Editorial
 

Thibault Boulvain the repair occident to extra-occidental cultures. reinventation and reconstruction in the work of kader attiaLe Théâtre est dans la rue de Wolf Vostell : Manifeste pour un public artiste ?

Hartung-Bergman Foundation Seminar, June 2013

Thibault Boulvain is currently writing, under the supervision of Philippe Dagen (University of Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne), a doctoral thesis entitled Un ‘‘art malade”: Pratiques et créations artistiques au temps des ‘‘années sida” (1981-1997). États-Unis/Europe.  An assistant for the “Disasters of War” exhibition (Louvre-Lens, May 28-October 6, 2014), in October 2013 Thibault Boulvain joined the French National Institute of Art History as a research analyst and fellow in the area of the “History of Contemporary Art in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.” He is working as an assistant for the upcoming Louvre-Lens exhibition, “The Disaster of War.”

the repair from occident to extra-occidental cultures
reinvention and reconstruction in the work of kader attia

           

            The problem of “repair [réparation]” runs through the art of Kader Attia (b. 1970) for now going on a decade and a half.  His interest began when one of his friends offered him some African material patched up with the help of a piece of Vichy fabric.  Intrigued by this mending job, Attia developed an interest in African objects (masks, statuettes, and various other items) “repaired” in this way and preserved today in the greatest museums of the Western world.  He was then able to observe that such objects either are rare there or are exhibited in such a way that their repairs remain largely hidden.  For Attia, this de-monstration or occultation is the sign of the real difficulty the European scientific community experiences when thinking about such objects: integrating exogenous elements into their original creative context (buttons, fabrics, or coins from colonial society), they thus elude the reassuring taxonomies of Art History.  The second stage, for Attia, was to look into the chronology of the reception of these African objects in Europe and to develop, on this basis, a basic postulate that now guides his work: according to the artist, around the turn of the Twentieth Century, when these “repaired” objects arrived in Europe (where they were considered crude, incomplete, formless, bastardized), the West was engaged in a quest for a kind of ideal of formal and aesthetic perfection, of which World War I constituted perhaps, paradoxically, the acme.

Disfiguration

            A vast immersive installation presented during documenta 13 in Kassel, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures sets up a confrontation between thoughts and practices of “repair” from one continent to another, from one culture to another, and from one time to another.   Haunted by the specter of the Great War, this work invites the viewer to reevaluate the concept of perfection, particularly through the prism of the issue of disfiguration.

            The Repair effectively brings out the way in which efforts at “repair” obey, depending on whether the culture is Occidental or extra-Occidental, one or another of two antagonistic logics.  In Africa, Attia recalls, in the same way that scarifications or corporeal distortions pertain to aesthetic strategies for completing a body judged imperfect, the repair of an object is part of the process of its embellishment, thereby allowing it to be reborn and offering it a new future.  Because it pertains to an invention of new forms, to a reinvention of the object, the repair in question has to be visible and must be affirmed in its full materiality.  In Western cultures, on the contrary, the ideal of perfection requires that it be dissimulated as much as possible.  During World War I, as Attia emphasizes, reconstructive surgery, which was then undergoing great developments, thus strove to erase from shattered faces the stigmata of war.  It was the job of surgeons to bring back one’s original, intact, ideal countenance [figure].  The “broken mug” [gueule cassée]1 was to be repaired, one’s visage was to be brought back, with all traces wipe away.
            In the comparisons and confrontations Attia establishes between African objects and repaired “broken mugs,” the emphasis is indeed placed on the development, during the War, of the techniques employed for the repair of bruised bodies.  Thus, the artist underscores the fact that, from an almost “artisanal” form of repair that, at bottom, was quite close to the kind done for African objects—wherein sutures still furrow disfigured brows and reconstruction sometimes increases the disfiguration—little by little the transition was to a much more subtle, more “discreet,” so to speak, form of repair, taken as a symbol of progress and modernity nevertheless belied by the barbarity on the fields of battle.
            The body at war, wounded in its flesh, mutilated, interests Attia because its disfiguration is a blow struck against identity itself.  Set at the heart of The Repair’s visual apparatus, the motif of the scar poses the problem of its representation and of its “showability,” of its acceptance as well as its rejection, of its signification as well as of the stakes involved.  Two decades before Attia, Sophie Ristelheuber, upon returning from a stay in Yugoslavia (July 1991), did a show entitled “Every One” in a Parisian hospital; it consisted of fourteen, very large-format photographs of bodies, each one marked by a recent suture, like so many allegories of the Serbo-Croatian conflict.

