The new Zenon, from Paris or London, called his method “randonnée” because two close and nonetheless differentiated relative words developed from an old word from the language of hunters: the French “randonnée,” wandering or foray, and the English “random,” chance, and because he wanted to unite the two meanings with each other once again, across the English Channel or the St. Lawrence River.
Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest
My place as a thinking being, as a being of this world who is irrevocably enmeshed in the scientific or cultural community, as an epistemology, this place has no place, this point unceasingly decentralized because it is understood as being in constant motion, this here-somewhere-else, the path of my odyssey, on which I traverse a multitude of networks that I constitute in part as a result of my transport.
Michel Serres, Hermès II, L’Interférence
In the late nineteen-sixties, the French philosopher of knowledge Michel Serres set about breaking open the linearity of transmitter, channel, and receiver in favor of a mutually dependent triad. He came to describe communication as a form of transmission in which the medium is decisive since it is what first gives rise to the identities that it seems to interconnect.1 Since then, Serres has been sending this mediating figure through the global networks in the form of a messenger, joker, angel, or hermaphrodite in order to find passages “from exact science to human science” and “from us to the world.”2 Against the backdrop of such an engaged philosophy, which does not, for instance, bemoan the alienation of the individual in the technological age but instead strives to show productive ways for dealing with reality as it is, Serres conceives a complex image of the world that interconnects forms of knowledge in the natural sciences and the humanities. His thoughts range “between rigor and fantasy, between myth and precision, between established and untamed knowledge.”3
The Algerian-French artist Kader Attia is very closely allied with the philosopher Serres, both in this suggestion but also in his approach. Attia comprehends existence as ongoing transformation, posits relationships between the local and the global, tradition and modernity, Africa and Europe, the banlieue and the university. He problematizes seemingly established knowledge by making visible in his works the path between places “of which it is generally assumed that no connection between them exists.”4
Attia thus utilizes hyper-coded motifs like identity, border, face, and migration in both scholarly discourse and public contexts. Over time, this approach has become hackneyed as a truism for revealing rhetorical automatisms in collective language usage.
This text takes up the role of the messenger and, based on Serres’s reflections, traces Attia’s works back to their place of origin—to then from there turn back and show the reader the lines that connect them.
Indeed, the form of Attia’s works does not precede but instead emerges from the immanent comparison. The artist thus attempts to apprehend our ideas of “difference” and “otherness” anew in ever-changing manifestations. Although his works are not dependent on a higher truth, they do endeavor to touch viewers and to establish a relationship between them and the world—and in this they resemble Serres’s “quasi-objects,” yet another of his mediator types.
What quasi-objects are and how they function is demonstrated by the philosopher in his study The Parasite.5 There, the quasi-object only acquires meaning as a result of the fact that it marks a subject in a specific way. Like a ball, which has no function as an object alone and first in the game marks the subject in whose possession it is as the one in the group of players who drives the course of the game, the quasi-object forms a bridge to other subjects. It is in the shared reference to this subject-object, which remains unspecified on its own, that a community forms.6
It is from mathematics that Serres takes the formally most potent motif for the precedence that he gives to interconnections over identities. Until well into the nineteenth century, it seemed self-evident that the space of contemplation, with its three dimensions, was just as immutable as the passage of time. However, since non-Euclidean spaces and the mathematical-physical interrelationship of space and time began to be studied, the prerequisites for this (Western) conception of the world have been radically transformed.
Today there is no longer only the one universal space and the one universal time, but instead a vast number of possible spaces and times that can be constructed in reference to one another. The mathematical discipline that makes it possible to describe these relationships is topology. It specifies the positional ratios of dimensionless points to one another, starting from which a space first opens up, a space that is not preexisting and stable in form but instead has to be produced. With the aid of topology, it is possible to precisely describe any random constellation of points lying more proximate or distant to each other, which nonetheless remains variable. It is also possible to identify such an approach in Attia’s work.
