic world of promise these architectural agglomerations were originally meant to embody has certainly given way to grimmer realities, just as the allure of Attia’s undulating skylines are quickly thwarted by claustrophobia and anxiety. In so doing, these room-scaled cities encapsulate for the art world spectator—while simultaneously implicating her within—the trap of consumerist aspirations that Attia has long ironized with work like La Machine à rêves (2003) and Looose Weight (2004). Even more significantly, these works quickly conjure the tension between inclusion and exclusion that has animated Attia’s decade-long investigations into cultural identity under the hegemonic index of globalization and the increasingly fraught condition of those rendered in exile as a result of the geopolitical conflicts that are often called postcolonial, but remain decidedly rooted in a long history of colonization and the battles fought to refuse it.
Attia’s interest in this subject matter takes root in his own experience, wherein the interrelated crises of community in both France and Algeria after the 1962 resolution of the Algerian War of Independence anchor the oppositional poles of postcolonial possibility and probability. Indeed, despite the French Republic’s ongoing reticence to compile statistics regarding the ethnic origins of its citizenry or to substantiate the kinds of identities earmarked by the hyphen that might otherwise or elsewhere appear between a range of geographic or religious markers and the national identity they mean to complicate or complement, Attia is consistently referred to as a French-Algerian artist. Moreoever, he understands himself precisely as such.
Attia’s mother is Arab, his father a Berber of Chaoui lineage. Both are from highland regions surrounding Constantine and so both were once subjects, if not citizens, of France before Independence rendered them Algerian. Born just eight years after Algeria achieved its sovereignty and eleven years before the national conflicts generated during the battles for this right devolved into a bloody Civil War, Attia grew up in those northeasterly suburbs of Paris that have since come to epitomize immigrant and youth-generated violence for a rapt Western audience. It was in the unyielding grid of these urban developments that Attia came to know and hate the claustrophobic isolation that his ‘fridge installations ascribe so effectively to the spatial terrain of the French suburb. And yet, honed in equal part by the cultural heritage of the banlieue, itself a cosmopolitan collage of religious and geographic tradition, that of his hybrid family lineage in rural Algeria where he would visit as frequently as war and the school calendar would allow, and the high cultural realm of art as it was presented to him in the Parisian museums he would visit on his own every Sunday, Attia’s upbringing was as transculturally porous as they come.
From this culturally composite constellation of experience, Attia has honed a sense of art as a simultaneous means of communication and method of catharsis. Art enables him to speak with, but also to act against. In this sense, he refuses the notion of a pure or autonomous sphere of artistic production, even as his work has become increasingly attached to the institutional parameters of the art world and the large-format spectacles it allows, if not demands. From his earliest photographic foray in the mid-1990s, when he documented the two halves of his family in France and in Algeria, Attia has used the tools of his trade to bridge gaps and to attempt to bring people and places closer together, whether in reality or in the symbolic space of representation.
At first, this might have seemed a hopeful endeavor, full of faith and a desire to cross boundaries and to bend genres. Fittingly enough, the project for which he would first achieve international celebration, La Piste d’Atterrissage (1997-1999), combined both these desires as it represented a population of Algerian transvestites and transsexuals, or what the French language names as transgenres—a nomination that, even if inadvertently, likens sexual difference to a category of things constructed across a series of discursive practices. In this series, Attia presented 156 photographs documenting the daily life of a community of Algeran-born transvestites as they made their living working as prostitutes on the Boulevard Ney, itself also something of a border between city and suburb, center and periphery, here and there.
