Kader Attia is captivated by what happens in the space between things. He often inverts the traditional figure /ground relationship, focusing, for instance, on the environment created between two buildings rather than on the buildings themselves.
He does not see an empty bag on a bench but the imprint of what was once inside. It’s a perception driven by the notion that what is important is the experience of something rather than the result. In his sculptural installations, Attia attempts to visualize these temporal and physical spaces, asking viewers to see what is absent as well as what is present. His works have been exhibited widely in biennials, galleries, and art fairs throughout Europe. He has had recent solo exhibitions in Boston, Seattle, Atlanta, Berlin, and Paris.
Rebecca Dimling Cochran: You’re often described not as a French artist but as a Muslim of Algerian descent living in France (and now in Berlin). Does this bother you?
Kader Attia: From the beginning, I have not felt uncomfortable with this way of introduction. I found it real, because obviously I am an artist first of all. This multicultural background is something that belongs to my work and to my history. I feel myself as both French and Algerian. I’m definitely in between.
RDC: How did growing up in the suburbs of Paris among a large immigrant population affect your identity?
KA: Growing up in the suburbs affects you in many ways, especially in your visual culture, because you are surrounded by projects in which architecture means the grid, parallel lines, blocks, and boxes. I remember very well when I would go back to Algeria, particularly to visit my father’s family deep in the mountains. I used to feel very free there. I used to appreciate the serenity of the huge space.
In the suburbs, postmodern buildings have a strong effect on the population. They take away your identity. In my culture, people used to build their own houses, so they adapted their homes to themselves. In the French suburbs, it is the opposite. The inhabitants have adapted themselves to the houses. That, for me, is a postmodern mistake. It affected me a lot when I was a teenager. I used to feel very different from my friends and fell in love with a book on Michelangelo that my teacher gave me. When I had this book in my hands, I thought, „Wow, there is something else than this.“
RDC: Is that how you decided to become an artist?
KA: It was two artists, actually. First there was Michelangelo, then there was Vermeer. I saw one of his paintings in the newspaper and said, „I have to go to this exhibition in Paris.“ So I went, and it was like an electroshock. I found that the notion of transcendence – you exist through something that is definitely not abstract but has much to do with myths and mythologies – was something very strong for me. I never thought that I wanted to be an artist, but art opened my mind and I started to read a lot.
RDC: But you went to university to study art?
KA: I decided to go to art school because I felt comfortable with it – not to be an artist, but to be a graphic designer. Then I began to be fascinated by photography and went to the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, which is one of the best photography programs in France. There, I had a second electroshock with two American photographers. One was Robert Frank and the other, Berenice Abbott. I was fascinated by her pictures, and I read about her life – a quit life, working in her lab, not speaking a lot. I am fascinated by people who devote their art without any compromise. Abbott is that for me.
RDC: Your work is often about boundaries that people encounter but are rarely able to cross. Yet you were not caught in the suburbs of Paris. You have crossed many boundaries.
KA: The more I cross boundaries, the less I like it. Why? Look at ma photographs of the concrete block beach nicknamed Rochers Carrés. This huge, 1970s construction was built in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Algiers by the Algerian Socialist government. Many young people would try through the sea, to reach the ferries, get inside, and go to Marseille or Spain. When they decided to build this beach, they thought to use architecture and urbanism to close off the neighborhood so people could not escape via the Mediterranean. It was once easy to go into the sea from the beach, but now it is very steep and dangerous. This is a kind of belt that confines the people of this neighborhood. When you stand on these blocks, especially at the end of the day when the weather is very clear, you can see the light of Spain. Residents live with the fantasy of escaping from their misery in Europe.
So I grew up in between France and Algeria. I remember my cousins in Algeria telling me, „Kader, you’re so lucky. You can got to France and come back. We can’t.“. At the age of 18 I started to tell them, „You should come to France and see where we are living, because the difference between the concrete blocks of this beach and the postmodern ugly city where we live, which works as a jail, is not great.“
René Descartes said that the difference between two things is an analogy that the share. This analogy is the link between them. The walls built by the Algerian government and the housing projects built in Europe and America do not separate populations but link them strongly and historically. Through my work, I am trying to show people that they may be building walls, but they are also making links. It’s exactly what happened with the Berlin Wall. It was aimed at separating people, but history was stronger, and it linked west and east. The opportunity that I have today to travel and to cross the frontier makes me aware of this situation. It makes me aware that people are dreaming of something better, but in reality, they will find exactly the same misery that the have in Algeria.
