We interviewed the artist Kader Attia on the occasion of his first major exhibition in the United Kingdom ‘The Museum of Emotion’ at The Hayward Gallery in London. The international artist, who has been named 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 Gilets 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 important to be aware that we have been neglecting emotion, not only in art, but in politics too. Let me use France as an example: At the beginning of the 80’s, the left gained power with François Mitterrand, after two decades of a right-wing government following ’68 and the Algerian War. However the 80’s brought about the rise of neoliberalism, of a new right and what is even worse, the fall of the left. As a consequence the left became snobbish, what we call ‘Gauche Caviar’, in fact they began to neglect the ‘roughness of life’. In the cultural field they started to render the colours, smells, noise, museums and their exhibitions emotionally and intellectually dark and obscure, with the primary incentive of seducing the market. So the 80’s had become the moment when the Left abandoned the field of emotion. The 90’s were the depoliticised decade, and this is the very when Neoliberalism in France began to emerge and to seep into politics via its very own tool, the media.
LM: What would you say is the most interesting example of this?
KA: Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi owned two channels in France, La Cinq and another channel, whichgradually became very famous. As in Italy, he became the figure of a neoliberal promise and people began to believe that he was right. The connection between neoliberalism, economy and politics became more and more obvious through people like him. Berlusconi was very much using the field of emotion by provoking catharsis within the people: their desire to be healed, to be cured; but by condemning and blaming the other. For instance the blame for the decline of French economy was put on the Left, the choices they had taken, and it was denounced as total ‘nonsense’. By 1995 Berlusconi had become very famous in France and had began to build his own political party Forza Italia. Here we can see a clear illustration of media as a tool to gain power and control. If you look at what has happened afterwards, in France and also other countries, the direction of the political agenda had started to run parallel with the rhythm of the media and the news. By hijacking the attention of the political and media landscape, by creating scandal to gain attention, Berlusconi, like Trump, played 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 you tell us some more about ‘The Field of Emotion’ ? (An installation in the exhibition, where the artist has juxtaposed images of politicians with singers known for their powerful, affective delivery)
KA: Why do I think that emotion is ambivalent? If you look at a seminal context in history of the 21st Century, the way that populism brought fascists to power in the 1930’s, you clearly observe that only culture and artists can compete with politics on that ground. In my wall installation The Field of Emotion, I juxtapose people with very powerful voices – very charismatic singers like Maria Callas, people who really galvanised and magnetised crowds – with figures such as Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro. All these political leaders, also females such as Fidel Castro’s sister Juanita Castro or Mao’s wife Jiang Qing who was in charge of the Cultural Revolution, were totally homophobic. They were responsible for the imprisoning and deaths of a vast number of gay people. The Field of Emotion shows the way that most politicians, especially fascists with a radical agenda, hijack intellectuals and art in order to use them as a tool to control the crowds. You just need to watch Hitler’s or Goebbel’s speeches, convincing the audience just by their passion.
Also Donald Trump is a comparable figure and not all of the crowd are immune to him. One could state that it was a big mistake by the US Left (if one can speak of a Left there at all) to let Hillary Clinton win against Bernie Sanders. Sanders was aware of the field of emotion but there were snobbish democrats who had been convinced they were going to win over the plebs. They continued the way in which the Left in France or Italy had neglected the field of emotion, and as a consequence we woke up in a nightmare. I think we are witnessing a crucial moment of re-appropriation of the field of emotion. I do believe that the filed of emotion today is in the hands of the far right: with people like Salvini in power or with the Brexit.
LM: Could you tell me about your space, the space you opened in 2016 in Paris which encourages cross cultural critical thinking and what is your view on the Gilets Jaunes movement?
KA: Also the Gilet Jaunes protests are connected to the field of emotion. Recently we had Toni Negri for a discussion about the Gilet Jaunes movement. Afterwards I asked Toni Negri if we could connect the Gilets Jaunes to the Forconi movement in Sicily which gave birth to The Five Star movement. He explained that the uprising of the Gilet Jaunes were more complex and that many movements in Europe were the origin of the new far Right, so we now needed to be aware of such a risk.
