It is immediately very precise, very factual. Looking at the camera, men and women describe physiological, psychological, mental and bodily phenomena. The men’s and women’s names are stated, and they are scrupulously set in context – geographically and professionally. They are in Paris, Berlin, Dakar, Chicago, London, Vilnius. What they describe concerns individuals – their patients or sometimes themselves. Gradually, through their words, ever- expanding concentric circles extend out around a common centre, an absent centre, which is absence itself. Artists (musicians, a dancer), a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a historian, a journalist and some researchers broaden the resonance of something that cannot be reduced to a metaphor: the missing or phantom limb. The complex relationship between individuals and communities, and the possibilities of transposing personal experience and understanding to different scales, runs through the collection of contributions from which Reflecting Memory (2016) is woven. In this practical way, the understanding sets in that for those who suffer from this syndrome after an amputation or accident, it – the real referent – is still there. Bit by bit, through an array of statements from different sources and offering different approaches, connections with other subjects unfold: silence, denial, grief. They help to explore the ways in which the absent real does not become unreal, but quite the opposite – as the philosopher Paul Ricœur has explained so well – and not always for the worst.
What these practitioners of multiple disciplines describe is an invitation, or rather an invocation – just as one might invoke spirits or other references and visions. They do not speak of it but one thinks of ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’. (1) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Umberto Eco’s The Open Work. (2) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. (3) They do not speak of it but one thinks of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and even more of his Alienation and Freedom. (4) The revolutionary ideal, the potentiality of the arts, the historical and fantastical construction of the collective, colonial stupidity and suffering are all lurking within these images and words. And the words open up abysses – abysses that are very concrete even if they are ‘immaterial’, like limbs that hurt even though they are missing.
The images of ‘talking heads’ seem simplistic and minimal: they are primarily there to frame words, to document the telling of these stories that are always based on experience. But they are not alone. They are in turn interspersed, inhabited and haunted, with strange shots whose gentle violence is increased by their initially inexplicable status. A man standing motionless on a railway line where trees are growing. Another sitting at a table in a café. Yet another, standing in front of some industrial wasteland. An elderly woman praying in church. Someone whose back is turned to an enormous statue of Lenin. There is something strange about these images, beyond their indeterminate reason for appearing. We do not know what it is – not yet. Later, after seeing the whole of Reflecting Memory, when we have understood that a mirror is repeating the image of a half-body, the other half of which has been subject to an amputation, we will be able to see these images again with the same sense of unease and concern. Ultimately, spotting the clues that could have hinted at this device is of little importance. There is no secret to reveal here, no virtuoso incitement to congratulate the artist. There is a mystery that remains and that grows. And a sense of suffering. For the moment, as we see these static shots of static and silent people for the first time, what is intriguing and disturbing is the perception of a strangeness in the image. This strangeness – the barely discernable presence of the mirror – is to the image that it takes on what these images themselves are to the flow of statements by the film’s participants. As if it were nourished from within by this association of factuality and mystery, Reflecting Memory broadens out, incorporating into its insidiously circular movement the bases of communal life (the community needs its deceased and its absent members, not only to build itself but also for it to thrive and develop), key historical reference points (slavery, colonisation, the Holocaust, the gulags), contemporary schisms (racism, Islamist fundamentalism) and the multiple-versus- individual dialectic.
The very simple yet decisive gesture effected by the shots as they now show the amputees next to the mirror operates in relation to this immense, complex, heterogeneous combination that cannot be made continuous – between past and present, tragic and everyday. The side step taken by Kader Attia here – the shift in viewpoint that makes the subjects’ incompleteness visible (and with it their physiological, mental and often also social suffering) – brings about an opening, a hollowness, that is shocking and moving. This so very physical flaw accommodates, literally on the surface of the skin, the unbroken chain of these absences that simultaneously order and contaminate our individual and collective existences – from the most intimate (part of a person’s body) to the most universal (history’s darkest moments).
On the level of the human face and body, the dark side that is thus revealed makes palpable – in both the sense of visibility and of affecting feelings (emotions, empathy) – what some other cultures know better than our own: that emptiness is not nothingness. Indeed, emptiness may well harbour the very essence, in forms that are forever unstable, always mysterious, never able to be assigned to an explanation or definition; and for this reason, the statements of the interviewed specialists are restored to their rightful place, as legitimate contributions that are effective up to a certain point, but that could never cover the entirety of what is involved in this physical and material non-presence of which they speak.
And it is up to artists – in this case Kader Attia himself – to give us access to it, as a mystery that should certainly not be elucidated: there can be no resolution for a mystery, as mysteries are nothing like whodunits to be solved or secrets to be revealed. Instead, it is about extending the power of the questions that they raise. Nor is there a ‘+’ or ‘–’ sign that can be unequivocally associated with a mystery. And although the thoroughly factual referents (an accident, an injury, a collective tragedy) that brought about the absence are all in varying degrees a matter of misfortune, the act of representing and thinking through it cannot be reduced to this, and is not engulfed in this sombre source. This act also reverses the direction of the temporal and political arrow of the presence of absence. It shifts from melancholy inspired by what has been lost, to a call to what is to come, and to bring into existence, including through what has been there – suffering, brutality, History. It is an act that echoes Gilles Deleuze’s concept when he wrote that ‘the missing people are a becoming’ (5): in the half-open abyss of what is painfully missing, there can also be found that which is to be constructed, with what has been – that is, both literally and figuratively – the dead (to which the living cling). The dead, but not death. That is what is suggested by the film’s first speaker, the surgeon who strangely sees in it a human trait that he calls ‘repair’. But it is not only a question of repairing; it is also a question of inventing – as the surgeon says, too, when we see him again at the end, describing how he dedicates a great deal of time to explaining to his patients: ‘You won’t be like you were before.’ And nor will we be like we were before – none of us, ever. But, together with the past, the dead, memory and suffering, it is possible to go forward, to make a start. Through and beyond what is missing, what we miss, that is what Reflecting Memory invites us to do.
1 The opening sentence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto of 1848.
2 Umberto Eco, The Open Work, first published in Italian as Opera aperta (Milan: Valentino Bompiani, 1962)
3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) 4 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, first published in French as Peau
noire, masques blancs (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952); Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom, first published in French as Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2015)
5 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 209
Published in: Kader Attia. The Museum Of Emotion, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2019, p.94-95.