One of the more fascinating developments in contemporary art over the past 10 or 15 has been rise of a new, far-flung class of artists from China, India, Latin America and the Middle East. Though obviously varied, these artists all use techniques borrowed from the Conceptual and Minimal Art which first emerged in the United States and Europe during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and thus, their work does share certain characteristics: It tends to take the form of very large and dramatic installations, often created with found or recycled objects. Photography, video and film are likewise often incorporated. More to the point, while the work appears to be Western on the surface, it is rooted in the artist’s particular culture of origin, and usually mixes biography with larger historical or social referents. This work, in other words, represents the first art movement that is the direct result of globalism, and not surprisingly, these artists have become a staple of international art fairs and surveys like the Venice Biennale. Adel Abdessemed, whose show “Rio” is currently on view through May 9 at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, is a good example.
Abdessemed, who was born in Algeria in 1971, is ethnically a Berber. He left his country in 1994 for France shortly after the start of a decade-long period of political upheaval precipitated by the Algerian military when it canceled elections won by the Islamist party in 1992. Recently resettled in New York, Abdessemed continues to spend part of his time in Paris, and his work could be easily interpreted as an allegory of his peripatetic life. Telle mère tel fils (which translates as “Like Mother Like Son”), for instance, was created out of the nose and tails sections of three commuter airliners; connected by a tunnel made of white felt, the piece twists and turns like a giant serpent.
Abdessemed’s work also reflects upon the religious and tribal divisions of North Africa and the Middle East—sometimes quite sardonically. In one sculpture here, the artist has copied the Old and New Testaments and the Koran by hand; it’s titled Prostitute. A video called Usine (which translates into English as “Factory”) presents a group of dogs, snakes, cocks, lizards, scorpions and tarantulas thrown together into a pit where, naturally, they start to prey upon one another. This gimlet-eyed perspective on the human condition also extends, apparently, to Abdessemed’s view of himself as he adjusts to his new home in the United States. In his photo titled Lincoln, the artist has recreated Daniel Chester French’s famed sculpture of the Great Emancipator from the Lincoln Memorial, and drapes himself uncomfortably across its lap.
I recently emailed Abdessemed with some questions about work, and here’s what he had to tell me:
Howard Halle: You left Algeria not long after the cancellation of elections there by the military, which was followed by years of unrest and violence. How much of the turmoil of the period affected you personally; is any of that experience reflected in your work?
Adel Abdessemed: The history of Algeria is older and more intimate. I was a student at that time. It has affected my life more than my work.
You have been described as a political provocateur. Do you consider yourself a political artist, and what do you think that means in a world so globally interconnected?
I do things in reaction to what surrounds me, rather than based on a political assumption. Once the work of art enters the public realm, it’s already political.
The title of this show is “Rio”? What does that refer to?
Rio means River. And it’s the name of one of my daughters.
The scale of your work in is considerable, especially in something like the installation made of airplanes. How do you go about putting such pieces together?
My work is organic, constantly evolving. All of my artworks spring from an intuition of an image in construction. Things change as the work comes to life and it’s the direct experience of this construction that produces the result—as opposed to Pop Art, where the object is already finished before the work of art is created.
One piece in the show, titled Prostitute, consists of hand-written manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran set into boxes inside shopping bags. That title juxtaposed with these texts is certainly provocative, but what, if anything, are you trying to say about religion? And given the longstanding historical relationship between religion and art, what role if any do you think religion or the spiritual plays in contemporary art?
For me, religions are fables, stories. I don’t think that religion and art need to have a hierarchical relationship, one of them superior to the other. Religion is part of the environment that surrounds me, like politics. I speak about religion as I do about democracy, life, or death. The three monotheistic religions were originally sects, that prevailed over the others. I consider these three books to be books of war.
The last 10–15 years in contemporary have been notable for the emergence of artists like yourself, coming from regions that were once considered outside of or excluded by the purview of Western tradition art. And yet much of this work including your own, relies on approaches developed as part of the end-game of that tradition. Why does Western art remain the template? Or does it still?
The model of Western art has spread all over the world, but it has lost its strength. I remember [Italian artist] Mario Merz quoting [North Vietnamese] General Giap: “If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground; if he scatters, he loses strength.”
You work has also been described as “asymmetrical realism.” Since that term unmistakably evokes the idea of asymmetrical warfare—as in, for example, the attacks of September 11, 2001—is that a term you’d embrace?
That is one opinion, but I don’t think it’s true of my work. It’s journalistic simplification, as is prone in the mass media, but it’s not an art-critical analysis. I would hope that criticism could be less superficial and more like what the Bible says: “This is our work.”
Finally, some of your work seems conditioned by your life abroad—in exile, as it were—first in Paris and now, in New York. The violence in some of your pieces, the references to death, suggest the idea of a past which cannot be escaped. And yet you now reside in a country were letting go of the past is part of life. Do you think that you could ever let go of your past? I’m wondering because your work Lincoln seems to address that very question.
Art is always a mix of memories and desires. As for Lincoln, here I’m from you tell a child whom you want to support and encourage: “One day, you will become a pasha.”