Empty and Full Against the Night Sky by Courtney J. Martin, 2008

Writing published in the catalogue of the exhibition Signs of Reappropriation“, ACA Gallery of Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta / Savannah ©2008

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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.