Gender makes reference to the same gesture as distinction: understanding separation and cutting. Phallic law prevails there. What if castrating gender meant as much as: cutting off the cut?
Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite
One of the first places that Kader Attia went to with his art was the “landing strip,” an abandoned bit of highway on the northern edge of Paris. Algerian transsexuals and transvestites who have come to France illegally work there as prostitutes, often under life-threatening conditions. They are discriminated against sexually, socially, and culturally by the society in which they live and work, enjoying no protection under quasi-clandestine and extremely precarious conditions. Nevertheless, they create stable social structures: collective evening meals and excessive parties bring the community together, although they also protect each other in high-risk, everyday working life and give each other warmth and a feeling of security.
Attia observed this world characterized by exile and the sex trade, and he produced a monument to it in one of his earliest works, the installation La Piste d’Atterrissage (Landing Strip, 2000–02). In a diaporama with 156 color slides accompanied by Afro-pop, traditional Arabic music, and street sounds, what develops is a picture of the fringes of French society that seems both alien and familiar to the viewer.
The installation calls to mind Nan Goldin’s intimate portraits of her own transgender surroundings in the nineteen-seventies,7 with which she left behind a “record of my own history”8 and differentiated herself from the artificial world of the media. She deliberately recorded moments that looked different than the pictures that fill bourgeois family albums; her photos are self-confident manifestos for a life beyond conventional gender roles that allow viewers to participate and experimentally immerse themselves in this world.
In contrast to Goldin, Attia does not share this life, even when it intersects with his own experiences. Coming from an Algerian immigrant family himself, Attia campaigns as an activist for the rights of the “Sans-Papiers.”9 The nature of his artistic interest is, however, more structural than identificational.
Attia plays with clichés of otherness and collective fantasies of the “happy life.” He also problematizes the relationship between the observer and the observed, between subject and object, that has become so precarious in postcolonial discourse by making hierarchies and viewpoints fluid and rearranging their relationship to one another. He wants not only to understand and describe his protagonists and the reality of their lives but above all to also place himself and his viewers in a self-reflective relationship to their otherness.
After Serres, it might be said that La Piste d’Atterrissage goes beyond showing difference to be the basis of every construction of identity, which is reshaped or transformed in the relationship to others. This is because the transsexual epitomizes not only deficiency but also abundance at the same time. As a hybrid being who is simultaneously “man and not-man because castrated, hence not-woman, but also pseudo-woman,”10 he no longer falls under “the dominant phallic law”11 that cuts, divides, determines but rather “excludes exclusion”12 and thus stands for a principle that finds in castration not deficiency but excess instead.
As a hermaphrodite—the androgynous offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite who bears the traits of both sexes—he is the messenger, marking whatever he touches without losing himself in it. His position is “to find himself in-between”13 and to bring forth identities appropriate to our present anew.
Mirror / Border
Full of mirrors, worlds and bodies multiply and divide—the universe thus carries its own image with it.
Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite
Just as the transsexuals in Attia’s work repeatedly look at themselves in the mirror in order to scrutinize and, if necessary, freshen up their masquerade, viewers are mirrored in the photographs of La Piste d’Atterrissage, which show their being-a-man or being-a-woman to them in differentiation. Attia organizes these images as tangencies from which one’s own aspirations look back, because they not only lack what one has oneself (a regulated life, citizenship), but they also have what one lacks (being-other, being-both-man-and-woman). The mirror makes visible the otherwise concealed border between right and left halves of the body,14 between I and other, between places, cultures, ideologies, between the real and the possible.
The installation Holy Land (2006) links the waterside, or better, the seashore to Attia’s growing topological network. Within the framework of the Canary Islands Biennale, the artist positioned forty-five mirrors on the beach of Fuerteventura, which, as the crow flies, lies around one hundred kilometers away from the Moroccan border; he situated the front sides of the mirrors facing the sea.15
From a distance, the mirrors seem to be an optical illusion, almost as if someone had punched holes in space and a second reality had come to light behind it. Depending on how the mirrors are positioned and from what perspective they are approached, reflected in them is sunlight, the sky, the sea, or the surrounding landscape. From particular angles, and when approached closely enough, it is also possible for viewers to see themselves.
