Writing published in “RepaiR“, edited by Kader Attia and Léa Gauthier, BlackJack Editions
Any plastic material conveys socio-political meanings, even when its forms are clean, simple, seemingly anodyne and neutral, as though completely transparent. Donald Judd amongst others never ceased to assert this, thereby showing the error of excessively formalist readings of his work. In addition to the fact that a majority of receivers feigns time and again to separate content and form, content and appearance, or meaning and representation, such an attitude pushes us into the trap we wish to avoid, since the dichotomy is due in large part to socio-political prejudice. Seeing only form at the expense of content is not the result of the « intention of the piece », much less of its author who always produces form to some degree, but of a prior decision on behalf of the receiver who does not question himself as to the possible or impossible aesthetic legitimacy of the break, nor on the implicit criteriae which, conversely, might drive him to highlight the moral, ethical and socio-cultural stakes of the object in ignoring shape. Strictly remaining on the practical-sensorial or on the practical-moral level leads to two fatal errors : aestheticizing the object for various purposes which de-semanticize it and not being able to judge of its success or failure as a piece of art.
Kader Attia’s pieces bind the autonomy of the work and the social fact together not only because we produce all sorts of things which are full of various meanings – at this level the work of art cannot distinguish itself from these things other than by a certain qualitative measure – but especially because the artist works in a field where politics, economics and religion intersect, and he therefore cannot ignore the ideologies and visions of reality which arise from it under the pretext that we are in the supposedly magnifying world of art. Beyond the issues of Muslim culture’s more or less conflictual relationships with secularism, finance, money, democracy, civil liberties, women’s rights, among many other contentious issues, Kader Attia’s work touches on deeper structures of our imagination, our values and our practices. Structurally or anthropologically speaking, we find similar problems at the point where we thought they had disappeared, all the more so in that they move around, modify themselves and emerge elsewhere in forms which, literally and figuratively, ultimately express the nature of these very same problems.
Thus, in the Halal series with its products and its voluntarily derived by-products, we saw the conditioned reaction to the commodification of everything and anything, since clothing could become a brand under the powerful pressure of supply and demand. Whether they were food or clothing items, or objects originally intended for a use defined by religious rules, it appeared that not only did being labeled “halal” endow them with an aura that the trading system couldn’t give them, but that furthermore, this whole merchandising operation was fully accepted, recognized, justified, and sanctified. Religions, monotheistic or not, give a symbolic and market value to hundreds of objects, usually junk, supposedly in order to strengthen faith while at the same time filling coffers. A number of dominant religions impose their earthly power simply because they have money, either clean or dirty, involved in the vast system of neoliberalism. This was evident, for example, during a period of the severe financial crisis (2010-2012), when civil society, institutions, industries and banks had to tighten their belts, submit to restrictions and economic austerity, but it was in no way possible to touch the material assets of either the Greek Orthodox Church, or those of the Vatican. This makes sense, since “his kingdom is not of this world.” The money from the other world must not, therefore, be given to the needy who ultimately must take responsibility for the financial mistakes of their earthly world.
All religions are also businesses which make a profit because symbolic power is one of the communicating vessels of commodity fetishism that is greatly abstracted into the highly symbolic value of capital. It is neither an inevitable reversal nor an error, but a perfect match between the material spectacle of goods and the symbolic spectacle of belief. In order for the miracle of the transfiguration of the material into the symbolic, and in particular, as fundamental dramaturgy would have it, for the transfiguration of the symbolic into the material to take place, the spectacle must occur. Common man is neither an ascetic, a hermit, a martyr nor a penitent. Contrary to what is often argued, faith requires tangible, palpable, and concrete proof which can attest to the unverifiable, the hereafter, and the transcendent. The unseen is proved by the visible. The intangible by the material value. Or, as Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable: “It is easier to build a temple than to make the deity appear in it.” Thus, we increase the number of temples we build in inverse proportion to the absence of their object: the presentification of the void.
