Nadia Kaabi-Linke, A Short Story of Salt and Sun, 2013, silk paper, wax, Chinese ink, and varnish on linen, 90 1/2 × 55".

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, A Short Story of Salt and Sun, 2013, silk paper, wax, Chinese ink, and varnish on linen, 90 1/2 × 55".

Nadia Kaabi-Linke

Nadia Kaabi-Linke, A Short Story of Salt and Sun, 2013, silk paper, wax, Chinese ink, and varnish on linen, 90 1/2 × 55".

There is something unbearable about the lightness of Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s work, articulated in the diversity of material and form she employs to suit concept and site. Take Flying Carpet, 2011, a suspended cage-like sculpture shaped from the measurements of carpets used by illegal street vendors on the Ponte del Sepolcro in Venice. Or “In confinement my desolate mind and desires,” the artist’s Discoveries Prize–winning presentation at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2014, courtesy of Kolkata gallery Experimenter: Its central work—standard measurements for prison cells around the world, outlined with metal strips on the booth floor—was titled Modulor I after Le Corbusier’s universally applicable “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale.”

Herein lies the cognitive dissonance: between Kaabi-Linke’s treatment of weighty concerns with considered—and Minimalist—aesthetic balance. This compositional precision was employed to full effect in “Fahrenheit 311: Seven Legends of Machismo,” an exhibition that traced a series of interconnected narratives. A Short History of Salt and Sun, 2013, for instance, is a wall print that records the natural erosion that has occurred at a railway stop inaugurated in 1872 in Tunis: Marsa Beach, a seaside resort through which a history of postcolonial Tunisia is mapped via the tourism trade that boomed after independence and has suffered a decline in recent years. The work is a treatment of surface as skin—as a body of historical and experiential evidence. The same is true of another wall impression, Altarpiece, 2015, a large triptych whose external shell is covered in gold leaf so that the work becomes a radiant monochrome when shut. On each canvas are displayed rubbings taken from a former World War II war bunker in Berlin. The building was constructed for the Deutsche Reichsbahn using forced labor; it later became a textile warehouse from 1950 to 1957, and is now home to the Sammlung Boros. The specificity of this timeline makes the composition’s statement clear enough: As nature inevitably erodes what is built, so humans gild painful histories.

According to this reasoning, art is a beautiful trap, which the artist capitalizes on for good reason. Consider Impunities London Originals, 2012: prints of scars taken from the bodies of women who endured sustained domestic violence, produced using black powder on transparent film. From afar, the works appear as wispy smudges. But as one comes closer, wounds are visible; we realize we have been party to the initial dismissal of such inflictions. Yet though Impunities refers most explicitly to the exhibition’s packed title—a combination of the temperature at which testosterone melts with the seven deadly sins and the idea that our world is a patriarchal dystopia—women are not the only victims in this global tale. In Tunisian Americans, 2012, four hundred small bottles filled with Tunisian soil arranged in four type cases stand for US soldiers who died during the Tunisian Campaign between summer 1942 and winter 1943. In Grindballs, 2014, cement, lycopodium, and sand have been deposited in framed bubble wrap squares to produce circles. There is currently a rampant trade in these materials because of the construction booms taking place around the world, at great human and environmental cost.

Thinking about the exhibition title again, one realizes that Kaabi-Linke’s observation is both concise (we are marching into the furnace of our own development) and sincere (progress is a collective thrust). Her severity is countered by the lightness with which she jumps from one issue to another so as to convey a broader, more complex world perspective that is so unsettling. Her works coax the gaze toward the sublime horror inscribed into collective existence.

Stephanie Bailey