Adel Abdessemed

Although he employs various media—videos, photographs, and sculptural installations—Adel Abdessemed insistently refers to all his works as “acts.” The term, in its brute directness, raises the question of how exactly Abdessemed’s art operates within the sociopolitical arena and what criteria should be used to evaluate it. For MIT’s recent exhibition, curator Jane Farver presented works made by the artist between 1994 and 2008 as one installation, emphasizing their cumulative force perhaps to obscure the paucity of their formal means. The surge of interpenetrating sounds, images, and sensations rendered the whole more important than the parts, and generated a visual and auratic experience bordering on the hysterical.

It was impossible to ignore the jarring dissonance of amplified, overlapping sound tracks—the heavy thud of the artist’s foot trampling a microphone lying on the street (Talk Is Cheap, 2006), for example, competed with the expressive whir of the video camera recording its own seven-hundred-meter drop from a helicopter hovering over Berlin (Schnell [Quick], 2005). The installation was a cacophonous, uncomfortable jungle colonized by various wild animals, including a feral cat greedily consuming a rat on the streets of Berlin in the wall-size projection Birth of Love, 2006, and creatures indigenous to North Africa (mule, lion, serpent, wild boars) that the artist illegally introduced onto Paris streets and photographed between 2006 and 2007. Embedded in this entanglement were works representing various social tensions: for example, Ombre et lumière (Shadow and Light), 1994, a video of a woman lifting her veil as she turns toward the sun, and Practice Zero Tolerance (Retournée), 2008, a terra-cotta sculpture of an overturned car, molded (without authorization) from a vehicle impounded by the French police during the uprisings in the Parisian banlieues in 2005. The bevy of “uncivilized”’ beasts in Europe’s capitals, the inescapable clamor, and the evidence of individual and collective oppression and (provisional) revolt emerged in this installation as so many indications that all is not well in our contemporary world. At once psychotic and psychosis-inducing, the Algerian exile’s acts surface from a global state of crisis and amplify its insidiousness.

Speaking to the connection between his practice and the everyday, in an interview in 2003, Abdessemed explained, “If I like to make my works in a bar, in the street, or in a bathroom, it’s because art is an interpretation of daily life, of things you encounter. You can’t claim that any given thing is superior to any other. Everything counts.” What seems to diminish Abdessemed’s practice, however, is an all-too-literal delivery of his points about the quotidian. One example of this is Foot On, 2005, a looped two-second-long video showing the artist crushing a can of Coca-Cola with the heel of his bare foot. While he may very well be demonstrating the “passion and rage” that purportedly propels his work, and commenting on the possibility of disrupting the global networks of production and consumption with simple acts of civil disobedience, one nevertheless wishes the aesthetic experience was not presented so reductively, so thinly. This grim and frustrating approach may, however, be symptomatic of greater ills. One is left wondering whether there is any possibility of countering the impoverishment of the image and the dissolution of subjectivity in our globalized present, or if passion and rage are all that remain.

Nuit Banai