Injury and Repair: Kader Attia
In conversation with Gabriele Sassone, Kader Attia investigates the dialectic between destruction and repair—the latter intended as a kind of cultural resistance and reappropriation of the body and its history, much like in the Japanese art of ceramics repair known as kintsugi. The artist unfolds how (in his vision) injuries, wounds, and illnesses are a mark of time and history working in the face of the paradoxical speed of our contemporary reality, tracing a parable that links primitivism, modernity, and colonialism while also expressing faith in art to restore the fragmented society composing the contemporary world.
Gabriele Sassone: I would like to start our conversation talking about destruction because generally when art critics or curators talk about your work, they usually start talking about repair, of course. But I want to take a step back and start with the concept of destruction. For instance, Melanie Klein and part of the Anglo-Saxon School of psychoanalysis (who wrote many essays about wounds and repair) believed that destruction is the moment of knowledge, the moment when the subject satisfies his desire to know the inside of things. What does destruction mean to you?
Kader Attia: I actually came into the concept of repair initially by focusing on the context of colonialism and the processes of resistance; of cultural resistance as a kind of reappropriation, which could be seen in the aesthetics produced by the colonized cultures—what we could call counter-reactions against this invading modernity. For instance, I’ve been fascinated by Berber jewelry made for women from all over the world, even in the Middle East, which included coins representing the queen or the emperor, the rulers of colonial empires like Napoleon or Queen Victoria. And what interested me at that time was the idea that repair was a kind of cultural reappropriation, which was not that much of reappropriating but counter-reacting. The fact that when something arrives in a culture, especially when it arrives with violence, it produces silent forms of resistance. What I also observed with Berber jewelry was the representation of the ruler carried on the body. When you look at the jewelry, the front side was decorated with very typical red coral stones and the faces of the rulers were hidden in the inside part as a symbol of power. So, initially, I was interested in repair as a form of counter-reaction, aimed at resisting something, but also as an extremely interesting approach to injury—almost celebrating it—contrary to the modern societies.
If you look at traditional Japanese ceramics, the cracks on the surface of the pots used for the tea ceremony are bathed in gold. This art of repair, called kintsugi, has always fascinated me because it was a nice echo of what I found in primitive African societies, where broken objects were repaired several times, representing an incredible fusion of injury and repair—by repairing an object so roughly you actually leave the injury visible. As I was trying to understand this complexity, it gradually came to my mind that the repair and the injury are linked forever, and the injury is actually what the mind has always pretended to repair and also to remove—to sell the idea that we can rationally control everything, even the injury. And to give back an object or a human body its own initial shape comes from this denial of the injury, the denial of the destruction. When we think about repair (psychologically or physically), it means that there is an existing injury somewhere, but destruction is also a part of the repair. For many Nazi theoreticians and crazy fanatics, for instance, to destroy meant to repair, excavating the Arianism by erasing all the other races. What I’m trying to do in my work—by investigating different fields such as psychoanalysis and politics on the issue of repair—is to show that the repair is not always repairable.
GS: In fact, the next question I was going to ask you was this: Considering the world we live in today—in which everything, even the environment, could be destroyed—do you think everything is repairable or are we still able to repair everything?
KA: We are educated to think that everything can be repaired, and when we face something that really challenges us, we freak out; we suffer. I think what I’m trying to do by putting the repair in the center of my practice is to challenge this sort of blindness we have towards injury or illness, the idea that everything needs to be repaired. No, I don’t think so, and I think it’s more of a psychic matter today to learn to live with our own injuries.
GS: And if contemporary societies celebrate speed while the wound is a sort of manifesto of slowness, do you think that the wound is a natural form of resistance to time?
KA: Yes, when an object or a body has a scar or an injury, our minds do not accept that it signifies an accident or a specific moment. Actually, primitive societies did not care about the look of the scar. For them, repairing meant only to fix. If the injury were to be visible, it would be. It was not a sign of weakness; it was just part of their history. Since the Neanderthals, the human body was always amputated—a finger, a leg, an arm, whatever. The idea of surgery is kind of brand new. Of course, the new technologies can help now to transplant amputated parts of the bodies, but what I think about injury and time is that the injury signifies slowness, on the contrary to the paradoxical speed of our contemporary reality. In Japan, for example, but also in other non-Western societies, the injury or damage is almost developed by them. In traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, the master of the ceremony serves the teapot with the side of the golden cracks bathed towards the guest. There were many rituals for celebrating the repair and the injury because, as you’ve said, injury signified time and history in societies where their relation to their ancestors and to the past was very much based on the meanings of where you want to go. In contemporary societies—even in Africa, for instance—it has now become something to get rid of. I once interviewed the first plastic surgeon of Africa from Senegal, and she told me that now the new bourgeoisie in Africa, especially the men, ask her to remove the traditional scars they have on the forehead.
KA: Yes, it’s incredible. It’s an instance not only of a new way of thinking, but of reality and speed, denying actually the injury—the mark of time and history. Plastic surgery and cosmetic products are constantly selling the idea of the removal of injuries and marks on the body. So, I completely agree on this ambivalent and paradoxical relationship between the injury and the speed.