Drawing a connection between Attia’s interest in mirrors and the mirror stage theory16 of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which is so important for the Western subject, then seems natural. In this theory, the mirror is presented as a central medium in the development of small children, who acquire a self-image—which always remains incomplete—by recognizing their own mirror image.
In an interpretation of the mirror motif that is oriented less individually than collectively and thus politically, and that is based on the geographical proximity to Morocco, the title of the work seems to make reference to the exodus of African refugees to Europe and/or to their search for the promised land. As a result of the orientation of the mirrors toward the sea, those who would catch sight of themselves in them would be immigrants coming from the water, rather than the island residents and the art public who approach them from behind. But since apparently no one will arrive on this coast, visitors to the biennale can ask themselves on which principles this identificatory identity that Lacan describes is based, to what extent it is not constituted more from the difference to the displaced other, and whether this constellation still corresponds to the present reality. This interpretation has also been underscored by Attia himself.17
Upon closer examination, the viewer is only reflected as a whole from one specific position at a relatively large distance, or when he or she bends over the mirror. The setting is moreover oriented too much toward movement and mutual observation for a visitor to remain before one of the mirrors for a longer period of time without embarrassment.
Another interpretation therefore seems possible to an equal extent if one recognizes in the form of the mirror the allusion not only to Gothic architecture but also to the Islamic ornament. In Islam, the use of mirrors—unlike in Western culture, where it is considered to be the medium of self-knowledge per se18—is paramount as an instrument for refracting light. It also fulfills scientific and aesthetic-spatial functions.19 From this perspective, the power of the form and the symbol, as well as the beauty of natural elements (earth, water, air), comes to the fore. Reflected in the mirror is not only the individual but also the whole universe. The “other” of the Western subject is not only the non-Western but also the world—based on which part of its imperial identity can also be explained.
Attia once again takes a different approach to this relationship between light, mirror, and space in one of his most topical works to date, Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (2013), shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The installation is based on the Old Testament story of Jacob, who in a dream catches sight of a ladder by means of which the angels move directly back and forth between heaven and earth. The work consists of several elements: a depot-like shelving structure surrounds the installation like a shell or protective barrier and is filled with literature from the most diverse fields of knowledge that makes reference to the parable mentioned from various perspectives. In this “space” stands a very large vitrine that houses a curio cabinet filled with objects, lithographs, and other found objects that are also connected associatively with Jacob’s Ladder. On top of the vitrine lies a mirror with the same surface area, while a second mirror hangs opposite the first with the mirror surface at a distance of some 180 centimeters from the ceiling. On the first mirror lies an illuminated neon lamp that is multiplied infinitely in the other mirror.
The partial installation made up of the mirrors and the neon tube20 is linked to Holy Land in various respects: in the case of Continuum of Repair, the motif of light refraction as an aesthetic appeal is deliberately utilized as an effect that is meant to captivate the attention of the visitor. Although the installation itself is abstract, its similarity to the image of Jacob’s Ladder is nonetheless irrefutable. The spatial arrangement makes the distance between heaven and earth and/or between man and God tangible in a way that the flat—purely visual—image cannot. The juxtaposition of the two mirrors here raises the undefined space of the infinite to a higher power in comparison to Holy Land. Infinitely multiplied in the reciprocal reflection, the three-dimensional extension of the material form is very easy to comprehend, yet it is no longer possible to apprehend the virtual space with the naked eye. The topos itself as a point without extension from which a space opens up becomes the subject here, while the world at the same time expands infinitely and becomes suspended. The oscillation of the rays of light makes the mediator into an absolute, although without interpreting this as transcendence; identity in fact unfolds in a purely immanent manner, without recourse to external forces.