RDC: It seems to me that this desire for a better life on foreign shores could be applied to numerous communities across the globe.
KA: I’m taking my cultural identities as the basis of a reflection. I am trying to use my own culture because I have a reference in it, especially in Sufism, which is a Muslim sect very close to Buddhism.
RDC: Many contemporary artists who pull from personal experience use themselves or representations of themselves to manifest their idea. You take your experience and create works or installations where you are not present.
KA: I think that the notion of absence is very important. Le me tell you the story of the plastic bag works. One late night in the winter, I was in Paris, walking from my studio to my flat. In the middle of the avenue, I saw 1,500 people standing and waiting, a huge rectangle of a crowd waiting behind an invisible line. I decided to sit on a bench, and after 20 minutes, a truck came. It stopped about 15 meters from them and opened. The crowd moved forward, and people in the truck distributed food. I was thinking about political issues in art and asked if they needed people to help. So, every Monday and Friday for two hours, I gave to these people a box of sugar, a bag of rice, a gab of flour, and a carton of milk. One day, a man asked me for two rations, and I put them in this bag. He went with his bag to a bench and took out all of the goods and went to a grocery. He probably went to sell everything to buy alcohol. But he left the plastic bag on the bench. On this non-windy night, the plastic bag stayed standing up on the bench for two or three hours. And I realized that this was the answer to what I had been looking for and thinking about for many years. The emptiness inside the bag is maybe the sharpest legacy of what I want to speak about. I am fascinated by the fact that the bag kept the shape of the goods that this man carried. It testified to the misery of these people.
RDC: This absence reappears in many of your works. In sleeping from Memory, you carved individuals out of foam mattresses, and your elegant installation Ghost uses the hollow shell of a woman kneeling in prayer formed out of tin foil.
KA: The first person who spoke of this theory of emptiness was the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Man creates things, but emptiness makes the meaning of the thing. If you look at the work of Henry Moore, for instance, it is the emptiness that makes the sculpture exist, not the sculpture. If you think about the emptiness of Yves Klein’s The Void, it is absence that is the presence. So, what I was thinking about in Ghost is that the trace of the person who has been inside this thing is stronger than the person herself. Foucault said that this emptiness has a history. It’s not an emptiness, but a historical reference of a moment. When you see this, you think that in order to keep this shape, something has to have happened.
RDC: Where does the notion of repetition come in? In Skyline, you fill a room with refrigerators, Ghost has rows of thin foil figures, and the oil drums in Black and White create a large grid. This is quite different from Yves Klein or Henry Moore.
KA: There are many different ways to represent something. Descartes used to say, “How do you represent emptiness if not by excess?” How do you represent emptiness, absence, lack of ethics, and lack of everything? You make it stronger by using its opposite, which is fullness, excess, pollution, and war.
RDC: So your way to amplify the emptiness is by continually repeating the imagery so that the emptiness, in fact, fills the space.
KA: It’s both. I represent the emptiness as physical empty things and as a temporal thing. This plastic bag is like Ghost, an ephemeral shape. If I crumple it or destroy it, this will stay in your mind as an experience. For me, this temporal experience is another way to show emptiness as a temporal notion, as a thought in time. With the plastic bag sculptures, you are not speaking about something that will stay for eternity, that has to be conserved in a museum. You show the fragility of emptiness, and you show how an artwork is only about experience.
RDC: Is this why you often use such ephemeral materials? Tin foil, plastic bags, foam and bird seed are not commonly used in sculpture.
