My text for the photos of the artist Kader Attia ( Marcel Duchamps prise) published for the Ludwig museum in Germany .
Kader Attia/Davvetas/translated by V. Wildenstein
Kader Attia and the Creative Overthrowing of Limits
The deconstruction of traditional artistic discourse is one of the main issues that modernist perception bequeathed to contemporary art. By deconstructing the concept of “Mimesis”, the image of the artwork as a “telos” (an end and a purpose, according to Aristotle), as “perfect”, as finished, was also deconstructed, only to be replaced by open works, poised for constant expansion, as Kant said, works that precisely because of their openness lend themselves to multiple interpretations. From Picasso to Le Corbusier to Duchamp and Beuys, the expansion was achieved through the frontal or direct reaction of the avant-garde, which was not afraid to clash with traditional artmaking conventions. This perpetually expanding path relied, in part, on two high points in the history of philosophical thought: the pre-Socratic philosophers and Friedrich Nietzsche. The former provided the possibility of creating art via the elemental world. The latter provided the power of the hammer, the creative hammer that crashes with guiltless violence on the logic of Mimesis and shatters it.
A new artistic language can be born from even the smallest of fragments, one which will rely in part upon the fragmented reality and in part upon the imagination of the viewer who will complete it. By destroying the “mimetic” offspring, its formal architecture is also shattered. But, at the same time, in deconstructing the finished form of the work, we achieve a return to the original elements/materials of which it was composed. This is, in essence, an inward-looking art process, a process that seeks to go beyond the history of forms and grasp their primordial building blocks. It seeks to reach the “archi” (αρχή; beginning) of “techtoniki” (τεχτονική; construction), before it becomes architecture, or before it becomes a finished form. Important artists who decisively marked contemporary art, like Beuys and Duchamp, have followed this visual trajectory. And so has Kader Attia. One has but to look at his works to understand this and, in particular, to comprehend the workings of the subversive creative expansion that pervades his artistic language.
Ambivalence of Boundaries
In his artwork, “Rochers Carrés” (2008), we see two young men, one black, one white, standing together, looking into unknown depths. Where are they standing? On rocks like those that nations often use to signpost the notion of boundary. That ground is not smooth, nor does it have the rectilinear equilibrium that generally characterizes such surfaces. And yet the two young men do not let on that they are affected by this situation. With their own sense of stability, they stare, with concentration and purpose, at the point where sea meets sky, where their gazes come together, drawn by the same line, which designates their dreams for a better life. There is a multidimensional approach in Kader Attia’s work: it connects politics, art, and the discourse of self-awareness. This approach provides a work in expansion, open to life itself and to reality.
Kader Attia’s work is political. Not in the sense of activist art, but in the sense set forth by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, where he wrote that politics were the highest form of art. And it is deeply political because it touches on essential problems affecting civilians’ everyday reality. What is more political than showing young people’s desires and dreams of escaping boundaries and ghettos, of going places, of traveling, and of bettering their lives? What is more political than showing limits as an unequal reality in which young people cannot fend for themselves, but upon which they stand and wait to depart? What is more political than placing together, side by side, two young men of different racial backgrounds, and showing them, in the teeth of every racist notion, how to contribute to the dream of overcoming boundaries in the pursuit of happiness?
In this case, even though it can function dissuasively, Kader Attia’s boundary seems ready to yield in front of the steady decisiveness of youth. Their will appears to want to draw nearer the seemingly distant “other” side, that point where the horizon brings together earth and sky. The type of art Attia creates is deeply political, because it combines an interest in the human/citizen with the need of artistic discourse for a contemporary vehicle of expression.
Building Blocks as a Linguistic Foundation
The value of materials is a primordial element in Attia’s visual language. He does not present them as a part of a finished architecture. On the contrary, he presents them as a part of a broken architecture. He is very interested in the direct relationship between man and natural materials. The young men, the rocks, the squared rocks, the natural horizon all compose an image that ties together as a whole. He does not separate human from natural element. The one exists within the other and vice versa.
Here, the artist seems to tell us that freedom lies in the broken limits or boundaries of an already existing visual architecture. The future is in the dream, the imagination, and not in the strict limits of formal architecture. It brings us back to the work’s composition, to its fundamental building blocks, and gives us free rein in imagining what comes next. “Rochers Carrés” combines elements of visual observation, photographs and cinematic language. It is a work of great immediacy that incites the viewers to react, to reflect, to try to interpret it via their own personal views and interpretations.
A Tool of Self-Awareness
In parallel, however, this work also functions as a tool of self-awareness. Because understanding artistic expression down to the elemental components of the architectural form simultaneously returns it to a place of self-awareness. Kader Attia proposes that art should return to its primordial building blocks, the ones that can consequently become the material and foundation of a new visual, formal path. At the same time, the artist’s self-aware work urges us to stand upon the primordial blocks of creation. What is ahead of us when we look at this image? Water, wind, earth, people: the four original elements of our cosmic architecture, as posited by Heraclitus in his Logos, or by Pythagoras in his Tetractys. When viewing the work for the first time, we could say that no, it is not true since the fire element is missing. And yet, what if we imagine the human being (in this case the two young men) as a natural element that is aflame with the desires of life and dreams? Then, yes, we could see the human fire work in synergy with the other elements and produce a message of substance in Kader Attia’s work: human and nature are not separate entities; they come together in creation.
The artist’s work also functions as a type of cosmic self-awareness. The issue of total self-awareness (in terms of art and humanity) is all-present in the artist’s work. The fragmented limit is not necessarily something unpleasant, but it is laborious. It can play the opposite role in understanding our own limits, on all levels: in other words, what did I have/what did I lose/what do I have/what do I want to have. It is a frontal rejection by a theatrical self who learned to live behind masks and artificial entities. The next work, “Mirrors and Masks” (2013) makes the aforementioned ideas even clearer.