Shore / Bank
Clear and distinct is alone the border.
Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest
Two other topoi extend Attia’s net further over Algiers and Marseille. As in Holy Land, he uses outdoor spaces in both projects and in doing so takes up the shore theme once again.
The first work, Rochers Carrés (2008), is a series of photographic portraits of male adolescents on the beach of Bab el Oued, one of the poorer districts of Algiers. Called “rectangular rocks” by the residents after the multiple-meter-large cement blocks that are stored there, this narrow section of shoreline is used by young men as a meeting point for watching ships, fishing, smoking, or prostituting themselves.
The second project, Les Terrasses (2013), was realized in the harbor of Marseille within the framework of the European Capital of Culture initiative. On the southernmost edge of the seawall, which crosses the harbor basin between the city and the sea and has been inaccessible to the public for years, Attia erected an architectonic sculpture made up of white-painted concrete modules that are accessible to visitors. With reference to the architect Fernand Pouillon, who rebuilt Marseille’s harbor district after World War II and later realized numerous public buildings in Algiers, and to Cité Radieuse (1947–52), Le Corbusier’s renowned residential project, what interested Attia was designing this part of the public space in such a way that people have the desire to spend time there. The white, abstract forms of varying heights at three different points along the seawall may evoke oversized building blocks, modernist sculptures, Escherian stairwell formations, or the roof terraces, public squares, and shaded niches of old Mediterranean cities. The spatial proportions are nested in one another in such a way that it is never entirely clear on which level of urban architecture the visitor is currently situated—real or perceived.
Both works utilize the phantasma of the shore as the place of departure, of a bridge to another world, which is crossed in leaving the old behind, in beginning something new (better?). But they stand in a complementary relationship to one another: northern Africa versus southern Europe, functional versus model architecture, poverty full of hope versus diffuse financial power dissatisfied with its own life. It is as if the young men shown in the photographs and the art public of the Capital of Culture were looking at each other across time and across the sea.
Yet while the symbolism in the earlier photographs still clearly pictures the coast as a place of longing against which the arriving and departing ships cross like floating spaces of fantasy,21 the disposition of Les Terrasses is ambivalent. The material and form once again cite both Western and non-Western models and allow for associations that are aesthetic and physical, political and cultural, present and historical, but keep them in a state of flux. When the one is noticed, then the opposite simultaneously appears behind it, without offering a decision for the one or the other reading. The sculptural ensemble on the embankment is both a contemplative vantage point and a political memorial to the failed refugee policy of Europe or, completely different, an architectonic amalgam of modern and traditional building traditions. At the same time, it is quite simply a constellation of objects that invite one to relax and look at the blue skies of southern France. Indeed, just like the mirrors in Holy Land or Continuum of Repair, the gleaming white modules have a direct physical effect that routes perception over the body yet precedes any reflection. As a result, this effect has the power to also impact laypeople who are not familiar with art- or architecture-historical references.
Face / Mask
Narcissistic idealism found in the world only its own image, which it stamped on with great effort. Science and technology reduce the real to their representations. Now the soft earth, the stone before the instrument, metal in its matrix, crystalline, in themselves and by themselves conceal hundreds of artifacts as in a cornucopia . . .
Michel Serres, “Gnomon: The Beginnings of Geometry in Greece,” in A History of Scientific Thought, ed. Michel Serres
While for a long time the position of the individual was considered principally from the perspective of his or her role in the community and/or society, or in agreement or interplay with the respectively applicable conventions, laws, and hierarchies, and the mask was thus paramount as an abstracting medium, this changed with the idea of individual subjectivity. As already established in ancient Greece, in Christianity the face became the central attractor of attention.22 Individual identity can be fathomed on and in it, above all in the expression of emotion as a reflection of an inner state. A central motif for this is the connection between the individual and society, which is based not on external laws, but simply on inner convictions.
