Repair as Redemption or Montage: Speculations on Kader Attia’s Ladder of Light, Kim West, 2013

Writing published in the Kader Attia Exhibition Catalogue : Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacobs Ladder, 2013-2014, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. ©All Rights Reserved.



Kader Attia’s large, multi-media installation The Repair: From Occidental to Extra-Occidental Cultures, shown at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany in 2012, was articulated around a series of striking, unsettling juxtapositions. On the one hand, there were photographs of horribly mutilated, scantly reconstructed faces of survivors of the battlefields of the First World War. On the other hand, there were artefacts – totems, sculptures, toys and tools – from different cultures of the former colonies in Africa that had undergone different processes of makeshift repair. In a projection at the far end of the exhibition space, images detailing the gruesome results of improvised, desperate attempts at reconstructive surgery – faces torn apart by gunshots or shrapnel, then pieced together with remnants of live tissue and skin– were thus shown next to pictures of shattered wooden pots simply sutured with cord, or a sculpture whose eyes were replaced with buttons from a French overcoat.
In Kassel, these images were shown in a room filled with archival shelves and old-fashioned display cases, in a design evoking a storage space and an ethnographic museum from the age of the empires. On the shelves were books on topics ranging from anthropology to African (‘primitive’) art and the history of surgery, bolteddown, as if to signal that the installation was a system of signs rather than a library or an archive (which would have entailed a wholly different mode of spectatorship). There were also artefacts as well as new busts, commissioned by Attia from artisans in Bamako and Brazzaville, which were apparently modelled from the reconstructed faces from the First World War photographs. For Attia, the installation at dOCUMENTA (13) announced a new sequence of projects, all working from the bold assumption that repair, rather than progress or evolution (or decline, for that matter), is the very principle of historical development, in culture and nature alike – in politics, botany and similarly in art.
For his project at the Whitechapel Gallery – a building that formerly housed a library – Attia has devised an installation that according to him, extends this research into a different register. Here, a system of open bookshelves surround a large cabinet, on top of which is placed a fluorescent light tube. Mirrors above and below the tube create an endless reflection, suggesting a staircase leading upwards, infinitely. Engravings and books in the cabinet spell out Attia’s implied reference: Jacob’s ladder, the staircase that, according to the Book of Genesis (28:12) appeared in a dream before the patriarch, on which he saw angels ascending toward heaven. The titles on the bookshelves indicate that the biblical image is employed here for its metaphorical value – as an event of miraculous rupture with continuity and the logic of ordinary existence – as much as for its properly doctrinal significance: there are books on everything from the theory of evolution and the structure of scientific revolutions to the psychology of artistic creation or cenobitic life.

How do we understand the relationship between these two projects? Above all, how do we relate the image of Jacob’s ladder to the general theme of repair? Of course, the notion of repair as an all-encompassing,almost mystical principle of historical development does lend itself squarely to theological interpretations. In fact, it seems to correspond rather directly to the basic structure of a messianic understanding of historical time: a time that passes in anticipation of redemption. In this understanding, repair as historical principle would entail the positing of a double origin of history. First, it obviously and necessarily implies the existence of an original defect, a fault or imperfection that historical development then attempts to repair. In biblical terms this would be the original fall, the first catastrophic event that opens human history as a successive series of actions and events that all belong to the order of sins, and which are all therefore subject to the ideal of penitence, that is of moral repair.
But the principle of repair also presupposes a second, more fundamental origin, which is of course the wondrous state of unity and perfection that preceded the original defect. If the first imperfection is the first event, the historical origin of subsequent human history, then the preceding moment of perfection – the paradise before the fall – is the origin of history as such. That is, it is a condition of history that is itself outside of history, and that corresponds to a realm which we can only access through a miraculous event, a momentous rupture that breaks with the continuity of historical development – like a ladder appearing in a flash of light, providing access to heaven. Doctrinal interpretations of Jacob’s dream must account for this double origin (and consequently double
end): the ladder is a great journey reassembling people under the blessing of God (for Jacob is one of the fathers of the people of Israel), or it is the long path of penitence (for the story of Jacob’s sins is an allegory for the sacrifice of Christ); in short, the ladder is a figure for history understood as the struggle to atone for the first defect, for original sin. But its sudden appearance, in a state of dream, beyond the control of the active mind, also suggests a miraculous event of redemption, the transition into a time beyond time, into a sacred garden, or a mythical, reconciled homeland that awaits us at the end of history as such.