But is it so strange to think that religion and the capitalist system are both based on symbolic and abstract values which exist because we believe in them? In the eyes of someone who believes in heaven, the presentification of the void is the essence of his faith and it could not be otherwise. For the atheist, this void and its presentification are confined to superstition coupled with market fetishization, which extends to the socio-political field. As can be seen on a daily basis, it is absolutely wrong to say that the spiritual is separated from the material, that being is not contaminated by having. It is no secret that Islamic religious practices in the middle classes and the upper classes are very often a front and that what is done in private is exactly the opposite of what these practices prescribe. Depending on whether one is rich, comfortable, modest or poor, precepts have neither the same weight nor, indeed, the same value. This situation is echoed in other religions and societies. Instead of being emancipatory, religions continue to be the main engine of social hierarchy (think of the caste system in India), of maintaining order, of permanent constraints, senseless rules, heavy and obsolete prohibitions, of a kind of contemporary feudal system in which the spiritual promises supposedly made to one and all create a huge system of market equivalence. Ultimately the owners of capital always benefit and accumulate material wealth which is not redistributed to the general public. In the main, the public feeds on spirituality, as is the case, for example, in the majority of the population of Latin America, which, in fact, has no other option.
If, as many economists believe, the violence of human passions has been diverted to benefit the search to satisfy one’s own interests and the maximizing of one’s own material well-being, it is clear that self interest dominates the quest for disinterestedness, for gratuity, altruism, and mutual aid. Moreover, these ideas may only be found in a text that prescribes the true path. Islam still forbids usury and interest, but it has not been difficult to circumvent religious law, and therefore morality and ethics, to increase property and investments in order to speculate without remorse and develop capital by making significant gains. The accumulation of capital is thus consistent with Islamic law. By means of an often twisted interpretation along the lines of the dominance of material values, these naturally lead to various hedonisms to which the capitalist system is supposed to give us access, so that none can be surprised that Kader Attia’ neon sign, where the word “mosque” alternates with the word “nightclub” (Mosque / Night Club), represents two sides of the same coin. Through ironic, sarcastic, and especially lucid pieces, one of the characteristics of Attia’s work is to expose the double bind in which the contemporary generation is caught. It isn’t so much that this generation has a hard time choosing between so-called modernity – the wonderful neoliberal world – and such and such traditional society, but because it chooses the capitalist society as if there were no other solution. As leaders on all sides and all religions continually repeat, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s sinister formula: “There is no alternative”.
Capital and religion have in common, at the very least, the fact that they are based on an absence, an abstraction, an imaginary construct, or an emptiness, what Marx called “the supersensible sensitive” drawing an analogy between both terms. For Marx, fetishism, and even the “mystique of the goods”, are imaginary and abstract representations in which the relationships between men are substituted with the value ratios between things. The more importance is given to the supersensible things the greater their persuasiveness.
Hence the analogy between religious fetishism and commodity fetishism : “The religious world is but a reflection of the real world. A society in which the product of work usually takes the form of goods and in which, therefore, the most frequent relationship between producers is to compare the values of their products and under this envelope, to compare their private work with each other as equal human labor, such a society may find in Christianity with its cult of abstract man, and especially in its bourgeois types such as Protestantism, deism , etc., the most suitable form of religion.”(1) In today’s terms, when Kader Attia literally shapes the supersensible out of the sensible – i.e, the work he creates – he deals with that which is the central concern of people torn between being and having, spirituality and materialism, namely with an empty signifier. This signifier is a product of the human imagination understood as a temporary and material substitute for a supersensible world, also entirely invented, which thus creates a double fetishization of goods and the invisible. Nonetheless, it is a meaning that almost everyone wants to achieve in order to possess it and especially to use it in order to improve their existence, although it is empty by nature, will remain empty and will deliver only emptiness.
But which emptiness are we talking about? Kader Attia’s work is situated in the Chinese philosophy of Lie-tseu’s True Classic of Perfect Void, of Lacan’s empty signifier, or also in the criticism of the great void of the speculation that enables Capital to function at full power. Having understood the double discourse of other notions of the mortified voids, since they are made up of pure appearance and illusion, and as if he were adopting an attitude of non-action in relation to them, Kader Attia opposes them with work which is just as equally empty, but which is not filled, so to speak, with a similar void.
