Notes on liquid gold, scars and cultural exchange: an exploration of Kader Attia’s Open your eyes (2010).Pedro J. Barbáchano - Concordia University, Montreal, Canada - November 2019
The geopolitical map of today’s world can be summarized under a keyword: postcolonial. As blatantly obvious as this sentence is for the contemporary thought processes, it is the original key to a myriad of different practices which operate under search-and-destroy methodologies. These have mostly been found in academia but recently and inevitably permeate every cultural, idiosyncratic and social sphere. In the mainstream cultural current, terms such as cultural appropriation are omnipresent. We constantly find ourselves revisiting past episodes in order to understand how the colonial period has inevitably shifted and permanently scarred humanity. If we assume all of these shifts are rooted under negative -now turned ontological- category of colonial processes, we must automatically ponder upon the idea of restoration of the precolonial systems. Kader Attia, is a Berlin based French-Algerian artist who works through a multilayered conceptual artifact referred to as La réparation. In his installation Open your eyes (2010) (Fig 1, 2) he examines this specific concept by juxtaposing its practice in the weltanschauung of the Orient and Occident through an atlas of reparations in African sculptures and World War I European soldiers. How is the widespread and institutionalized concept of restoration deeply Eurocentric and rooted in a Western thought system? Attia brings up a proposal to decolonize restoration practices through an atlas of the repaired.
Fig 1 - Attia, Kader, Open your eyes, 2010, eighty 35mm black and white and color slides. MoMA, New York.
Fig 1 - Attia, Kader, Open your eyes, 2010, eighty 35mm black and white and color slides. MoMA, New York.
Kader Attia moved from France to Algeria numerous times throughout his childhood and became interested in the idea of reparation during his youth travels in Africa when he came across African objects which ‘carried traces of mending and reparation, often incorporating Western objects’. This uncomfortable blend of materials at the center of a colonialist dilemma, fueled his interpretation of colonization as a ‘cultural influence that exists never one way, but always two ways’: even in its unfairness.
Fig 2 - Attia, Kader, Open your eyes, 2010, eighty 35mm black and white and color slides. MoMA, New York.
The piece Open your eyes was first exhibited at the Museum Of Modern Art of New York in 2010 as part of the Performing histories exhibition. The work is composed by two sets of 80 slides projected in two screens of 160 x 260 cm each forming a right angle. The first set contains color photographs of African art pieces (mostly facial masks) which have been repaired and never exhibited, instead kept in the storage rooms of different art and culture institutions in Europe and North America. The second one is a set of black and white photographs taken after the medical-aesthetic interventions on World War I soldiers whose faces were mutilated during the conflict and were later “repaired” through pseudo-plastic surgery procedures. The slides are projected simultaneously and consecutively in a 12 minute loop.
For the purpose of analyzing the discourse embedded in the piece, I have described it’s materiality and I will continue by the analysis of said physicality in the manner of Panofsky’s iconographical studies. I believe this system is in dialogue with an important aspect of the piece.
As correctly pointed out by the introductory pamphlet for the piece’s last exhibition in the Momenta Biennale of Montreal, Attia ‘organizes images by appropriating the basic functions of the Western art museum—collection, conservation, education—and a methodology typically used in teaching art history: the slide show.’ I believe the medium choice is a discursive one (given the practicality of digital projection and its availability at the time of the work’s inception) which seeks to locate the work on the space of institutional critique by winking at tradition art history institutionalized dissemination systems.
Kader Attia, explains in an accompanying essay how in his research residences in the aforementioned institutions he discovered a plethora of objects which were not on display due to the visible signs of the reparations they had endured. As Theo Reeves-Evison and Mark Justin Rainey phrase it, ‘the placement of certain artefacts in storage relates to widely divergent understandings of the fundamental nature of repair itself’. As such, Kader Attia’s piece turns into a dialogue on the meaning of reparation between the colonizers and the colonized through ‘objects wrapped up in colonial history placed in juxtaposition with damaged and wounded bodies’. This very specific treatment of colonial -and intervened- treasures, exposes an ontological distance in cultural understanding from the perspective of the colonialist institutions.
As stated by Ekaterina Golovko on her text: ‘Repair is “the ground that resurrects” reappropriation (…) because there has been dispossession. (…) primitive societies did not care about the look of the scar (…) it was not a sign of weakness; it was just part of their history’. This distance is the key problematic denounced in the piece. Western systems of knowledge and understanding find these repaired pieces ‘inadequate because they could not be categorized’ as Attia quotes directly. In other words, this failure -or neglect- to understand the cultural values behind these plundered pieces restates the European unwillingness to listen or to understand the oppressed cultures. At the core of this interference, the Modern project of ethnographical studies to control the colonies is exposed. As Cheyanne Turions points out in a thematically parallel writing about Canadian Indigenous art: ’Indigenous artworks had value only insofar as they could be read through Western aesthetic standards’. This is to say, anything outside colonizer logic is, again, deemed inadequate and hard to categorize for the Western intellectual circles.
