We interviewed the artist Kader Attia for the occasion of his first major survey in the United Kingdom, The Museum of Emotion at the Hayward Gallery in London. The international artist, who has been coined by the Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff as “One of the most interesting and cogent artists practising today”, spoke to us about the Field of Emotion, La Colonie, the Gilet Jaunes, his notion of Repair and his experience at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Lara Morrell: It seems to me that your art is a form of catharsis in the face of social and geopolitical frustrations, is this an apt observation and could you tell me more about the title of this exhibition the ‘Museum of Emotion’?
Kader Attia: Yes, that is true. It is very important to me to be aware today that we’ve been neglecting emotion, not only in art, actually it all started in politics and for this I take the French example which I know really well; at the beginning, in the 80s, in France the left gained power with François Mitterrand, after two decades of the right being in power and after 68’ and the Algerian War, it was a big victory for the left. But it you look back the 80s on the contrary brought about the rise of neoliberalism and the rise of a new right and even worse the fall of the left. How it happened in France is very interesting as it affected other countries, in France the left became snobbish, what we call ‘Gauche Socialiste’, they started to neglect what I call the roughness of life, in the cultural field they started to make the colours ,the smells, the noise and the museums and their exhibitions emotionally and intellectually dark and obscure, continuing a new form of conceptualism which was not political but much more to seduce the market, so that if you are to look at an artwork and you don’t care about its origin, whether it was made in Palestine or in Africa or even in your own country. So the 80s for me were the moment when the left has happened upon the field of emotion to look at reality, then what is interesting is that so far the 90s is the depoliticised decade, at this very moment slowly in France you start to see the way that Neoliberalism in France got into politics via its very own tool, the media.
LM: What would you say is most interesting example of this?
KA: Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi owned two channels in France, Le Cinq and another channel, they became very famous and like in Italy, they were totally populist, they both slowly but surely became so popular, the figure of a neoliberal promise, that people began to believe that this guy is right. The connection between neoliberalism and economy and politics became more obvious because of people like him. The link between Silvio Berlusconi and Trump is very direct because after this Silvio Berlusconi, who was very much using what I call the field of emotion in the sense he was provoking in France, like he did in Italy, the catharsis of the people, their desire to be healed, to be cured by condemning and blaming the other; the French economy is bad because of the choices made and the orientation of the economy by the left and that this was total ‘nonsense’, Sarkozy re-used exactly the same word after Berlusconi. Much more interestingly by 1995 he had become very famous in France, having open-end his first channel in 1985, he started to build his political party Forza Italia, what is extremely important here (in terms of communication he is not an idiot Silvio Berlusconi) is that here is a clear illustration of the understanding of the power of the tool of media, television and newspapers to reach power and control. He was able to do this by the abandonment of his Field of Emotion by the left. And if you look at what has happened right after him in France and in all countries, the direction of the political agenda became politically parallel with the rhythm of the media and the news, 9/11 has created George Bush’s policies, Sarkozy too of course and Trump for me it the most obvious example, he has been hijacking the attention of the political and media landscape by creating scandal to gain attention, he plays with the ambivalence of emotion.