This messianic understanding of repair corresponds in a very general way, to the historical structure underlying the civilizing missions of the colonial empires. The moral and eschatological understanding of historical time, where redemption demands submission under a strict code of behaviour and beliefs, of course entails a corrective, rectifying attitude toward indigenous people, toward the heathens living in primitive conditions: they must be brought to the right path, they must be directed towards penitence; their ignorance and wrongdoings must be repaired. We can note that this colonialist view of history is a central topic in Attia’s work, evident not least in an ongoing project where he examines the remarkable collection of the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum, composed of 100,000 objects ‘offered’ to the pope from missions and Dioceses all over the world – a collection of whichonly a fraction has ever been shown publicly and whose origins remain largely obscure.
In this sense, it is obvious that the understanding of historical development that is at work in The Repair differs from the messianic model. The notion of repair suggested by the juxtaposed images and artefacts in Kassel does not in any obvious fashion correspond to the desire for a return to a state of paradisiacal perfection, or reinstatement of an original wholeness. In fact, The Repair was precisely not alluding to any such conditions, but to the impure state in between, where the additions, subtractions or rearrangements of surgery and repair are disconnected from the ideal of the origin. The African sculpture or doll whose eyes have been replaced with buttons from a French overcoat was not a provisional or incomplete reconstruction of a local totem with the help of an element from a foreign culture, but a creative re-appropriation that generated a new object of positive hybridity. The deformed survivor of the trenches was not just an example of imperfect, emergency medical care, but instead announced a new figure of human existence, forged out of the fateful alloy of modern technology and obsolete habits of warfare.
The Repair, then, suggests another model of historical time: a time where development is understood not as decline, evolution, or messianic anticipation, but as a sequence of combinations and reconfigurations,convergences and bifurcations. It is a non-essentialist, non-eschatological time, which posits no origin andno end: a time of duration, of in-between, becoming and difference. Here, actions and events do not draw their meaning from their distant or close relationship to a primordial emergence or an ultimate goal. Instead, the sense of history is constantly generated anew, in the confrontations and juxtapositions that inevitably occur in the midst of cultural and social existence. In many respects, we can derive the concept of this understanding of history from the very principle of composition of The Repair, from the assemblage of images, words and things, the great play of similarities and dissimilarities, that filled up the room in Kassel’s Friedericianum exhibition space; history is an ongoing montage that creates significance out of encounters between more or less commensurable signs and worlds.

The ladder of light at the Whitechapel Gallery, I believe, could be seen as a confrontation between these two models of historical time or understandings of repair as a principle of development and change. Attia’s version of the biblical motif of Jacob’s ladder reinterprets the classical figure in a way that withdraws it from its adherence to the messianic model, and reverses its significance, undermining the eschatological, teleological edifice’s claim to validity. We could imagine two ways in which Attia’s ladder suggests such a reversal: one that remains within the religious register and centres upon a traditional explanation of the image as a path of atonement and penitence, proposing a reversal of authority; and another that extends the image metaphorically to a wider field of references, where the ladder becomes the general figure for a telos that imposes reason and order upon history, and the very sense of the miracle is reversed.
With regards to the first understanding, the ladder in Attia’s installation seems to engage, however distantly, with an ecclesiastical legacy. A traditional reading, as we saw, posits that the image in Jacob’s dream is a figure for the path of penitence, for the struggle to atone for the sin at the origin of historical development, whose final aim is to gain access, through a miraculous event, to the
paradisiacal origin of history. But how does active penitence bring about a miraculous event – an event, that is, which should precisely be beyond the reach of active will? The answer is simple: through penitence so severe that it suspends desire and volition as such. In other words: through ascesis.
