interview by DONATIEN GRAU on danger
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
DONATIEN GRAU — You like to quote Peter Sloterdijk’s famous saying, “You must change your life.” However, the capacity for art to change one’s life doesn’t seem all that possible today. How can a work of art change a life?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — I met Peter Sloterdijk in Vienna — he was supposed to write something in the catalogue for my exhibition at MIT. His idea was to elaborate on a chapter in his book, which had that statement as its title. We talked about the Rainer Maria Rilke poem in which appears the mysterious sentence, “You must change your life.” Something in it has always interested me: the theory of change and of evolution. In art history change is clearly visible: in Florence, Masaccio’s paintings were severe, with little color. But in Venice, especially in Titian’s work, there was brightness and an abundance of colors. “You must change your life” is a very positive, very vivid phrase; it brings color into a situation. And it is in the energy of change that I found something in human life that accepts — or will accept for the first time — humility.
DONATIEN GRAU — Does humility imply accepting that life isn’t enough?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Yes. We are constantly changing our lives. If we can do something, we can do everything. Such a statement is representative of an extreme, positive utopia. In its core lies the idea of multiplicity. I don’t see a work of art as something linear. It is already an action. This sentence itself is an action. An artwork is charged with power.
DONATIEN GRAU — While listening to you, one gets the impression that artworks are living beings. They look at you, they are filled with life.
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Yes, my boat, Hope, is still filled with all these wandering souls.
DONATIEN GRAU — But these souls are absent. It’s as if the object had had such an intense life, which then provides it with energy.
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Messieurs les Volontaristes is a perfect illustration of what you are talking about. I made a duplicate of a coffin. I doubled it. It is a space on its own, but you can also cross it. There is a presence and absence duality. If you speak of absence, you might think of a tree as a representation of God. For me, the tree is its own representation, with its beauty and its fruit. I am not interested in the landscape, but in what is located behind it. In absence, there is an anorexic side, a rejection of digestion, which bothers me. A work of art is good when digestion is good.
DONATIEN GRAU — Your digestion as an artsist or that of the audience?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Everyone’s. I neither impose anything on, nor disdain, the audience. I acknowledge the audience and through my work I bring the audience to the awareness of where its center actually stands. The phrase “you must change your life” can also mean you must get out of the frame, or go inside the frame, toward centrality, which mankind has lost, because he is outside the frame, out of focus. The aim is clear: being fully human. Marcel Duchamp once said: “It is the person looking who makes the work, otherwise the rest is bad literature.” So in the end the audience makes the work of art. I bring the audience back to its centrality. My mother used to say, “Speaking is not the same thing as seeing.” Seeing is more than speaking. Men are not Leviathans, not giants: they must be brought back to humility. I am modestly trying to interrogate the intelligence of the audience, not to bore them.
DONATIEN GRAU — Are you trying to involve the audience?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Human intelligence is linked to danger. I define life as danger. Without danger, there is no doubt. Doubt lives in us. Inside that doubt there is also certitude and in this certitude, there is truth. Truth emerges as the miracle of certitude.
DONATIEN GRAU — You often speak of dance. What is the relationship between dance and poetry?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — In poetry, I immediately feel an expression dear to Edouard Glissant’s “all-world.” It is very much part of my daily life. My life and work both follow a pattern of rupture and repetition. In poetry, words have a shadow. In my work, images have shadows. The images are dark. This is the complexity of the world. I was in Algeria, and one of my neighbors was drunk, and he asked me, “What are you doing here? Even the honey is bitter!” Honey is the sweetness of my childhood; it is memory. But that’s all. I never drink milk and I never eat honey. I am an artist with a stolen childhood — a murdered childhood. I come from a generation of crime. I’m a criminal romantic. Honey is something collective, what is called tuisa in Berber. In the same way that my mother made couscous for the whole neighborhood, I made objects for the whole neighborhood. I was sharing. That’s how I see a work of art. It isn’t “me, then the world.” But honey is the opposite: it’s the world, then me. Art is being useful. When you’re a child, you can lie, but you cannot be a traitor. Poetry is the moment when there will be no more war, bombs, or napalm. What can there be above poetry? I don’t know — an expression, like a cry in the moment. But a work of art is something permanent in this world where there are wars. It’s about time.
DONATIEN GRAU — What kind of literature do you like?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — The literature I loved always included poetry. I don’t know if writers integrate poetry into their work today. Literature integrates characters, bits of life. In Masaccio’s paintings, there was severity: Christ was severely portrayed. Literature is a description of the people of our time. It does not seek a rupture, which is poetry. In my exhibitions there is both rupture and repetition. And that is where you can visualize my relationship to poetry. My works are unique: there is no repetition aside from the title. I no longer read much literature because of its lack of poetry. There isn’t poetry in novels these days. I jump, I turn, I rebound. I am performing nonexistent acrobatics, which literature cannot transcribe. Novels do not invent.
DONATIEN GRAU — You’ve created many pieces that are meant to shock. There is a parallel between the fact that the piece goes back inside its frame and that man goes back inside his frame.
ADEL ABDESSEMED — I do little, but what I do is extreme. Each piece is conceived like a colossus. But I am not a deity or a demiurge. I prefer being the first inhabitant or the last one. There is an old saying, “Live, think, die.” All of life is thought, and thought spreads out. At any time an event might produce a miracle.