At this point, let us take a look at the portraits of broken faces soldiers who participated in World War I. Firstly, the highly specific timeframe associated to these images (unlike to the ones of African art) restates Attia’s desire to frame this discussion in colonialist terms and function as a poignant timewarp. As stated by the artist, while in Europe the conflict was ‘reaching un-seen levels of violence’, in the colonies ‘expropriation of cultural heritage was just as massive’. The fact these soldiers were celebrated as the defenders of -Western- justice and nations, enough to be given access to -at the time- highly advanced aesthetic medical interventions, again ‘exposes the cultural gap between Western and non-Western understanding of the body aesthetics’. Through the use of this images, Attia establishes a clear formal link between the faces and the masks which seek not to equalize but rather to operate as an engine of defferance. Attia states: ’when they got back home, on one hand they were heroes; on the other hand, they seemed like monsters because of their wounds’. This once again clearly demonstrates how this effective time emplacement for this part of the piece is imbued with a heavily Western ideological payload. The use of the infamous post-structuralist term is not casual, as Attia refers to Jacques Derrida’s writings on beauty in the West in the previously cited interview on the work.
Then I discovered a text by Jacques Derrida on beauty, saying that at the end of the day, beauty is rarity. If you take a model, who should be or could be a very beautiful man with a perfect symmetric face, this is rarity.’ In this fragment, Attia clarifies the key difference in aesthetical values which vertebrates the installation. That is to say that in the Western value system ‘the repaired is opposed to the intact as the hybrid is opposed to the authentic. Consequently, neither the repair nor the hybrid have a their place in traditional museums’ The same way the disfigured Western visage will not make it into the museum’s wall space, neither will the masks. In the same rhetoric were the wounds of the soldiers must be covered and flattened, the damaged masks must be hidden. Derrida’s wording, directly targets Western beauty canons still rooted in Ancient Greece’s (an ancient empire) axioms of beauty. By claiming beauty in asymmetrical proportions or features, the waterline of Western aesthetics shake. By showing what museums choose to conceal, to reveal and to archive, the epistemological distance becomes the abyss.
Before concluding the text, I would also like to re-support why the use of these appropriated imagery (transferred into slides as previously noted) is the rhetorical device which runs the piece. Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne (Fig 3) has been an inflection point in the way we study and critique art history. In fact, it served as the basis for Edwin Panofsky’s iconographical method, what was for many years a standard principle of Western art scholars (and which is repurposed at the beginning of this essay). Didi-Huberman updated the readings of the atlas in response to the archive and put in dialogue with post structuralist concerns such as the cited above. It is vital to understand that the reappropriation (specially in our current scenario where cultural appropriation is a central concept of postcolonial theory) technique employed by Attia, seeks to function as an atlas, and not as an archive. As much as the images of soldiers are loosely dated, no other information is provided. In the case of the African art, Attia proposes a universal view (the same as colonialist looters had exclusively when it came to plundering) of African art as an epistemological reference. This reference, in the format of an archive, would seem reductive and distractive.
By employing images through their iconologies and surfaces, Attia resignifies and augments the study of the images to highlight critical points in Western art history. María del Carmen Molina Barea explains in a text on the atlas and the rhizome how ‘the archive catalogues, lists, and indexes every single element in its interior according to a previously established discourse. (…) the archive is therefore a genealogical system, (…) whereas the atlas constitutes a rhizomatic map. (…) the archive entails epistemological coercion and domination.’ This difference between the static and the fluctuating, the evergrowing and the established is the friction stone for the abrasiveness of Attia’s piece in relation to Western art academia and institutional curation. When archived by western scholars, the African pieces lose their intrinsical value to barely conform to the establishment’s history reader. They are not allowed to move in their flux but rather find themselves stagnant in the storage rooms of North American museums.
In conclusion, ‘Open your eyes’ is a poignant atlas which starts to wander upon the concept of restoration and at how not only look to destroy colonial constructs, but also at how we are unable to repair them: colonialism is a permanently bleeding wound. As Gruzinsky explains in an essay attached to the piece in Attia’s site, even if we wanted ‘we wouldn’t know how to start from scratch and there will always be remnants to fix or things to redo’.
Through the use of the classic mediums of dissemination of art historians, Attia points. Through the revelation of the hidden, Attia shows the distance in between the chalk lines. Through reappropriation, Attia implies dispossession. Through miscommunications, Attia exposes Modernity’s still vigilant control schemes. Through violence in subjects of history, Attia activates a reasoning of defferance to that leads to a critique of the West’s axioms of beauty and aesthetic values. Through the use of an atlas, Attia puts the spotlight on the agendas buried deep inside archival processes and endows a schizo-analytical reading on the pieces. Through showing how evolving objects are made stagnant, Attia reveals the friction present in every ethnographical museum’s storage room. In conclusion, Open your eyes is a sharp dart to the heart of restoration practices which in their bleeding, expose solid roots in colonialist and Eurocentric thought.
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Fig 1 - Attia, Kader, Open your eyes, 2010, eighty 35mm black and white and color slides. MoMA, New York. Accessed 25th October 2019
Fig 2 - Attia, Kader, Open your eyes, 2010, eighty 35mm black and white and color slides. MoMA, New York. Accessed 25th October 2019
Fig 3 - Warburg, Aby, Atlas Mnemosyne, 1929, mixed-media prints on wood. Warburg Institute. https://warburg.sas.ac.uk/collections/warburg-institute-archive/bilderatlas-mnemosyne/mnemosyne-atlas-october-1929 Accessed 30th October 2019