Somewhere inside the enormous white tent housing Frieze this year (“towards the back, I mean, towards the front? I can’t even tell anymore,” said a security guard hopelessly while attempting to direct me to the bathroom, or any bathroom), 2,978 beer cans are arranged in a thick pinwheel on the floor, each bent in half and facing clockwise, as if moving in perpetual submission. The artist responsible is the French Algerian Kader Attia; the gallery, Lehmann Maupin.
Halam Tawaaf, created in 2008 and first shown at the gallery in 2014, inverts the traditional, counterclockwise-oriented “haram tawaf,” which refers to the seven circumambulations required of Muslim pilgrims around the Kaaba, a cuboid building at the center of Mecca’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram. This ritual is intended to represent the harmony between those who believe in God.
Attia’s project is, of course, making a different sort of statement—“It’s a commentary on Islamic culture,” began a gallery assistant. “This piece is mimicking the movement of the Kaaba. The beer cans represent the idea of alcohol, which is banned and it’s a sin in Islam. But it’s really a larger commentary on what happens when fundamentalist conflict can turn into substance abuse, an issue that’s often ignored. Kader’s work is often about anthropology and history and religion—he doesn’t shy away from things like that.” After a couple beats, the assistant expressed admiration for the artist’s superior sense of restraint.
FYI: The work sold for $121,875 at Sotheby’s last year. FYI: I’m typing this by a very large window, wearing sunglasses indoors, feeling quite warm, and I could just about go for a criminally overpriced beer right now.