GS: So, in a way, can we talk about beauty when we talk about wounds? Is it possible to you?
KA: Of course, the relationship between beauty and wounds is one of the themes I’ve been working on in my collages with injured faces, wounded soldiers, etc. I’m fascinated by how much traditional societies worldwide—Asian, African, Western, American—have been producing masks depicting distorted, transformed, and injured faces. Working especially in Africa, I’ve discovered that most of the masks are called “idiok ekpo” or “ugly ghost,” representing leprosies or facial paralysis. What fascinated me is that traditional societies in many African countries like Nigeria, Congo, Gabon, and Mozambique have been producing masks that are used several times a year to celebrate illnesses. We don’t actually know if these masks are meant to celebrate in a positive way or to overcome fear and get rid of bad spirits. But the fact that sculptors are giving all their talent to produce such beautiful objects is something that, as an artist, made me think about the complexity of our relationship with illnesses. 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. If someone who has a sort of an imperfect face, like Rossy de Palma—for some people, she may be ugly, but her ugliness is rare, and that is also beautiful. I have also been working very much on the return of those millions of soldiers from World War I: the fact that when they got back home, on one hand they were heroes; on the other hand, they seemed like monsters because of their wounds. I think what we call in French “broken faces” really incarnates the question of beauty as rarity, and that’s why I like primitive societies, where these unexpected faces and aesthetics were much more central and probably less pretentious than in modern societies. I also like to connect different periods of time and different cultures because to repair or to fix means to bring two things and keep them together.
GS: I would love to ask something more about time, because I really like the way your work focuses on repair and also criticizes capitalism—in particular, the fact that capitalism does not provide for the repair of things as it would stop consumption of new things. Instead, in your way of repairing political and social traumas, I see a clear form of reappropriation. Can we say, in a sense, reappropriation arises also as a form of struggle against social and economic injury?
KA: My grandmother used to tell us that in 1944, when the war started in Algeria, her job was to collect the jewelry of old women—given by their family when they married to support them in case their husbands died—to gather and hide them in a cave. After couple of months, soldiers of the Liberation Army found out and took all the jewels and brought them to Tunisia because the headquarters of the National Liberation Front of Algeria was in Tunisia. Kilograms of jewelry were melted into sticks of silver and eventually sold to buy Kalashnikov for the Resistance. I’ve always been fascinated by this form of repair, because it is full of hope—like the Berber jewelry with the coins of the colonizing country that I mentioned earlier. It is a counter-reaction to the occupation of the colonial power but also a cannibalization of itself—sort of a counter-readymade—because the readymade, invented by Marcel Duchamp, could never have been invented in a non-capitalist moment. Remember: When Duchamp invented the readymade, the world was in a post-industrial revolution. Any goods that you can find in a warehouse got standardized and produced in a factory, contrary to the handcrafted jewelry and coins produced by millions. I think that modernity, while colonizing the world, has also created other modernities.
GS: At this point, I want to bring the relationship between modernity and primitivism into question, which I think is essential to approach your work. Decolonization by the West deals a lot with the way the Western gaze has looked at the rest of the world. So, could we say that, in a way, history is a product of the eye?
KA: Marcel Duchamp used to say that the viewers make the artwork. I do think that artwork are mirrors: The viewer makes the artwork, but the viewer also sees what he wants to see, so I believe that it’s much more complex than only a sort of benediction of the viewer. I think there is a sort of flux between the artwork and the viewer—a relationship that is extremely individual and social— because the whole way of looking at the artwork belongs to one’s own self and story. Then you referred to the relationship between reality and primitivism. I think that modern art is actually a legacy of primitivism. Today, we have this obsession with classifying or creating categories within the arts, but in fact I can be really fascinated by an object built centuries ago. For instance, once I saw a crucifix in a very old church in San Gimignano, and the Christ had no arms and there was no cross, it was just the body on the wall of the church. I was fascinated by that, because it reminded me of all the questions I’m working on: the phantom limb, the absent body, what Maurice Blanchot has called “the absent images,” and also the position of the Christ as a scapegoat. Considering the neo-fascisms rising everywhere around the world, I think that we are looking for new scapegoats. Human nature, as described by philosopher René Girard, is built on the need to find a scapegoat to sacrifice it. He said that some primitive societies used to sacrifice humans before animals. Violence as a sacred process has existed since forever. I think the question of modernity and primitivism has very much to do with colonialism, in the sense that these primitive cultures have been dispossessed from their own aesthetics and talents. This colonial mentality is also reflected in sciences like anthropology or ethnology. That’s why I did this project on the collection of ethnology. However, whether it is a primitive society or a contemporary one, we just continue to live what has always been the human nature, and sometimes we should think about that.
GS: Your solo show at the Power Plant in Canada impressed me a lot. It is sort of a railway that crosses the exhibition space, as if tracing the footprints of modernity. I think that your idea on wounds that cut the landscape is very relevant today.
