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Friday, April 4, 2008

The Artist Responds

posted by on April 4 at 10:52 AM


Here is my review of Kader Attia’s show at the Henry Art Gallery.

In a lengthy email I’ve posted below and in the jump, Attia takes me to task for it. The dialogue is a part of the work, he writes.

He wrote a kinder, gentler response to Regina Hackett’s P-I review of the show, which she posted on her blog. Disappointingly, both emails end on the same patronizing note: “What you see is not what you get.”

But that is a low point in his rhetoric. I really recommend reading the whole email. It is, in many ways, much more informative than anything else I’ve read about the show, and more informative than the artist talk Attia gave at the Henry. It is also far more personal—including Attia’s incredible narrative about being detained and questioned by Seattle authorities—and fills in certain gaps I found in the work.

Attia attributes the gaps to my imagination. He accuses me of misunderstanding, wholesale, the nature of art, reality, and journalism. Hey, if you’re going to go for it—really go for it.

Dear Jen Graves,

First of all, I would like you to know that I have read your article about my show at Henry Art Gallery with attention, and that I respect your point of view on the exhibition. Nevertheless, I would like to point out that an exhibition is not a collage of pictures, but rather the result of a long reflection. A reflection that combines my political, philosophical, sociological and emotional analyses about the world we are living in.

In an exhibition like the one at Henry Art Gallery, I attempt to break the distance between our perception of our world and its reality, based on my own history, and implementing this on a universal way, in the whole world.

Regarding your comment on “La Piste d’Atterrissage” (the Landing Strip), more than a simple demonstration “against clandestinity”, this work is the first photographic fresco that tells the story of a category of the Arab society, that my culture always tries to hide. Maybe for Western countries’ people, men dressed like women or women acting like men is normal, but in the Algerian society, it is a huge taboo these people break, putting their lives at stake. I have pictured their everyday life from the inside with a both tender and anthropological look, showing their vulnerability, their strength, and their paradoxical attachment to their home culture, which rejects them.

In the same way, the work “Flying Rats” is about the loss of childhood, the nostalgia we all feel about it, the trauma that happen during this period and that mark our entire life.
At no time it is about any bombing.
But may be you mixed your thoughts about “Flying Rats” and the ICA work “Sleeping from Memory”, which is a direct reference to the bombing of the Cana village. In this Lebanese village, which has been bombed twice in less than 5 years, hundreds of children, who were hiding in the basements, have been found dead during their sleep.

Beside this, I am quite surprised that in the same article, you mention my social origins through the idea that I recreate my “family’s crowded sleeping quarters in a suburb of Paris”, and paradoxically, next line, you use an argument from another magazine, about another work, to say that this work “[represent] a dominant-culture fantasy about the conditions of immigrant life rather than a real portrait”. If there is a fantasy, it exists for sure in the mind of the one that has written this article.
As far as I am concerned, the beds I have shown are the reproduction of those I have slept on during all my childhood in a poor “banlieue” of Paris. And even if I have a real bed now, I am still leaving here in this suburb of Paris, with my mother and my brother, in a building project in Garges-les-Gonesse. I know that today the fantasy of the “chic artist “, who travels like a star, all around the world, is common, but the reality is very far from this.

To talk about immigrants’ dormitories, my aim was to suggest these conditions of living by a subtle work, using traces rather than the real immigrants’ dormitories. Would it be better with real immigrants inside…and real policemen to check if they have ID papers? I don’t think so. On the contrary, like Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes would say, I do not adhere to the myth. And that’s what I find surprising in your article, which gives only a critic about my work on a mythological side. What about the political referent (historical, as Foucault would say) of my work? In “Ghost”, in “Sleeping from Memory”, in the plastic bags, I show the emptiness above all like a socio-political notion. It is not only a form or a myth, like you describe it.

I find it a shame that your perception of such a serious subject be limited to so formal and mythological criteria.

To go on with the limits of mythological aspects of representation, here is what Foucault says:
“In representation, a hierarchy does exist. There is not always a way to represent all representations. Like Art, the notion of representation has its own limits for representation.”
That’s why the true fantasy about the dormitories is to believe that the work would have been better if the artist would have been less “disappearing”.

I think that you have problems to understand the relationship between the works shown in this exhibition and reality. As far as I am concerned, I feel very close to reality. I just have to take a plane to experiment the reality of someone whose passport’s name is Kader Attia. I indeed spend more and more frequently 3 hours being questioned, being suspected of affiliations with terrorist movements, and in the end, of being willing to enter the territory illegally. For your information, when I have arrived in Seattle for my show at Henry Art Gallery, I have been questioned during 3 hours, from 11:30 pm and 2:30 am, by a customs agent that could not believe that there are “Office Depot” in France, and who was then asking me to explain him Contemporary Art, as he still did not believe that I was an artist. I think it has been the worst of my numerous interrogations, to explain to a customs agent from Seattle, so late in the night, something he did not want to listen to. Here is nowadays’ reality of a French man from Algerian parents, who travels.