Unlike the authors of so many of the photographic archives presented in art spaces over the last decade, Attia had come to know his subjects quite well over the two years he spent documenting them. The photographs he took were first and foremost, one senses from the intimate detail and affectionate rendering, produced for these subjects, and were meant to help achieve the visibility and hence the representation as political subjects that they had been denied, first by increasingly fundamentalist factions in Algeria during the Algerian Civil War and again as undocumented immigrants in an inhospitable France. Twice excluded, they lived the precarious vulnerability of what some have come to call “bare life,” stateless and unprotected by either Algerian or French law. In particular, the latter refused to recognize the transvestites as political refugees and refused to ratify their quest for the residency papers that would allow them to find legal employment. It did equally little to protect them from the violence and abuse they received in their current line of work, especially from young beur males from the cité beyond the Boulevard.
In this project, Attia’s interest in creating bridges, in incorporating the unincorporated into a universalism that did not have room for them, took on an even more literal form than that which might have otherwise been afforded by the simple act of interrupting the gallery’s privileged space with the image of those it might normally exclude. Indeed, these images, still best remembered in the art world as the ephemeral, color-slide projection that Attia first installed in the architectural grandeur of the Centre National de la Photographie in 2000 and then again in 2003 at the Venice Biennale, had made their public debut in the pages of Têtu, a popular, full-color French monthly marketed exclusively to a gay and lesbian readership. In Têtu’s pages, the photographs provided both illustration and impetus to a compelling article—equal parts autobiographic lament and impassioned defense—written by journalist, music critic, and activist Hélène Hazera about the plight of these individuals in relationship to both a history of gay-bashing in France and its sinister double in the Algeria of the 1990s. Hazera’s article made unflinchingly clear that Attia’s investments were neither purely aesthetic nor remotely opportunist—a distinction that, for her, rendered the work categorically unlike similarly perceived folios produced by figures such as Nan Goldin. Instead, Hazera carefully foregrounded Attia’s aesthetic practice within the sphere of his social conscience and in his own, autobiographical investments in refusing the invisible conditions of being only ever either this or that, here or there. To this end, Hazera explains how Attia had championed the rights of his photographic subjects, laboring with them to achieve residency papers for no fewer than eight amongst them.
That photographic imaging could facilitate such crossings of journalistic reportage, activism, and art world spectacle provides an important insight into the rigorously straightforward lexicon of forms, shapes, and allusions that have constituted Attia’s more sculptural and site-specific installations in the decade since La Piste d’Atterrissage. Whether two- or three-dimensional, all of these works are still meant to function, in Attia’s lexicon, as “pictures,” and to speak to experience across the unique aspects of a cultural specificity that he is certain has become increasingly suspect.
It is well known, if not already something of a truism, that France is a country less interested in promoting diversity than in maintaining an implicit sense of frenchness through assimilation and integration. In recent decades, the mounting presence of the legacy of the Wars fought in Algeria has presented itself as an expanding set of stumbling blocks to the construction of a seamlessly postcolonial, European France and its concomitant cultural image. As French governmental policy has strictly enforced a policy of universalist assimilation and labored to keep private most visible evidence of religious and other sectarian difference, an increasingly alienated banlieue-bound generation of African and Maghrebin descent has become more and more susceptible to the separationist identities marketed to them like so many other commodities by Islamist (and other) groups seeking to augment their numbers with bodies reaped from the fertile discontent of the banlieues.
When Attia satirized the fashion of this kind of religious affect by creating a line of hip-hop clothing called Halal (2004) and placed it as the saleable product of an extremely visible boutique (in reality the artist’s then gallery) in the heart of the French capital, his humor cut more than skin-deep—just as the knife of his critique sliced both ways. The very desire to belong that enables the appropriation of religious symbols as tools of access rather than avenues of devotion (and the fear that these augur for the majority population) is not a psychological phenomenon so much as it is a historical one, born of years of disenfranchisement and isolation at the margins. In Attia’s repertoire and in accordance with his investment in thinking about identity across lines of sexual or cultural or religious boundaries, this appropriation is as applicable in the construction of, for instance, Jewish identities as it is in Islamic or Christian ones. To make his point, Attia’s 2005 wall-based Star, for example, features an array of golden, Star-of-David-shaped sequins arranged against a black velvet background to spell the work’s title, demonstrating this collision of material desire and religious symbols while also highlighting the ambition to be seen, to be, in effect, like a star. Similarly, the hastily rendered sketches Attia makes of faceless youth in hooded sweatshirts alternately emblazoned “Halal,” marked with the secular icon of McDonalds’ golden arches, or festooned with six-sided stars and Islamic crescents decry a rapidly multiplying mass identity, distinguishable only by brand, but united only in their aspiration to achieve this minimal mark of difference. The aftermath of a failed universalism is manifestly clear.
