Tuesday, April 5, 2011
'Close to the sun'
Algerian conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed is back in Israel, laughing at people taking offense at the cruelty depicted in his art.
Last Friday, a day before the opening of his solo show, "NU," at the Dvir Gallery (Hangar 2, the Jaffa port ), Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed looked relatively calm. His works, which arrived last week, had been carefully and slowly unboxed and set up, one behind the other, in the large, darkened space.
One video piece, two neon graffiti and a glass installation are what he chose to exhibit here now. They are fragments: He's not seeking to build a narrative, but rather to display "acts," as he calls them. In the future, art critics may classify them by comfortable and clear categories, such as migration, the exploitation of women and one world catastrophe or another.
But in Abdessemed's mind, things work a little differently. "A contemporary artist? I don't know." he says. "I'm 500,000 years older than Jesus. I breathe, I'm close to the sun, I'm a molecule."
Whether or not he agrees with this definition, Abdessemed, who was born 40 years ago in Constantine, Algeria, but lives and works today in Paris, has in recent years been identified as one of the most central and influential contemporary artists. His works often confound critics and sometimes create a sensation, leading to discussions that step outside the accepted borders in the field of art.
The amount of work he produces is also impressive. Over the last four years he has participated in biennales in Venice, Istanbul and Sao Paulo, among others. He has also held large solo exhibitions at the David Zwirner Gallery and the PS1 Museum in New York, the San Francisco Art Institute, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, and many other venues.
Abdessemed is visiting Israel for the seventh time, and this is his third solo exhibit at Dvir. His wife Julie has accompanied him, along with the youngest of their four daughters, Electra. "My apartment and studio are one and the same place, I work alongside my family all the time, I love the sound of the family. And my family also gets into my work, into photographs," he says. In a photo displayed during his previous Dvir exhibiting, "Conversation," in 2006, Abdessemed is seen in the arms of his mother, Nafissa, who had come from Algeria to visit him to France. Like much of his art, "NU" includes pieces in various media: photo and video, installations and drawings and also some textual works, such as the neon graffiti. At the opening, the Israeli-French curator Ami Barak connected the meaning of the word, which means "naked" in French, and its widespread use in conversational Hebrew to express impatient expectation.
Associations like this are present in almost all of Abdessemed's work, an inseparable part of his work process. "I'm like a bow that shoots some kind of arrow, but I know where I'm aiming," he said. "And so I connect people, feelings and things."
He explains these associations with help of an example taken from family life. "I'm the father of four girls. You could say they are an identity, my identity, we share the same blood. On the other hand, it's clear that each one is completely different from the others and from me. In a similar fashion, each of my works stands on its own, and all are part of the same thing."
The pieces in this exhibition are in large part a reaction to its being presented in a Mediterranean country, more than anything else, and may be linked to the revolutionary spirit now moving through the Arab world. "Color Jasmin" and "Greve Mondiale" represent this combination most clearly of any of the show's works in the exhibit. "When I was in Algeria recently, I saw the word 'Greve' [strike] on many walls. I thought that 'Greve Mondiale' would be the best manifesto for today. Can you imagine a worldwide strike? It would be bigger than a utopia. It is like the light that comes through the window of art in order to peek inside this utopian place."
"Color Jasmin," which refers to the so-called Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, he defines as the most direct work he has ever made: "It is in effect the true color of this revolution, like a mirror effect. There really is no Arab revolution, no plan, no project. It's a revolution that lacks magic, and is pointless."
Abdessemed often deals with controversial and political subjects in his work. "Habibi," one of his best known pieces, is a huge installation of an enlarged human skeleton that floats above the visitor's head, with a jet engine behind it. Airplanes appear in other of his works too, such as "Bourek," the shell of a plane folded within the triangular shape of the savory pastries. After the riots that took place in Paris in the middle of the last decade, Abdessemed created a series of large black-painted ceramic statues molded from burned-out cars he collected from the streets of the French capital. One was acquired by the French collector Francois Pineau.
Other outstanding works include a large number of photos and video films featuring animals. Most of them are rather cruel, and document their slaughter or position the animals in unexpected places, such as a lion or wild boars in the middle of a Paris street. His exhibit "Don't Trust Me," which opened at the San Francisco Art Institute in March, 2008, closed after a few days due to complaints by the public and media criticism of the "atrocities" it depicted.
"They have the right to criticize and reject my art, something that has happened many times. I feel I must do things that are not boring. I, like Goya's dog" - a reference to the painting by the Spanish artist dating from 1819-1823 - "only aim to warn people with my bark telling them of a landslide; he is only trying to wake them up, and whether they decide to do so or not is their business. I am said to be crazy because my art is all about seeing the landslide. I am not sure that I necessarily have a political agenda - I am not Wikileaks. But the fact is that we live in a tragic era," he says.
"My images, to borrow a phrase from Baudelaire, should hit you the way a butcher slaughters a goat. Utopias are like eating meat. I'm all for them, and think they should continue. But the fact is that I operate in a context in which half the world is hungry. It makes me laugh that people attack me: Why don't they attack the tower of meat, and the cosmetic companies that give cigarettes to dogs and lipstick to cats. I am simply continuing this in the form of images."
So you don't see yourself as a provocateur?
"No. The active force is the provocation, and the opposing force rises up out of it and serves it."
Bread with olive oil
In 2009, a major solo exhibit entitled "Rio" (after one of his daughters ) opened at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, where he is represented along with artists Donald Judd, Chris O'Feeley, Marlen Duma, Neo Rauch and Gordon Mata-Clark. It was a very difficult exhibit to view.
Isn't it sort of strange to call such an exhibition by your child's name?
"At that moment, I was spending a lot of time with my daughter. When I grew up in Algeria, a Mediterranean country, and also in Paris, everything was always mixed up."
Abdessemed describes himself as "a person of visual images," and says that he keeps most of his work in his head until he creates it, and does not usually sketch or plan more than that. And the patience required of an artist who uses means such as helicopters is also connected by Abdessemed to his childhood in Algeria.
"My father was the sole breadwinner. At the beginning of the month we ate bread with olive oil, in the middle of the month, perhaps a slice with tomato, and at the end of the month, when my father was paid, my mother prepared meat and cooked. But in this sense, my mother always found something, and for me this was always enough. And this is the way I approach my productions - if there are means or the desire and means at the same time, that's fine, but the works made without means are no less valuable."
Loud Arabic music from a video dominates the gallery's large space. In the video, eight women wearing white camel-hair clothing gradually unravel what they are wearing until, at the end, they are naked, with Abdessemed's stamp on their bodies. Here too, the work arouses a broad range of associations, from a Kafka story to Arabic music the artist heard on an earlier visit to the gallery space.
"Like the metaphor of rain descending from clouds, creating vegetation eaten by the buffalo and so on down the line," Abdessemed says, diverging somewhat from the typical water cycle, "this hierarchy is important. Everything lives and stands on its own, but in fact everything is connected and can't exist without this connection."
Adel Abdessemed, "NU," on exhibit until June 25, Dvir Gallery, Hangar 2, Jaffa.
Adel Abdessemed, "Rio" at David Zwirner Gallery
Stretch limo meet the stretch jet. April 25, 2009. Chelsea art gallery in Manhattan, New York City.