Being the Other

            While The Repair binds man and object, the animate and the inanimate, the carnal and the material into one and the same reflection on the concepts of repair and perfection, Paul Ardenne recalls that, when set at the heart of documenta 13, this work was basically for Attia a matter of reflecting (and getting others to reflect) on “two ways of shaping human beings that are presented . . . in simultaneous and spectacular fashion,” the one as well as the other referring back, perhaps, to “a diametrically opposed representation of human beings—the metaphysical dimension for the African mask; the death drive and barbarity for the ‘broken mug.’”2 Most certainly, the “proximity, in terms both of the plastic arts and of symbolism,”3 between, especially, the African mask and the “broken mug”—which had already been picked up on by the Surrealists in their time, in particular by Georges Bataille in Documents—forces us to reevaluate another concept Attia places at the center of his reflections: barbarity.

            While in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, the aesthetic of the African mask or of the fetish object signified, for Europeans, the irreducible alterity, nay even the intrinsic savagery, of the Other, of the “uncivilized,” the Great War itself, Sigmund Freud recalled in 1915 in his Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, revealed the barbarity in what is civilized.  War, wrote Freud, is that moment when people thought they could “withdraw for a while from the constant pressure of civilization and to grant a temporary satisfaction to the instincts which they had been holding in check”; it “strips us,” he says, “of the later accretions of civilization, and lays bare the primal man in each of us.”4 The Repair now requires a decentering of our gaze and opens up our sometimes blinded eyes: in this vast space for reflection created by Attia, who in reality is the “Civilized” and who is the “Barbarian”?  The “Savage” is, at bottom, undoubtedly not the one thought to be so, but the one who hides less behind African masks, the artist suggests, than behind the masks of flesh of the victims of the Great War.

Mutilated Memories

            Scars and their repair are, in Attia’s work, also memory laden.  His entire oeuvre affirms a conflict-ridden cultural identity, and he champions as a model of artistic commitment Émile Zola’s “J’accuse.”  Attia believes in both art’s redemptive power and its capacity to make us reflect on the impasses to which our ways of thinking lead us.  For this Franco-Algerian artist whose oeuvre constantly investigates “geographical or religious collisions, cultural and social contradictions, memberships in complex identities, globalization, and ethnic breakdowns,”5 his work is itself “an analyst’s couch.”6 “I use the medium of art,” he says, “to say political things but also as a psychoanalytic prop.  I like the idea that art might be able to be a kind of psychotherapy for the artist as well as for the viewer.”7

            At documenta 13, The Repair offers the artist a way of trying to accelerate the memory process, which, since the outset, has been set at the heart of the artist’s discourse and project.  Here, in Germany (where modern and extra-Occidental art were condemned in 1937 as “degenerate”), within the symbolic space of one of the world’s most celebrated exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, various (Western) works in the History of Art are placed on the shelves that go to make up this installation.  They remind the visitor to what extent European artistic imaginaries were fertilized by the so-called primitive arts and how modernity itself was defined in part with the aid of those contributions.  “A whole nourished by collected images, newspaper clippings, posters, documentary films, and statuettes, [The Repair] constitutes, without any doubt,” writes Paul Ardenne, “the ultimate monument for the debt the West has contracted with countries that, not so long ago, were vassals still held in its colonial yoke.”8

            Frustrating, moreover, our traditional reading of cultural transfers and exchanges between the African and the European continent, Attia has asked contemporary African sculptors to execute for the exhibition some busts of people with “facial wounds,” done on the basis of photographs.  This is a way for the artist to make it known that, while the great Moderns of Western Art History were able to gaze at the Other, this Other today casts, in return, his own gaze on Western Man in all his destructive savagery.  It is also a way of recalling that those with “broken mugs” were not only Europeans and that colonized Africa, too, laid its dead on the altar of war.

            As “the ultimate monument for the debt” the West owes Africa, The Repair is a memorial museum that functions as a space of historical memory.  Through his environments, installations, photographs, drawings, and videos, a memory of war and, especially, of colonization returns, crushingly, obsessively, in all of Attia’s work.  Because art can also pacify—the living, surely, the dead, perhaps—and because it can treat wounded souls, but especially because it can repair, that is to say, do justice and render justice, Attia attributes to it a central role in the rewriting of a history and a memory.  In this sense, The Repair, along with some of the artist’s other productions, exemplifies, in the field of art, what Jack Goody was denouncing in 2006 in his militant essay The Theft of History.9 Because this work arrives after the break-in and the theft, the wound, in Attia’s work the act of repair is a process of restitution, of reappropriation of what was or remains stolen: an identity, a history, a memory, all of which have been mutilated.  It is, in short, a reinvention of our gaze on the world of yesterday, of today, and of tomorrow.  It is also a promise—of reconciliation between cultures and men.