In more global terms, since those are the ones to which Attia is increasingly turning, we might also imagine the facelessness of this population—invisible beyond the iconic brands of their faith—as similarly related to the fate of the subject conjured by the reflective surface of the mihrab-shaped mirrors that the artist temporarily sunk into the arid terrain of the Canary Islands in an artistic gesture of symbolic welcome to the dispossessed migrants who arrive illegally and with growing frequency on the shores of this intermediary body between Africa and Europe in search of a “Holy Land” that, by default, the mirrors insist is always already somewhere else (Holy Land, 2007). Facing the sea and evoking in equal measure religious architecture and rudimentary tombstone, these sculptural fragments also enjoined the actual art world audience that would have been the only one to literally appear within the reflective frame of their surface during the duration of the 1st Architecture, Art, and Landscape Biennial of the Canary Islands to imagine itself as occupying this same subject position. To imagine itself, that is, in the impossible position of seeking to enter, but of being shut out by an impenetrable surface. The installation’s title subtly joined this pilgrimage, occasioned for one population by displacement and hunger, but by the quest for greater cultural capital for another, to the idealization and corresponding contestation over certain religious sites in the Middle East as constituting a land more holy than any other.
But, perhaps the most eerie manifestation of Attia’s fascination with the façade of faith as yet one more identity to be marketed and consumed is Attia’s Ghost (2008). Here, row upon row of diminutive, but nonetheless life-sized, silvery body-shaped sculptures bend in a unified posture of prayer. From behind, the sea of fragile forms fills the room like a distorted regiment of Andy Warhol’s Silver Balloons tethered to the ground in neat formation. Cross the room, however, and the elegant slope of what appears to be the figures’ hooded heads open to reveal gaping holes where faces should be. Made from tightly wrapped tin-foil castings of women’s bodies, these hollow shells are the logical companions to the triad of religious symbols with which Attia adorns his armies of suburban youth. Located at the margins of state-bound culture, his subjects become drones, emptied of substance and devoid of interiority, willing to bow down to any or perhaps all dogma or religious creed.
Space, we might recognize, is compressed here too, precisely as it evacuates and territorializes the body we see represented only in its trace and only in its acquiescent sameness. By virtue of this sameness, by virtue of an existence defined only as pliable surface, these figures conjure the same subject we have seen elsewhere in the collapsing spaces of the world Attia remakes for us. Exclusions such as those that order the experience of the French banlieue, Attia’s presentation begins to insist, cannot but fail to condition exactly the same culture we see here—and there. It is also only according to this same rhythm that the undulating flow of Tsunami (2006) can abstract the tin-roofed huts of all the world’s shantytowns into one massive wave of ecological disaster, evoking in terse sculptural form the same global catastrophe that Mike Davis laments with such scholarly fervor in his Planet of Slums. The global networks celebrated by so much aesthetic practice, including, perhaps, Attia’s own earlier works, as ways to hybridize and so universalize cultural belonging, here collapse into an endless repetition of the same empty spacelessness. What was once the utopian vision of a culture that might be located both here and there or somewhere in-between has given way to the dystopia of a culture that is everywhere and nowhere at once.