KA: Obviously the idea of ephemeral matter belongs to the importance that I give to emptiness not only as physical notion, but also as a temporal and historical one. Robert Filliou from Fluxus used to say that art is something, which makes life more important than art. I’m following this kind of thinking in making life more interesting by art. What I like in found materials is the notion of reappropriation. When I was a child, the reason I would make my own toys was not for the result, but for the process. The process was the toy. As soon as my toy was finished, I destroyed it. What does that mean? Today, you can buy children the most beautiful, amazing, technical, and complex video games. A child always is more interested in playing with a string or a piece of wood and a knife. So the notion of reappropriating found matter in art, for me, expresses something that I think we are missing in our environment. I’m not speaking ecologically: it has to do with the unconscious. It has to do with the child’s fantasy -any child in the world, but particularly in the third world. As I said, I’m definitely feeling in between something and the other. Feeling in between, for me, means to take from one part and the other and mix them together to build something different.
RDC: Many of your recent installations include architectural spaces that visitors have to navigate: the beds in Sleeping from Memory that you have to walk between, the refrigerators in Skyline that you have to navigate around and the tin roofs of Kasbah, which visitors walk on. What is it about putting people into these situations that you find interesting?
KA: The relationship that we have with art can be many different things, but in the end, it is experience. The experience that you have with a Henry Moore sculpture or a Barnett Newman painting is subjective. We can both appreciate the same Newman painting, but we’ll definitely not have the same feeling because we are not the same. This is why it is interesting to be human. I think it is very important that when you, as a viewer, leave a work, whether you have been physically involved in it or not, what remains is the experience.
RDC: Yes, but you were physically moved by painting wall, a Vermeer, yet you don’t create things that hang on a wall, you make environments. Why?
KA: I read this from a very interesting French architect: “What is most interesting in an architectural project is not the building you have to build or the one that is going to be un front of you but he emptiness that will separate your building from the other.” The in-between space in sculpture, for me, is more interesting than the sculpture itself. I think of sculpture not as the sculpture of fullness but as the sculpture of emptiness. The relation you have as the viewer with all this absence is something that speaks to you deeply, unconsciously, and that is why, many times people do not understand my work.
RDC: Rochers Carrés, the concrete block beach that you spoke about earlier, has appeared in your work many times. You’ve photographed it, drawn it on the wall, and even re-created it in sculptural form. How do you translate a memory into a physical reality and capture that entity?
KA: The drawings came first. I drew it, totally unconsciously, in Lyon Museum in France. Then, I went to visit a friend in Algiers. I thought, “It’s been a long time, I’d love to see if Rochers Carrés is still here.” When I arrived, I photographed it. So the link between the drawing and the pictures is very close. After that, I built the architecture in the Henry Art Gallery, which had more to do with what we were speaking about before. The emptiness between the blocks is definitely linked to the emptiness between the housing blocks where I grew up. The violence, the dangerous world of the suburbs, existed in the streets, not in the flats or in the condos.
RDC: But then you went back to photograph Rochers Carrés again. What makes these new images different?
KA: The second series came because I felt that I missed the human presence in the earlier work. If you follow my work, you’ll find that I care a lot about humanity in photography. Showing the empty landscape of Rochers Carrés is very aesthetic. But I would rather that the images be closer to my ethic, and my ethic is to show the real actors of the situation: young teenagers waiting. It is important for me that these pictures show the young people watching their mythologies or their fantasies of the myth of the West.
RDC: Is it because of this work that you were invited to do Holy Land?
KA: Holy Land was presented for the first time in the Canary Island Biennale. They invited me to do something about issue of boat people from Africa who try to reach Europe through the Canary Islands, because the islands are part of Spain. I decided to work again on the unconscious impulse to improve your life. It is not only something that has to do with economics; it has to do with issues of existence. In Africa, mirrors are something special, in between fiction and reality. My aim was to create something that you could see from far away. It is a tough work. It looks very shiny and peaceful, but it’s very ironic. From far away, they see diamonds on the beach; but then when they are close, they see that it is only a mirror with their reflection, the same as what they left.
RDC: So it goes back to what you said earlier about the irony of Algerians searching for a better life in Europe but then finding the reality of what it is like to live in the immigrant-populated suburbs of Paris.
KA: It reminds me of something that my father once told me. He said, “You know, Kader, when you immigrate, the most important thing is not the country you leave or the world you fill find, it is the journey.” I think that I am following him in this in-between land. I am always in the journey. Maybe the world will change one day when we think more about the in between, about the journey.
Rebecca Dimling Cochran is a writer and curator living in Atlanta.