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“We are living in incredible times of amnesia”

INTERVIEW. French-Algerian artist Kader Attia meditates on repair, culture, colonialism and impermanence through a decade's worth of objects presented in five acts in his first solo exhibition in Germany, running though Aug 25 at KW.

Image for “We are living in incredible times of amnesia”
Photo by Christophe Gruny

Kader Attia’s first solo exhibition in a German institution meditates on repair as expressed throughout cultures and history.

The inventory consists of material the French-Algerian artist has collected over the last decade, each piece packing KW’s first floor with an alchemy of throbbing philosophical ideas. It is clear: outside, the world has fallen asleep; it has amnesia, its citizens have forgotten how to fly. The show builds bridges between metaphysical ideas in Europe and Africa.

In this show you bring together very different elements of culture and history from apparently unrelated worlds…

I want to investigate different issues of repair: the political ones, the cultural ones through colonialism, through plastic surgery and morality. The perception of repair we have today is totally misunderstood. In Africa, especially in villages in Congo, the academical and pictuary context are totally different than in Europe. When an item is broken in Africa, the repair gives it new life. In Western culture, the repair aims to go back to the past. These are two absolutely different ways of thinking. What fascinates me is how this notion of repair can be a metaphor for many things.

At the entrance, you have a slideshow with African music.

It’s not an artwork, it’s an introduction to my exhibition. This is fantastic music. It is not only about re-appropriation; they reinvented music. Creation is repair. Talking about blues from Saint-Louis and Dakar in Senegal, it started really late. The singer is singing in Wolof, a language that is a mix between Arabic, African and Linga, giving the blues something more interesting, something rarer. You just close your eyes and you have to imagine this in a village in Senegal in the 1960s.

Could you elaborate more on this idea of re-appropriation?

I do think that re-appropriation and repair work together. I get sensitive to the fact that repair could not be only a cultural process – repair or re-appropriation is a natural process, actually before culture. You can build the biggest city in any place on earth. At some point, wild animals will come and eat the garbage. This happens everywhere, like in Berlin with the foxes. Alfred Wallace said that it is possible that any human being living in the forest or in the savanna could still survive. The industrial revolution brought the destruction of environmental evolution. I find this extremely interesting.

Why is the double projection, the first position of the show, so important?

The double projection is a slideshow holding the depth of Europe to Africa, showing what was never discussed. It is fundamental to understand the link between the masks and colonialism, and also this idea of imperialism. The Franco-Prussian War, with African and Sub-Saharan and Algerian soldiers fighting for France, millions of Africans dying for Germany, France and Belgium in World War I, and during World War II the same… It is showing this legacy. Also, maybe six images show people in 1998 running like hell, climbing stairs. We were occupying Paris’ Museum of Colonies. I was an activist for homeless and illegal immigrants, very young. I had a small camera and started to make the pictures for the newspaper Liberation. It shows this action, the great-grandsons of soldiers with banners saying “Our great-grandfathers and uncles died for France.” And the demonstrators still had no documents.

Does the viewer play a role in your works?

Very much. I try to involve the audience in the spectacle of conception that I believe is part of all DNA. I think the fact that the human being has totally lost the relation we have with nature is extremely problematic today. Humans are scared by uncontrolled issues. We are living in incredible times of amnesia; it’s scary to think that you can represent modern art without African art. Everything is based on this: the relation with space, the fragmentation of the human face and so on.

How does the metaphysical work in your show?

The last two pieces are very interesting to put at the end, because it ends the exhibition full of hope. I felt, “Okay. We fucked the earth, the human being will not survive, life will continue, the earth will continue.” You feel it in the space with sound and vibrations. If I close my eyes, I can feel it. I am dealing with difficult issues, this kind of arch between culture and metaphysics or politics and metaphysics, but I do believe I have a sort of faith in this continuity in the order of things.

Do you think that art repairs itself?

Art is a process that is constantly reinventing itself. As soon as you think you have control it goes somewhere else. It’s repairing itself constantly. Nowadays I’m thinking very much about this reality, about art and mathematics, art and science; not art as a painting or a drawing but as desire. Desire is repair. Desire is the instinct of value to all species, but there is something else in this desire, much more powerful in the sense of survival. And art is very close to that.

Kader Attia – REPAIR. 5 ACTS, through Aug 25 | KW, Auguststr. 69, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Str., Wed-Mon 12-19, Thu 12-21

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013.