Adel Abdessemed’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery, Rio, is a sprawling one. Ambitious in scope, it takes up all of the gallery’s cavernous rooms and contains more than a dozen pieces that don’t necessarily add up to a cohesive whole. But one shouldn’t approach the exhibition looking for a neatly packaged series of digestible morsels that convey a central theme or communicate a recognizable style. Rather, Abdessemed seems to embrace the scattered, distracted, messy plurality of contemporary life, using a wide variety of formal strategies and media to pursue the variant thoughts that spark his inspiration for each piece. The works on view include a selection of videos and photographs documenting staged actions, sculptures of various scales assembled or cast from found objects or ready made materials, and drawings—more like sketches, really—that illustrate ideas hastily scrawled onto notebook paper.
In order to refer to the artist’s so-called body of work, there’s an impulse to look for commonalities between different pieces. Such an impulse locates certain thoughts and sensibilities that reappear from time to time. For one, violence is either suggested or depicted literally. Second, there’s a deliberate disregard for the concept of divinity. Lastly, the works are delivered very directly, through a stripped-down immediacy of means. Sometimes doing so succeeds in heightening a work’s shock value. “Horror is my ally,” states Abdessemed, revealing no hesitation in shepherding brutality and death into the aesthetic realm. For some viewers, the literality with which such violence is conveyed in the name of art is unacceptable. An exhibition titled “Don’t Trust Me” (2008) at the Walter McBean Galleries of the San Francisco Art Institute, for example, was shut down by animal rights activists who protested the public display of six videos showing animals killed on a farm in Mexico by a single blow to the head with a sledgehammer.
Many who have written about Abdessemed have mined the artist’s biography to explain the unflinching brutality of his perspective. Describing him as an Algerian refugee who fled to France in order to escape persecution by religious fundamentalists during a time of civil strife, writers make the case that, being no stranger to violence, Abdessemed embraces horror in his work to jar Western viewers out of their complacency. Such a cultural context may explain some past and present work, such as the sculpture Practice Zero Tolerance (retournée), a full-scale terra cotta cast of a car that was burned during the Perpignon uprisings of 2005. It references the political unrest among immigrants fanned by the French state. The artist’s biographical information, however, doesn’t suffice to contextualize the full scope of his worldview.
Usine, a video placed near the center of the exhibition, may come closer to conveying Abdessemed’s truly universal perspective on the human condition. Animals star in this video once again, but unlike the farm animals in “Don’t Trust Me,” the predatory species of Usine are not innocent victims. The chaos that ensues when scorpions, tarantulas, snakes and other scaly reptiles are thrown into a pit with fighting cocks and Pit Bulls is recorded in a one and one-half 1.5 minute video by the artist. Very short clips of the violence flash by: a snake wraps itself around a frog to choke it; a Pit Bull pounces on a cock’s neck to break it; the Pit Bulls then turn against one another and sharp shrieks of pain fill the gallery as they bite into one another’s flesh. The video moves very quickly, but loops back again to replay the violence without any respite. A pointed parallel is drawn between the viewer and the predatory species in Usine, suggesting that such primal, animalistic violence is human nature, regardless of cultural background or upbringing. “Birth is violent. Death is violent. Violence is everywhere,” states the artist, offering no escape. Rather than turning a blind eye, he uses his art to depict the horrors of the world with unsettling candor. The criticality with which the viewer responds to such a depiction is left as an open-ended question.
Abdessemed’s most impressive work in the exhibition is a large-scale sculpture titled Telle mère tel fils (Like mother like son), which fills the large, hangar-like space of the first gallery [518 West 10th Street] viewers encounter when walking down 19th Street toward 11th Avenue. Even though this gallery is seen first, the sculpture should be visited last, as it comes closest to delivering the exhibition’s conclusive statement. Over sixty-five feet long, it’s made of three debilitated passenger planes woven together like a braid. The cockpits and tailfins of the old planes remain intact, while the fuselages are replaced by long, snakelike tubes made of felt and filled with air. In contrast to the immediacy of Abdessemed’s other work, Telle mère tel fils is quieter, more contemplative, and more poetic. It even takes time to reveal itself because the viewer is forced to circumnavigate the gallery several times in order to comprehend the form in its entirety. Referring to the piece’s title, the gallery text states that the piece represents “the interconnectedness of mother and child” and “the inseparability of birth and destruction.” I would wager that it also represents the forceful collision of different worlds, cultures, ideologies, and yes, generations. There’s violence in such a collision, implied by the downed planes, but there’s also a great deal of love, influence and acceptance communicated through this dying embrace.
Adel Abdessemed : Rio remains on view at David Zwirner Gallery’s 519, 525 and 533 West 19th Street galleries through May 9, 2009
From the top: Adel Abdessemed, Usine, 2008, Video projection, 1 min 27 sec loop, color, sound; Telle mère tel fils, 2008, 3 airplanes, felt, aluminum, metal, 27 x 4 x 5 meters / 88.6 x 13.12 x 16.4 feet; all images courtesy David Zwirner, New York.