With an efficiency worthy of a Taoist aphorism, Kader Attia plays subtly and quite literally – hence the dialectic of action and non-action – with real life situations. These situations are depicted, for instance, in The Void, a photograph showing arches through which we see a mosque, and in its counterpart, The Complete, where huge slabs of concrete block a street in the neighbourhood of a Palestinian territory, specifically in Ramallah. We might obviously think of, wit almost obligatory reference, Yves Klein’s exhibition Void which was immediately followed by the exhibition Complete by his friend Arman who filled that same gallery with rubbish. Additionally, the socio-political importance of Klein’s material, spiritual and mystical Void both opposes and complements Arman’s material and disgusting Complete; in short, two antagonistic visions of society.
For it is indeed a representation of the social, its practice and its uses, which we tend to quickly move away from in favour of post- and neo-eclectic movements derived from pop, from assemblage, and Dadaism, movements which are themselves already embalmed and museified even though they expressed and still express socio-political positions. To paraphrase Marx, our relationship to human history is not mainly about the true or truth but about practicality. And the void is an integral part of practicality, as has already been said for a long time in the Tao To King (2):
«Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub,
But it is the centre hole
That renders the care useful
We shape clay to make vases,
But it on the hollow space within
That their use depends
We build a house by cutting out
Doors and windows,
But again it is on the void which
Its use depends.
Thus “what is” constitutes
The possibility of every thing,
“what is not”
constitutes its function.»
Philosophical meditation like artistic creation is therefore above all practical. We have to invent, imagine, and think, but especially to be doing, to be in action, embodiment, and effectuation. In order for this to happen, there is no need for huge aesthetic machinery or grand objects, simple grocery bags are enough, placed just as they are in a venue, or given shape through drawing. The bags presented and designed by Kader Attia are empty, dangling, soft, and perfect. Their total banality and platitude cannot even qualify as a postmodern conceit. Because they are empty, they can be used for all kinds of uses and functions, and therefore it is indeed on the “internal void that its use depends”, which any follower of the Way would certainly recognize.
This void creates uses ranging from the most detrimental to the most convenient, so it is quite clear that their utility depends, in the literal and figurative sense, on what is placed inside it. Their outer form will be based on the things they contain. When they contain nothing, they take on, paradoxically, the shape of this thing. And because there is nothing in these bags, all kinds of imaginary projections, more or less fair and legitimate, are allowed. They are then filled with these things imagined by the audience, which, hopefully, are not nothing, of nothing or nothing. The belief that these bags are uninteresting is immediately contradicted by the vast socio-economic and socio-political processes through which environmental, commercial, advertising, and ethical issues are synthesized by this strange profession we call “packaging”. We can sell you anything and everything if the packaging is attractive. It is more important and valuable than its content. Packing void reaps millions on a daily basis. These millions are themselves quite real.
In the installation Ghost, the empty aluminum envelopes which remain after the bodies of the models are removed also pertain to what the receiver places there. The emptying may be viewed as both that which takes part in the external material form and in a symbolic form literally built around this void and its envelope. We do not know if in fact they were men or women, although we inevitably think of women’s clothing, such as molded on women in prayer. Usually, only the women wear several scarves – like leaves here – that hide and cover their hair, whether in Islamic practices or in some Christian practices such as during Holy Week in Spain. If we refer to the title, Ghost, then we might have figures of prostrating – or at least kneeling – ghosts. Why women ghosts, and why so many? Why those sheets of aluminium, a ductile and lightweight material, often used for protection? Kader Attia has achieved one of his most striking and plastically successful pieces with almost nothing, with a void to be filled with meaning. Or emptied of meaning. The strength of this work lies precisely in the absence of the body of which only the ghostly shell remains, a final avatar of the concrete presence of missing beings, broken, faded, and dead. Upon initial viewing of the piece we might actually think of of dead women. Specters of women. Absence is part of presence.
