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His first institutional solo show in Germany, KW Berlin, 26 May - 25 Aug. 2013. The artist interviewed by the curator; photo tour.By Ellen Blumenstein | Jul 2013
Ellen Blumenstein: Your project for KW is based on a concept of repair. Can you explain how you understand repair and how it is related to your longstanding examination of reappropriation?
Kader Attia: I have been working on the concept of reappropriation for many years now. Over the process of investigation, from reading to observation into the contemporary public sphere, I came to realize something fundamental, which is that reappropriation is a process of repair. I understand repair as reconstruction in an extended sense, and thus as a kind of tool which can be applied to political, cultural and scientific topics to examine their various interactions.
The concept built itself slowly and gradually in my mind through readings such as Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the French anarchist and father of the theory "Property is theft!" (from What is Property? Published 1840), who was the first to use the terminology "reappropriation". Another important text is "Manifest Antropófago" (Cannibalist Manifesto) written by the Brazilian Poet Oswaldo de Andrade in 1928, and more recently the writings of Frantz Fanon, who theorized the concept of reappropriation in relation to anti-colonialism (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961).
At dOCUMENTA (13) I presented my first exploration of the relationship between repair and reappropriation. REPAIR. 5 ACTS is an amazing opportunity to enhance my whole ongoing series of research and to show how I developed and extended it since.
EB: The exhibition consists of five acts. What is the dramaturgy of the show?
KA: The dramaturgy of my project aims at drawing a question: explaining clearly and visually to viewers how, across both nature and culture, any system of life is based on endless repairs. This continuous shifting process stems from a constant stream between time and space, but narrows itself towards something specific.
Each act focuses on a different aspect of repair. One of them for example comes from a natural historic perspective: After many years of thinking about the subject, and of re-reading Naturalist thinkers such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, I am very interested in determining if what they discovered about the origins of species and named "natural selection" is fundamentally also a process of repair. This repair ideally leads each species towards its survival, and, for humankind, it leads to a power over every other living species on earth. The question here is whether this powerful superiority above the other species justifies mankind running the world, or if it in fact leads it to its end.
I have always thought that the Universe could be an endless music phrased by a succession of repairs just as much infinite.Each one of these repairs would itself be built of numerous other repairs, endlessly. Like the Fractal image process, except that instead of decreasing proportionally following the golden ratio, all repairs would be endlessly symmetric to each other. In my understanding, everything can be conceptually understood as based on repairs from culture to nature, from the political to the metaphysic.
EB: Which role does archival and historical material play in your artistic practice?
KA: It works as a "continuum" in my reflection: it provides a partner for the constant dialog I want to develop and maintain with humankind. Keystones from the past, these documents are important not only as objects (or they would be constantly dominated by their "presence"), but as stepping stones to further levels.
The sculpted portraits I am producing from Carrara marble in Italy and teak wood in Senegal or Congo function as a life continuum for the so-to-speak "dead" archive. They have been realized directly from visual archives of WWI, as well as from ethnographical research from the late 19th century. Moreover, the simple and deep impact of genuine documents from the past – such as newspapers and other objects – has the power to reach everyone, since it is real, even when the information it is showing is not. It is not a video or a photograph of the material, but rather the material itself, a physical part of the installation. I want to make them accessible visually just as they are. Because of their rarity, they are always shown in vitrines and exhibited in historical museums from a particular distance, which moralizes them and fetishizes them significantly. I do care very much about how art can be an experience with something you think you already know, but then, when you have it in front of you, you discover that you actually do not. Most of the documents and items I have collected and want to share with the audience are beyond what we could have imagined about the past.
EB: How do content and form come together in your installations? Which relation do the mind and sensual experiences have for you?
KA: The body and the mind have a relation that always fascinates me. When I was young, around 17, I read Immanuel Kant’s essay on the body and mind (from Ecrits sur le corps et l’esprit, collection of essays, 1764-1798), and it transformed my perception of this issue for years. As a teenager you go through different stages, which raise lot of questions regarding your body. It is changing so fast, and at some you points you feel like a foreigner in your own body. Kant’s thought as well as Nicolas Malebranche’s or René Descartes’ on the "body and mind question" claimed that the two are inseparable, and that it is inconceivable to figure the human being with the body and without the mind, or vice versa.
Some years ago, after reading an interesting conference paper by Michel Foucault: "The Utopian Body" (which actually started by evoking Marcel Proust’s sleep), I found a relevant statement about how the mind is free as long as the eyes are closed, and when we wake up the mind returns into it, and has to go where the body is.
I think that the mind is living in the body in a comparable way to how a body is located inside architecture - which implies a sort of distance between the body and mind. Many architects understood this very well, such as le Corbusier and his "Modulor".
To be involved in an art context in general (from both the body and the mind’s perspectives) means in many ways to re-question this parallelism. Physically speaking, the relation that we have with any artwork is with a certain "space/time" equation, but is never stable. It can change at any time, depending on unexpected parameters, which involve this enigma between the body and mind, and which in fact bind psychoanalysis to animism. Unpredictable situations are always around and inside you, when you are involved in art.
Since 2013 Chief Curator at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.
Kader Attia: REPAIR. 5 ACTS
26 May - 25 August 2013
Curator: Ellen Blumenstein
Part of the project RELAUNCH
Internat. Architecture Exhibition, 22 May - 21 November 2021. Curator: Hashim Sarkis.
59th International Art Exhibition, 23 April - 27 November 2022. Curator: Cecilia Alemani.