DONATIEN GRAU — How do you reach an audience in the context of a system of art, which is trying to reduce the capacity of expression?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — I’m like Thomas Hobbes: I set everyone against everyone else. I mix popular poetry with erudite poetry. The street, anything else, whatever: I set them all against each other.
DONATIEN GRAU — Is there the same eroticism in drawing or in reusing previously existing objects, as you did with your sculpture Hope?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — The eroticism is not the same, but in any case we hear cries, a liquid sprays into the air. In the video Pressoir Fais-le, I crush a lemon and juice comes out. The production of each piece is linked to a particular context: for a piece in glass it takes several years to learn to make a bone. I am a developer.
DONATIEN GRAU — I know that you are very good at drawing and painting, but you refuse the traditional formats. Why?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — That’s a wicked question. There is no single project of mine that does not require one or often several drawings. When I draw, it’s like incising a line on skin with a scalpel. It isn’t cutting into the surface, but into what is beneath it. It’s something organic, freed from all paralysis. Painting is something serious and at the same time dark and beyond all tradition.
DONATIEN GRAU — What is your relationship to animals? What interests you in them? What is their role in your work?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — What is an animal’s relationship to life and death? What is their relationship to their brother? To Mankind? For me they are not metaphors, they are presences. In any case, in my work and in my life
I refuse sacrifice.
DONATIEN GRAU — You often use materials that some would qualify as “cursed,” materials without value or that are forbidden, such as ivory and cannabis. What is your relationship to your materials?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — As an artist I allow myself the freedom of using all things material — and immaterial; stuff at once noble and poor, soft and hard, forbidden and new, traditional and unrecognized. I experience my work sensually and erotically, in an emotional ecstasy with expansive, weighty materiality. I am not afraid of materials; I respect them.
DONATIEN GRAU — Which brings up the question of legality and illegality.
ADEL ABDESSEMED — The works seem to generate extreme situations, needing certificates, authorizations, passports, justifications by lawyers. It’s magnificent. For example, by just searching for the ivory from mammoths, you get yourself into a terrible mess. My work is always dealing with this sort of thing. The idea of using cannabis in an art piece triggers some extraordinary reactions. Animals, too: when I made Taxidermia, and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, using wolves was forbidden in France, even stuffed wolves. It is authorized in the United States, though. So I was forced to finish the piece only a couple of days before the exhibition, before it was installed and shown in the US. The situation was fascinating, and quite similar to the moment when I had a flutist from the Islamic culture standing naked and offering his body for exhibition. These are the essential components of my work. One day I will publish all the certificates, lawyers’ letters, and authorizations in a catalogue.
DONATIEN GRAU — You refuse to associate yourself with the art system. But you are willing to show your work in big galleries and sell it at prices that are considered high for a young artist. How do you explain this contradiction? What do you do to escape this system whose negative effects you criticize, and which in your view lowers the artistic value of art because of its mercantile values?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Of course there is a relationship between the system and me as an artist, but there is also a serious difference. The system includes me as an artist, but my position as an artist and a man of culture gives me the tools necessary to judge it. I live in Paris. I travel around the city, but at the same time I can criticize the crazy traffic. Yet I have chosen to live there. So I have not done anything to escape the art system. On the other hand, I do refuse to participate in its rituals, and I’ve always had a clear idea of its intrinsic structure. The questions I ask myself are much more important than the answers I can offer. The words prison, exile, and solitude are always with me, like a silent cry, which accompanies me on my voyage through the world of art. Obviously it is a world of contradictions, and I am an artist.
DONATIEN GRAU — Your work involves a direct confrontation between the North and the South, the Christian world and the Muslim world. What is your artistic position in this pseudo-war of civilizations? What is your point of view on what they call terrorism? Does your work illuminate something new in its antagonisms, violence, and misunderstandings?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — I am neither Christian nor Muslim, so I experience the relationship between North and South in a more complex way. I could pretend I am a victim of the pseudo-war of civilizations, but I refuse to participate in such a masquerade. That’s over my head. There is nothing asymmetrical about me. My work does not really address the question you raise, I’m afraid. It may reflect the question, but it also displaces it. That’s what I did in my video Hot Blood: “I’m a terrorist. Are you a terrorist? You are a terrorist.” But my interior strength does not lie there. It’s about beauty. September 11 was a ferocious episode about a war between gangs. Killing, assassinating, burning, raping, exterminating, throat-cutting: that’s what it is, Terrorism — the terrorism of the states, the democratically elected governments, the dictatorships, the political and economic powers, the religious groups — it is always terrifying. I, myself, suffered from it. Bin Laden is dead. Bush and Sarkozy are gone. We must resist with all our strength, furiously, the return of these bloodthirsty men. But I know that history, the old, traditional history, is not over.
DONATIEN GRAU — What do you find interesting in the use of video?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — Video has a place in today’s vocabulary. Video is one of the instruments at my disposition — not just for me, but also for all the artists on the planet, from North to South, from the center to the peripheries, even in the academies. Video is for all the people in the world. That’s what we saw recently, at Tahrir Square: video was there day and night, from the sights of the bombardiers to the revolution on the ground, from singing in the squares to the back streets of the world.
DONATIEN GRAU — How do you use performance?
ADEL ABDESSEMED — What kind of performance are you talking about? Obama or Bashar al-Assad’s, François Hollande’s, or Lady Gaga’s? Or is it maybe the performance of the stock market? Artists dance, they dance…
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