Attia’s sculptural installation Ghosts (2007) approaches the tension between individual and community from a reverse side and shows not only that this perspective is not inevitable, but also that it is not self-evidently better.
Fascinated by the ambivalent power of collective religious rituals, Attia here selected the topos of the “mosque” and started by first forming a solid-seeming group of Muslim women in prayer. The figures made from commercially available aluminum foil have their backs turned to entering visitors, thus turning the visitors into intruders in a community to which they do not belong, only able to walk along the figures’ collective body as guests. It is first when one turns around that it becomes clear that the bodies are not solid but instead hollow. Each figure was taken as an individual molding from a model kneeling on a table, and what remained is a fragile, ghostly figure without a face. Disclosing the production process, nevertheless, in no way detracts from the effect. Although aware that the malleable aluminum foil is capable of reproducing the curvature of a spine, a particular head shape, or an individual posture in the smallest detail, the physical presence of these empty shells is nonetheless astonishing. On longer consideration, one begins to increasingly differentiate the individual figures from one another based on just such distinguishing characteristics. From the community emerges the individual, who specifically does not become recognizable by means of the—absent—face, but who precisely for this reason is also impossible to conceive alone. The individual figure requires figures like it to produce weightiness in the space. In a mass, however, the figures become so imposing that the confrontation in the museum situation becomes a real bodily experience for visitors, an experience that would hardly be possible as an encounter with foreign rituals in “real” reality.
Not only the spheres of art and religion, which are today otherwise strictly separated from one another in museums, meet here. (Artworks from religious contexts, such as altars, sculptures, or paintings, then come into museums, if at all, as art.) Here the museum space as such is transformed by a principle that is just as powerful as the modern white cube, which developed in the nineteen-sixties and still today continues to specify our understanding of museums.23
Attia once spoke in another context of how important space and surroundings are for his artistic activity, of the fact that they are integral to his works.24 Even when he was referring at this time to public space, this description applies to the museum space to the same extent, if not even specifically to it. Instead of merely reacting to the conditions of a space and redesigning it according to its possibilities, Ghosts overwrites space with another order. The systematic rows of humbly kneeling, praying individuals have a different function than, for instance, the “total installations” of Emilia and Ilya Kabakov,25 or environments by artists such as Jonathan Meese, John Bock, and Bjarne Melgaard,26 who make the museum space disappear by means of exuberant narratives and pictorial worlds—for they work in the register of Western concepts of space and subject, which use the museum as a mirror for the realities of their own lives, while Ghosts confronts the museum with its “other.” This other does not eliminate the logic of the museum. But just as Michel Serres in his philosophical work finds new mediator and messenger figures again and again, in this case it is the ghost women who communicate between the two logics and simultaneously introduce a third logic that is neither one nor the other, but rather put together from both: a quasi-object.
Quasi-objects might also be helpful in understanding Attia’s more recent works. The cycle of works Repair, which extends from Attia’s presentation at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), to Reparatur: 5 Akte (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2013), to Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder (Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2013–14), no longer places human beings at its center but instead situates them more intensively in context vis-à-vis the things around them.
Repair weaves its own network and connects the most diverse locations with each other: Brazzaville in Congo with the marble quarries in Carrara, theaters of war in World War I and II with the hospitals of the wounded, the Congo Conference in Berlin in 1884–85 with the present era of “Sans-Papiers” street fighting in Paris, South American slave colonies with the Nigerian jazz of the nineteen-sixties, the first hominids in Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001 (1968) with the Australian rainforest and the Superb Lyrebird in a BBC wildlife documentary.27
Attia here brings the ambivalence dealt with implicitly in other works to the surface and uses it as an organizing principle for quite diverse artwork. The two-channel slide projection Open Your Eyes (2012), for example, always juxtaposes two pictures: on the one side, mutilated European soldiers from World War I, and on the other, African masks and other handcrafted objects or articles of daily use. Here, the disfigured face as a form of expression already seems to be anticipated in traditional African cultures and/or war in the form of relicts “cannibalized”28 from the African side and transported into the postwar period: a type of aesthetic combination that calls to mind Aby Warburg or that equals a Mnemosyne of violence,29 which, independent of the original contexts, shows the injuries that war and strife leave behind on the human body.