Notes

1. “Mug” is meant here metonymically, to designate the human face as a whole; the French word gueule usually means “jaw” or “mouth” and can also designate the overall face.  Gueule cassée was an expression invented after World War I by Colonel Yves Picot to refer to those with wartime facial injuries, and more generally (in a second degree of metonymy), those devastated physically and/or psychologically by the War.  —Trans.

2. Paul Ardenne , “dOCUMENTA (13). Générosité ambiguë et pulvérisation de la culture,” http://paulardenne.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/documenta-13-texte-paul-ardenne.pdf (page consulted October 7, 2013).

3. Ibid.

4. Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915). Standard Edition, vol. 14, pp. 285, 299.

5. Frank Lamy and Stéphane Léger, Émoi & moi, exhibition presented at MAC-VAL (Val-de-Marne Museum of Contemporary Art) in Vitry-sur-Seine, February 23-May 19, 2013 (Vitry-sur-Seine: MAC-VAL, 2013), p. 13.

6. Béatrice de Rochebouët, “Kader Attia dans l’œil des musées,” Le Figaro, June 17, 2006.

7. Damien Sausset, “Kader Attia face aux fractures du monde,” Connaissance des arts, June 2006: 63-66; see p. 63.

8. Paul Ardenne, “dOCUMENTA (13). Générosité ambiguë et pulvérisation de la culture.”

9. Jack Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).




Selected Bibliography

AUPETITALLOT, Yves and Thierry PRATT. Kader Attia. Exhibition presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon, June 15-August 23, 2006, and at Magasin, French National Center of Contemporary Art of Grenoble, October 21, 2006-January 7, 2007. Zurich: JRP Ringier and New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2006.

DURAND, Régis, Octavio ZAYA, and Hannah FELDMAN. Kader Attia. Exhibition presented at the Centro Huarte de Arte Contemporeano, July 4-September 28, 2008. Huarte: Centro Huarte, 2008.

La critique à l’œuvre: Xavier Velhan, Mathieu Mercier, Kader Attia, Claude Lévêque, Annette Messager, Fabrizio Plessi, Daniel Depoutot. Texts by students in the Department of Visual Arts at the Art UFR (Teaching and Research Unit) of Marc Bloch University (Strasbourg). Strasbourg: Université Marc Bloch, 2007.

FREUD, Sigmund. Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. 1915. Standard Edition, vol. 14.

FROGIER, Larys. Ouvertures algériennes/Réactions vivantes: Kader Attia, Khaled Belaïd, Farid Redouani, Samira Sahnoun, Zined Sedira. Exhibition organized at La Criée, Contemporary Art Center of Rennes, June 6-August 14, 2003. Rennes: La Criée/Centre d’art contemporain, 2003.

LAMY, Frank, and Stéphane LÉGER. Émoi & moi. Exhibition presented at MAC-VAL (Val-de-Marne Museum of Contemporary Art) in Vitry-sur-Seine, February 23-May 19, 2013. Vitry-sur-Seine: MAC-VAL, 2013.

RENARD, Emilie. “Kader Attia: à double détente.” Beaux-Arts Magazine, December 2006: 61-63.

ROCHEBOUËT, Béatrice de. “Kader Attia dans l’œil des musées.” Le Figaro, June 17, 2006.

SAUSSET, Damien. “Kader Attia face aux fractures du monde.” Connaissance des arts, June 2006: 63-66.

 





1. Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Fridericianum, June 9-September 16, 2013.
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support and courtesy of Galleria Continua, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Krinzinger. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France; Aarc—Algerian Ministry of Culture.

 

 



2. Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Fridericianum, June 9-September 16, 2013.
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support and courtesy of Galleria Continua, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Krinzinger. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France; Aarc—Algerian Ministry of Culture. Still (detail of video slide show).

 

 


3. Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Fridericianum, June 9-September 16, 2013.
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support and courtesy of Galleria Continua, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Krinzinger. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France; Aarc—Algerian Ministry of Culture. Still (detail of the installation).

 

 


4. Kader Attia, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Fridericianum, June 9-September 16, 2013.
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA 13 with the support and courtesy of Galleria Continua, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Krinzinger. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France; Aarc—Algerian Ministry of Culture. Still (detail of video slide show).