It is only, for instance, the subjects conjured by the hollow shells of Ghost that might find a home in Attia’s ‘fridge cities or on the cement beaches of Algiers that Attia represents with the plywood and sheetrock obstacles of Rochers Carrés (2008). Based on the artist’s memories of childhood visits to the Algerian coast and the suburban shantytowns that sprang up around the abandoned French infrastructure, these looming masses once again threaten the individual subject with their scale, perilous volume, and rigid rectilinear formation, pointing to another instance of modern universalism gone awry and lining it up alongside so many others around the world. The irony may be that even as they describe this failure, these just-past modernist structures cannot exceed it and so too yield, albeit deliberately and purposefully, to the repetition of sameness that dominates a world stripped of cultural specificity.
At the heart of Attia’s artistic investigation into these particular spaces and the experiences they foster lies an unresolvable paradox, a paradox from which his work takes it greatest force. In the world Attia builds to mirror our own, it doesn’t matter, in the end, where you stand; there is still never enough room for you.
Published Kader Attia, BlackJack editions 2009.
Kader Attia. By Régis Durand, 2008
From La Piste d’atterrissage (The Landing Strip, 2000–02) to Rochers Carrés (Square Rocks) and Casbah (2008), Kader Attia has come a long way.
Empty and Full Against the Night Sky. By Courtney J. Martin, 2008
Emptiness and Fullness
In discussing his notion of emptiness as a sculptural form, Kader Attia posits Yves Klein’s notoriously empty exhibition of 1958, La Spécialisation de la Sensibilité à L’état Matière Première en Sensibilité Picturale Stabilisée, Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void) as a model. In the exhibition, Klein crafts a journey through the gallery in which nothing is spectacularly on view, save for a blue curtain at the entrance and a white cabinet. Despite its lack, the exhibition attracted throngs of curious visitors who wanted to locate the nothingness, or simply to participate in the spectacle. On the surface Le Vide (the void) of the title was explained in the gallery’s emptiness. But that reading was undone by the presence of the spectators. Did a congregated mass constitute the void? If so, was this art-going mass a stand-in, a metaphor for some other entity? Maybe. If we consider that Klein’s point was made in the title —that is, before the act — then his intentions were obvious. Klein attempted to locate the void, a space of everything and nothing. For Attia this quality is compelling:
Emptiness is not only something physical, something concrete, it is psychological, I think it is existential, and, obviously, it is also political.
Fullness is emptiness’ presumed superior and thus its binary opposite by the terms of Deconstruction. For example, something may be empty if it is not completely full. Partiality, in this case, is out the window (or through the curtain for Klein). If not full, it is then inadequate, inappropriate or inauthentic. Set as binary oppositions, however, the inverse possibilities of the pair emerge. Fullness, at first vivacious, is also gluttonous, overdone, over-formed and over-performed. In his work, Attia insists on such an understanding of this binary in his work:
…If you think about emptiness, you can speak about emptiness today describing its opposite side in society: overdose, overpopulation, pollution, war, over-consumption.
Fullness is as much an excess as emptiness is a deficit. Klein’s void makes sense as a hinge between the two, marking the space where both are interdependent and counter-balanced. Klein summoned the void again by producing a series of photographs that supposedly recreated his jump from a building. The photographs, Saut dans le Vide (Leap into the Void), present Klein with head, arms and legs askance as if flying through the air. This void agitates Attia’s understanding of this binary as concrete, psychological, existential and political—in other words real or not real, seen and invisible, body versus mind, and possible or impossible.
