Art

How the Evil “Other” Was Conceptually Constructed Over Centuries

Artists Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel’s transcultural and transgenerational collaborative exhibition attempts to face down and recover from human evil through the superfluity of artistic imagination.

Exhibition view of Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel, One and the Other; Jean-Jacques Lebel, “Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American occupation (Baghdad)” (2013) digital prints on fabric and paper, labyrinth installation, courtesy of the artist & Mambo (Geneva) (all photos by André Morin © ADAGP, Paris 2018, unless otherwise noted)

PARIS — Artists Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel’s transcultural and transgenerational collaborative presentation L’Un et l’Autre (One and the Other) is epic in breadth yet buoyantly displayed. Smartly set by curator Jean de Loisy in the dim bowels of the Palais de Tokyo, a screaming Antonin Artaud welcomes the visitor, appearing in a virtually unknown screen test performance he gave in 1938 for Abel Gance’s never realized film La Fin du Monde (The End of the World). This clip, and one of Georges Bataille talking about his 1957 essay “La Littérature et le Mal” (Literature and Evil), set the persistent temperament of the show: that of facing down and recovering from human evil through the superfluity of artistic imagination.

Antonin Artaud in a screen test performance for Abel Gance’s unrealized film La Fin du Monde (1938) (GIF image courtesy of the author)

The result is an audacious, anthropological-artistic arrangement that elegantly lays out a heterogeneous, noisy, and spellbinding cultural smorgasbord, ambitious in scope. This copious but decorous display contains examples from years of the artists’ own socio-political artworks, mixed with alternating audio tracks, disparate ethnic historic objects (such as a curious opium pipe made from an expended artillery shell), African magical artifacts, and a few pieces by non-European contemporary artists to boot. The context is that of contextless postmodern plunder optics: the ahistorical globalized trend that mixes together anything thematically interesting (or superficially similar), ignoring era and original context. However, inspired by their mutual passion for collecting psychologically charged non-art objects, and by Felix Guattari’s idea of a “collective assemblage of enunciation,” this ensemble of exchanges traces something very specific: the lines of flight between malevolent wretchedness and amiable recovery that pass through physical transformations. In this underworld we are lead down a path of enigmatic and symbolic and poetic recovery from malevolence.

Exhibition view of Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel, One and the Other, Palais de Tokyo

Setting an infernal bassline tone for the show is one of Lebel’s prime, solo contributions “Soluble Poison. Scenes from the American occupation (Baghdad)” (2013) that immerses the viewer in a labyrinth of monumental digital enlargements of the horrifying humiliations carried out by American jailers at Abu Ghraib prison beginning in 2003. Franco-Algerian Attia — known for his examinations of injury, trauma, and compensation within the intricacies of social, historical, and cultural differences — less caustically counters with a snappy set of jockstraps made from beaten bark decked out with Mbuti Pygmy designs from the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, Attia’s large, central installation “The Invention of Evil: The Culture of Fear” (2013) brings together books and newspapers on gray metal shelves around the question of the persistence of humiliation, torture, and rape as crimes associated with imperialist war throughout history. Along with spooky Osama bin Laden magazine covers, there are many old depictions of non-white men — Africans, Arabs, Berbers, Native Americans — here shown doing despicable acts of violence to white women. With the work Attia aims to demonstrate that Western iconography of non-white violence has infused peoples’ psyche for centuries through the conceptual construction of an evil Other.

Exhibition view of Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel, One and the Other Palais de Tokyo; Kader Attia, “The culture of Fear: an invention of evil” (2013) installation, metal shelves, books, papers (image courtesy of the artists & Galerie Nagel Draxler)
Jean-Jacques Lebel, “Réponse à Lénine” (Answer to Lenin, 2009) mixed media (courtesy of the artists)

Other non-European artists placed into the mix of odd objects, that include anonymous African stomach masks and Lebel’s 2009 stabbed piggy banks “Réponse à Lénine” (Answer to Lenin,) are Sammy Baloji, Marwa Arsanios, Alex Burke, and the paintings of Driss Ouadahi. All woven together around “The Invention of Evil: The Culture of Fear,” they offer a rather salutary perspective on the political benefits possible in art to offer a curative to the fabrication of the absolute evil Other established via oversized representations of Satan, the “Savage” and the “Terrorist.” They position bravura polysemic expressions in opposition to such generalizing, hegemonic fabrications. These often hybrid objects are charged with sly spirits only partially visible to the eye, which nevertheless transmit codes that enact both reparations and détournements. These ideas are best exemplified by Gonçalo Mabunda’s stealthy “Throne of an African King” (2004), made from rusty recycled weapons, and Attia’s willowy conceptual instrument “Reenactment” (2014) that evokes a lute but is made from a French colonial soldier’s helmet.

Kader Attia, “Reenactment” (2014) mixed media: helmet from the French colonial army, wood, strings, 50 x 21 x 18 cm, private collection (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

As one navigates the quasi-quarrelsome excess of One and the Other, floating between queasy horror items and handsome historic fragments less charged with atrocity (like the Mbangu sickness masks and sculptures from the Congo, Pierre Molinier’s perverse 1966 “Self-Portrait” photo, and Man Ray’s “Monument to D.A.F. de Sade” [1933]), it is grounding to lock into a few of the small screens that pepper the scene. Here Attia and Lebel discuss with deep fervor their forest of collectables, imbuing everything with the poetry of multiple meanings. Everything is spun into an inclusive adaptable assemblage aimed at escaping singular identity classification. Their clear knowledge of art as an “open work” analogy weaves together their disheveled items of non-hierarchal otherness under the umbrella of recuperation. These mini-talks, based on their shared passion for the many sacred and secular wartime objects they have collected, are loaded with poetry and emotion, and do help sort things out.

But you need about an hour to absorb them all along with the show itself. Even after that, for me conclusions were hard to marshal and questions continued to abound. Even though thematically polyglot, the intense interrelationships established here speak in different ways of palpable political violence and the means to repair such viciousness through the psychic healing of artistic imagination. Thus, this is a wide-ranging feast of absorbing art and non-art in service of psychic therapy. Pivotally, the exhibition skirts the singular interpretive mania of exploring the repercussions of modern cultural hegemony and colonialism on non-Western people by investigating the narrow politics of identity. Free from tribal identity didacticism that often crystallizes in revenge fantasies, this cunning collection of oblique contemporary art and fetishist objects offers partially concealed meanings up to viewers to unearth for themselves, as a complex, self-therapeutic undertaking.

Gonçalo Mabunda, “Throne of an African King” (2004)

Over the course of that questioning hour, I believe I felt the pricks of pain of the Other and definitely bore the chagrin that goes with being a seeker of love and happiness for all. While respectful of the somewhat brutal scenario the artist-curators have arranged, I came to feel a bit blithe with their own autobiographical art that theoretically plots a general approach to cultural and psychic recovery. Indeed, in wake of all the memorable dystopian heartbreak on view, their work seems replete with the kinds of unintentional cultural contradictions that make satirists salivate. But in a moment defined by fundamentalist self-certainty on both left and right, One and the Other is an example of a more mercurial meditation on human violence. Its generosity of recuperative vision, even when it mocks, rescues it from replicating the cruelty it critiques. Indeed, One and the Other imagines its viewers capable of growth and models that growth of a singular, unique individual with the complexity of multitudes — something from which we need not recover.

Set of tapa cloth jockstraps from the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (early 20th century) Research material, Kader Attia (courtesy of the artist)

L’Un et l’Autre (One and the Other) continues at the Palais de Tokyo (13 Avenue
du Président Wilson, Paris) through May 13.

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