Without the Mirror’s Mask
Mask and mirror work together here in the expansion and opening of boundaries between history and contemporary art. The mask as an archaeological trace is also a symbolic façade, which functions as a historical, self-imprisoning boundary. The mask is our boundary. We are not free. We are fearful and “protected” by the artificial mask. By placing mask and mirror in synergy, Attia wants to dispute the limits (boundaries) between archaeology and art, between historical and new, between old and young. Through the mirror’s gaze, the mask, as symbol of the cryptic, the unknown and the self-limiting, shatters; and a passage toward the obvious, the known, the beyond-the-self-limit is opened, along with a path where past becomes a fertile and active present. The mask is no longer an element of isolation and self-imprisonment. It forms a bridge of civilizing dialogue between history and material, within an artwork where “before” and “after” collaborate in tandem, toward a fertile, expanded, human “after”. In Kader Attia’s work, the mask does not hide: it reveals. It shows the deepest inner face of a historical self, eager to contribute to the contemporary, ecumenical expression of art. The emotions, until now hidden, petrified behind the mask, manifest themselves, come to life, are freed. They become the building blocks of an ongoing, historical, political, cultural, and artistic discourse, something akin to an architectural expression “in progress”. The oppressed narcissism, rather than becoming a mummy of self-punishment, becomes an open, live organism in full creative fertility. An equivalent spirit permeates the artist’s work, “Untitled (Skyline)” (2007).
The refrigerators, which are encrusted with small mirrors, give the impression of a horizon (skyline). What is that horizon (which, etymologically, signifies not beyond what is determined)? In this picture, we see something of a big city that automatically leads us to the idea of modern architecture. But is what we see reality or illusion? The artist tells us that it is the latter, and he shows that to us once more through the use of mirrors. The mirror invades “reality”, reveals it, overturns it, questions it as a limit/boundary. The mirror brings to light the modernist architectural utopia by dissolving the limits of distance.
This metropolis, which from afar seems beautiful and ideal, is not so, up close. The dream is probably a nightmare. Attia wants to demolish illusions and return us to reality. To that creativity beyond the limit. That of a constantly fertile self-awareness. Simultaneously, however, his work also carries a critique of Aesthetics. Something that looks beautiful and innocuous is not so, up close. As can be derived from Aristotle’s masterpiece, Poetics, it is one thing to see the fire of a volcano that erupts and another to be at its foot and running for one’s life. Aesthetics can be deceiving. In Attia’s work, “deception” (or pláni) eventually gives way to “seduction” (or apo-plánisi). He doesn’t hesitate to show naked truth through his work, including the kind of truth that emerges from the rubble of illusions. We can discern a similar atmosphere in his equally powerful work, “Asesinos! Asesinos!” (2015).
About one hundred doors, cut in half vertically and positioned in an A-shape, along with megaphones placed high atop the doors, compose Attia’s installation, “Asesinos! Asesinos!” The entire composition gives the impression of a crowd of protesters who originate from all corners of the earth. “Asesinos! Asesinos!” the multinational protesters seem to shout, thus expressing their incredulity with regards to the crisis. Another of Attia’s works where political art is in action. And once again, the sense of limit/boundary remains a prevalent theme. The door is a metaphor for this limit, since it has the capacity to both free and block movement. Entrance/exit, open/closed, private/public, known/unknown: so many questions that touch the limits of the known identity, but also of the art itself, like a road that unites rather than separates.
Despite the fact that this work is at first glance accusatory, judging from its title and character, it simultaneously signals the need to demolish seclusion, so that by mobilizing ourselves, we can help minimize differences and achieve not only a dialogue between strangers, but also the defeat of fear and the victory of optimism. The artist seems to tell us that there is no dead end. There is always and everywhere a way out. Let us find it, work toward it, celebrate it by taking examples from history, even by way of edible materials, which we see in Attia’s work, “Untitled (Couscous)” (2009).
The Diachronically Ephemeral
Couscous as a food is a nutritional element, which has been used and prepared for over 3,000 years. Here, we find ourselves faced with an interesting paradox. On the one side, we have materials that have an ephemeral life, because either they will be consumed or they will spoil. And on the other, we have a diachronic cultural continuation, that is just as enduring as so many well-known and important works of art. By seeking out new materials and trying to approach the immediacy and everyday life of humans through art, Kader Attia has chosen a material that does not belong to the common arsenal of artistic materials. With this material, he constructs an architectural form which many believe to be an answer to Le Corbusier and, in particular, to his functional, “orthological” architecture. Beyond this, however, the use of an easily molded, fluid material leads to a work that brings to mind Beuys and his sculptures made of organic materials.
On the Way to “Gignesthai”
In brief, Kader Attia’s visual discourse could be perceived as a creative approach, a creative dialogue between himself (in Greek, taftón) and the other (etéron). Via contemporary expression, he fundamentally sets forth a diachronic, ancient and always current question: what are the limits between me (as a country, a culture, a society, politics, art) and the different other? He wants to chart the powers of the already known in comparison to the unknown, even when this feat initially seems impossible. Basically, he wants to expand our self-awareness and our cultural potential, aiming at the mystification of fear and its consequence, exclusion. He wants to shed light on the darkest sides of humanity and thus contribute to its meaningful evolution. At the same time, he aspires to play a part in helping art find balance between its visual and political expression. Kader Attia’s art is deeply human, because it resides in constantly knocking down limits, of our inner and social existence. It closely resembles what Plato called “becoming” (gígnesthai).