The multiple operations of fullness and emptiness ground the logic of 20th-century modern architecture, with its vocabulary of open space, simplified forms, lack of ornamentation and utility. Modernist architecture could be understood as a vernacular of excessive reduction. Attia’s description of the binary (fullness and emptiness) as temporal and fragile also speaks to the language of conceptual art, another realm in which the idea that less is more strategically turns on itself and the viewer. Attia’s Untitled (Skyline) (2008) lives between the two. It is a sculptural installation of major proportion that mimics the assumption of skyline vistas and bounded urban cityscapes, while borrowing from the dynamic of architecture in scale and order. It is decidedly unreal, a fantasy city constructed of disused refrigerators. In this way, it also speaks to the political component of fullness and emptiness, in which the rabid consumerism that drove the modern city contributes to its decline. The waste, represented by the discarded household item, is a metaphor not simply of excess (the once full refrigerator now empty) but also of the excesses of the state, specifically the once-used foreign departments, like Algeria, whose descendants have fared unevenly in France. Untitled (Skyline) is the type of model microcosm that Giorgio Agamben might have called a state of exception. Attia alludes to this space alternately as Paris’ banlieue or any city unwilling to see its reflection. This might explain why Untitled (Skyline) is festooned with reflective mirrors.
During the fall of 2005, Paris’ banlieue became a suspended space, paralyzed equally by indifferent modernist housing, a spate of violence (most notably the fire-bombing of buildings and cars by the so-called pétroleurs), and the glare of international media on the supposed immigrant rioting, symbolized by the structural divide of the Boulevard Périphérique, the autoway that circles and separates Paris from the banlieue. Under curfew and surveillance (from a distance), those once-ignored provinces became excepted, places under the extended watch of government powers. Their exception, their reformation as states of exception, happened via the outbreak of violence. Yet it was their constituency ― working-class and poor, immigrant and marginal ― that allowed the extension of untold lawless power to be the primary action of administration. And here, as Agamben points out, fullness and emptiness reassert themselves as agents of power: “…the state of exception is not defined as a fullness of powers, a pleromatic state of law, as in the dictatorial model, but as a kenomatic state, an emptiness and standstill of the law.” The void then may have been the point at which Paris (its civilians, its leaders) realized that it was held in and surrounded by the Périphérique and that the world was watching periphery turn on Métropole.
A big jail with an open sky
But this is really a longer story about the success(es) and failure(s) of modernism in theory (colonialism) and practice (architecture). Born in France in 1970 to Algerian parents, Attia grew up in Dugny, near Paris, and spent summers in Algeria. His understanding of emptiness and fullness shows the mark of his generation. His education, like most French schoolchildren from this time, would have included a general understanding of post-structuralism, such as that of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan or Jacques Derrida. It is Derrida’s method of Deconstruction from which Attia’s full/empty binary takes shape. In its most reductive form, this binary resonates with the France that Attia grew up in ― post-Indochine and Algerian Wars. The country was still in a state of ideological flux brought on by the loss of its colonies. Though a person was either French or not, Derrida and others opened up the space to question that assumption within the country. For an immigrant, that realization first occurred outside the country with the bestowing of nationality by way of the passport. The local confrontations over identification cards and religious dress were secondary concerns. An individual might be expected to be French, but France was still reformulating its national codes, often at the expense of its immigrant bodies.
Attia first exhibited an installation of refrigerators in 2006 at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, under the title Fridges, a nod in slang parlance to the ubiquity of the object. This installation included 172 white refrigerators, each marked with gray hues to approximate the concrete-slab architecture of modern Paris, particularly its overbuilt banlieue. The refrigerators stood at varying heights and widths, some larger than human scale, others diminutive, a show of the potential for complexity in built environments. If these objects were immediately related to the Parisian suburbs, they also referenced the colonial social housing built by French architects in its foreign départments.
Fridges recalls the housing complexes Diar es-Saada (1953-54) and Diar el-Mahsul (1954-55) designed by French architect Fernand Pouillon in the Clos Salembrier quarter of Algiers. The former was to be an exclusively European dwelling for the French settlers in Algiers. The latter was to house European and native Algerians, in a plan organized by Algiers’ colonial mayor, Jacques Chevallier, to promote cohabitation between the two groups. Built from near-white imported French limestone, the multi-storied Diar el-Mahsul compound contrasted in color and form from the partially built dwellings beside it or the more typical Algerian architecture of the Casbah. As extant images show, the central tower was dominating and rigid. While the residential structures (some strict squat monuments, others rectangular expanses) varied in height, they too were taller and more imposing than the city’s other architectural forms. To move within Diar el-Mahsul was to be dominated. Attia replicates this type of confinement in Fridges. The visitor must move within the maze of the installation, without a clearly delineated path of entrance or exit. More importantly, Fridges lacks a horizon, suggesting that the city is a controlled environment without regard to the natural world or normal expectations.
