Mnemonic Fear

Kader Attia, Curated by Rachel Kent, ACCA, Melbourne, Presented with the Melbourne Festival in association with the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 30 September - 19 November, 2017

Ideology and Representation

In a time when we feel a return of history in relation to immigration, racism, borders, data collection, privacy, the fear of wars and total collapse, can we consider ways to de-westernise political and social worldviews through art, without being didactic? In Kader Attia’s work the notion of Terror is linked, not only with the idea of representing the Other today but with how specific physical representations were meant to depict criminals, Jews, lower classes, etc. during the Nazi era. These mechanisms have been used to impose fear on the unknown, or rather, turn other people into an ‘unknown’ other. We live in a time where, regardless of previous historical tragedies, racism is still alive, and war seems to be one step away from our door. Is this just the impression media today wants us to believe or is it genuinely happening?

Attia’s work at ACCA efficiently displays mechanisms used by museum institutions for the building of history, memory, and other Western projects. Attia uses these strategies and takes advantage of such a platform to stage one of his points: how marginalised otherness beholds its own suppression from history. In J’Acusse, 2016, deformed heads, lacerated by war, view their own death march as passive monuments of destruction. These sculptures are not only simulacra, but simulacra contemplating a parody of themselves, as if their damaged resurrected bodies stand again to suffer one last time, in an endless circus rehearsal.

A position of privilege

What can be proposed from a position of privilege today? What is the role of the museum concerning the history of artefacts which have been dismantled and then displayed in another context? There is a common question or excuse, in that if these objects are returned to their places of origin, they will be destroyed (Islamic State’s iconoclasm is one example of this), but then, shouldn't this be the responsibility of the apparatus which displaced them initially? Instead, one of the reasons they are being shown is to ‘educate’ and to be ‘preserved’, but isn’t this preaching to the choir? Is this why fiction or the fictionalisation of archives is in a great deal of contemporary art today? The gap between representation and the act (facts).(1)

Attia opens up the show with a seemingly smashed hole in a wall, which lets us see the backing of the pieces of a stained-glass work. Broken fragments illuminated by fluorescent bulbs; here we are allowed to see the inner workings of the structure, a sort of open wound where we have a glimpse of the bleeding guts looking back at us. Going around the wall, the glass shows what we already imagined, the front side of the fragments, which have been arranged by chance, but in a pristine manner. It is as if the European colonising plunder had been the other way around, and the marginal other were to be avenged, hybridising and re-building their great cathedrals and their theatres of knowledge. A somewhat obscure metaphor for a fictional museum.  

Immediately after this iconoclastic piece, we find ourselves in the middle of The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil, 2013. Several tower-like aluminium shelves house books and news ephemera around the Western representation of terrorism, particularly the notion of terrorism coming from the Middle East, and predominantly after the tragic attacks of September 11. This group of totems show images we have seen ever since, next to images from late nineteenth century colonialist depictions, pictures which have plunged our reality and imaginary into a constant threat, illustrating fear. One could read a sort of static-dismal-zapping, as if scrolling down on Facebook or swapping random TV channels, a sort of Informational bomb.(2) The complexity in which we live, added to the role we have given to technology almost automatically positions us in a vortex, as Paul Virilio agues: synchronising our affects and emotions:

It is no longer an atomic [bomb] and not yet ecological but informational. This bomb comes from instantaneous means of communication and in particular the transmission of information. It plays a prominent role in establishing fear as a global environment, because it allows the synchronization of emotion on a global scale. Because of the absolute speed of electromagnetic waves, the same feeling of terror can be felt in all corners of the world at the same time.(3)

Archives and Amnesia

A great deal of contemporary art practices are working with archives today, creating fictional collections and introducing real narratives into fiction. In order to question the apparatus of history by reflecting on its mechanisms and because fiction is a way in which we assimilate content, these strategies have been used by artists mostly from cultures and societies struck by war and trauma. I was born in Costa Rica and grew up during the late 1980s, being bombarded with American popular culture and socially isolated from the rest of the Latin American struggles. My imaginary consisted of Hollywood, the dream of going to America and singing ‘navidad, blanca navidad ’(4) in a place where the only thing similar to snow was the frost in the freezer. A lack of historical context and memory have always been the main issues back home, bruises inherited from colonisation, hybridised and ‘improved’ by bureaucratic and elite structures. One can picture why the recovery of memory is of great importance today, and why conflicted territories struggle so hard to recover and preserve these memories through art, a terrain which still enjoys some autonomy and facility for subversion.

In Reflecting Memory, 2016, Kader Attia explores the concept of the phantom limb to comment and amplify on the notion of repair. The video builds in a very elaborate fashion, from interviews with experts (psychologists, social workers, doctors, etc.) and patients, how the technique of using mirrors helps patients overcome or accept the trauma of having lost limbs. This is compared to the ‘act of reparation’ in societies affected by trauma. With a sometimes poetic treatment and sometimes following a documentary line, Attia makes us reflect on how to overcome and discuss certain issues around the concept of injury. This raises a series of questions such as: if we, the marginalized other, must first de-colonise—do we then accept that the damage has already been done? And then, how and what can be built from this? Should we analyse what it takes to live in a society that either tries to hide, or beautify, any act of reparation? Or, should we confront the injury and build from the collapsed body? I think of societies which have suffered horrendous acts of colonialization and massacres; these can´t be positively accepted in order to forget what happened. We can’t carry with us the guilt of the past, while, through symbolic rituals, trying to redeem ourselves and feel better. There will be no reparation, I would suggest, if we continue to place ourselves in a scenario of difference, where there will always be one better than the other, one stronger than the other. Where there will always be an Other.


  1. See Kader Attia:
  2. Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotex(e), 2012).
  3. Ibid, p. 30.
  4. ‘White Christmas’, a Jingle Bells adaptation.

Air Jordan


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

Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, Untitled, 2017. Wall Installation. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, Untitled, 2017. Wall Installation. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil, 2013. Installation, steel shelves, books and newspapers, video projection. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, The Culture of Fear: An Invention of Evil, 2013. Installation, steel shelves, books and newspapers, video projection. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis


Kader Attia, Reflecting Memory, 2016. Video, HD, colour, sound, 45:56 min. Courtesy of ACCA.

Andrew Curtis


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

Andrew Curtis

Emanuel was born in Costa Rica in 1986. He studied Fine Arts at the University of Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica from 2005-2012, and at the Kunsthochschule Weissensee, Berlin KhB, under the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) from 2013-2015. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, where his research examines images as elements in the construction of memory and knowledge, via databases, printed photos, and digital resources. These images are enhanced and distorted, to modify meaning and agency.


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