Kader Attia spoke at Dictionary of Now Body, conceived by himself and held at the Anatomical Institute of the Charité, Berlin. 

Glissant’s understanding of the Other is very different from that of such postcolonial thinkers as Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak, who are all more or less faithful to the Fanonian definition of this difficult concept. As is well known, the Other for Frantz Fanon was an Other whose quest for decolonization fixed him in a binary opposition to the colonizer. And, in their various ways, Bhabha, Said, and Spivak all theorize an Other who is antagonistic to and unassimilable within Western contexts and discourses, except as a frozen representation. But for Glissant as for Attia, the Other is someone or something with which we inhabit the tout-monde, and which forms part of a totality—but one that is continually fissured, rendered multiple, by difference. Within this fluctuating totality, Glissant avers, “I can change myself through transacting with the Other, without destroying or denaturing myself.” Such transactions may be the true mechanism of decolonization, not only for the formerly colonized but also for the West.

There is, however, nothing utopian about this vision. Our relation to the Other as subject and object may still be deeply fraught and horrifically violent, as Attia suggests in his work Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures. The Repair establishes ricocheting commonalities among African and European histories and subjects via a theme of trauma. On industrial metal shelves, masks and traditional figurative sculptures evincing the respective local idioms of Dakar, Senegal, and Carrara, Italy, are arrayed among ephemera and miscellaneous artifacts, including “trench art” produced by soldiers in World War I. All of the sculptures show signs of damage and repair, disfigurements unnervingly echoed in projected images of mutilated veterans of the Great War. We see all the possible representations of the embodied Other: traumatized bodies, bodies for exhibition, repaired bodies, fetishized bodies, aestheticized bodies, objectified bodies, white bodies, black bodies, bodies of Africans, bodies of Europeans, bodies carved in wood, bodies stitched in fabric, masked bodies, tattooed bodies, hollowed bodies, protruding bodies, bodies locked up in boxes like incarnated stereotypes, bodies becoming or coming apart. The common ground of all these beings is that they are looking for reparation. They all need to make up for something they’re missing, something, perhaps, that they perceive as their due; they’re all striving to achieve a state of renewed equilibrium, a compensation for some kind of lack or amputation.

Inevitably, we must understand this reparative panorama in terms of Europe’s debt to Africa, the unpaid balances of the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and the current decimation of indigenous populations and their environments through mining and wars. Thus the idea of repair takes on at least two levels of signification. First, we see that a broken body is a body that has had a weakness introduced into it, a hole that becomes the sign of trauma and that we need to treat by covering it up, stitching it, or decorating it with other scars in order to reappropriate it. But there is also the notion of reparation as payment, settlement, or psychological recompense for an injury that has not only weakened us but has also taken from us something of value, a vital force. It is in this sense that groups such as African Americans (who were literally decreed half-object and half-subject, or, more precisely, two-fifths object and three-fifths subject) have demanded reparations for crimes committed against them. Some of the African masks in Attia’s installation were created as agents of this kind of reparation: They were used in rituals to represent ancestral deities who were called upon to compensate for damage caused by epidemics and natural disasters.

Walking through the installation, one of the first things one realizes is that the broken faces, whether black or white, masks or people, are interchangeable to the extent that all are scarred, all need repair. They each work to construct a lieu-commun, one that may be shared not only among themselves but also with the viewer. Confronted with so many terrible injuries, we may recoil. But if we persist in looking, facing the images on offer in their dreadful specificity, we may begin to see the relations among these damaged subjects and our own visibly or invisibly damaged identities—since all identities bear scars. The consciousness of difference comes to coexist with visceral identification.

It is difficult to think of a contemporary artwork that so palpably articulates the carnage at the very heart of modernism. For in the juxtaposition of the faces of these piteously mangled men and the masks whose stylized geometries they sometimes gruesomely mimic, we are reminded that the disarticulations of World War I were as generative for the historical avant-gardes as African art was. Perhaps we should see these scars as the traces left by modern technologies of the self, by the modern subject making and remaking itself as well as others, violently. The casualties of the brutal force that Attia calls appropriation may be found in all times and places of modernity, and in The Repair Attia reappropriates their experiences, their likenesses, and the art that they produced—returning to them some measure of historical agency and to us some sense of the present’s still unpaid debt to the past.

As its title hints, his 2013 installation at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder extends precisely these investigations. “The biggest illusion of the Human Mind is probably the one on which Man has built himself: the idea that he invents something, when all he does is repair,” the artist observes in the accompanying statement. The installation suggests that perhaps it is the world’s different systems of knowledge—sundered from one another by the advent of modern science and history, by the invention of invention, as it were—that invention repairs, not in the sense of merging disparate fields back into an originary unified state, but in the sense of revealing both their difference and their proximity. Via a cabinet of curiosities full of books and artifacts, Attia relates the history of astronomy in Europe and the Muslim world to the biblical tale of Jacob’s nocturnal vision of a ladder to the heavens. A vertiginous column of infinite space, penetrated by a beam of light, stretches above visitors’ heads. It is an illusion created with mirrors—which, after all, are primary technologies of the self, fundamental to optics and thus to the first telescopic assays into space, but also to confrontation with one’s own reflection, with a seemingly externalized self, a self as Other. Yet no such split can be discerned in Attia’s optical illusion. Instead, he presents a vision of a lieu-commun where scientific invention meets the dream logic of parable and where subjects of knowledge, objects of knowledge, and ways of knowing are neither opposed nor complementary but densely intertwined.