This domination had a purpose. As Franz Fanon described in his study of colonial Algiers, the city, including Diar el-Mahsul, was compartmentalized. The complex was divided into two sections, separating European from Algerian whilst creating an elevated Algerian citizen that might rest somewhere between French and Arab. After Algerian independence and the departure of the French, both complexes were repopulated by Algerians. Here fullness and emptiness rock back and forth between the desire for a specific population of French citizens in Algeria to balance the native population (thereby emptying out France to fill Algeria) and the restriction of Algerians in domestic spaces through the purposeful maintenance of emptiness inside the housing complex. Attia grew up watching these buildings morph into their post-colonial status.
Attia’s plywood and sheetrock installation, Rochers Carrés (2008), looks like a typical minimalist sculpture. Rochers Carrés resembles the utilitarian forms and rigid thought that dominated the so-called new three-dimensional objects of the 1960s. Like Sol Lewitt’s modular grids or Carl Andre’s compilations of uniform bricks, Rochers Carrés was composed of several rectangular boxes, set on end at a nearly off-balanced angle and arranged into tight symmetrical rows. Installed in a room, it appeared to be a repetitious, geometric and materially specific work cast from the 1960s minimalist idiom. Fixed by the gallery walls, Rochers Carrés managed to consume the space while approaching a material and formal sparseness.
Despite its stylized full/empty minimal look, Rochers Carrés, was a model of a very real thing: a man-made beach barricade in Algeria set up to bar people from fleeing to Europe via cargo ship. Lined along the edge of the beach, these chunky, irregular quadratic concrete posts create an unstable ground from which the sea is almost impossible to reach. So too is the civic and environmental necessity of the beach vacated. The barricades are a hazard. The area around each post is wide enough for a body to slip into the water and be battered by the concrete. Undeterred, people use the barricades as a social surface, a place to relax or to gaze out toward Europe in the distance, because, as Attia points out, “sometimes when the weather is beautiful, you can see the light of Spain.” But this view is not without complications. Even though the view is open, true mobility is restricted due to immigration, incubating what Attia describes as “the depression of feeling that you are stuck in a big jail with an open sky.”
If the beach barricades evoke the growing impenetrability of European immigration, they also reflect the city’s colonial past. The compartments that Fanon described were not limited to housing and schools. Before the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, parts of the city that had been Europeanized were socially, if not physically, barred to Algerians. After the war started, curfews and military patrols ensured that the Arab quarters were encased and forcibly managed. Rochers Carrés resembles the type of military barricade used in Algiers, like that portrayed in the film The Battle of Algiers (1965). To pass between their section of the city and the European section, Algerians had to show proof of their intentions to armed guards who arranged themselves around a stable implement, like the Rochers Carrés posts. In the film the inflexibility of these checkpoints, at which masses of Algerians were withheld from the center of the city, serves as a sort of void of subjectivity. Inside the Arab quarter, people moved in a congested maze. Downtown, space, and thus bodily movement, were limitless. In contrast, the barricade between the two was messy, haphazard and dangerous, a place where chaotic moments determined the otherwise mundane passage between pedestrian zones.
The civic unrest of 2005 in Clichy-sous-Bois followed decades of unofficial discord. Like Paris’ other ring suburbs, Clichy-sous-Bois sits far enough outside the city that it developed its own identity. Following the massive exodus of French nationals in the 1980s, Clichy-sous-Bois’ main characteristic is its immigrant population. Another characteristic is its deteriorating concrete social housing, most of it modernist in design. Together the two created a separation from the city, a barricade between Clichy and Paris that mimicked the one between France’s immigrants and its natives. Attia grew up in the same department as Clichy-sous-Bois, Seine Saint-Denis, and understands its psychic link to Algeria.
