Revision and Recovery

Kader Attia, ACCA, Melbourne, Curated by Rachel Kent (Chief Curator, MCA), 30 September - 19 November 2017

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” 

—Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)

So begins Kader Attia’s essay in the catalogue for his solo at ACCA. Many injuries—of the body, politics, history—are presented here, building a resonant case study of the damage we humans inflict on one another using weapons, policy and ideology.

Attia’s show opened in Melbourne just days before the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the largest in the US in recent history. Author Rebecca Solnit posted this response to the the shooting on Facebook,

“I've always been struck by the entitlement of violence, be it domestic violence or political violence or these bloodbaths, by the killer's belief that he has the right to control and even take other lives, the valuation in which he matters and they do not, he determines and they do not. There must be terrible loneliness in that failure to perceive the humanity of others, the failure of empathy and imagination, to consider oneself the only person who matters. And much exists to instill that worldview…”

Solnit’s words echo the work Attia has done to connect the dots between structural and individual violence, politics and its consequences. ‘Much exists to instil that worldview’ is the argument of The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil (2013), an installation that puts its viewers inside an archive of real books on ISIS, newspapers and periodicals like late 19th century French Journal des Voyages.  The gradual construction of narratives and images produced over decades and across the West from an often racist and propagandistic perspective, is now concentrated, visceral. There is no avoiding it, and no possibility of denying it. The installation towers surrealistically towards the ceiling, imitating the long, systematic process of dehumanising the Other, in this case the Middle Eastern or Muslim man. The resulting stereotype of a terrorist across the West today is itself a scar.

In Attia’s work scars do indeed wield power. J’Accuse (2016), French for ‘I accuse’ is a brutal installation of sculpture and video. Projected large is a continuous loop of 1938 French film by the same title by Abel Gance extolling the horrors of war through confronting up close shots of the mangled faces of soldiers injured in WWI. An army of sculptures is assembled in front of the screen. Massive wooden busts modelled by axe with features recalling Francis Bacon, sit atop crude limbs made of rusty rebar, reminiscent of the skeletons of destroyed buildings. They are wounded just like the men on the screen but they simply stand and watch, silently. Unable to act or react, they seem perpetually condemned to stare into a mirror of the trauma they represent.

Another key work at ACCA is Ghost. Approached from behind, 130 metallic human forms appear to be seated very close together in a room, all shoulders and pronounced spines. Walking around them it becomes apparent that their silver skin is more of a covering with a large hood, evoking the chador, traditionally worn by some Iranian women. But by the time you round the bend to stand in front of them you can see that under their veils, made of aluminium foil, there is nothing, just deep shadows and still air. Is that nothingness perhaps a representation of how organised religions have historically and continuously failed women? Is it the failure of the Westerner’s gaze to acknowledge the humanity of practitioners of Islam or of the Other? Attia’s hollow forms are incredibly vulnerable, so easily could they be crushed or kicked over. But because they exist within the unreal realm of art, they are not only protected but venerated.

In the most profound work of the exhibition, scars go beyond reminding us our past is real. In Reflecting Memory (2016), a 48 minute film, the phantom limb phenomenon is examined through a series of interviews that arc from explaining the depth of trauma and pain that occurs from the loss of a limb, to an understanding of phantom limb as a powerful metaphor for societal fractures after war and terror, which can be transferred to future generations. It is mentioned that mirrors can be used as a method of therapy—positioned just so the victim can see herself again as whole—and thus the piece provides us with and optimistic model for psychological healing. If we reimagine ourselves without our scars, if we can find a way to look at them differently, we do have a chance at recovery.

Each of Kader Attia’s pieces are mirrors—to look into them is to see someone else’s face reflected as your own. The Other, far away, foreign, ‘not my problem’ becomes intimate. Up close we can see connections otherwise hidden from view. We see how others’ bodies are victim to ideas, victim to images, victim to our beliefs. Having encountered Attia in early October, in light of the Las Vegas shooting, numerous devastating hurricanes and earthquakes around the world, and the mounting horrific accounts of the genocide of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar army and police, it is hard not to see each as the loss of another limb, and the future site of a deep scar. Attia’s argument however, lies in the fact that we can learn to recognise when and how our beliefs are implicated in these wounds. When we understand that, we have the power to re-envision our reality. If we convert these abstract understandings into empathetic actions art indeed has the power to change the world.






Kader Attia, Ghost 2007/2017, aluminium foil, Installation view, ACCA, 2017


Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, Asesinos! Asesinos! 2014, 134 wooden doors, 47 megaphones, Installation view, ACCA, 2017.


Andrew Curtis


Asesinos! Asesinos! 2014, 134 wooden doors, 47 megaphones, Installation view, ACCA, 2017


Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, J’Acusse, 2016. Installation, wooden busts on metal supports and video projection. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis

Amanda Ribas Tugwell is a Melbourne-based art writer and the manager of Fox Galleries in Collingwood. Last based in Berlin, she was the Art Editor of Exberliner magazine and Assistant Editor of The Parachute Paradox by artist Steve Sabella, published by Kerber Verlag. She holds a bachelor’s degree in photography & media from California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.