Guilt is a powerful agent of repression – especially in post-World War II Germany – which made Kader Attia’s study of the representational traces of historical travesty seem to possess a broader subtext when set against a Berlin backdrop. But then the devolving of specific subjects into ever-broader subtexts is a characteristic of Attia’s art. The multiplying ripples he sets into motion can seem indiscriminately far-reaching.
Repair. 5 Acts – Attia’s first institutional solo exhibition in Germany, and curator Ellen Blumenstein’s first major exhibition at KW – was a seven-room display, beginning as a meditation on various forms of ‘transfer’ between Africa, Europe and America, through the medium of documentary images. The direction was one of descent, both emotionally and historically, from the pop-cultural to the geo-political. A sequence of slides showing the faded colours of African LPs of the 1960s and ’70s, was followed by photographs and drawings of the deployment of African soldiers by European armies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Attia alights on forms of cultural exchange which entail, or at least comprehend, a moral debt. This might more properly be the domain of the social historian. The guise of research (a convention in much contemporary art typically used to grant spurious sanction to subjective enterprise) is adopted to explore the emotive charge which the relics of horrific events carry in their silence – their refusal to testify to the events they imply. The passive silence of the relic is implicitly associated with the active silence of partial historical witness – which W.G. Sebald has called, speaking of the refusal of postwar Germans to discuss their past, a ‘conspiracy of silence’.
Attia is an expressionist masquerading as an objectivist. In Collages (2011) – his sophisticated filmic study of Algerian transsexuals – the crudely made-up male face forms an unyielding screen over inaccessible histories of persecution. Similarly, in Repair. 5 Acts, Attia pored over images of World War I African soldiers among their European colonial ‘masters’, in search of telling details which could only mask the horrors they intimate, and condemn the investigation itself as prurient. This double bind is the dynamic of his art. But a sensitivity to the emotive potential of found images is the other side of a weakness for broad, theatrical effects. Along a black corridor, harsh striplights flickered off a series of wooden African fetish masks, coated in mirror fragments. The installation’s melodrama was meant to reflect the condescension of Western etymological displays of African art. The viewer’s atomized reflection stood in for the alienated African ‘Other’. The glibness of this conceit was mitigated by the specificity of the facial shards in their recreation of the cubist fragmentation of subjectivity (Picasso, of course, was influenced by African sculpture).
Positing subjectivity as contingent upon its representation is crucial to Attia’s idiom. He envisages the terror of becoming objectified as the image of cultural prejudice. Hence the comparison between the surgically reconstructed faces of war veterans and African ideals of beauty by which he suggests the arbitrariness of local notions of how we ought to look, and insinuates the ‘science’ of eugenics. Attia encourages this tendentious thematic spread although his is a penetrative rather than expansive talent, with a flair for isolating resonant fragments rather than constellating spectrums of heterogeneous narratives. Where his arranging hand is too visible, the work is vulnerable to crudity and confusion. A series of cracked mirrors, sewn together with twine, were clumsy emblems of retrospective cultural ‘repair’. Wooden busts, carved by Senegalese artisans and representing mutilated negroid features, were heavy-handed ciphers, illustrating a narrative more convincingly manifested in the found image collages. A series of vitrines, containing stuffed wild animals and African masks which imitate them, were attempts to cram institutional critique, an indictment of colonialism, anthropological taxonomy and a study of the history of representation into containers too narrow to allow the mixed metaphors to be parsed.
At his best, Attia fixes on an image which does the work for him, not by historical testimony, but by how it is withheld. Such images are their own conspiracies of silence. A flat screen, looping a natural history documentary on the Australian lyrebird, was mounted on a column in the otherwise dark and empty basement of KW. With its astonishing capacity for sonic mimesis, the bird imitates the click and whirr of the camera filming it, then the roar of the chain‑saw eating into its natural environment – sounds that suggest, but do not record, the oncome of the bird’s extinction by alien forces ‘colonizing’ its habitat.