I am really convinced that the manipulation of a population of people is totally psychological. The architecture is destroying the subjects’ personality. You cannot grow up in this suburb without any neurosis with the concrete. I am not speaking about people, I am speaking about myself. I grew up between this beach and the northern suburbs of Paris.
In this way Fridges and Rochers Carrés are as much about the relationship of colonial Algeria, present-day Algeria and Paris’ banlieue as each is about the other. France’s presence in Algeria altered both Algeria and France itself. Similarly, the forms of restriction — be they housing or barriers ― reflect and resist this history even as the bodies who inhabit them change.
Rochers Carrés is in Algeria, but it could be in Venezuela. It could be in Cuba.
For Untitled (Skyline) 2008, a site-specific installation at the ACA Gallery at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Attia reclaimed more used refrigerators and, as he had with Fridges, assembled them into a city. Unlike those used in Fridges, the refrigerators gathered for Untitled (Skyline) are adorned with mirrored pieces. The walls of the installation are painted charcoal grey, casting a fanciful stage set for the refrigerators as the viewer is invited into the twilight of the built environment. Sparks of light dance across the classicized façade of the refrigerator-cum-skyscraper. Luminous spots on the surface suggest working and living environments that do not heed the 24-hour clock. If Fridges is about the uneasy relationship between modernity and consumption and modernism and colonialism, Untitled (Skyline) allows for another reading of the modernist project, one in which modernism’s obsession with material (concrete, glass and steel) and materiality (opacity, grain and shininess) is as glamorous and high-minded as it is ,literally, dark and narcissistically self-reflexive (reflective).
Untitled (Skyline) is the model workspace of the post-national world. It could be Dubai or Niemayer’s Brasilia. These could be multi-national corporations, NGO’s, residences or a Bollywood back lot. They might be what Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) is to Rome. And, like these cities of schematic fantasy, the problem of emptiness and fullness rears its head again. Practically, these are still disused refrigerators, former containers of bounty. Dressed up against the night sky, they replicate the skeletons of their function: containers without contents, facsimiles of the used thing. (Somewhere someone screamed, “Why did we not ask where they would end up?”) In the case of the other model cities, we all know that a twin or mirror city operated for it to function. Dubai has its oil fields populated with foreign workers. For EUR’s Rome it was Asmara, then Tripoli, both practice modern metropolises for the reemergence of the third Rome. And if it was Brasilia, well, the favelas of Rio have told and retold their stories each year in Carnival. As the presence of the mirrored pieces suggests, there is always fracture in the refraction of light.
To fulfill his French national civil service, Attia went to Brazzaville, Congo, in 1994. There he became acquainted with the local built forms. Modernist architectural experimentation in the colonies, like Le Corbusier’s unrealized projects for the Marine Quartier or Pouillon’s housing developments in Algiers, is one of many commonalities among France’s present and former colonies. In the Congo Attia saw how Brazzaville had been a site of re-design by Jean Prouvé.
Part of a circle around Le Corbusier, Prouvé was a designer and architect known for his interest in prefabrication. After World War II he established a factory workshop near Nancy in France. There he elaborated on his earlier forms of temporary metal structures, like vacation houses for French workers or residences for war refugees. Tropical House was one such invention. As with most colonial architecture, it was created for the benefit of the settler population; a proposal for living in the unlivable, as the colonies were deemed. Built initially for colonial architects Paul Herbé and Jean Le Couteur, who had been posted to Africa but were unable to adjust to the climate, Tropical House was constructed from light aluminum and sheet steel instead of concrete, which retained too much heat. Prouvé’s design consisted of sliding doors and a central ventilation system, which allowed the heat to be released from the house. Two prototypes were installed in Brazzaville in 1951.
