in Features | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

Saadane Afif

Art doesn’t get much more provisional-looking than Saadane Afif’s Memory of Fire (2004)

in Features | 10 SEP 04

The work consists, in part, of an oblong box about the size of a bedside table, painted thoroughly, if rather hastily, white. It’s the sort of object you see a lot of at art fairs, a piece of exhibition furniture knocked up at the last minute to prop up a monitor. (Two of its corners have little rectangles cut out of them, to facilitate the passage of a flex.) Normally such boxes are intended to be invisible, to blend in with the white, self-erasing walls of an exhibitor’s booth. This one, however, is pushed into the spotlight, where it becomes, if not a sculpture, then a markedly un-Duchampian objet trouvé. (While Duchamp dealt in the almost universally familiar, kid’s alphabet stuff of bicycle wheels and bottle racks, Afif’s box is both highly specific and, importantly, lacking in anything to which you might give a specific name.)

This is a complex manoeuvre, and one that Afif further complicates by placing another found object on top of his box: a web-snatched bibliography of a PhD in progress, entitled ‘Anarchist and Libertarian Societies in Science Fiction’. While the book list has, unsurprisingly, an internal logic and a weird, guttering poetry – titles include We Should Have Killed the King (1990), The Resurrection Machine (1989), The Entropy Tango (1981) and The Player of Games (1988) – it’s hard, at first glance, to work out what connects the two different elements of Memory of Fire. Is it that they’re things that are usually tucked away, whether beneath a humming monitor or at the fag-end of a thesis? Or is it that they underpin pieces of art and scholarship still flickering on the event horizon, that they truly exist not on their own terms but on the terms of work as yet undone? Both are possibilities. Afif’s art, after all, is one in which the world’s invisible support systems are made visible, and in which the future, in all its unpredictability, is always calling. Just look at his Pirate’s Who’s Who (2000–4).

Works of art, in most cases, are not sold in kit form, but Pirate’s Who’s Who is an exception. Buyers of one of the piece’s six editions are presented with a glitter-spangled Ron Arad ‘Lovely Rita’ bookshelf (its loops and arabesques hinting at choppy seas) and a contract stipulating that they will fill it with books on the subject of pirates. While this serves to double-up the authorship of a given edition, it doesn’t imply anything as straightforwardly
utopian as a collaboration between Afif and his collectors. Instead, there’s something very sub/dom (or, if you like, very Cabin Boy/Captain) about the way the work operates. Anybody purchasing Pirate’s Who’s Who is thrown back on their own artistry, their ability to make their purchase wink with insight and wit. This is a potential cause of anxiety (‘What if I make a bad fist of it?’), and one only compounded by the fact that there are five other bookshelves out there, and one’s own might look rather shabby, or boring, in comparison to them. What makes this anxiety bearable, of course, is that by playing by Afif’s rules one can transform an edition into a one-off work, with all the leaps in value and ‘specialness’ that implies. The art market is hardly an uncommon subject in contemporary art, but few works approach it with such knowing, kinky grace as Pirate’s Who’s Who.

If Afif’s art is about unfinished business, perhaps that’s because art itself is unfinished business, is in a permanent state of flux. For his key work A.A. (Conversation) (2002) Afif presented a neon wall piece in the shape of a white flower, its lines copied from a drawing made by his father. The father, in turn, based his drawing on what may have been the first work of art he ever saw, an image painted on the walls of the grim Algerian sanatorium where he spent a childhood convalescence. Afif here takes the idea that the act of copy-making removes an artwork’s ‘aura’, and turns it on its head. Pulsing with a pure, very beautiful light, his neon flower seems to be the apotheosis of the work his father saw so many years ago, an upgrading of a folk image into the rarefied realm of ‘fine art’. This is piracy of a sort, yes, but as the work argues, piracy is as much about freedom from institutions and their rules, about feeling the wind in one’s hair, as it is about theft.