The sculptures of French Algerian artist Kader Attia depict an alternative view of the most mainstream iconographic scenes. Often using materials previously held unthinkable, these provide a commentary and critique on various societal notions, challenging the way certain things or groups of people are viewed.
His research has led him to consider how much of traditional Algerian culture has been re-interpreted and used by western ‘cultural leaders’, world famous artists and architects of the modern era, without much acknowledgement of it. In response, he has conceived of the concept of ‘reappropriation’, a ‘re-reinterpretation’ of the traditional forms of Algerian culture in a new way so as to highlight a issue as well as bring about a new Algerian identity.
In Ghost (2007), the visitor enters the gallery space to see the backs of rows of muslim women clad in a silver niqab made of tin foil, kneeling down and praying as one would see in a mosque. But as one circles around to the front, it is revealed that they are all hollow, faceless kneeling statues. As the tin foil captures only the surface impressions and iterations of the body it also abstracts it by making everything semi-reflective and silver, producing an image like a reverse negative in photography.
With a hollow surface abstraction of the body, the gesture infers the kind of existence these women have; one where the outward appearance of submission is all that’s required of them. What they think internally, is of no concern.
The other thing I found interesting is that Attia doesn’t actually make these sculptures; he gives museums an instruction manual and they do it themselves, which only exists for the duration of the exhibit.
In Kasbah (2009), pitched corrigated metal panels and other commonly found items such as TV antennas, tyres and plywood, fills the exhibition space from wall to wall. Representing the scene in the rooftops of ordinary inhabitants of Casbah in Algeria, the installation forces the viewer to walk on top of it, thereby experiencing a certain aspect of Algerian culture.
But this is more than just a depiction of the plight of certain less fortunate citizens of Casbah; this is an example of Attia’s concept of ‘re-appropriation’, the taking ‘back’ of something from Algerian culture to re-introduce it in a new light. How so one might ask? The story begins with Attia’s interest and research into modern architecture, specifically with the French modern master himself, Le Corbusier.
For when Le Corbusier made a trip to see the traditional architecture and streetscapes at Casbah and Ghardaia, Algeria in 1932, he was immediately captivated by the minimalist exterior forms and their respect for natural surroundings. The efficiency of the organically formed streets, a human-body-dictated measuring system for sizes of dwelling spaces and the light entering from pin-hole windows also mesmerized him. It was all sort of mysteriously organic, rational and modernist at the same time.
If appropriation means copying, Le Corbusier copied a lot from Algeria. But he didn’t just copy it directly, he used his famed powers of re-interpretation, to re-imagine elements of these minimal exterior walls, window treatment and streetscapes in future projects like the chapel at Ronchamp, France, and the ‘interior streets’ of the Unite D’Habitation at Marceille.
From the traditional Algerian system of measurement based upon the average sizes of various body parts, Le Corbusier derived his own system of measurement called ‘Le Modulor’ which sought to integrate both the imperial and metric system. Based on an ‘ideal’ person who is 6 feet high or 1.829 metres, it also took reference from Vitruvius and Da Vinci who also were interested in finding a mathematical rule to ‘beauty’ based on the size and proportions of a human being.
Incorporating the ‘Golden Proportion’, Fibonacci sequential numbers and rolled out in 1945, it must have been a nightmare to dimension his projects, to require a building adhere to multiples of all these odd numbers, since the first hand-held electronic calculator was not even invented until 1967.
And that in essence is what Kasbah (2009) is about; the legacy of the Algerian human-scale measuring system. It also describes the deficiency of Modulor (or why nobody uses it), for the Algerian system is based on the average size of an Algerian person, while the Modulor is based on an idealized, western person, who is supposely 6 feet tall.
The sizes of the rooftops in Kasbah (2009) indicate the kind of spartan lives these people lived where rooms that can only fit one person. Here form definately follows function. As the visitor walks up and down these creeking roofs, one gets the feeling of what it must have been like to live inside, thus reappropriating this aspect of Algerian culture in a more ‘original’ state.
In Asesinos! Asesinos! (2014) which means ‘murderer murderer’, over 100 doors the widths of which have been cut into slender, human proportions, are turned into A-frames, allowing them to standup individually and mounted with mega-phones on top. The whole scene is abstractly reminiscent of a confrontation with a large group of people, each armed with mega-phones and accusing someone of being a murderer.
The scene could be a ‘peaceful’ public protest, but it could also be the scene of a lynching, a horrifying place where mob justice rules. The ambiguity presented here may reflect the current ambiguous geo-political climate where we’re not quite at war, but not really at peace either.
In Reasons Oxymorons (2015) videos of experts from various fields explaining their views on various types of injuries, the ‘wounds’ and the methods of ‘repair’ are displayed in TV monitors in a maze of single-person office cubicles that fills the gallery space. The oxymoron, which is defined as contradictory terms appearing in the same sentence, seems to be the contradiction of sitting separately in an office cubicle and listening to pearls of wisdom being expounded upon by experts.
What’s wrong with sitting in a cubicle, one might ask? Is the modern partitioned office the scourge of mankind? Perhaps the knowledge gained by watching these videos might be ‘dissapated’ when one goes back to his/her individualistic, competitive, dog-eats-dog life that is the plight of a class of people known as the ‘middle class’ is what this is about. The other possibility maybe that the modern office, a place where one has to take great care with information, both in guarding, acquiring and sharing it, is the antithesis of what’s going on in these videos.
In J’Accuse (2016) the wooden head and busts of a group of about 18 anonymous people sit on top of human body height stools, all facing towards a screen silently showing the film J’Accuse (1938) by French filmmaker Abel Gance which is about World War I and the horrors of war. With their faces mangled and deformed, its like these busts are all watching this movie. They are in fact modelled after real World War I veterans whose faces have been damaged, some severely but have been subsequently restored by the early forms of plastic surgery; an illustration of Attia’s concept of ‘repair’.
In the film the protagonist, a WWI survivor, invents a device that can prevent future wars from happening but it gets stolen by the company making it as WWII begins to take shape. In a last ditch effort to warn the world, he somehow summons his dead comerades, the fallen soldiers of WWI who come to life, who form a ‘protest march’ against the Government for the impending war, which would make this a ‘protest film’ nowadays. And further driving the point home, Gance persuaded real WWI war veterans with facial injuries to join this march at the end of the film, making it a pseudo documentary.
The difference between Attia’s sculptures and Gance’s film is that Attia never actually protests against having war in general, while depicting its horrors.
What Attia does say is that the plastic surgery undertaken by these WWI vets, the severely injured ones, required substantially imaginative work that was almost sculptural. In other cultures, the ‘repair’ work carried out on objects, the patches and stitches, becomes a central feature of the object, part of its ‘provenance’.
By contrast, the west seems to always have this tendancy to ‘sweep any painful, unpleasant thing under the rug’ and present an ‘always happy, always healthy and youthful’ facade for consumption. Restoration and repair in the west, traditionally, is also to erase the memory of brokenness, to take an object back to its original state at the moment of formation.
Perhaps the legacy of the notion of ‘repair’ for Kader Attia, is not just the sculptures of broken, deformed faces, but that the participants were able to come out of the shadows to reveal themselves and the restoration work performed on them. Here, the ‘repair’ not only encompassed the physical damage, but also of the underlying emotional wounds, the mark of wholeness, as people can be works of art.
In some sense, the sculptures of Kader Attia not only challenge the deficiencies in the western consciousness on appropriating elements from other cultures and how to deal with wounds; it is a depiction on how we have ‘imprisoned’ ourselves by these social or institutional systems and structures.