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.