As the first “modern” war, World War I inflicted wounds that had not existed up to that point in time, leaving behind survivors missing entire extremities (feet, hands, arms, legs) and permanently disfigured, visibly carrying memories of the war and their injuries with them. To help the soldiers, but also to find a way for society to deal with these new types of injuries, which traumatized not only the men themselves but also the public, researchers and physicians realized vital developments in cosmetic surgery and prosthetic technology.
In this way, the bodies were supposed to be “repaired” at least outwardly, meaning reconstructed to such an extent that they externally once again looked as if unharmed. Repair Analysis (2013) bears witness to the medical prehistory of this Western cultural technique, points to its weak point, at which the contrasting concepts of individuality and type (face and mask) again meet. Staged as a cabinet exhibition, it juxtaposes illustrations from an anatomical picture atlas from the nineteenth century with pieces of broken mirrors subsequently sewn together with wire—in which viewers look at their own faces. When the physical injuries or natural features of said individuality (crooked noses, very small or large breasts, fat deposits, et cetera) are today compensated for and aligned with the norm, the specific is moved closer to the typical, only that the psychological no longer has any visible equivalent toward the outside. This is an extreme case of a socially ideal image of physical integrity in which individuality becomes a stereotype.
In contrast to this Western ideal of beauty, various African cultures make targeted use of physical mutilation and deformation in order to make courage demonstrated in combat or pride in belonging visible toward the outside (The Repair’s Cosmogony, 2013). Faces here are in no way bearers of individuality but instead embody superordinate principles and qualities indicative of the abilities of the individual. In animist cultures, masks of apes, predatory cats, or birds of prey, for example, incorporate the powers of the animals they portray and pass on qualities like cunning, speed, or a surveying view to the humans who wear them (Mimesis as Control, 2013).
In the African masks with the small pieces of mirror stuck onto them (Mirrors and Masks, 2013), three of the perspectives outlined here even ultimately come together: the cult object (animism) refracts and reflects light in the mirror fragments (Islam), through which viewers are confronted with fragments of themselves (the West).
On Sundays method rests; rambling saves lives every day. If what you need is victory, everything in its place, battles, banks or institutions go by way of the first. The other is there for time and intelligence, the well-being of thought, freedom, peace: the creation of unexpected places. But take both paths, condemn neither; those who love the countryside sometimes need expressways.
Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies
The pivotal point for all these constellations is the museum, the exhibition space, whose immanent conventions of showing have been increasingly addressed by Attia in his works of recent years. His means are the transferring, converting, and reinterpreting of context, as well as the putting together of superficially disconnected individual parts.
Attia explicitly uses museum-like locations to double existing societal—social, political, or historical—locations in such a way that the underlying but possibly unconscious conventions, the naturalized structural principle of these spaces, become visible. At the same time, he also juxtaposes them with an alternative perspective.
For Attia, the museum space as a concrete location with validated conventions of seeing and showing, but also art as an aesthetic space of perception and increased attentiveness, function as a filter through which he is able to unmask illusions and make visible what exists but is yet unseen. In this regard, the subject of migration is a special case in Attia’s oeuvre because it is a connection that links quasi-objects (works) with the topos in which they are located (exhibition space). On the one hand, migration in the sense of the Latin root of the word migrare—in English “wander,” “change,” “transport”—does not settle down in any one location but rather, like the mediator, always produces two or more interferences between space and time.
Where the “landing strip” Algeria and Paris, center and peripheral area, or Holy Land Fuerteventura and the Northern African coast, sky, earth, and water only establish a link between points that are spatially distant from one another, the double slide projection The Debt (2013) also produces connections across different times: the Congo Conference in Berlin of 1884–85 meets the protests of the “Sans-Papiers” in the Paris of the nineteen-nineties, and Senegalese colonial armies from World War I meet Algerian troops in World War II.
