Under the Skin

A review of Kader Attia's solo show Contre Nature at the Beirut Art Center, Lebanon. Published as one of the best entries in the International Awards for Art Criticism, 2014.  

The Australian lyrebird is a marvel. A creature capable of perfectly reproducing sounds from its local environment, during mating season it sings a medley of calls by other birds with uncanny accuracy, though whether to charm or confuse no-one is sure. In Kader Attia’s work Mimesis as Resistance (2013), cut from a David Attenborough documentary, we see the lyrebird mid-forest, doing just this – and more. Following distinctly avian whistles and cries, the bird performs a long-lens camera’s familiar snuttershap, the nasal whine of a car’s alarm and the grinding splutter of a chainsaw shaking into life – suggestions of the man-made creeping insidiously into its local environment. So begins Attia’s Contre Nature, (Against Nature), a title with clear implications thus far. You don’t need Attenborough on hand to read the bird as unwitting record of society’s intrusion into nature, a sad document of its ecosystem’s destruction.

A quick google, however, reveals more to the story. The birds used in Attenborough’s documentary were filmed in captivity, where they had been raised since chick-hood. One of these from Adelaide Zoo, named Chook, was particularly famous for his drills and hammers, apparently acquired when the panda enclosure was built nearby. If this news hasn’t deadened the impact of the lyrebird’s feats, let it sharpen Attia’s message. The multiple mortalities the bird represents – its own, personal lifespan, and the slower death to which its species is subject – acquire greater tension. The requisite horror of the phantom chainsaw, and embarrassing ubiquity of the camera’s aperture-clack, are now coupled with the ambivalence of captivity. Attia has close-looped his film, playing it seamlessly over and over, trapping the lyrebird in an endless cycle. This liminal space it occupies sits not only between freedom and captivity, (conditioned by the film itself, which refuses to reveal the cage beyond the frame), but between life and death. So many markers here point to demise – the chainsaw, the cage – but the bird is not dead yet. Indeed, the central irony is that the film bestows, on an animal foreshadowing extinction, a strange eternal life. Is this indeed ‘resistance’, as claimed by its title?

The over-burdened leaflet reports that the show interrogates the notion of repair in all its forms. Many of the least appealing works knock you over the head with this – later rooms are filled with arbitrary arrangements of prosthetic limbs, slideshow images of button-eyed African masks and the stitched up faces of European war victims. Yet, there is something in Attia’s work that captivates, precisely when it explores the liminal and in-between. Repair, after all, sits between the damaged and the healed; it implies process, not product.

Leaving the lyrebird, to reach the rest of the exhibition the viewer is invited to travel across rooftops. A central hall has been filled with the top two feet of a shantytown, a dense landscape of corrugated iron eaves, car carcasses and paint-dribbled signage, breezeblocks and old tyres. Inspired by Algerian construction workers from the 1950s, who would remove leftover material from building sites to create ephemeral architecture of their own, Kasbah (2009) is different everywhere Attia shows it – sourcing its material locally to each city. Marooned in this landscape, between the exhibition’s beginning and its bulk, Attia obliges you to occupy liminal space bodily, to feel the slippage therein (sometimes literally).

There is something satisfying about the ephemeral temporariness of such space and the visceral clangs it offers in response to your presence. The installation hints at the invisible workforce behind the glossy construction jostling for skyline in Beirut and other Middle-Eastern cities. As questions are raised about the darkly unethical labour practices underpinning the construction of museums and galleries in the region, Attia’s work offers up the material manifestation of such elided labour: workers’ homes carved from the very substance the high-rise discards.

However. Just as the lyrebird film forgot to mention the cage, preferring to let clever editing be taken as truth, there is something of that complicit quality here too. The installation is striking, with its satellite dishes and patchwork of coloured steel, and the illusion of height is neat, but the effect, ultimately, is all surface. Rather than inviting the viewer into the experience of such labourers, as the work seems to intend conceptually, the artist has us climb on top. I’m not suggesting every element be literal, but Attia has already signed a pact with simulacrum here; he intends it to be lifelike. Is the idea to make us complicit? To have us embody via elevation the social hierarchy such architecture sets up? Perhaps. But I can’t shake the sense that it’s too sexy. The work is industrial and spectacular and photogenic, just like the latest, coolest addition to Beirut’s Mar Mkhael district, the up-scale restaurant/bar/club Junkyard.

This is the sad edge to such work, that in an age when pseudo-industrial shabby-chic holds cachet, it’s not enough to just reference the disenfranchised in artwork of this kind. When this aesthetic holds currency in the local entertainment industry, within the same cycles of wealth that generated the glassy building sites that prompted all this, surely artistic practice has the responsibility to go beyond the material surface. While there’s a lot that’s important about the conversation Kasbah initiates, seeing it sandwiched in the clean white walls of the Beirut Art Center (itself situated in the industrial neighbourhood of Jisr el-Wati, stones’ throws from multiple building sites), one could consider it as much a part of the problem, as of the solution.