To finish with “Sleeping from Memory”, what I find frightening in your article, is that you talk about a work you don’t even have seen, through what you have read about it in an article published in a magazine by someone else, I am sure you don’t even know. An installation has to be experienced, as it fits itself in a space, whose rhythm is like a musical style. The viewer, with his own history, neuroses, phobias, fantasies, is part of the score, no matter if the mattresses smell or not as bad as the ones of the 10 m2 room my 4 brothers and I used to sleep in.
I know media would love such works, to have the impression to be in the “true” reality, but we are here talking about art, not about journalism. What makes art interesting is the relation to distance, the famous “ good distance”, like Roland Barthes would say, which tells us the history (“the historical content of a work” Foucault would say) of the work.

A work of art is only the visible part of the iceberg, the “retinal part”, Duchamp would say. As far as I am concerned, the experience before, during and after the work is as important as the work itself. What I am currently writing to you is also part of the life of this work. A work of art is not only a concrete, physical and limited entity. In my opinion, it is above all an experience.

As I have told you, I have enjoyed reading your article, and some parts of it have raised my curiosity. One of them, which has motivated my desire to write you, is this one: « The plastic bags and empty bodies in Seattle are also signs of an evacuated presence, as if the artist has taken leave of his own work, perhaps for reasons either caused by or signifying a lack of connection between him and the hosting institution or city. This condition must afflict many of the artists who travel around the world producing art for international biennials and so-called global audiences, and Attia may be characterizing the futility of this experience. ».
I am sure you know that artists have always – and particularly from the Renaissance period – confronted and enriched the intellectual depth of their work with foreign parts. You may also know that globalization is not only a notion from 21th century.
I do not understand what you mean. Do you mean that an artist shall stay at his place, in his home country, produce “local works” for a “local audience”? Do you think Western countries shall ignore the African art of making statues and African contemporary artists? Art and artists have to travel to take part to the worldwide intellectual activity. The age of colonialism is indeed over.

Moreover, you say: “It’s hard to fathom why, except to wonder whether, in terms of execution, Attia is somewhat too in love with the gaps, the flimsiness, the discardability both of his own presence and of his materials.”
I appreciate you have tried to understand why I care so much about gaps, emptiness, poor materials, etc…, so let me answer you. First of all, you should go beyond the formal level, which means, you would then have found how the historical referent of my work, about which I have been previously talking to you, fits itself in a poetical form I really believe in, like a hope.

For example, you quote the sentence from Lao Tseu, I like a lot, about emptiness. But you only stay at the first level of the work: the formal level, the “myth’s” level.
Art is not governed by WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) rules.
As I have told you above, a work of art is not only a physical entity. It is also an experience. The shape is only necessary as a reference to the work’s “history”, its historical content, as Michel Foucault would say. I then use emptiness as a political referent, not only in its formal notion. I use emptiness to “embody” the emptiness of the world we are living in.

The world we are living in is indeed still socially weak, and despair about the future grows in our minds everyday, no matter how hard art attempts to point out all kinds of political issues.
“We have killed the future “, the philosopher Edgar Morin has said.
For several decades, and especially since September 11th, people from many religions, cultures, and races care more than ever about the past. Muslim, Jewish and Christian governments are turning back toward the past to legitimate their current policies. A significant example is given in the US by some Conservatives, who assert Creationism to explain life on earth, preferring religion, to scientific theories of natural evolution.

After the end of ideologies like socialism, and the recognition of capitalism’s weakness, people have lost hope in “a better future”, as those two systems had promised. What we are offered to project ourselves in the future is only emptiness.

In the installation “Ghost”, the political referent of emptiness (its “history or archive ”, as says Foucault) coexists with its poetic form.
This notion of emptiness exists in a spatio-temporal way: through the space contained in each sculpture, as well as the space in which these sculptures exist. Moreover, the temporal notion of emptiness is related to the medium’s fragility. I use this material – aluminum foil - to create a rupture in physical time. This spatio-temporal fault is a metaphor of another emptiness, a temporal void.

“Ghost” is a synthesis of my reflections on the boundary between political art and the reality of everyday life.

During the fifties, France was in the middle of decolonization. The reality of this political and social context, just after World War II, led some artists to question emptiness and fullness. Some filled up art spaces (Arman, “le plein”, 1960); others decided to empty them (Yves Klein, “le vide”, 1958). As my friend, the art historian Nuit Banai says: “in the French context, if you consider how Klein used emptiness in his work as a way to unveil the historical crisis and at the same time to avoid it, emptiness was first of all a way to think the public identity in the period of a political gap between the 4th and the 5th Republic, in the context of which Klein’s exhibition took place, and also a way to think the limits of the representation of Otherness in the context of the Algerian war”.