On the other hand, Attia shows how forms are also able to migrate. How, for instance, does the modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe behave toward traditional Arab or African buildings (Untitled [Ghardaïa], 2009), or Roman architecture toward the Algerian present (Arch of Tazoult, 2012)? Why do used plastic bags or bottles suddenly become beautiful when they are taken from the street and exhibited? How does the music of Africa travel to the colonies in North and South America and back once again (Sound of Reappropriation, 2013)? What connects Greek statues with Congolese arts and crafts (The Repair’s Cosmogony, 2013), or what do weapon casings have to do with articles of everyday use in the home (The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012)?
What first wanders from the world into a work changes once again in the museal space, whence it in turn refers back to the world. The just over two-minute-long video (Mimesis as Resistance, 2013), in which a short section from a BBC television documentary on the special talent of an Australian Superb Lyrebird is presented, shows this manifold transformation in an exemplary way. In the large exhibition hall of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, visitors are alone in the nearly 600-square-meter space with a medium-size, flat-screen panel over their heads. The specific talent of the bird is its singing, which during courtship display not only attracts female mating partners but also imitates every sound it its surroundings with such deceptive authenticity that other animal species respond to it trustingly. Since human beings have infiltrated its habitat, the Superb Lyrebird has also come to copy the sound of cameras, alarm systems, and chainsaws just as convincingly. Reduced to a minimal intervention by Attia, this space concentrates on the topos—the location and the subject—itself. The bird’s original habitat is the Australian rainforest. The video not only transports the location of the Superb Lyrebird into the exhibition space but also simultaneously documents its own dislocation.
Another strategy of dislocation is the act of migrating the form of presentation. In recent years, Attia has often fallen back on traditions of exhibiting from other museum contexts: scholarly presentations of nature and culture are cited in his installations, just as the curio cabinet or the presentation depot.
There, the exhibition space is structured by means of simple, floor-to-ceiling metal shelves, which as architecture specify the spatial arrangement and the movement of visitors while simultaneously also serving as display space, thus structuring the installation both horizontally and vertically. Objects in depots are generally kept on shelves in this way in order to store collection holdings as efficiently and accessibly as possible for their custodians, or specific segments of the public; however, Attia uses this method to make reference to the difference between public presentation and the professional handling of museum objects. He strips away the hierarchy of access for the viewers, who, surrounded by artifacts, select the ones that awaken their interest for closer examination instead of being confronted with objects that first have to be explained to them.30
Elsewhere (Measure and Control and Mimesis as Control, both 2013), Attia blends the two non-artistic presentational forms used by ethnological and natural history museums and, in doing so, also hybridizes the reference contexts that they represent. Shifted to a third location, the art museum, he alienates the two genres of objects from their original surroundings and thus opens them up to new possible interpretations. For renewed examination, individuals have to clarify their own relationship to the things—which have now both become alien.
An essential function of such sensual materials and spaces is keeping the threshold of access to his art as low as possible. These are close to everyday experiences that viewers have already had, thus making it easier for them to engage with a different or novel art experience. Just like the Serresean quasi-objects, the objects, materials, and forms from which Attia’s work is assembled change their function when viewed. Things that at first seem to come from everyday use or areas distant from art—such as mirrors, concrete, plastic bags, aluminum foil, or even video clips, old magazines, medical documents, and stuffed animals—and that evoke associations particular to them are, when seen as art, initially deprived of their original purpose. The gap that is created by doing so thus has an effect in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, it opens the eye to the alien in the familiar (and not perhaps the other way around!), and on the other it, like the Serresean angel, makes “perceptible the imperceptible forces that populate the world, affect us, and make us become.”31
1 Michel Serres, Hermès I: La communication (Paris, 1968).
2 Michel Serres, Hermès V: Le passage du Nord-Ouest (Paris, 1980), p. 15.
3 Translated from the jacket text of the German edition of Michel Serres, Hermes V: Die Nordwest-Passage (Berlin, 1994).
5 Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Minneapolis, 2007).