LM: Could you explain what you mean by the ambivalence of emotion? In your opinion do emotions have the potential power to heal or they solely create conflict? Can tell us some more about ‘The Field of Emotion’ ? (An installation in the exhibition, where the artist has juxtaposed images of politicians with singers know for their powerful, affective delivery)
KA: Why do I think that emotion is ambivalent? I think that if you look at a seminal context in history during the 21st Century the way that populism has brought to power fascists in the 30s, you clearly observe that finally only culture and artists can compete with politics on that ground. In the Field of Emotion on the wall of my installation I put people with very high voices, very charismatic singers, people like Maria Callas, people who really galvanised and magnetised crowds, juxtaposed with figures such as Goebbels, Hitler and Fidel Castro, all these political figures both male and some females such as the Fidel Castro’s sister Juanita Castro, totally Homophobic, responsible for a vast number of gays in jail who have died as a consequence and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, responsible for the cultural revolution, a small detail to explain that the Field of Emotion is this state that most politicians, especially when they have a fascists and radical agenda, hijack the intellectual and art because it is a tool to control the crowd and you just need to watch Hitler’s of Goebbels speeches, they are so passionate that they convince the audience, Trump is like this, people like us of course are hermetic to this but not the crowd, and thats why in the United States that the biggest mistake of the left, if we can say there is a left there, is that they did not let Sanders win, they put Hilary Clinton instead, because Sanders was aware of the Field of Emotion but these snobbish democrats were convinced they were going to win over the pleb, they were so pretentious that in the continuity of the way the left in France and everywhere in Italy have neglected the field of emotion, everyone woke up with this nightmare. I think we are living a crucial moment of re-appropriation of the Field of Emotion, because I do trust especially in a country like this with Brexit in motion, is that the Field of Emotion today, with Salvini etc in power, is now in the hands of the far right.
LM: Could you tell me about your space La Colonie, the space you opened in 2016 in Paris which encourages cross cultural critical thinking and what is your view on the Gilet Jaunes movement?
KA: Yes, as this is also connected to the Field of Emotion, recently we had Toni Negri at La Colonie, he sent me a very long email after we did a gathering on the Gilet Jaunes movement, I asked Toni Negri if we could connect the Gilet Jaunes to the Forconi movement in Sicily which gave birth to The Five Star movement and he explained that what is happening in France with the Gilet Jaunes is more complex because we know that many movements in Europe have been at the origin of the new far right, so we need now to really take care of the risk of falling into the far right. Ètienne Balibar was at La Colonie with Toni Negri and I couldn’t agree with them more, even amongst the left and within the cultural institutions they are diabolising the Gilet Jaunes claiming these people are fascists, they just reproduce the speech of the neoliberal right and the media has diabolised them with one agenda; so that they really became a fascist movement and I think this is a crucial movement we have today because we do need to reinvent a way of on the one hand re-appropriating the field of emotion that is held not only by political figures but another kind of power which exists within each society today which is the mass media, the tabloids, the media which is linked to the neoliberal, that do not allow any diversions they just follow the narrative of liberalism and to deal with this we need either to create spaces, small niches or create art works which emotionally involve the audience such as what I am doing on the 23rd at La Colonie* I’m inviting all artists who want to support the Gilet Jaunes, as well as curator and critiques and anyone else who wants to support them and say it publicly and now the movement is becoming bigger, I am in touch with my team and it is going to be big, what I am telling you is that there is an emergency today of being part of the realm in terms of re-appropriation of this Field of Emotion. I think this is very important. You’ve seen in Italy for yourself over the last 20 years this evolution towards Fascism.
*On the 23rd of February the artist is hosting at his space in Paris – La Colonie a day dedicated Gilet Jaunes activism, whether artists, intellectuals and critics will gather to exchange thoughts and ideas on how to relay the movement and engage in the Gilet jaunt movement see link to event here
LM: The vast installation ‘The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures Is rife with African Masks and paraphernalia recovered from the World War One, could you expand on your notion of Repair in relation to these seemingly contrary objects.
