The documentary mode of film, with its assumption of investigative objectivity, has become a useful template for artists to convert to their own purposes. At worst, this can mean no more than stripping film reportage of its functional trappings-such as the informative voiceover-and enlarging it onto a gallery wall. Collages (2011), Kader Attia’s hour-long three-channel video installation about the lives of transsexuals in Algiers and Bombay, questions the possibility of objective testimony at the same time as it challenges the structural coherence we associate with artistic narrative. The use of three screens reflects the film’s three central witnesses-each also pictured in one of the panels of a photographic triptych by the gallery entrance-while formally embodying the entropy endemic to Attia’s narrative of violence, estrangement and dispossession, by allowing him to present his footage in simultaneous, often conflicting streams.
In the opening scenes, Hélène Azera, a transsexual French journalist, comments on photographs of Algerian transsexuals she knew in 1980s Paris. Broken lives are thinly veiled by the myth of a legendary, hedonistic past: “Dolly passed away very early from an overdose.” “I will show you Minouche, with my dear friend Liza, at Club 7.” Her account blends social history and private recollections. Azera’s camp nostalgia—we see her alone in a darkened cinema, reminiscing about Bollywood movies-cedes to a harsher metaphor for historical record: at a curbside table, she tearfully dictates to an impassive typist the story of her sister’s refusal to accept her sexual reorientation.
The middle-aged Algerian transsexual Pascale Ourbih takes a broader historical perspective: “For centuries transgenders had to hide. Sometimes they would pretend to be nuns. When they cleaned them on their deathbeds, they realized what they were. A transgender is killed every day.” She wanders across a beach as a golden sun sets, the soothing glow belied by a close-up of a gang of crows pecking at a dead rat in the sand. In the background, a military march gathers in the shadow of a high-rise. Attia manages to accommodate such symbolism without relinquishing specificity.
The third witness, Heena, belongs to the Hijras community of Bombay transsexuals (“half-priestesses, half-pariahs”). She was banished by her family eight years earlier. Her heavily made-up male face is young but set in a stoical mask. Femaleness, here, is an excess of signifier. The overt artifice of the transsexual image corresponds to the film’s inveigling of a documentary form into a context in which it asks to be perceived as art. Escapism and nostalgia may be the only sane responses to societies that force vulnerable minorities into lives of degradation and squalor. Finally, still images of a transsexual party dissolve the film’s isolated narratives into a spirit of communal celebration. But these stills come full circle by recalling the film’s first frames: Azera’s photographs of friends, many of whom are dead. Even in the throes of festivity, there is a shadow of mortality.
Photo: Kader Attia: Untitled (Collages), 2011, three photographs, each 31½ by 40¼ inches; at Christian Nagel.