“Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory” began when Northwestern University’s Block Museum extended an invitation to the French-Algerian artist to use the resources of the school’s Herskovits Library of African Studies in the spring of 2015. The result was a spare and scholastic exhibition that rewarded the patient viewer with startlingly emotional content.
The cut and the suture are the chief conceptual and material operations of Attia’s work; they epitomize the violence of colonialism and the messy work of repairing the damage done by it. Two partitions cleaved a single room into three, dividing the works on view (all untitled and dated 2016) into what the show’s introductory wall text defined as three “chapters”: a grouping of three collages, a sculpture, and a “film-essay” screened in a provisional black box at the rear of the gallery.
Two of the three collages combine cut-and-pasted images from antique periodicals with digitally scanned and printed ones, bridging the gulf that separates these reproductive technologies with the near-seamlessness of their construction. The collages engage various histories, offering studies in contrasts. In one, Sony speakers appear as towering black monoliths, their scale equal to that of an ornate gateway identified in a caption as a part of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. World’s fairs historically provided a spectacular platform for Western countries to broadcast their superiority over their colonial conquests by showcasing the latest products of architectural and industrial innovation alongside picturesque colonial tableaux. When conceiving the exhibition, Attia may have been thinking about the importance of Chicago’s role as a host city for international expositions in 1893 and 1933 to its civic identity (two of the four stars in the Chicago flag represent those expos).
Opposite the aforementioned collage stood a sculpture in which an electric typewriter sits atop an unremarkable beige desk. The banality of these objects is undone by a sheet of mirrored stainless steel that slices through both like the blade of a guillotine. The reflective surface provides the symmetry the viewer craves to complete this neatly bisected tableau. The restoration would appear perfect if not for the flipped and repeating letters of the keyboard that foreclose the possibility of communication.
Playing nearby was Attia’s film Reflecting Memory (2016), which splices interviews with academics and medical professionals with footage of individuals engaged in solitary pursuits: contemplating nature, admiring urban monuments, and sitting in a church pew, hands clasped in prayer. The topic discussed by Attia’s interviewees––the phantom limb pain experienced by some amputees––hints at the film’s twist, as did the sculpture that the viewer had to pass to watch the film. And yet the revelation that the quiet figures straddle mirrors that create the illusion of a limb where there is none came as a complete shock, as did the disclosure that several of the interviewees, heretofore filmed from the shoulders up, are amputees themselves. In film theory, “suture” refers to the phenomenon by which the mind produces a narrative whole from the fragments combined through cinematic cuts, creating a semblance of totality even when we should know better than to expect one. Attia’s film deftly exposes how the desire to perceive a choate subject can itself operate as an act of erasure.
The documentary mode of film, with its assumption of investigative objectivity, has become a useful template for artists to convert to their own purposes. At worst, this can mean no more than stripping film reportage of its functional trappings-such as the informative voiceover-and enlarging it onto a gallery wall. Collages (2011), Kader Attia’s hour-long three-channel video installation about the lives of transsexuals in Algiers and Bombay, questions the possibility of objective testimony at the same time as it challenges the structural coherence we associate with artistic narrative. The use of three screens reflects the film’s three central witnesses-each also pictured in one of the panels of a photographic triptych by the gallery entrance-while formally embodying the entropy endemic to Attia’s narrative of violence, estrangement and dispossession, by allowing him to present his footage in simultaneous, often conflicting streams.
In the opening scenes, Hélène Azera, a transsexual French journalist, comments on photographs of Algerian transsexuals she knew in 1980s Paris. Broken lives are thinly veiled by the myth of a legendary, hedonistic past: “Dolly passed away very early from an overdose.” “I will show you Minouche, with my dear friend Liza, at Club 7.” Her account blends social history and private recollections. Azera’s camp nostalgia—we see her alone in a darkened cinema, reminiscing about Bollywood movies-cedes to a harsher metaphor for historical record: at a curbside table, she tearfully dictates to an impassive typist the story of her sister’s refusal to accept her sexual reorientation.
