At Art Basel, Kader Attia’s Seductive Destruction

by Michael Anthony Farley on June 17, 2015 · 1 comment Art Fair

During Art Basel’s “Unlimited” programming, which focuses on large-scale projects that don’t always fit the art-fair-booth mold, the Algerian-French artist Kader Attia smashed display cases to an applauding crowd. The piece is called Arab Spring in reference to the looting of antiquities during Egypt’s political unrest. It’s also hard not to just as easily think of the Islamic State’s recent forays into iconoclasm.

In Basel, the display cases are empty—despecifying the action to a study of smashing itself rather than commentary about any particular thing being smashed. Wearing a hoodie (which Artsy’s Rob Sharp identified as “that uniform for the disenfranchised worldwide”) Attia and his vitrines could seamlessly stand in for rioters and storefronts in Baltimore, other American cities swept by unrest, or even Attia’s native suburban Paris—a sociopolitical and psychogeographical context that has informed many of Attia’s past projects.

To the relatively small crowd of VIPs who witnessed the performance in the sterile halls of Art Basel, the site of a famous artist smashing the infrastructure of display must have been a somewhat gleeful spectacle. Those attendees, naturally, disseminated images and video of the performance across social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. When we see this grainy phone-shot documentation, it is virtually indistinguishable from the widely-circulated footage of wartime looting or urban rioting that we compulsively watch. Here, the empty display cases could be filled with whatever politics we chose to project into them, much like media commentators have done with “real” images of property destruction. It’s a phenomenon Kerr Houston thoughtfully considered in his essay Criticism in Challenging Times; images of destruction become orphaned from their contexts and adopted by whatever ideological agenda a viewer chooses to believe in.

Attia’s work is in part so successful due to the undeniable allure of the forces he confronts through mimicry. Throughout his career, Attia has presented highly-aestheticized simulacra of destruction, the market, religion, globalization, consumerism, or unfulfilled promises of the built environment. Whether ambiguously assuming a role as oppressor or oppressed, Attia’s critique is almost always visually or emotionally seductive. As viewers, we feel slightly complicit in enjoying these fantasies—even as we remain aware of the violence or injustices that accompany the visuals in reality.

In the catalog for Kader Attia’s eponymous solo show at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon in 2006, one year after France was rocked by riots ignited by police profiling of North African youth, the artist gave a pertinent interview with the late, famed French art critic Jean-Louis Pradel. Pradel questioned Attia about an untitled installation comprising broken light boxes like the ones used to back-light outdoor advertising. Attia’s response seems prescient to his work now installed at Basel; a fair of precious objects in one of the cleanest, wealthiest cities in the world:

“Like everyone else, I used to just get angry when I saw public property being vandalized… But then I started looking at things differently. And that’s something else art can do! One day, in Bobigny, I saw a men’s perfume ad in a bus shelter. It had been attacked, and the safety glass had crazed. I was struck by the image. The marketing experts had presented the kids with an image of a ‘better world,’ and the kids’ reaction had been to smash it… So I got the panels and broke them one by one, after taking out the advertising posters so as to preserve the vocabulary of ‘vandalism.’ Violence can be poetic, and poetry can be violent. Sometimes, the only way to create is to destroy. There’s always the role of the mirror… Kids destroy things, the way they themselves are destroyed. I think this work really reflects our age; and in 100 years, when all the towns are clean as a whistle, a wrecked bus stop might be treated as a work of art. Official art!”

{ 1 comment }

MozartFan June 19, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Not to be a hater, but destruction = creation / art is a fairly passé statement to make in 2015.

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