Le plein ("the complete") and le vide ("the void")—the formal tensions between presence and absence, the metaphysical distances between artist, object, and viewer—feature literally and conceptually in Kader Attia's sculpture, photography, and video. Attia emphasizes these as conceptual touchstones in his work, speaking at length about the emptiness at the center of his sculptures. "Le Plein" and "Le Vide" are also, incidentally, titles of the artists' photographs of the wall separating Israel and the West Bank (2008). The pair reappear in his installation of gaping aluminum foil figures in Ghost (2008) and in Untitled (Plastic Bags) (2008), in which ubiquitous colored plastic shopping bags stand erect on pedestals. "The emptiness of these bags, the statement of this void, is the difference between aesthetics and ethics," says Attia. Born in Paris to an Algerian family and now based in Berlin, Attia is the recent recipient with curator Laurie Ann Farrell of the Abraaj Capital Art Price in Dubai to support artists and curators who show them from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
"La Force de L'Art," 2009, Paris Triennale, Grand Palais, Paris 2009
"As a fold, Horizon is not a space," Attia's exhibition of new works at Galerie Christian Nagel, opens this week in Berlin. New photographs, Rochers Carrés (2009), depict Algerian boys gazing at the sea from concrete blocks put in place explicitly to prevent stealthy escape to tankers anchored at the horizon. His plastic bag sculptures, reappearing here as bottle wrappers, were originally titled "folds"; as the eye approaches the fold of the horizon, we see only that which we cannot access, and are directed again to the emptiness at the center of Attia's work.
ALTMAN: Everyday plastic bags, the kind we get at the supermarket, and that we're scolded for using because they turn up in landfills, appear, standing uncannily still and upright, on pedestals in Untitled (Plastic Bags), most recently exhibited in Universal Circus Ltd.-City Performances at Art TLV. What is your interest in this material?
ATTIA: I worked for a non-profit organization in Paris in 2007 that gave food to the homeless. Each person would come with an empty plastic bag and I would fill it. They didn't say anything to me; they just held out their bags. After six months, I distributed the food mechanically. One day a voice of one of the homeless men said, "Please, two more." I gave him more, and he walked away, took the goods out, and sold them, leaving the bag on a bench nearby.
Ghost, Installed at the Saatchi Gallery, 2007.
ALTMAN: What were you thinking when you saw the homeless man take the goods and sell them? What were the ethics of the role you were playing with him?
ATTIA: I was left with the lingering impression that this empty bag was a sculpture. The gesture impressed me with how obvious and simple creation can be. The moment, too, impressed me: the sculpture was ephemeral, and art was an experience, rather than something preserved in a museum.
The moment also caused me to think about my role as a political artist. Is a political statement in art relevant in regard to the reality of the society? I don't think so. The political message of the work is not obvious, but it is the experience I had with the homeless that provided the aesthetic. After that experience I saw the emptiness of these bags, this void, as a separation between aesthetics and ethics. As Lao-Tzu says, "Many creates things but the void gives them meaning." The void in and outside the bag give it meaning, even as it leads us to the contrary conclusion, that the bag's extreme fragility and emptiness makes it a failure.
ALTMAN: How was the piece received in Tel Aviv?
ATTIA: I was excited by the response I had to this piece in Tel Aviv. The art scene in Tel Aviv has changed very fast since 2000, and the city itself has rapidly expanded and changed. In the last seven years, high-rise buildings have transformed the Middle Eastern Zionist socialist architecture of the city, with its Modernist and Bauhaus constructions, into a Western, capitalist scene. At the same time, from the outside we know that Tel Aviv is under threat. I think that's why the Tel Aviv audience loved the bags: Tel Aviv, like the bags, stands up tall and straight, poetic, colorful, balanced, thoughtful, even as it is defined by fragility.
ALTMAN: Your plastic bag sculptures seem to represent a point of evolution in your work. Are there other pieces that you see as an important shift in your practice?
ATTIA: Ghost, which is an installation of aluminum casts of kneeling figures, was also important for me. The casting began with my mother. She is very old and is going to die, and I wanted to keep something from her. Then slowly, the more I casted other figures to complete the installation, I felt it was a Sisyphean task. I was filling the space with emptiness. The more I created, the more I felt a void, in both its physical and temporal dimensions. As with the plastic bags, the viewer is just in front of a representation of his fragility and his finiteness.
ALTMAN: In many of your pieces, like Untitled (Skyline) (2007) and Kasbah (2008), you construct a landscape that is inaccessible: we see the physical outlines of an architectural space, but we cannot enter it. In Untitled (Skyline), the viewer encounters a landscape of mirrored fridges, while Kasbah consists of corrugated, rusted zinc roofs, on which visitors can walk. In both cases, an architectural landscape is evoked, but the viewer does not interact with the work on a customary scale: In the case of Kasbah, he walks on it, rather than into it; with Untitled (Skyline), looking at the facades only creates reflections of ourselves. To look at either sculpture is to be referred back to oneself.
ATTIA: With Kasbah, I am trying to disorient the viewer and create distance, both physical and metaphorical. As the viewer enters the gallery, expecting to encounter an artwork, he finds himself on top of the artwork, looking at the other viewers. In this way, the piece functions as a pedestal and rather than encountering an artwork with a clear meaning, the viewer becomes the artwork-much like how the plastic bags are placed on a pedestal, elevating the void.
ALTMAN: In La Piste D'Atterrissage (Landing Strip, 2000-2002), a slide installation follows a group of Algerian transvestites working as prostitutes outside Paris at an abandoned beltway of the same name. Viewers watch this community confront uncertain political status in France after being driven out of Algeria. You worked with the community to help solidify their legal status in France. Do you often create artworks related to political work you are engaged with?
ATTIA: It happens by accident. With Landing Strip, I met the women and had no initial idea of making a work about them. But I became fascinated with their glamour, but also how they represent an alternative politics. These transvestites left Algeria because Islamism was very dangerous for them. They went to Paris, but it was worse there: the French didn't want anything to do with these Arab homosexuals and transvestites, and they lived there illegally. I created an organization that aimed to give them documents so they could work. We found them jobs working in a factory, and proper papers.
"As a fold, Horizon is not a space" is open through October 31. Christian Nagel Berlin is located at Weydinger Str. 2/4.