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Adel Abdessemed


by Emily Nathan
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The attitude of Algerian-born, Paris-based artist Adel Abdessemed (b. 1971) is distinctly embodied in an installation that anchors his current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea -- a foundered dinghy that he discovered in the Florida Keys, shipped to New York, filled with cast resin sculptures of black garbage bags and perversely titled Hope (2011-2012).

Abdessemed surmises that the “refugee boat” was used by immigrants to come to the U.S. The contrast between the ugly, heavy trash bags and the picturesque vessel, with its rusty rudder, exposed caulking and panels of peeling, blue-painted wood, seems to say something about the uncertain fate of seekers on U.S. shores, and hints at the falseness of the American dream.  

Abdessemed, who is preparing for an October 2012 survey of his work at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, is certainly no optimist. Although he was born and raised in Algeria, his adult life has been marked by wandering, and he describes himself as a modern-day Ulysses, a world traveler -- and an eternal exile. Critics have explained his work in terms of a life lived without national identity, lacking roots, but his art reflects more tangibly the violence he has unwittingly encountered at every step.

He left his civil-war-ravaged native country in 1994, after studying at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Algiers -- where its progressive director was murdered on the school steps -- and enrolled at an art school in Lyon, France. He arrived in New York for a residency at PS1 just in time for 9/11, and almost immediately returned to Europe. His transfer from Berlin to the rough outer boroughs of Paris in 2004, where he has been based ever since, nearly coincided with the ethnic street riots of 2005. While Abdessemed does not like to revisit these experiences, he is quick to express the realization to which they have led him. “Reality is ill,” he says.

“Hope is the only negative thing in the world,” he told Artnet Magazine last week, while guiding a walk-through of his exhibition, titled “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” on view at Zwirner’s two West 19th Street galleries through Mar. 17, 2012. “We don’t need hope. What we need is truth.”

And “truth” is what he has sententiously resolved to show us, a brutal, dire truth that places cruelty, suffering and every sort of “ism,” from racism to chauvinism, at the heart of human existence. Working in sculpture, installation and video, he favors stark imagery and masculine materials; his provocative works have included the crushed fuselage of a commander jet, which he folded into itself like rolled pastry dough and exhibits upright (Bourek, 2005), a cast terracotta model of an overturned car he found on fire in the street (Practice Zero Tolerance, 2006), and the enormous Telle mère, tel fils (2008) -- three braided airplanes, their bodies replaced with felt-covered armatures and literally woven together.

Despite their lack of subtlety, his smart, meticulous artworks make lofty philosophical and historical references. Abdessemed frequently quotes Heidegger, and he invokes Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857) to assert that the image, like the word, must “strike like a butcher -- but without anger or hate.” To that end, he envisions his “performances” as “acts,” which do not merely evoke or represent violence, but enact it. Not surprisingly, the more “striking” of these have courted controversy.

Don’t Trust Me, six looping videos of animals being slaughtered by a blow to the head, brought vehement opposition from animal rights activists and death threats against the artist when presented at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008. Abdessemed issued a statement in response but refused to justify, excuse or contextualize the killings, instead declaring his commitment to preserve the status of “an act of slaughter,” full stop, “without spectacularization and without dramatization.” The show was shut down.

Wild animals figure frequently in his works, and he often places them in dangerous situations. In 2007, he let seven wild boars loose on a Paris street to produce a photograph called Sept frères (Seven brothers), and his 2009 video Usine (Factory), shown in his first solo show at David Zwirner, featured snakes, spiders, frogs, dogs and cocks thrown together into a pit to fight it out. “Other artists use animals to represent something else,” he explains, “While for me, they are a real presence; our interaction is direct.” This, of course, echoes the relationship between Joseph Beuys and a wild coyote in his 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me.

If Abdessemed is a “pitiless young festivalist,” as the New Yorker described him in 2009, the art world loves him for it. He has had solo shows at New York’s PS1 (2007), Grenoble’s Le Magasin and MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (2008), and London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art (2010), and his new exhibition at David Zwirner had nearly sold out even before it opened last Friday, with buyers including mega-collector François Pinault and prices ranging from $800,000-$2 million.

The show gets its title, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” from one large tableau hanging on the wall, to which Abdessemed has affixed 500 densely packed taxidermied hunting animals, like a morbid homage to Mike Kelley’s tapestry of stuffed dolls, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987). The creatures are frozen in every position imaginable, necks tangled, hooves over muzzles, eyes wide. Abdessemed has taken a blow torch to the lumpy surface of brown limbs and varnished it with cedar oil, which lends the charred composition an eerie monochromatic sheen.

Who’s afraid is equal in size -- 12 x 26 feet -- to Picasso’s Guernica, the great artist’s most pronounced political artwork. Abdessemed more gothic version, which could be an elegy to the end of nature, effectively transfigures meaningless slaughter into a disturbingly decorative taxidermied landscape. (The artist has reportedly chosen to keep this work for himself, though it will be included in his survey at the Pompidou.)

In its undifferentiated tangle of limbs, where predatory wolves and foxes are entwined with their prey, the work underlines what Abdessemed sees as a universal capacity for destruction. He does not frame his perspective in terms of victims or perpetrators but cites Dostoevsky’s proclamation, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), that “each of us is guilty.”

Mémoire (2011-2012), a short, looping video presented on a monitor in the same room, features a trained baboon who affixes magnetic letters to a chalkboard one by one, spelling out the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” -- warring Rwandan ethnic groups who committed mutual genocide during their country’s civil war. The gallery is filled with the mechanical echo of each letter as it is slammed into place, an unpleasant aural reminder of the clangor of battle. The video suggests that meaning is like a bowl of alphabet soup, from which we can fish out whatever suits our purposes.

Décor (2011-2012) is an installation that consists of four life-sized sculptures of a crucified Jesus Christ, made from barbed wire and hung, arms extended and head drooping, in a row on the wall. Abdessemed has described religion as a bunch of “pretty stories,” and his use of a loaded religious icon for a work presented as mere décor is polemical. Its sharp metal barbs have been bent into smooth, rounded submission, and they suggest the sublimation of a tool of oppression -- barbed wire, religion -- into something else that is acceptable, and even innocuous, like a decorative work of art. (Its buyer, François Pinault, has agreed to lend it to a museum in France for temporary installation alongside its inspiration, Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, before it travels to the Pompidou in October.)

Lastly, Abdessemed turns his attention to the future. L’avenir est aux fantômes (The future belongs to ghosts) (2011-2012), shares a gallery with Décor, and consists of 30 nine-foot-tall microphones on stands made entirely from hand-blown glass, clustered together in the center of the room. The work’s title references a statement made by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullan’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, and is perhaps the artist’s sole acknowledgement of the potential for redemption. While in Décor, Abdessemed desiccates a loaded presence and reduces it to something empty, L’avenir offers presence by way of absence. The unmanned microphones, delicate despite their size, issue a silent invitation to be occupied -- who will speak into them? Who will write the future?

“When I look at the work of an artist,” Abdessemed mused, suggestively, “I am not interested in his biography. I want to be struck by what he makes; I want to hear his cry.”

Abdessemed’s cry, grim and dramatic, resounds in the stark gallery. “If I need to deform the truth in order to touch it, then that is what I’ll do.”

“Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” Feb. 17-Mar. 17, 2012, David Zwirner Gallery, 525 & 533 W 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email