The middle-aged Algerian transsexual Pascale Ourbih takes a broader historical perspective: “For centuries transgenders had to hide. Sometimes they would pretend to be nuns. When they cleaned them on their deathbeds, they realized what they were. A transgender is killed every day.” She wanders across a beach as a golden sun sets, the soothing glow belied by a close-up of a gang of crows pecking at a dead rat in the sand. In the background, a military march gathers in the shadow of a high-rise. Attia manages to accommodate such symbolism without relinquishing specificity.
The third witness, Heena, belongs to the Hijras community of Bombay transsexuals (“half-priestesses, half-pariahs”). She was banished by her family eight years earlier. Her heavily made-up male face is young but set in a stoical mask. Femaleness, here, is an excess of signifier. The overt artifice of the transsexual image corresponds to the film’s inveigling of a documentary form into a context in which it asks to be perceived as art. Escapism and nostalgia may be the only sane responses to societies that force vulnerable minorities into lives of degradation and squalor. Finally, still images of a transsexual party dissolve the film’s isolated narratives into a spirit of communal celebration. But these stills come full circle by recalling the film’s first frames: Azera’s photographs of friends, many of whom are dead. Even in the throes of festivity, there is a shadow of mortality.
Photo: Kader Attia: Untitled (Collages), 2011, three photographs, each 31½ by 40¼ inches; at Christian Nagel.
Kader Attia is a French artist of Algerian descent who grew up in the immigrant banlieues of Paris, sites of poverty, crime and, in 2005, massive rioting. Attia’s excellent exhibition included five lush C-print photographs of Algerians sitting on huge, jumbled concrete blocks at a beach in Algiers that locals call “Rochers Carrés” (Square Rocks). In each photograph, you see one or two young men or teenagers gazing pensively at the Mediterranean and beyond, presumably toward Europe and its questionable promise of a better life. One man, viewed from behind, sits on a block’s sharp edge watching as two freighters pass by on the distant horizon. Two shirtless boys standing in slightly awkward teenage postures look half ready to do the impossible: dive into the sea and swim to Paris, spurred by fantasies of money, opportunities and glamour.
Attia’s “Rochers Carrés” (all 2009) are gorgeous and sublime: cobalt sea, bright blue sky tinged with white vapors, vivid shadows nestled among concrete blocks, human figures framed by vastness. They are also hard-hitting. You think of unemployed young men with smoldering ambitions and a lot of time on their hands. You think of Algeria punished by war with France and ravaged by civil war in the 1990s. All of these heaped-up concrete blocks begin to resemble the aftermath of a bombing or battle. They also suggest the chunky, menacing geometries of those massive apartment complexes in the banlieues where immigrants’ dreams of a better life are undermined by racism and economic limitations. Attia coupled his sea-themed photographs with sculptures consisting of what look at first like plastic-wrapped six-packs of Algerian-brand water placed atop six white pedestals. In fact, the sculptures are merely the bulging plastic forms with no bottles inside, conjuring both aridity and a melancholic sense of absence or loss.
A projector at one end of a long table in what was made to look like a conference room generated a real-time surveillance image of the room and table on the opposite wall. Rather than conjuring some fabulous cinematic elsewhere, this installation delivers a dreary, claustrophobic, closed system. In another room was Couscous Aftermaths (3000 years old movements), 2009, a video of Attia’s mother, clad in traditional Algerian garb, feigning the preparation of couscous from shards of broken mirrors. A routine, nutritive activity has been made precarious and dangerous, as if she is cooking with the remnants of shattered visions and ambition. In all mediums, Attia’s works are visually striking, revealing a convincing, very personal and urgent engagement with issues of migration and cultural collision. They also demonstrate how hope, though ever-present, frequently abuts anger and despair.
Photo: Kader Attia: Rochers Carrés, 2009, C-print, 30 by 383⁄4 inches; at Christian Nagel.