KA: As you know, I’ve been working on injuries on the body, on the psyche, or on objects, but this notion of injuries on the landscape became clear when I was in Canada. I discovered that Canada, like North America, is a colonial society; the majority of the people living there are not natives. We are talking about vast landscapes, bigger than the whole of Europe. This made me think about what this power was, and it was the train. The speed and the transportation with trains and boats allowed for colonization and then the genocide of the native people in America and Canada. Following a text by Paul Virilio on speed, I started to discover that, at the end of the day, modernity is like Achilles; it has its own paradox. On the one hand, it’s extremely powerful and has a dogma of this promethean promise of the power of weapons and technology; but on the other hand, this power that technology gives to modernity is also digging its own grave. Because while colonizing the land—injuring the land, scathing the mountains, scathing a huge areas of plains—in the name of bringing technology, science, hospital, and so on, at the same time it was also bringing poisons like religion, fanaticism, and alcohol. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, one of the most important Senegalese philosophers, once told me that one of the paradoxes of modernity and colonization is the Islamization of deep Africa with the help of the train. While the French had developed the train in its colonial expansion, it also gave a way to imam travelers, preachers, and missionaries to move inside very deep areas where Islam had not come before. And then, of course, one of the most significant uses of the speed for destruction is in genocide—on top of them all, the Holocaust, because the organization of the Nazi machinery for mass destruction was done with the train. This very deep injury, which has marked the history of mankind forever, has never been used and elaborated in contemporary art before. It is, I think, the question that you asked me before, which I found extremely interesting: the relationship not only between capitalism and repair, but also between capitalism and destruction.
Capitalism destroys to make profit—through slavery, through colonialism, through genocides. It does not create. Why make war? To take the goods and lands of others. For me, doing this work in Canada was also a significant act because it is a wonderful society, but I have to say I’m very concerned about the invisibility of native people there. I’m not just talking about migrants; I’m also very concerned about the invisibility of African-American bodies, and this is why I did this film. When I’m working on a project, I try as much as possible to make sense of the local context, sort of a real agora of debate, to repair these invisible injuries, although they are extremely visible. Nobody has spoken about that before, about that legacy.
GS: That’s the reason why my last question is related to the present situation. You were born in Algeria, you’ve lived in France, in Spain, and now you’re based in Germany. What do you think about the migration policies implemented by Europe and the US?
KA: I’ve had some bad experiences in Canada and in the US recently; it was extremely difficult to get inside Canada. It’s absolutely insane how much has changed at Customs. I have two passports—one Algerian and one French—and I use the French one when I’m travelling to the US, so I don’t have to ask for a visa. Recently, I discovered that it has completely changed since Trump has come into power, and even though they have Trudeau in Canada, they are extremely harsh at the Canadian Customs, as well. I got blocked two times in Canada: at Customs, and the second time I stayed like three hours, and they were extremely aggressive towards me. And I’m saying this because sometimes personal experience says everything; because, in the end, the reason I’m doing this is that I’ve lived personally this situation—it’s not that I’ve read it. I’ve personally lived this situation of state racism, and I know what it means, not only in Canada but also in France. The decision of Angela Merkel to open the borders was a significant moment, and if all the countries worldwide had understood how important this decision was, it would have changed their relationships with the refugees. The problem is that there is an insane denial of the refugee crisis on so many aspects. The Western world is responsible for what is happening now in the Middle East, and the flood of Iraqi and Syrian people not being acknowledged is something I can’t stand. There are also other refugees coming from Africa and from Asia. It’s incredible to see the way the media represents refugees in hotspots: They’re dirty people, tired, hungry, who just want to leave their countries and come to Europe. It is the media that produces the psyche of the audience, on both sides of the border, by using populist propaganda and politics of fear. The media has an incredible responsibility for that, because it is producing the horror against the refugees with the use of certain images. I think that the only thing we can do—as artists, intellectuals, and activists—is to produce more and more. And this is a moment in which we need to act. That’s why I created this new project in Paris called La Colonie, which is aimed at gathering people on the public sphere to speak with each other. It’s not an institutional space; you don’t have to pay a ticket to get in, you just come. Of course, it’s an activist space, so we communicate a lot; we organize collective action and debates to increase the sensibility within the French society and to work against these politics of fear. There is also a publication project by La Colonie, a book of architecture—actually of ephemeral architecture, made by architects—which explains in 47 different languages how to build a house with recycled, non-polluting, fire-proof material. It’s fantastic.
GS: In a way, we can say that art still has an influence on the society; it could be very inclusive, in the sense that it can reach more public.
KA: With this I completely agree, and that’s why I have more faith in art than in politics, because art has this insane ability to gather a very large range of people in society—what I call a field of emotion. Aristotle was right when he talked about the catharsis in theatre. People go to exhibitions as they go to theatre; you go to an exhibition to actually forget your own problems, and if the work is good and the exhibition is interesting, it will leave you with something positive, or a key, or a tool. I see people from all different backgrounds—thousands of teenagers from the banlieues, very poor, working class people—visiting the museums. It is extremely important for tomorrow to take care of this today. I completely agree that art can work on the repair of the fragmented society we’re living in.