Thursday, November 29, 2012

Adel Abdessemed, Je suis Innocent, Centre Pompidou

Adel Abdessemed, Wall Drawing, 2006
Image courtesy Avis Culture
This is one of two lovely exhibitions in the Espace 315 galleries of the Pompidou Centre, spaces usually given over to newer more experimental art. I enjoyed so much about Adel Abdessemed’s work, not least of all its ability to send a knife through the body without touching it. Perhaps because the work was carefully cordoned off, probably because of its fragility, looking from a distance, I felt its sharp, devastating physical impact.  Looking at Wall Drawing, 2006 for example in which nine perfect circles made out of barbed wire affixed to the wall, a chill ran across my skin. I imagined the heads caught inside those perfect circles.

Adel Abdessemed, Hope, 2011

In Practice Zero Tolerance, the two “charred cars,” that are in fact made of terra cotta, turned over on their sides are familiar to us from Gaza, Iraq as far back as the first war, Desert Storm, and all the other battlefields where the value of a mode of transport is rendered the spoil of war. The charred car, usually having been blown up by a car bomb is one of the most familiar signs of the destruction and insanity of war. It is because these representations have a general, widespread reference to war and violence, not just to one war in particular, that they accrue ever more power. The notion of war is itself a problem, and there is no point in critiquing one war in particular. It’s all the same. Hope functions in the same way. The row boat suspended by cables on its side, about to capsize, is filled with resin black garbage bags. Again, standing before it we see the waste of destruction, the debris of an accident floating out to sea, where people have not survived, people have not made it into the boat.

Adel Abdessemed, Practice Zero Tolerance, 2008
The exhibition also features a number of videos, all of which are compelling and disturbing, all for different reasons. In Also Sprach Allah (2008) the artist is thrown from a blanket held at the corners and on the sides by henchmen. He has to write “Also sprach Allah” on a prayer mat that is stretched on the ceiling. With each throw he manages to make one mark on the carpet. The work is apparently a reference to Goya’s El Pelele (1792) in which a straw dummy is thrown to the sky. Without knowing of Goya’s earlier work, the piece is easily accessible and comprehensible in its realization of the artist as obedient, giving up individual will, whether by force or by choice, as he takes up a role of subservience to the regime, to God, to his role within, for Abdessemed, Islamic society. This is a world where Neitzsche (the obvious reference of the work is to Thus Spoke Zarathustra) has been replaced by Allah. Indeed, even though there is no specific location, the videos depict a war that is everywhere and a war that is clearly taking place in the Islamic world. A man plays a flute, naked, the image is looped, and we are immediately reminded of the torture rituals practiced by Americans in its recent wars. The nakedness, the effort of playing the instrument, the repetition, it’s all a for of torture to watch as well as to perform. 

Adel Abdessemed, Also Sprach Allah 2008

In one of the most disturbing videos, a piglet suckles a woman’s breast in a 30sec loop. As the pig’s snout gently sucks and massages, Lise, 2011 disturbs because it is all at once erotic, exotic and repulsive. It is erotic for obvious reasons, and only repulsive because of our social expectations that would have this kind of bestiality adjudged inacceptable. But the breast is also nurturing the pig, giving life and sustenance to the young animal. And so the image becomes exotic and charming as the human rescues, and gives life, to the baby animal. More than anything, it’s our responses to the image that make it disturbing, because after all, it is just a pig suckling a woman. A no less disturbing image is that of couples performing sex in a gallery. Here, the audience within the film applauds, reinforcing that it is a performance for the enjoyment of onlookers. The diegetic audience members are enthralled, smiling, giving a response that seems superficial, inappropriate, out of kilter with what they have just seen. The motivation for the couples’ performance is also underlined by the fact that there is no love, the men don’t have erections, the couples perform on cue, they make no secret of the fact that they simulate, not have, sex. It’s these uncertainties, the ambiguities and of course the break of certain taboos around sexuality that make this and the other videos in the exhibition, unsettling, even confrontational.

Adel Abdessemed, Lise, 2011

Lastly, this is the perfect exhibition for the industrial space of 315 sud. These spaces use the exposed air conditioning, and the exposed infrastructural scaffolding for which Richard Rodger’s Pompidou Centre is so famous. Abdessemed’s sculptures and video work particularly well in here because of they complement, and effectively extend, the harshness of the space. It is also a gallery that is both inside and outside. The floor to ceiling windows that surround three sides of the 315 sud look out to the harsh world of homelessness on the plaza. I visited Je suis Innocent as day turned into a cold, wet night, and the destruction and tragedy of history echoed in the works became one with the sometimes desperate world outsize on the plaza.

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