In order for the artist to fill the empty space with void – as he claims to have done – it was necessary to appropriate and occupy the venue in order to make present the void which, paradoxically, could not have appeared and become visible if these carnal husks had not been placed there. If you see these hundreds of bodies or figures of bodies in prayer from the back, their mass and luminosity fill the place powerfully. As seen from the front, so to speak, since they do not have faces, the same elements reverse immediately into their opposites since these contours, these envelopes, and these clothes do not contain anything. It was necessary for the nothing or the internal void to take on an external shape – as in the vase, or in architecture – for that which is not there, not seen and yet which addresses us like a human figure signaling itself as absent, to become sensible. Each envelope seems to say: I’m here in my absence and by my absence. I am my absence.
We can not elide readings of Ghost which might view it as a denunciation of some of the servitudes of woman – including religion and morality – because in fact we are dealing with a large group of women in close ranks who seem to be either submitting to an authority, or, conversely, ready to rebel. We can only reject these possible interpretations if we are wary of the fatal separation previously discussed in which we only see the content at the expense of form. The notion of “content” is apt here since it refers to an empty content for each object and a content filled with voids with regards to the locus of representation. The language is also misleading: they are not women nor even metaphors for women, they are above all fictional objects. For everything that we see plays on this ambivalence in which we perceive both an excessively present object and an absent being. These things are not literal, precisely because they are things, nothing but aluminium foil to be filled with what we want like common plastic bags. The object is present but the being is defective. The Being is literally hollow – a person was a living model for an envelope which thus refers to it – without delivering a figure, a face, that which grants human beings their humanity. No face, no being. But these women whose faces are hidden, or who willfully conceal them, are not things. Kader Attia absolutely knows this, artistically and as a citizen, and it would be a reductive assessment of this work to view in it only a denunciation of the status of Arab women. To the extent that one could quite understand this deletion of the face from a Jewish perspective, specifically that of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose thinking attaches fundamental importance to the face of others. This is an unexpected connection but no more so than those established by Levinas between the Jewish tradition and the contemplation on phenomenology from which he philosophically originates and through which the idea has developed – from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty and Sartre – that I am constituted by the gaze of the Other. I exist in large part through the gaze focused on me, through a vis-à-vis, a concrete flesh and blood face-to-face. Once we get past our surprise at the objects in Ghost, which are ultimately only rolled up and stacked up materials which have taken on a human shape, our confusion, embarrassment, perhaps our discomfort arises from the fact that I am not viewed by others as might be expected, and in return, I can not watch a full representation of another. The void constitutes me, or more exactly, the gaze of the void or of this empty thing constitutes me. The great plastic and aesthetic intensity of Ghost stems from the fact that I am perceived by all these assembled voids, and the question is literally to know by which void I am in turn constituted.
No faces or bodies, no interiors or consistency, yet this group, which one hesitates to refer to as people or beings, has an overwhelming presence. In fact, these hollow sculptures are true impressions of someone, their form is that of a living being, the trace or residue of this contact and a temporary recovery. The material is extremely fragile, ephemeral, very malleable, very resistant, it can be reduced to almost nothing, a few balls or heaps, as we know through use. We are ultimately neither stronger nor more permanent than these aluminum sheets, these sculptures of void in which we can see the final image of our emptiness.
These bright, luminous, frankly spectacular sculptures which capture the reflections of the surrounding lights, are reminiscent of a certain tradition of baroque silver statues on which the scarcity of material vies with the vanitas. One cannot also help but think of the Western iconography that represents Death, usually a skeleton, completely covered from head to toe in a long cloth. However much fun we poke at these aesthetic games which seem distant, from a bygone era, it does not change anything to our condition, we will all die. We’re here, walking in the room and looking at these ghostly things and we can disappear forever in the blink of an eye.
What affects us physically in the empty presentified void of Ghost is a possible shape, although palpable and present, of our finitude. It is not the skulls, flowers and hourglasses which give us the image of the passage of time, the fragility of our existence, but precisely that which seems to wrap up existence, contain it, hold it inside until the container fades away. The presence is part of the absence. The aesthetic and artistic experience of the sculptures is diverse, and must primarily be an aesthetic and artistic experience, a most material and sensory experience that does not point to the supersensible, since it is, on the contrary, a live interaction between our own bodies and these envelopes of absent bodies. The number of sculptures also affects the presence-absence games and makes us feel even more sharply that we don’t amount to much against this army of ghosts. We all know that life is fleeting but we still do not see it. We prefer denial. Ambition, wealth, and power do not protect us from death, and all these themes that are considered trite cannot change our status, our destiny, and our purpose.