Prouvé’s Tropical House was made in the spirit of adaptation to the local environment. It also engages one of the key tenets of modern architecture: material play. Prouvé exemplifies the way in which French designers and architects conceptualized the colonies: They were spaces where ideas could be tested and refined, often on a transient population (airline employees, urban planners on fixed-term projects, government officials subject to re-posting) whose expectations and assessments could be measured for application in Europe, but for whom they were not accountable. Despite the fact that another space was being re-colonized for play, the colonies allowed architects and designers an unencumbered space for imagination, one not permissible in France, where modernism (as it gave way to International Style) had become rigid. By contrast, the ideal of modernism that Attia grew up with in Paris, the architecture of the banlieue, was not about experimentation. It was a product of raw implementation. In a sense, modernism’s embrace of simplified forms and reduced ornamentation, most noticeable in its material, made it the perfect style for hurried, careless construction.
As soon as architecture becomes a memory, the architecture develops its artistic ability to speak with history.
From his own model city in the Paris suburbs, Attia’s interest in Prouvé reflects a measure of hope, one that is clearly visible in Untitled (Skyline). The tension in Untitled (Skyline) is that break, the potential void, between architecture and art. Though Untitled (Skyline) might very well be a model of the ways in which cities operate, it is not a model for civic motivations. In drawing from Prouvé’s own improvised forms, Attia is allowing his to make their own adaptations. The use of discarded refrigerators in a world in which a significant portion of the population goes hungry is less a response to the world than an acknowledgment of it, just as Prouvé’s improvements in sheet steel and aluminum responded to his world’s desire for new ways of living. Here the modernist mantra “glass, steel, concrete!” resounds in the refrigerators as discrete buildings in a city, though that mantra is upended. “Where are the people?” also reverberates off the shiny exterior surfaces. And that is the position Attia takes:
There is a strong difference between art and architecture. An architect or a designer responds to a question that a society is asking. So architecture is an answer, whereas art is the contrary, art is making questions.
The questions “What are they doing?,” “What do they need?” and “What do they want?” are left to the viewer. If, as Attia maintains, there is a tragedy in the discarded refrigerators, that fact only deepens when their form is given over to suggest another. The fullness of the gleaming, bright cityscape is bereft of a soul, empty of the very thing that gives it meaning. To be clear, Atttia is no more making architecture than he is making art about architecture. He is, however, responding to his environment, which happens to include both high design and trash. With subtlety, he makes the viewer locate the line between the two, a game that might be called “fill it up until it is so full it’s empty.” Sadly, this is a game that is played between nations and landfills alike, sometimes rendering them indistinguishable (Congo, Rwanda, Clichy-Sous-Bois…).
If Klein’s void was provoked in part by the generational doubt over France’s looming loss of its colonial control (hence the desperate quality of his work), a national breach that sparked individual crisis, then his leap and exhibition of nothing represented a fearless embrace of new possibilities. Staged as performances, the exhibition and the leap were no less important or stilted than Prouvé’s aesthetic risks in the Congo. Like them, Attia has shown viewers what we have: a bunch of glass, steel and concrete, a mess of everything and nothing against the glittering night sky.
Published in the catalogue «Signs of Reappropriation«, ACA Gallery of Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta / Savannah, 2008
Sleeping from Memory. By Nicolas Baume, 2007
One motivating question informs all of Kader Attia’s art: how to find in his own experience a chain of ideas that will lead him to the poetic, transformative work of art.
The Dream Circus or: Why did the D.J. commit Suicide? By Tami Katz Freiman, 2007
Kader Attia belongs to a special breed of artists, who in another incarnation might have become anthropologists or scholars of culture. As a member of the north-African community in Paris, Attia examines the conflicted identity of his uprooted culture vis-à-vis the seductiveness of consumer culture and the Western world of material abundance.