When I am in France, in the suburb city where I work, every night as I walk home from my studio, I spend a lot of time watching a crowd of people waiting with empty bags, standing on the street in front of a truck, from which they could receive free food. They could get a container of milk, or butter, or sugar. They wait in groups, huddled some against the others in the cold, holding empty plastic bags. These bags keep the shape of the food they had previously contained. For me, the traces of that shape provided the deepest and strongest testimony I could ever get of their social situation.

The imprint left on these empty plastic bags thus appears as a social and political referent - the track of a frustration, an absence, a social gap… This shape, touching because of its fragility, bespeak about distress.

But paradoxically, it poetically inhabits the emptiness it draws.
I like to believe and see that, in contrast to prosaic daily life of human beings, this poetic shape brings hope. Edgar Morin also says, that human life interweaves poetry and prose.
Prose represents the boring activities, necessary to make a living, like going to work everyday. But life is also friendship, parties, love, “consumation”, as Georges Bataille would say. « We have to live poetically ». Unfortunately, Man lives on Earth prosaically. Poetry should not be only written; it must also be lived and thought.

So, I am afraid that to experiment the poetry in these works, you should free yourself from being too prosaic. As far as Art is concerned, what you see is not what you get.

Sincerely yours,
Kader Attia.

RSS icon Comments


When I first saw the photograph I thought we were going to be launched into another long diatribe about plastic bags. Thankfully, it's just an artist taking umbrage at his coverage in the Stranger.

I have a pile of boxes in my garage, if I stick it in a gallery along with some social commentary can I call it art?

However, it is too bad that he was hassled by Seattle customs agents.

Posted by PopTart | April 4, 2008 11:10 AM


If the audience fails to grasp an artist's meaning, it's a failure of the artist, not the audience. And then writing a long apology only serves to highlight the failure. "What I MEANT to do was..."

Also, I'm deducting points for spelling art with a capital A outside of a freshman seminar on semiotics.

Posted by mattymatt | April 4, 2008 11:20 AM

I agree with mattymatt @2. Does every visitor to his exhibition get an email to explain their failings as an audience for his art?

Posted by spencer | April 4, 2008 11:31 AM

It's interesting that he spends the first part of this epic diatribe talking about how you're missing his specific intention behind his individual works, but then begins to back up his work with post-structuralist rhetoric about the individual experience of the viewer:

"The viewer, with his own history, neuroses, phobias, fantasies, is part of the score..."

Jen, I don't know what to think about art criticism but I find concord in your observation about the emptiness of the installation being reflective of the artist's own absence. I don't think it's fair for him to criticize you on that observation, saying things like:

"Art and artists have to travel to take part to the worldwide intellectual activity."

...while simultaneously acknowledging that it's impossible to fully understand his work without being familiar with local culture, i.e. the transgendered group in "La Piste d’Atterrissage" that he so didactically spells out for you.

Thanks for posting this e-mail in full.

Posted by C-skillet Oly | April 4, 2008 12:12 PM

"The dialogue is a part of the work, he writes."

Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Artist, you are RUINING it for artist. If you cannot create pieces that stand up on their own, it is not always the viewers fault. Duchamp was one of the biggest dick-heads in arts recent history, and even HE didn't take that attitude... publicly.

At least he didn't scribble a witty caption on the bottom of it.

Posted by Dougsf | April 4, 2008 1:29 PM

I'm sympathetic to Mr.Attia's response, but not because I think Ms.Graves was insensitive to the work's more subtle and reflective qualities. There's a lot going on here, so I'll choose an area of specific interest. The fact that Mr. Attia responded to a review of his work underlines an
interesting problem for artists trying to convey meaning, especially concerning issues around absence/presence. There are significant choices to be made for sure, and it's not always clear that those artists who simplify or self-consciously direct don't reduce the interpretive space of the audience to a formal exercise or to polemic dodge-ball. It's also not always a bad thing. Bill Fontana's Objective Sound at Western Bridge here in Seattle last year seems to me to be a wonderful example of formal reduction with a dynamic range that left room for meaning to creep in, or be placed on top, or for none at all. SuttonBeresCuller also, in my opinion, address this issue in some of their work by allowing the audience to participate and therefore don't necessarily have to worry about sending the message--meaning is doing, and the thinkin' bout maybe comes later, outside the boundaries of the work. But it also appears that any artist working the conceptual terrain must be aware of the blatant limitations when attempting to communicate specific intent, (especially political) whether it's form, content/function or process--within a domain that often sees itself as the social space par excellence for plurality of interpretation and expression. Mr. Attia is obviously familiar with the French philosophical and critical-theory landscape of the last 60 years; clarifying one's position w/r/t ye olde "death of the author" conundrum is a good anti-anxiety for any artist reading abbreviated (and they most always are) reviews of his/her philosophically-laden work. Personally, I think every conceptual artist should have her own PR philosopher-scientist-storyteller.

Posted by wyndel hunt | April 4, 2008 2:06 PM

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