New York

Dennis Adams

Christine Burgin Gallery

Dennis Adams’ installation here was another development in a series of public projects and proposals based on the French-Algerian War. Entitled Holy War, 1989, the work speaks to the inherent contradiction of a spiritually-inspired military conflict. The French-Algerian War was remarkable for its brutality—for France’s relentless aggression in the face of the Algerians’ determined progress toward independence. As in so many of his public works, Adams aims to incite active recollection; he challenges the viewer to remember even those historical passages that seem too horrific to remain in the collective consciousness. The strength of the work is in its aggressive, but engaging strategy of confrontation.

Adams depicts the anonymous fabric of the city and the useful structures of public life in his alternative memorials. Rather than reinscribe the monument with new meaning, he selects or borrows the formal typologies of bus shelters, public bathrooms, and other functional spaces. It is the tension between these unpretentious places and Adams’ ideological, esthetic intentions that stirs dormant memories.

The installation includes a large transparency of a pissoir (urinal) that is covered with official signage, advertising, and graffiti. Behind this large, illuminated image is a model of a proposal for the city of Dijon that only modestly adjusts the pissoir prototype. The structure is shaped in plan like an elongated racetrack; a central wall slices the space into two mirror-image chambers. The walls of the structure are raised above street level on stout legs; they wrap around to provide a simple screen for privacy and to frame the two adjacent entrances. An oval roof seems to float above the building, supported by a single column. Adams’ pavilion follows the contours of the curiously graceful pissoir with fidelity, but in the two chambers where the user would stand to urinate, he has placed identical backlit transparencies. They depict the stone busts of French military governors, strewn in the Algerian desert sand. They had been roughly removed from the Palais D’Eté at the conclusion of the French-Algerian conflict in 1962. Like dismembered corpses, these commemorative objects recall the slaughter of this war and the random violence of all wars.

Adams’ pissoir-inspired pavilion is a slightly new twist on this artist’s work. Unlike the bus shelters he has done, which retain their original functional program, the Dijon project adopts a functional structure and creates a new type of civic building that resides uneasily between the monumental and the mundane. It is a mutant symbol—powerful in its perversity, its ironic deployment of public and private dimensions. The viewer encounters Adams’ disturbing adjustments only through the gesture of entering the dark, shielded recesses of this amenity-cumexhibition pavilion. Public consciousness is provoked in the search for a furtive moment of personal privacy.

Adams’ work sometimes painfully implicates the individual in a dialogue on civic life. By doing so, he suggests a model of citizenship that is challenging, questioning, and critical; the world and its structures do not always conform to our expectations, memories, and desires. Adams proposes that we be inspired by these inconsistencies.

Patricia C. Phillips