KA: My idea of repair came to me slowly in my research that observing back in time, ten years ago in very poor contexts and throughout history and inside the storage spaces of ethnographic museums, that very isolated societies which are not in touch with Western modernity and then became in touch with colonialism used to have practices of repair which have absolutely nothing to do with Western conceptions of repair, which means that when an object was broken they used to repair the object by keeping the injury visible, a broken calabash was stitched or stapled with staples keep the injury visible, not only in Africa, in Japan for instance a broken ceramic pot which has been fixed the injury of the object was painted in gold and this is called Kintsugi and its a very delicate art of taking care of the injury. At the rise of technological modernity the West started to get obsessed by the fact that to control the injury and to repair an object means to erase the injury, the object needs to look like it did at the beginning, this is the total fantasy of modernity, if you apply this very obvious, yet deep-rooted opposition you really start to realise and understand the different conception of injuries, whether from the western point of view or from a traditional non western one. Then it becomes clear that it is a crucial state, for instance I think for me the most significant moment of Western modernity’s shift and probably the beginning of the end is World War One because as it lasted 4 years, millions died, was the macabre theatre of so many inventions and in this very moment the injured bodies wounded bodies were very much the incarnation of the state of progress, what I find extremely interesting is the way they used to fix the injuries. At the beginning of World War One, in 1915 the people who used to repair the injured faces and bodies during the war would do this in the middle of the battle field because the whole army was so overwhelmed by what was happening and were not expecting such butchery, the people were young women, young nurses, perhaps 16 years old. The is one very famous French lady who after the war became a very important plastic surgeon doctor, her name is Suzanne Noël, and she described searing the faces of the injured in the middle of the field with bombs exploding above her head and then what my research has shown me that in the very early repair looked so much like broken African mask objects which have been repaired the further into the war, into 1918 the repair became more ‘perfect’ in the sense that they developed prosthetics in resin for someone who is injured, they would dry the skill and fill it with resin and then take pictures to prove that science can repair the injury and you can see this in the slideshow* in the installation, the evolution of the way that the western world is obsessed by perfection and the non western when it comes to repair not only physical but is much more free to accept the ‘more or less’ also when it comes to psychology.
*In the slide show which forms part of the installation ‘The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures’ Attia pairs images of soldiers treated to early, rudimentary plastic surgery with African masks and objects bearing signs of physical repair, a series of juxtapositions challenging our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury beauty and otherness.
LM: On the topic of psychology could you tell me more about the installation Shifting Borders (three separate videos and a series of uncanny sculptural elements) and your focus on Mental Health Southeast Asia?
KA: Yes this is about the relationship between South Korea and Vietnam, a work which deals with how the two countries have been dealing with their trauma psychology and using magic, and I think this is extremely important because I have been working a lot on the way that Psychopathology has been used in societies where traditional beliefs and traditional forms of magic and healing have always existed but in South East Asia I really found something extremely interesting for because, for instance, it was really difficult to find Shamans in South Korea, most of the people would say they don’t have these anymore, South Korea is society which has been faced with forced capitalism, it is so neoliberal, it is so tough, you are nothing if you are not brilliant, beautiful and competitive, its a scary society so the few people who are ‘normal’ like us are trying to fight against this and Vietnam on the other hand, a country which embraces communism has on the contrary, even though communists were against superstition they have protected animism so much.* The work looks to different form of healing and the therapeutic role played by shamanistic practices in non-western societies.
*In one of the interviews to mental health professionals, academics and traditional healers, a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American solider who had possessed her brother-in-law.
LM: Lastly, you exhibited in Venice for the 57th Art Biennale, we are based there, how was your experience on our home turf?
KA: It was great, I made a sound piece ‘Narrative Vibrations’, slightly hidden away in the Arsenale, it was using the voice of female singers and their voices were transformed with a software we developed to move grains on plates and it was based on the discovery by a German composer (I live in Berlin I don’t know if I told you that) who’s name is Ernst Chladni (1756-1827), he discovered the equation that solids transmit sounds and some frequencies produce patterns that also exist in nature. I applied this to an invention I made with a couple of French engineers, we had ten plates in the space, I poured couscous on each place and then grains moved according to the voices of Arab singers from the postcolonial golden age, singers I grew up listening to through electromagnetic waves provoked by the songs. It produced some quite stunning abstract sounds and visually it was effective.
- Installation view of Shifting Borders, Kader Attia_ The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo_ Linda Nylind .jpg
- Installation view of Kader Attia_ The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019.jpeg
- Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, Kader Attia_ The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo_ Linda Nylind.jpg
- Kadia Attia with Ralph Rugoff