Kader Attia, Untitled, 2017, mirrors, plywood, steel beams, shoes, 63 × 30 × 26".

Kader Attia, Untitled, 2017, mirrors, plywood, steel beams, shoes, 63 × 30 × 26".

Kader Attia

Born in 1970 to an Algerian family in a banlieue of Paris, Kader Attia has rooted his practice in the liminal, in-between spaces of postcolonial modernity. This exhibition—described by the venue as an “event-exhibition” and titled “Les racines poussent aussi dans le béton” (Roots Also Grow in Concrete)—correspondingly enfolds spectators into the vast exhibition space of the Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne (mac val) in a way that compels them to question their position in relation to those who establish roots in the margins of the European metropole and the postcolonial city.

Upon entering the museum, the viewer is immediately confronted with a history of French colonialism in North Africa. Collaged archival images on paper are evocatively stitched together with thread, materializing Europe’s inextricable relationship to its colonial past. One key work that is not in the exhibition but part of the concurrent collection displays is installed next to the entrance: the photographic series “Rochers carées”(Square Rocks), 2008, which depicts the Algerian coast at Bab El Oued in a grid of nine photographs. Attia’s framing almost completely obscures the Mediterranean, showing us a coastline chock-full of concrete blocks erected by the government to prevent boats from embarking across the sea to Europe. In a subsequent gallery, viewers encounter the installation Untitled (couscous), 2009. Here, Attia uses the North African dietary staple to re-create a section of the ancient Algerian city Ghardaïa, a unesco heritage site. These installations gesture toward the artist’s broader engagement with the postcolonial present in both Algeria and Europe, revealing the ways in which everyday sites and materials are tangled up with the international cultural politics of the built environment.

In a dark and curtained room, the sound of ripping paper is amplified to a deafening degree. The artist describes this work, Le cri (The Cry), 2018, as a sound that tears andwounds silence by rupturing it. Attia sees these wounds and their subsequent redress as interdependent: In a quotation included in a wall text, he says, “There is no repair without injury and thus no injury without repair.” Spatially and thematically, the piece can be seen as a fulcrum for the overarching theme of repair and the necessity to reconfigure the terms that make it possible. On the other side of this threshold, On n’emprisonne pas les idées (We Do Not Imprison Ideas), 2018, constrains the spectator’s body with construction fence–like anti-riot barriers dented and deformed by rocks lodged in them. This record of resistance bears witness to the mobile borders used to contain “urban battles,” to borrow Attia’s phrase, against the violence of the state.

A winding hallway is punctuated with nearly life-size prints of Algerian transgender women (Christine des îles, Olivia de Blida, Mounira l’oranaise, and Kinuna l’algéroise, all 2018). Their scale insists upon their visibility, but a sculpture (Untitled, 2017) placed at the end of this section compromises the politics of postcolonial gender nonconformity. It is a mirrored wooden construction in which a man’s and a woman’s shoe are doubled by their reflection, creating gendered pairs and drawing attention to the illusory construction of normative heterosexuality. This sculpture evokes Attia’s investment in the reparative possibilities of in-betweenness, but its positioning here envelops trans identity within the very gender binary his work otherwise unseats, thereby making light of the challenges trans individuals of color pose to the heteronormative and postcolonial structures that oppress them.

A more productive conflict emerges between art and architecture. The exhibition design constrains viewers to a single, linear path through mac val’s galleries and hallways—yet Attia’s work resists any such univocal experience of space. The experience of the show folds in on itself over and over again, as suggested by the title of the light-box diptych The End and the Beginning, 2013, in the final gallery. The exhibition not only opens a space in which to dwell, inviting the viewer to set down roots in the inhospitable gaps in the concrete, but also oscillates between the materiality of here and elsewhere, between the temporality of now and another time.