A form of religious self-discipline, of practice of the self upon itself, upon its own body, the aim of ascesis is ultimately for the believer to attain a state of complete apathy and indifference, where she is bereft of interest, wanting nothing, not even salvation. Because it is only when the believer does not want God, that is, does not subject God to her base desires, that the light of grace can shine down upon her.
Attia has consistently been interested in practices of the self which make the body a site of resistance or emancipation, of more or less utopian transgressions or transformations. In this respect there is a direct connection between his early photographic works documenting the everyday existence of a group of Algerian transvestites in Paris (La piste d’atterrissage, 1997-99, pp. 44-5) and the images of the distorted, reconfigured faces in The Repair.
The ladder of light belongs to this sequence to the extent that it can be seen as a figure for the path of penitence and ascesis. Because asceticism can also be a practice of resistance, a counter-conduct that reverses authority. By subjecting oneself to a strict regime of ascetic trials and exercises one not only submits to the command of another, to the pastor,or ultimately divine power. One also asserts an extreme form of mastery over one’s body and self: the subject vanquishes itself, gaining complete control over its needs and temptations in a way that places it out of reach of the governance of the pastorate. Obedience, in short, becomes self-mastery. The image of the ladder conveys this double reference,where the path of penitence and ascesis is at once a practice of submission and an assertion of autonomy.
Secondly, Attia’s ladder of light reinterprets the significance of the miracle in Jacob’s dream. Jacob’s ladder, of course, can be seen as the image of the ultimate goal, the telos that guarantees the validity and coherence of historical development as a struggle for redemption. In a more general sense, it can be understood as a figure for the transcendental principle that imposes reason and order upon history, that subjects the heterogeneity of historical development to the monologue of a single rationality, whether it is through the messianic promise of final deliverance or the scientistic vision of a mathesis universalis that encompasses all phenomena in a single explanatory framework. Throughout his practice, Attia has been critical of such all-embracing, ‘totalising’ models of understanding. In a series of works he has studied some of the more infamous modernist attempts at implementing universal solutions to social and political problems, notably by the International Style architects and city planners. Works such as Kasbah (2007) or Untitled (Skyline) (2008, pp. 32-3) evoke the projects that Le Corbusier and his disciplesdevised in Morocco and Algeria, and uncover behind their veil of rationalism and purity a history of multiple influences and origins, as well as a multitude of vernacular uses – indeed, repairs – that re-appropriate, transmute and distort standardized constructions.
Against the understanding of the miracle of the ladder as telos and universal principle of reason and organization, Attia consequently sets another one that reverses its logic and direction. Here the miracle is not a primordial event that takes place at the limit of history and guarantees its order and coherence but the exact opposite: an event that occurs inexplicably, without sufficient reason, in the midst of history, and disrupts its calm course. It is in this sense that we can grasp some of the more strained metaphorical extensions of Attia’s ladder of light, suggested by images on display in the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition space: the relationship between the biblical image, realised with the help of two mirrors and a fluorescent light tube, and a scientific experiment designed to study the properties of photon particles. This experiment was conducted by quantum physicist Serge Haroche using two concave mirrors and a light source, where the particle inexplicably disappears after an instant, as if it reclaimed autonomy, thus affirming the sovereign volatility of nature. For Attia, this notion of the miracle of the ladder as an event that upsets the continuity and rationality of history, this image of the rogue particle that defies the powers of science and eludes their command, seems to serve two purposes. On the one hand, it functions as a figure for the event of repair, that is, for the creation, within the midst of existence – and without sufficient reason – of meaning through the juxtaposition, combination and collision of separate worlds. On the other hand, it serves as a profession of allegiance to the legacy of the modern concept of art; to art as a non-instrumentalised activity.