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Two boys stand atop concrete rubble, backs to the viewer, staring out at the water from the Algerian coast. This photograph, Kader Attia’s Rochers Carrés (2007/2020), is installed in a lightbox at one end of the entry hall into The Valley of Dreams, his current exhibition at Regen Projects. At first glance, I had taken the rubble in the photograph to be, perhaps, stone sections of Doric columns, owing to apparent fluting—resembling both rubble and relic at once. But the sections of concrete were instead wholly modern, deliberately placed by the state to forcefully dissuade those who would flee by boat towards Europe. The two figures stare towards two ships offshore; the boy to the left appears in a challenging stance, shoulders mid-seize, towards the open scene. The glow of the lightbox in the darkened hall creates a temple-like atmosphere. This, combined with the hush of Covid-era individualized gallery viewing appointments, furthers the voyeuristic experience of gazing at a photograph of two backs in a scene impossible to square as terrifying, mundane, or both. Even though the boys also read triumphant in their vantage, the scene’s starkness makes pathos seem the work’s likely entry point.
Attia is often spoken of as an artist dealing in wounds, repair, injury, and memory. This focus alone walks a risky border with the morose, and I find myself wondering why trauma and its unpacking preoccupies so much of contemporary thought, in art and beyond. In a series of broken vessels further along in his exhibition, Attia complicates the re-presenting of memory-as-wound, employing the Japanese practice of kintsugi, wherein breaks in pottery are filled with metallic lacquer. Repaired with thick lines of cobalt blue resin and mounted to rebar, these terracotta pieces—Berber ceramics from North Africa—read as fragile yet hopeful. Careful mending resists each bowl’s casual destruction, while the vivid cobalt lines resist the faithful, flawless recreation of a partly destroyed past. Framing an object’s marring as its history is, in its own way, a troubling proposition, wherein wounds constitute “history” due to the legibility of scars that moments of peaceful significance cannot leave.
The language of re-creation is apparent throughout Attia’s exhibition. Near Rochers Carrés is Untitled (Skyline) (2007): arrayed refrigerators encrusted with grids of mirrored glass, arranged to mimic the regular anonymity of modern high-rises. Across the room, an arrangement of strewn shoes and clothing appears to have washed up on a long-gone wave and dried in place. As I looked more closely, trying to make out the label on a shirt and thinking offhand about whether or how this work might be sold, I was struck by the absent bodies that a pile of clothing implies. The longer I spent with this piece, the more oxygen seemed to leave the room, as if the clothing evacuated its hosts and slumped to the floor where, as an object of aesthetic consideration, it now seemed especially, ominously inert. Attia titled this piece La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) (2015) and managed with it something at once simple, abject, and eerily tender.
Still, I could not shake the disquiet of a preordained emotional conclusion. Traumatic experience communicated, or retooled, through art, can wrongly suggest a tidy arrangement of author (artist), protagonist (the work), and audience, overwhelming the heartstrings while leaving the understructure of collective trauma opaque. Attia can be both credited and faulted for deploying a deceptive, searching simplicity that cuts many ways—pitying, fragile, affecting, vague—referencing the shape of collective trauma while only hinting at its gravity.
Kader Attia: The Valley of Dreams runs from November 12–December 23, 2020 at Regen Projects (6750 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90038).