6 See ibid., pp. 224–34. “This quasi-object that is a marker of a subject, just as it is said that a lamb is marked for the altar or the slaughterhouse, is an astonishing constructor of intersubjectivity. We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when we are no longer subjects. ‘We’: what does we mean? We are precisely the fluctuating back and forth of the ‘I.’ The ‘I’ in the game is the token exchanged. And this passing, this network of passages, these vicariances of subjects weave the collective.” Ibid., p. 227.
7 Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York, 2012), p. 145.
9 Migrants with no official residence status.
10 Michel Serres, L’Hermaphrodite (Paris, 1987), p. 74.
11 Ibid., p. 95.
12 Ibid., p. 94.
13 Serres 2007 (see note 5), p. 230.
14 See Serres 1987 (see note 10): “Why do we again and again forget that our body is mirrored from one half to the other, that our left hand mirrors the right, and so forth with breast, foot, kidney; that a mirror that cuts through the middle of us from the crown of the head through the navel to the perineum invisibly accompanies us?” p. 71.
15 In 2007, Attia installed the work once again in Saint-Tropez on the French Côte d’Azur as part of the Dialogues Méditerranéens à Saint Tropez; in 2010 also in La Moulin, as part of Sphères, and in the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano; in 2013 in Amsterdam, as part of ARTZUID. The analysis only refers to the original context in which Holy Land was created.
16 See Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, 2007), pp. 75–81.
17 See Serge Gruzinski, “From Holy Land to Open your eyes,” 2012. Available online at http://kaderattia.de/de-holy-lans-a-open-your-eyes/ (accessed April 1, 2014).
18 See Hanna Gekle, Tod im Spiegel: Zu Lacans Theorie des Imaginären (Frankfurt am Main, 1995), pp. 33ff.
19 It was the Islamic mathematician and astronomer Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (964–1040) who was thus the first to study the use of curved surfaces and, in doing so, invented the magnifying glass; see David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), pp. 60ff. At the same time, because the mirror has no permanence, it is also not as problematic as, for instance, the painted image or the photo.
20 For the sake of practicability, a detailed analysis of the elements surrounding the center of the work will be dispensed with.
21 See Michel Foucault, Die Heterotopien: Der utopische Körper: Zwei Radiovorträge (Frankfurt am Main, 2005).
22 See Hans Belting, Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 2011).
23 See Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco, 1986).
24 “The space and the environment in which my works are displayed are extremely important: they are part of the work.” Kader Attia, press kit, Marseille-Provence, 2013, http://www.mp2013.fr/pro/files/2013/05/CP-Les-Terrasses-Kader-Attia-anglais.pdf (accessed April 1, 2014).
25 See Galerie Arndt, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, http://www.arndtberlin.com/website/artist_1928?idx=k (accessed April 1, 2014).
26 See the installation view of Bjarne Melgaard, A Kidwhore in Manhattan: A Novel, Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin, 2008–09.
27 See David Attenborough, The Life of Birds, BBC documentary, DVD, 1998, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSB71jNq-yQ (accessed April 1, 2014).
28 See Oswaldo de Andrade, “Manifesto Antropófago,” Revista de Antropofagia 1, no. 1 (May 1928), pp. 3–7. English version: “Cannibal Manifesto,” Latin American Literary Review 19, no. 38 (July–December 1991), trans. Leslie Bary.
29 See Martin Warnke, ed., Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE (Berlin, 2008).
30 “In the end, there are still heterotopias that seem to be open but to which only the already initiated have access. Although one intends to gain access to the most simple and most open, in reality one is really at the heart of the mystery.” Foucault 2005 (see note 21), p. 49.
31 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York, 1994), p. 182.
Published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Repair. 5 Acts, 2013, at Kunst-Werke, Berlin.