We have learned nothing from multisecular formulas, such as the the Latin adage which asserts:”certain Death, uncertain hour” (Mors certa, hora incerta). Ghost’s great achievement is to make sensitive, to shape esthesiologically so to speak, the confrontation with our finitude, and our futility. In this sense, the envelopes may certainly be understood as that which surrounds and contains the void, and the void is that by which they took shape, but also the incorporation of the void. The envelope does not truly have an inside or an outside, but is rather, the thin, weak and fragile joint between being and non-being, visible and invisible, presence and absence and, quite naturally, between full and empty. These experiments are supported by sheets that are 0.02 mm thick.
They are clearly feminine forms, and only feminine (no men or children), so that the risk of a literal understanding can reappear again and drag a gendered interpretation of the work. The first is that women are physically separated from men during prayer and that we might have a representation of such a moment here. This is a possible reading and in fact a legitimate one which should be approached from a critical angle: religious inequalities may take the form of these envelopes making manifest the objectification of women. That clothes which are more or less closed are recognized by some activists or intellectuals (such as Tahar Ben Jelloun who has spoken on this issue several times) as indeed being a reification of women’s bodies and, more broadly speaking, a denial of their civil liberties, immediately involves an attack on the shapes of the body through that which covers it. We have a plastic body, a shape, a physical structure, a configuration – what Merleau-Ponty sums up perfectly by saying that we are also a Gestalt – and controlling this external shape inevitably leads to a grasp on what it contains, both on the moral and on the physical levels. The forms are not only here in the pieces and as though detached from the concrete Gestalt of the models, rather, they are their image and their imprint.
Both perfectly singular and repetitive, these forms apply to each individual body and to all the bodies in Ghost, to the bodies of human beings in general. If, as Roland Barthes remarked about clothes that they are “a self-image that is worn on our selves”, it is quite different if the image, that is this form, is imposed on me by another that is not always benevolent, friendly and my equal. I am then truly attacked in my image and in my representation. It is then no longer the forms I have chosen that are delivered to the gaze and the touch of others, but a social image that has been adopted for me without my consent. This imaginary form is also a void that is filled by good will, projections and fantasies that are foreign to me. My real and tangible body is then emptied of its substance, of its flesh, feelings and desires, and I present only a meaningless external image in all respects, since it is not connected to my true – i.e chosen – self-image. This refers of course to societies where strict religious rules are applied, and where it happens, as it does in Sudan, according to Article 152 of The Criminal Code adopted in 1991, that “whosoever commits an indecent act, an act that violates public morality or wears indecent clothing” is liable to forty lashes, most notably for having worn a simple pair of trousers(3). The law refers to “any person”, but in most cases, it refers to women, since men are, of course, never indecent.
Let us repeat: those who choose and adopt clearly and knowingly the wearing of, in every sense of the word, forms and images of themselves through their social and cultural codes are fortunately free to do so. However, to authoritatively impose on others their forms and their images goes beyond the framework of a free and tolerant faith, freedom and the self determinations of each and every person. To attack mundane forms of clothing, simple envelopes of signs that, by nature and definition, must circulate in order to freely make sense of duty and power, attacks the various forms of life. Having power over or thinking that one has some rights on the forms of life of others is therefore not only spiritual, mental or intellectual. Control wants to appear in a concrete form, and in order to do so, must itself take shape inside other shapes, even if it creates empty forms which it will fill according to necessity. In order to become that power and control, taking on a form is necessary, which proves once more, that forms, all forms, are not neutral. By controlling the form it is already possible to enslave a large part of the container, thereby enslaving a being, a life, a psychophysical form. Ghost is an immanent critique – in the formed and forming object – a taking shape that can shift other forms of life which are by nature, mobile, modifiable, changeable and which continuously escape a definite representation into submission.
