By Murray Whyte
The scent of creosote, faint but distinct, hangs in the air at the Power Plant. It’s the whiff of progress, drenched in blood. Here, an angular sweep of crumbling railway ties lie neatly on the gallery floor. “Some Modernity’s Footprints” is the anodyne title given to the work by its maker, the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, who is having his Canadian debut here. But depending less and less on your point of view, there’s nothing neutral about modernity’s whipsaw transformation of the planet over the past couple of hundred years and all the blood it’s spilled along the way.
Attia may be oblique, but he’s hardly ambivalent. Another work in the mostly-empty space shows your companions on this journey. Weathered prosthetic legs are neatly arrayed on a wooden bench, as though waiting for the train to arrive. They’re quiet spectres, their presence freighting the scene with implied violence —limbs torn, lives lost.
While he’s careful not to lead too much, because hectoring gets you nowhere, he’s clear-headed and plain-spoken. Railways were a core enabler of colonial conquest, of both land and people, continent to continent, deep scars etched into unspoiled lands by conquerors fixated on bending whatever new frontiers they found to their service.
Attia loads his minimal gesture with specific content and meaning: An assortment of old advertisements and photos on view here single out the Congo-Ocean Railway, which sliced deep into that land’s forests to spirit resources — timber, minerals, people sold off as slaves — to the coast. It spent its stolen wealth in gruesome ways: Its builders are said to have counted its dead by the railway ties they laid, step by step.
As a symbol of progress, humankind imposing order on unruly wilderness, railways were the thin edge of the wedge, an initial, indelible incursion carving a swath for all to follow within. Here in Canada, railroads have been lionized in image and song as a civilizing force in an untamed world, nevermind whose lands they ran through and the countless human toll in lives lost, often of poor immigrants, as engineers blasted through rock on their way westward.
So if there’’s anyone left to chafe at the idea of putting the brutalities of African colonialism alongside our own, Attia has a simple edict: Wise up. Decades of projecting a national identity of “friendly” colonialism has worn through and it’s time to take our rightful place alongside history’s villains. Colonialism’s still-oozing sores fester here as much as anywhere, and after a year of self-flagellation brought on by last year’s sesquicentennial, they’re as fresh as they’ve ever been.
For the Power Plant, Attia has produced a new video in which scholars from Canada, the United States, France, Belgium, the Ivory Coast, the United Kingdom and Angola, among others, kick around ideas around the beating taken by colonized peoples and the historical record both, with wilful amnesia spanning ages and oceans, finding uncomfortable common ground.
In the video, Attia’s connections are oblique, not explicit, but they weave a tapestry of flagrant disregard of the winners literally taking all: A New York-based academic tells a grim story of American anthropologists who would create diversions in African villages for the express purpose of stealing idols never meant to be seen in public; McGill professor Charmaine Nelson draws parallels between Black slavery in Canada and the assimilation policies levied against Indigenous people, to convincing effect.
Gerald McMaster, an Indigenous studies professor at OCAD University, talks about the erasure of Indigenous language and the efforts to bring it back; the director of the National Museum of the Ivory Coast, a Black woman in a mustard-coloured dress, calmly lays out the museum’s genesis as a storehouse of object-fetishes for French academics, which she’s laboured long to re-infuse with meaning to the community.
Taken together, it means to unravel a master narrative that helped craft a version of history meant to uplift while it excluded. In its ugliness, it hyperconnects: From an African scholar unsure if his society is ready for the repatriation of objects stolen long ago, still lost in the void that followed, to the determined but still nascent efforts by Indigenous Canadians to rebuild a culture all but erased by residential school programs, the injuries are the same, and their rawness far from healed.
Meanwhile, at the far end of Attia’s flaking timbers, strains of a melodramatic score pique from an unseen place. Rounding the corner, a gathering of roughly carved idols perch on rusted steel frames, dumbfounded, or numbed, at least, by the spectacle unspooling in front of them.
It’s a clip from J’Accuse, French filmmaker’s Abel Gance’s 1938 anti-war diatribe, complete with marching zombies and wild-eyed hysteria. Gance intended his film as a caution to a Europe once again on the brink of carnage — he dedicated it to “to the war dead of tomorrow” — but here it sends a different kind of warning.
Over its eight minutes, legions of the dead rise from mass graves, stumbling into the world of the living with purpose less menacing than pathetic. “They’re coming from everywhere, from all countries!” howls a hysterical Frenchman, confronted with shambling zombie hordes.
Gance no doubt meant to address global war’s chaotic indifference to nationality when doling out its destruction, but in this era of refugee crises and failed nation states, it catches the breeze of a rising nativism and sets off on a xenophobic tack. Those quiet idols could be watching Fox News, undergoing a conversion that’s already been realized by millions of U.S. voters.
That’s a dark view and a personal take — the busts here are in fact based on archival photographs of soldiers’ faces mangled by war — but that’s a strength of Attia’s work. It takes on history’s biggest, ugliest forces but gives you your own space to consider their insidious, transforming effect.
Nearby, another passageway is lined with shrink-wrapped books and pictures. It includes biographies and portraits of a rogues’ gallery of dictators, from Hitler to Milosevic to Stalin, with George H.W. Bush and Jean-Marie Le Pen thrown in (a personal bias, maybe, alongside the unequivocally evil).
Alongside them, he displays photos of iconic singers — Maria Callas, Aretha Franklin — to perhaps balance darkness with light (most of the singers are African-American, their very existence symbolic of a culture that defied its oppressors by thriving in spite it all).
As hopeful gestures go, it’s unconvincing, and I suppose that’s the point. Throughout the show, Attia connects room to room with mirrors and canvases, either broken or torn and roughly stitched back together; they echo a set of collages, where roughly carved idols share space with archival photographs of soldiers’ faces mangled by war. Nothing broken ever repairs entirely, he seems to be saying, but carries its scars for good, the hardened tissue still painful and raw, when prodded. Canada 150 told us that much.
Casting all the way forward to the show’s very end, past Callas and Adolf and Slobodan, you enter what appears to be a completely empty room, a bright white void. That’s modernism, writ large: Wipe the slate clean and start again. Wiser by now, we know there is no fresh start. So look down. Cracks in the smooth concrete floor are knit by big industrial steel staples, snaking in connecting patterns to every far corner.
The evocation is of a railway and, by now, we know what means. At the same time, it comes clear that this is a show about repairing what was broken. With the ground cracked beneath your feet, you’re left to wonder if this is modernity’s last stand, desperately trying to knit the fissures back together, lest all the tales the land here can tell come rushing. But with those stories finally seeping through, isn’t it past time to embrace the flood?
Kader Attia: The Field of Emotion continues at the Power Plant to May 13. Lee Maracle, a Sto:lo First Nation scholar and a mentor for Indigenous students at the University of Toronto, will deliver a talk on the exhibition on Sunday, Feb. 25 at 2 p.m. See thepowerplant.org for information.