If ever an artist were attuned to the temper of our times it is Kader Attia (b.1970). Following a successful showing in Documenta 13 in 2012, this French-Algerian creator of multimedia installations and videos has since become one of the most sought-after artists in the world.
The piece that made such a powerful impression was called The Repair, from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures. It featured a series of metal racks on which roughly carved wooden busts portrayed the disfigured faces of soldiers wounded during the First World War. There were also historical photos of these injured faces and a small library of titles relating to colonialism.
The installation struck a sympathetic chord with curators and critics who appreciated Attia’s readiness to address the transcultural themes that were already dominating the big international exhibitions. By using the word “repair”, the artist also suggested a positive, healing process, rather than a simple critique.
Five years on there is another Documenta in Kassel, in which political preoccupations have almost completely swallowed the art. Yet the growth of this obsession has been a boon to Attia who now looks like an artist who was ahead of the trend. He shows with big name galleries around the world, and has been feted by art museums from Frankfurt to Boston.
His exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, put together by Rachel Kent, features a representative selection of his recent work. There are variations on Repair, including J’Accuse (2016), in which the carved wooden heads witness a screening of the famous anti-war melodrama by Abel Gance that gives the piece its name. Attia uses the “summoning the dead” sequence from the 1938 version, that still has the power to leave audiences gasping.
In the same room we find The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil (2013), in which tall metal racks act as a showcase for books and periodicals, including old copies of French colonial magazines giving lurid portrayals of the savagery of those races that resisted the encroachments of European civilisation.
The now-familiar photos of wounded soldiers are included in Untitled (2017), alongside images of broken statues from the ancient world.
These installations have the same kind of fascination one might take from a presentation in a war memorial or a museum devoted to cinematic or colonial history. Not for the first time I found myself looking at such a display and thinking: “Yes, but where’s the art?”
Attia sees himself as a sculptor but he could just as easily be designated a curator. He is an intensely cerebral artist whose primary “work” is conceptual. An earlier batch of massive wooden heads were carved by anonymous Senegalese craftsmen, and presumably this holds true for the pieces in J’Accuse, although there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement in the MCA catalogue.
Some viewers might find this a little problematic, although artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have made it standard practice to employ skilled artists and artisans to produce the works that are sold under the maestro’s label. (Koons is presently engaged in a labour dispute, after his workers tried to get unionised.) In Attia’s case he has a layer of protection from accusations of exploitation by virtue of his own cross-cultural status as an Arab born in France but raised between Europe and Algeria. In an interview with Rachel Kent, this condition is described as “in-between-ness”.
Furthermore it is an important aspect of the work that the busts of wounded soldiers were made by carvers from a country that was part of the French colonial empire. Attia is enacting a parody of the colonial enterprise, commissioning Africans to make sculptures of young men sacrificed to a tribal war in distant, exotic Europe.
The old magazines in The Culture of Fear, with their images of white men being menaced and tortured by hostile natives are classic pulp representations of the Other. At some stage it seems that every civilisation succumbs to the temptation to justify its own practices and beliefs by demonising another. We see it at work in mainstream politics today in the way that scare-mongers would judge all Muslims by the acts of an extremist minority.
The prevalence of global terrorism means we all live within a low-level “culture of fear” that can be ignited and exploited by one sensational incident. But do we need artists to draw our attention to this unremarkable insight?
In his recycling of old magazines and movies Attia is constructing a cultural montage that makes broad political points. Because those points align so closely with the views of a left-liberal intelligentsia his admirers are quick to discern the urgency and significance of his work. Since these are roughly my views as well I’d like to join the party, but can’t get excited by installations that feel like political statements with a clear set of discussion topics.
Attia makes it easy for his audience but eliminates the element of mystery that allows us to return to a work of art over and over, always finding something new. Put everything on a plate for the viewer and he or she will be suitably grateful but hardly inclined to linger long in front of a piece.
He prompts us to sit tight with a 48-minute video, Reflecting Memory (2016). It’s actually a documentary that looks at injury, trauma and the phenomenon of the “phantom limb” through a series of interviews with psychiatrists, medical experts and patients.
Another piece, Oil and Sugar (2007) is a more conventional artist’s video. A cube made from smaller sugar cubes dissolves when oil is poured on it. The resemblance to the Kaaba, the holy shrine in Mecca, is easily discerned. It implies that the oil wealth of the Middle East has created political scenarios fundamentally incompatible with the spiritual claims of religion.
Attia’s scepticism about religion is also made clear in Ghost (2007/17), an installation of hollow figures crouched in prayer, made from silver foil. He seems to be saying that religion is like sugar: attractive, addictive, but not to be consumed in excessive quantities. Or perhaps it might be seen as something shiny and empty. Either way it’s a fertile subject for Attia’s central theme of “repair”, because when people come together under the banner of a shared faith it often seems that more wounds are opened than healed.
Kader Attia is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until July 30 and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, from September 30.