Fixing a form consists in preventing the container from being able to modify itself, and in doing so, of modifying the external envelope. Hence a completely different reading could be made of Ghost, which the installation exposes literally: in order to prevent the external form from changing, the container is emptied out. This omits the fact that the formative form is corelated to the formed form; a form is always a form of something else or of a person. Without being formalistic, Kader Attia does not forsake this problem, which attracts even more attention because the hollow of each sculpture immediately leads us to ask of what or of whom is this form the form?
Every artist manipulates shapes practically, as is Kader Attia’s case here with sheets of aluminum foil, which relates to forms of life which are reconfigured, sometimes in very different art forms. We are beings who take shape daily in order to live, and this recurrence of taking shape, which we might also call plasticity, can be found in the forms we produce, make, and manipulate, in order for them to keep at varying degrees, the traces of our own forms.. All the objects around us are just the negative taking shape of our bodies, they are our own inverse corporeal shapes. Architecture and urbanism, on which Kader Attia also works, are perfect examples of the complementarity of forms. If the forms of Ghost are the practical result of forms of life, practical in that the form must be accomplished, must be formed in the literal and metaphorical senses, life is essentially a practice of forms, by forms and with forms. In insisting upon the envelope and thereby highlighting the hollow, Kader Attia eradicates any formalist aestheticising of the sculptures, so that their voids become, so to speak, their principal form. The void is that which enables what we see on the outside. From the void emerges the being of the forms. Since this void is also physically invisible and relates to non visible or present bodies, we might think about the proof of the visible by the invisible.
Generally speaking, every day things, such as the air we breathe, our daily acts of freedom, are so present and obvious that they are no longer perceptible, and have become invisible. Speaking in strinkingly plastically similar terms to Kader Attia’s process Gunther Anders comments on those things which form the basis of our existence through the voice of a character in his novel The Catacombe of Molussia (4). Of those actions and facts which are the positive aspects of existence – contrary to sickness, for instance, which is a negative aspect immediately visible and perceptible – it can be affirmed that «the positive is invisible». The benefits of life, our individual and social freedom, our lives, are so evident that they are invisible to ourselves, and it is only when they are restricted or when we miss them, that we become aware of their existence. In this way, the invisible, the loss and the void, revive their dynamic roles. Our carnal presence in the word is a primordial source of the fullness of our beings, and the positive in Ghost is the body which is both form and container of our life and our existence which is also invisible. If the body is lacking – because it may be stigmatised as guilty and guilt making – our whole being lacks those hollows which are as many absences of the positive of corporal interaction. The other is also lacking, but this lack is understood as a call to presence which highlights the positive character. The relative negativity, absence or obliteration which could be perceived in Ghost can thus materially reverse itself in the sculptural object, because our carnal positive is so present that it becomes the invisible which has become visible through the void. An invisible and empty positive is the possible definition of the ghost of the other.
Translated from french by Vanessa Ackerman
Jacinto Lageira is professor of Aesthetics at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and art critic.
1. Karl Marx, Capital (1867), Volume 1 “The development of capitalist production, 1st section: merchandise and money. Chapter 1: Merchandise, IV- The Fetishization of merchandise and its secret. Translation J Roy, reviewed by K Marx.http://www.marxists.org/francais/marx/works/1867/Capital-I/kmcapI-I-4.htm
2. Lao-Tseu, Tao-tö King, transl. Liou Kia-hway, reviewed by Étiemble, Paris, Gallimard, La Pléiade, Philosophes taoïstes, 1980, p. 13. (translator’s own)
3. http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2009/11/28/ ; http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/DEPAFP20091128T130142Z/
According to Amnesty, thousands of women are arrested each year: tp://www.amnesty.org/fr/node/18595
Read about a different perspective at: http://lecoran.over-blog.com/article-soudan-20-coups-de-fouet-pour-2-femmes en-pantalon-38571189.html
4. Die molussische Katakombe. Roman (1932-1936), C. H. Beck, Munich, 1992. Some extracts of the text, included the text quoted here, were used in Nicolas Rey’s film, Autrement, la Molussie, 2012.