By Juliet Helmke
French-Algerian artist Kader Attia appears to be everywhere at once in 2017. Lehmann Maupin recently unveiled his second solo exhibition with the gallery, featuring the large-scale video installation Reason’s Oxymorons, which is set up like some kind of cross between a soulless cubicle office and a human-sized maze where one can encounter Attia’s collection of interviews with philosophers, ethnologists, historians, psychiatrists, musicologists, and healers on topics as wide ranging as exile and magical science. The winner of last year’s Prix Marcel Duchamp, his work is on view in the finalist's exhibition at the Centre Pompidou through January 30. He also curated the first of the Sharjah Biennial’s four offsite projects, which took place on January 8 and 9 in Dakar, Senegal in advance of the Biennial’s opening on March 10. On January 21 the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University will open an exhibition of newly commissioned work based in part on his research in the school’s Herskovits Library of African Studies; and a major survey of his work will open at the Musuem of Contemporary Art Australia in April. He spoke with Artinfo about the perennial point of investigation in his work — the notion of how repair can take place after a large-scale societal injury — and how this drives the projects on view throughout this year in these various far-flung corners of the globe.
You've often made work dealing with post-colonial diaspora and the far reaching effects of western colonization. When did you first begin to make work around these concerns and what is of particular focus now?
I have always been working on a process of repair — the word we are living in is full of material and immaterial injuries — that the economic and political order of power endlessly denies. I grew up in a family that was cut between my mother, who wanted to live in freedom as a woman, far from the traditional repressing social order for women in the mountains of deep Algeria, and my father who had fought beside his mother during the French colonial horror, which happened for 132 years in Algeria. My grandmother was able to live freely as a woman because when Algeria was colonized, all the Algerian men and women equally suffered under French rule. After the war, a part of the Algerian society, including my father and his mother, a former Moudjahidin (resistant), found it very hard to turn the page from the former ruler. This was the case of my mother, whom in the end spent most of her life in France. In my research this psychological toll on the lives of former colonized citizens is as crucial as it is sensitive. Psychoanalytically, I think that the mix of Christianization, colonization, and the modern project has traumatized peoples, producing a cultural complex that travels through generations, and even more today echoes in the failure of great Islamic civilizations, which are used by extreme ideologies.
How do these concerns play out in the Lehmann Maupin show and the work Reason's Oxymorons?
Reason's Oxymorons is a display of 18 movies that came to fruition over a period of two years, based on my research on psychopathology and belief. The idea that psychological sciences highjacked the traditional treatments for the mind has always occurred to me as another metastasis of colonialism in its denial of other cultures. My work is an installation that displays a cubicle office space, in which each desk has a plasma screen with a movie playing. This installation of 18 movies, ranging from 11-35 minutes, can be explored as a library. I would not be surprised if people want to see them all the same day, even if the total accumulation of all the films is about 5 hours, but most of the time people watch 4 or 7 of them, and come back another days to see the rest of the films. Reason’s Oxymorons allows windows on other cultures and practices of healing the pathologies of the mind. It provides a journey through interviews with psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, philosophers, priests, imams, and traditional healers from Africa, Europe and North America, all sharing their knowledge with the viewer. This project is the core of the Lehmann Maupin exhibition, and will be shown for the first time in the US.
Tell me about winning the Pix Marcel Duchamp and the work that is on view at the Centre Pompidou.
The Duchamp Prize offered an occasion to present a series of works that I have been thinking about for several years. It centers on the concept of repair, but specifically weaves a connection between the individual and the social group. From a surgical and neurological phenomenon — the phantom limb that despite its absence still provokes pain — I developed a reflection on the similarity between the after effects of amputation and the loss of a large part of the population following a historical catastrophe.
What is the section of the Sharjah Biennial that you curated?
The Chief Curator of this year's Sharjah Biennial, Christine Tohmé, invited me to curate a project as an interlocutor. I developed my own project based on the key word of “water,” which was selected from the topics “crops,” “earth,” and “culinary,” which will take place in Istanbul, Ramalah and Beirut respectively as remote projects of the Sharjah Biennial. Christine generously left all of the interlocutors to their own intellectual space, allowing us to frame our project without any limits. Water is a fundamental element and topic, so I decided first to do it in Dakar, a location of similar geographical and climate conditions to Sharjah. Dakar is a city where I feel a strong intellectual articulation from the local to the global. Like Sharjah, it is turned toward the sea, in a sort of paradoxical way, which results from a Western conception of the connection with this seascape brought from both foreign and colonial ways of thinking about the sea. Before the arrival of colonial empires these areas had their own relationships with water, but nowadays its impossible to speak only about the legacy of the past. The British, Portuguese, and French left in this city an ambivalent relationship with the sea. I decided to develop a series of workshops, symposiums, and performances in this context for Dakar, echoing Sharjah, a back-and-forth between these cities, created by inviting Senegalese, Algerian, Moroccan, Ghanaian, German, British, French, and Cameroonian people, and people from Sharjah, to share their conceptions of water, from the cultural and political, to the poetic and economic.
You opened a sort of hybrid restaurant and venue for art exhibition, performance, and discussion late last year in Paris. Where did the idea for this space, La Colonie, come from?
For the last 15 years, almost since 9/11, I have been thinking that our societies need to invent new spaces for public debate, free from the political and the economic powers that have taken over universities. If mankind’s evolution has been possible because of this incredible ability to invent narratives and share them through language, we need to reappropriate this natural capacity. These past years, especially in Paris, have opened a Pandora's box that had been growing for decades, not only because of poverty and inequalities, but because the Left has abandoned the field of emotion within the public sphere. We need to reappropriate this field publicly. La Colonie is a situationist statement based on the physicality of its structure and location (in the very popular neighborhood of Paris Gare du Nord), but also for its desire to give a voice to those often ignored, as well as to connect them to academics from universities who are aware that speaking outside of institutions might better reach people who have not had access to a university.