Over 120 emerging and established artists from around the globe descended on New South Wales in 2010 for the 17th edition of the Sydney Biennale. The Biennale sprawled across the city, with works installed not only in the iconic Opera House and Museum of Contemporary Art, but also across the harbor at the former imperial prison of Cockatoo Island. No exposition of this scale should ever be visited at a glance, but I only had one day to take in the Biennale’s full slate of offerings, and by the time my ferry pulled into the slips at Cockatoo Island, I was overwhelmed but completely ecstatic.
I ducked into one of the island’s vast industrial buildings and found myself inside an enormous installation of corrugated aluminum and raw timber. Several wayward antennae poked through the cacophony of materials, and the steel-grey and bright-colored tones of the aluminum sheets were interrupted at sporadic intervals by tires strewn haphazardly about. The sight was chaotic, but familiar, as the arrangement of the metal appropriated a reassuring view of rooftops, hundreds of which were cramped together to form an unspecified and universal shantytown. These rooftops, low in height, invited the viewer to climb onto them to investigate the installation from within. Promptly reenergized, I quickly found myself navigating the makeshift roofs, climbing not only from peak to rooftop peak, but from what might be a home or a shop or a garage, from Nigeria to Brazil or India. By engaging my whole body and full range of senses, the artist and the sculpture also called on me to question the ethics of treading, literally and figuratively, over other people, other places, other communities.
The artist is the French-Algerian Kader Attia; the work is called Kasbah—a term that, like Attia himself, stretches across many borders. It is a term that is at once domestic and exotic, and which carries a heavy load of imperialism and orientalism, riches and poverty, near and far. Kasbah represents a number of themes in Attia’s practice, which frequently brings together aesthetics and ethics in an interrogation of the complex relations between East and West. To participate in this exploration, one must consider, in terms both political and economic, the immigrants and outcasts that populate the outer circles of our cities and societies.
The Sydney Biennale showed me more art than I could process, but Kasbah fixed itself firmly into my memory. Needless to say, I was thrilled when the Department of Media and Performance Art acquired Attia’s 2010 dual-slide projection, Open Your Eyes. As in Kasbah, ethics and identity comprise the core of this installation, which draws on the artist’s research on modern Western aesthetics to focus on repairing the human body—a process the artist compares to the evolution of repair in non-Western cultures. The slides show repaired bowls, pottery, and masks—all from Africa—that Attia photographed from the archives of several international museums.
The slides also depict portraits of wounded veterans from World War I, whose facial gashes and subsequent grafts and stitches form a visual narrative of destruction and reconstruction evocative of the artifacts from Africa. The images are organized as a comparative slide show mining issues of culturally-held ideologies of perfection and beauty, value and wholeness, morals and aesthetics. By way of these juxtapositions, Attia has created a powerful critique of colonialism and modernism and, as in Kasbah, he has cultivated a new territory in which to engage with history and with ourselves.
Open Your Eyes is on view in Performing Histories (1) in MoMA’s second-floor Yoshiko and Akio Morita Media Gallery through March 11, 2013.