The collages that circle the next room continue Attia’s interest in surface, and confirm his preoccupation with architecture. Archive images of adobe buildings sit next to Mies van der Rohe, rough rural spaces nudge Le Corbusier. The visitor’s guide claims that in the previous installation, Kasbah’s ‘re-appropriation of urban waste is a form of repair that allowed for the construction of free, minimalist, and highly functional residential units, the measurements of which inspired a generation of architects like Le Corbusier and Roland Simounet.’ Personally, I don’t get free, minimalist or highly functional from the space I just clambered over. Its beauty derives from the reverse. Made by workers after long days of labour, these homes represent spontaneity and resourcefulness, density, closeness, intimacy and mess. They’re not comfortable or carefully designed, they’re driven by the urgency of survival.

But I get Attia’s point. The latent power of architecture in the shaping of culture is a natural vehicle for post-colonial critique, most explicit in the image of Le Corb himself looming over a dense montage-city, his fingers outstretched and eager. The architect, Mr Modernism, becomes God over the ‘other’ – ushering in the present of architectural homogeneity (ubiquitous concrete towerblocks being the estranged children of Villa Savoye, and the grandparents of today’s chrome and glass). Unlike the ambivalence it breeds in Kasbah, Attia’s work on paper embraces the slippery power of surface. In the same collage, Genealogy of Modern Architecture (2014), cars slip from the paper’s edge, and shapes swim from the centre. Attia effectively employs the flatness of paper to render such history shallow, to activate its potential mutability, to strip it of depth.

From this point on the exhibition feels full, like an over-stuffed armchair: not quite comfortable. It’s a shame because the poetry in Attia’s work issues from the subtle connections between its parts, particularly those that feel disparate from one another. Past the African masks, colonial archivalry, and swollen jaws of an iron man-trap, the pleasing flatness of the collage echoes in an unlikely place. An excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory is reproduced on the wall, a quotation that glows with the author’s love for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies. Returning to the theme of mimesis, Attia quotes Nabokov’s examinination of the extraordinary camouflage these creatures achieve on the thin surface of their bodies. Nabokov describes ‘the imitation of oozing poison by bubble-like macules on a wing (complete with pseudo-refraction) or by glossy yellow knobs on a chrysalis (“Don’t eat me—I have already been squashed, sampled, and rejected”).’ The liminality of the butterfly-in-chrysalis – brief, mysterious and transformative – contrasts the stuck stiffness of the lyrebird on-loop. Unlike the bird, blithely unaware of imminent destruction, the butterfly is inherently defensive, its power embedded in its skin. Attia has shifted from claiming for mimesis power in visibility (the lyrebird’s ‘resistance’), to claiming it for the reverse – the butterfly’s perfect camouflage.

Skin recurs again. Alongside Nabokov the artist quotes Slavoj Zizek on the intimacy of negative space in architecture. Zizek writes, ‘One name for the interstitial space between the skin and the content of a building is poche (French for “pocket”). […] It refers to all the “uncanny” spaces ignored in the overall scheme of a building.’ This, surely, is the line Attia toes: the uncanny pocket between the visible and the unseen – in nature, in architecture, in history. Not everything is successful – Kasbah doesn’t do the invisible justice – but Attia’s best work constitutes this skin of things, not merely in the sense of surface, but as liminal interstice. The collages, particularly, are a kind of skin/poche, a space in which history can be reconceived, with a flatness that brings multiple signs into conversation on one surface.

In an exhibition of large, loud objects (the singing bird, the lifesize shantytown, the Venus de Milo with her arms stitched on), Attia is most successful in the stillest moments: the butterfly wing, the monochrome collage, the poche. As Zizek asks of the latter, ‘Is this space – which offers not only exciting views of both inside and outside, but also hidden corners in which to take a stroll or a rest – not a potential utopian space?’ The notion of repair seems more optimistic than utopian, and Contre Nature isn’t an exhibition you stroll through restfully, but this liminal zone between inside and outside rumbles through the work. The butterfly on a leaf, by virtue of its lavish camouflage, is both there and not there simultaneously. The lyrebird occupies a similar paradox, there-but-not-for-long, the living portent of death. The construction workers behind the built space exist unofficially but remain formally invisible. In occupying such space, Attia reminds to look twice, look deeper, and embrace the grey area.

I almost miss the last work in the exhibition, a small site-specific piece by the door to the exit. It consists simply of a modest sheet of metal set into the body of the wall, cut in half and held together by wire. Struggling to focus my eyes on the small holes that have been punched for the loops, for one strange, disconcerting moment I cannot tell if they are mirrors or gaps; if I am looking at the space beyond me or the space I’m in now. It seems an unlikely way to end the show – the intervention negligible, the stitches rough and crude. Yet perhaps this encapsulates most precisely the space Attia is trying to harness: the porous place between surface and depth, under the skin.

- Rachel Dedman

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