I absolutely agree with him and Ètienne Balibar who pointed out during our discussion that the Left and the cultural institutions are demonising the Gilet Jaunes, claiming that they were Fascists. But they are just reproducing the words of the neoliberal Right and now that the media has demonised them with one agenda they really have become a Fascist movement in the eye of the public. I think this is a crucial moment; we must reinvent a way re-appropriating the field of emotion, which is held not only by politicians but also by another power: the mass media, the tabloids, the media linked to the neoliberal, and do not allowing any deviation but following the narrative of liberalism. To cope with this we need either to create spaces, small niches or to create art that the audience such as my project on 23rd February. I invited all artists, curators and critics and anyone else who wanted to support the Gilet Jaunes and to state in a public forum that the movement is becoming bigger. Re-appropriatinf the field of emotion has become an emergency today. Over the last 20 years Italy already has been witnessing this evolution towards Fascism.
*On the 23rd of February the artist hosted at his space in Paris – La Colonie a day dedicated to Gilets Jaunes activism, where artists, intellectuals and critics gathered to exchange thoughts and ideas on how to explain and engage in the Gilets Jaunes movement see link to event here
LM: The vast installation ‘The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures’ is filled with African Masks and Paraphernalia from the First World War, could you expand on your notion of Repair in relation to these seemingly contrary objects.
KA: My idea of Repair has developed bit by bit through my research of the past, especially when researching storage spaces of ethnological museums. I observed that throughout history isolated societies which had not been in touch with Western thought or modernity before colonial times, used to apply practices of repair which have absolutely nothing in common with Western concepts of repair: they repaired broken objects while keeping the wound visible, so a broken calabash for instance would be repaired with visible stitches or staples. This is not only the case in Africa, but also in Japan where the fissure of a broken ceramic pot was painted in gold after mending it. This is called ‘Kintsugi’ and it is a very delicate artistic form of taking care of the injury. With the rise of technological developments and modernity, the West started to be obsessed with an idea of repair that equals the necessity to control and to erase the injury and to make the object look like it did at the beginning. This is the total fantasy of modernity. If you consider this very obvious, yet deep-rooted contradiction you begin to realise the different concepts of injury from the westernand from the traditional point of view. For me the most significant moment of a shift of Western modernity, and perhaps the beginning of its end, was the First World War. It lasted 4 years, millions died, and it was the macabre theatre of the many inventions of Modernity. At this very point in time, the injured and wounded bodies were the incarnations of progress. What I find extremely interesting is the way people then tried to fix the injuries. At the beginning of WW1, in 1915 or so, people repaired injured faces and bodies on the battle field. The armies were simply overwhelmed with what was happening as they had not foreseen such slaughter. So they had to rely on young women, young nurses.
There is one famous French woman who after the war became a very important plastic surgeon, her name is Suzanne Noël, and she described repairing the faces of the injured in the middle of the battle field with bombs exploding above her head. In my research I found that those very early repairs looked much alike broken African mask objects that had been repaired. As the war proceeded, by 1918 the repairs became more ‘perfect’ in the sense that resin prosthetics were invented; doctors would dry the skin to fill it with resin. Pictures were taken to prove that science can repair the injury. This you can see in the slide show in the installation.
The approach towards repair is very different in the Western and non-Western world, in terms of both physical and psychological injury.
*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: The work Shifting Borders includes interviews I did in South Korea and Vietnam, and it is about the way these two countries have been dealing with their traumatic history by applying techniques from psychology and by using of traditional healing. I have been working a lot on the way that psychotherapeutical methods have been used in societies where traditional beliefs and rites have always existed.
In South East Asia I discovered something extremely interesting, because, for instance, it was really difficult to find Shamans in South Korea. Most people would say they don’t have Shamans any more. South Korea is a 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, it is a scary society so the few people who are ‘normal’ like us are trying to fight against this.
Vietnam, on the other contrary, is a country that embraces communism and despite the fact that communism opposes superstition, Vietnam has protected animism.* The work looks into a different form of healing and highlights the therapeutic role played by shamanistic practices in non-Western societies.
*In one of the interviews with 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 participated with a sound piece ‘Narrative Vibrations’, which was slightly hidden away in the Arsenale. I intergrated voices of female singers, and the sounds were transformed by a software we had developed in order to move grains on plates by sound waves. This was based on the discovery by a German physicist Ernst Chladni (1756-1827). He observed that solids transmit sounds and that some frequencies produce patterns that also exist elsewhere in nature. I applied this to an apparatus I invented with a couple of French engineers: we had ten plates in the space that were connected to the screens showing the singers, and I had poured couscous on each plate. The semola grains moved through electromagnetic waves provoked by the sounds in correspondence with the voices of musicians; Arab singers in fact from the postcolonial golden age, singers I grew up listening to. It produced some quite stunning abstract sounds and visually it was absolutely astonishing and 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