Kader Attia

Centre National de la Photographie

LA PISTE D'ATTERRISSAGE (THE LANDING STRIP), 1997–99, is the name given to a deserted stretch of beltway at the northern edge of Paris by the Algerian transsexuals and transvestites who work there as prostitutes. It is also the name that French photographer Kader Attia has given to his color-slide installation about the lives of these several hundred “creatures” (as they call themselves) who have left Algeria under threat of murder, made their way clandestinely into France, and, for lack of working papers, “landed” on the sidewalks of the boulevard Ney in their wigs, miniskirts, and spike heels.

The fourteen-minute duration of La Piste d'atterrissage turns out to be just enough time to permit the repeated viewings, one after the other, that the intensity and the complexity of this work invites, if not demands. There are 156 images in all—a kind of collective family album of snapshots, portraits, and souvenirs recalling celebrations and protests, oriental interiors and mean streets. They form a vertiginous patchwork of mostly female faces and mostly male bodies, sidewalks, knickknacks, and leopard-skin sofas, shuttling the viewer back and forth between genders, countries, and cultures. But after two or three times around the carousel (what better medium/metaphor for a nonlinear narrative in the transnational tradition that includes not only The Arabian Nights but also Dallas and NYPD Blue?), the logic of Attia's presentation begins to emerge: five miniepisodes on the themes of exile, identity, community, the sex business, and (in guise of an ending that is neither happy nor sad but literally “to be continued”) the struggle for legal residency in France. All of which unfolds to the rhythms of Algerian pop songs and traditional music, as well as one “audio-vérité” sequence recorded on the boulevard.

The whole functions not by illustration but provocation: a constant barrage of sensuality, sentimentality, anxiety, and world beat that leaves little place for certainties. Or for voyeurism. La Piste d'atterrissage is not (to quote Nan Goldin's introduction to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) “the diary I let people read.” It is a record of what began as a chance encounter between two transvestites on the boulevard and a young photographer with an exceptional eye (Prix Leica 1996), a questioning mind, Algerian roots, and a penchant, as he acknowledges, for playing the older brother. For Attia, the interest of the work is at once “political and formal.” Indeed, be has not simply introduced the creatures of the boulevard Ney into the posh surroundings of the CNP (a former Rothschild town house) but also accompanied eight of them through the administrative labyrinth of French immigration. A curious detail for an exhibition review, but one that is in dissociable from the sense of involvement that gives aesthetic force to the work. For this human bond finds its visual expression not simply in the gestures and faces of Attia's subjects but in the very space and composition of the photos; not only the physical closeness and warm tonalities, but much more subtly, the visual stability of these images, devoid of the plunging vantage points, blurring, dissymmetry, and underexposure that spell “sordid.” The results are not necessarily images of these women and men as they are, much less as they should be, but as they would like to be seen and accepted by others. Or as Zeboudja, whose portrait before the doors of the Regularization office comes at the end of La Piste d'atterrissage, comments, “For me, this is the most beautiful photo because it's the first time that an Algerian transvestite went to the prefecture for her papers as a woman.”

Miriam Rosen