“Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory” began when Northwestern University’s Block Museum extended an invitation to the French-Algerian artist to use the resources of the school’s Herskovits Library of African Studies in the spring of 2015. The result was a spare and scholastic exhibition that rewarded the patient viewer with startlingly emotional content.
The cut and the suture are the chief conceptual and material operations of Attia’s work; they epitomize the violence of colonialism and the messy work of repairing the damage done by it. Two partitions cleaved a single room into three, dividing the works on view (all untitled and dated 2016) into what the show’s introductory wall text defined as three “chapters”: a grouping of three collages, a sculpture, and a “film-essay” screened in a provisional black box at the rear of the gallery.
Two of the three collages combine cut-and-pasted images from antique periodicals with digitally scanned and printed ones, bridging the gulf that separates these reproductive technologies with the near-seamlessness of their construction. The collages engage various histories, offering studies in contrasts. In one, Sony speakers appear as towering black monoliths, their scale equal to that of an ornate gateway identified in a caption as a part of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. World’s fairs historically provided a spectacular platform for Western countries to broadcast their superiority over their colonial conquests by showcasing the latest products of architectural and industrial innovation alongside picturesque colonial tableaux. When conceiving the exhibition, Attia may have been thinking about the importance of Chicago’s role as a host city for international expositions in 1893 and 1933 to its civic identity (two of the four stars in the Chicago flag represent those expos).
Opposite the aforementioned collage stood a sculpture in which an electric typewriter sits atop an unremarkable beige desk. The banality of these objects is undone by a sheet of mirrored stainless steel that slices through both like the blade of a guillotine. The reflective surface provides the symmetry the viewer craves to complete this neatly bisected tableau. The restoration would appear perfect if not for the flipped and repeating letters of the keyboard that foreclose the possibility of communication.
Playing nearby was Attia’s film Reflecting Memory (2016), which splices interviews with academics and medical professionals with footage of individuals engaged in solitary pursuits: contemplating nature, admiring urban monuments, and sitting in a church pew, hands clasped in prayer. The topic discussed by Attia’s interviewees––the phantom limb pain experienced by some amputees––hints at the film’s twist, as did the sculpture that the viewer had to pass to watch the film. And yet the revelation that the quiet figures straddle mirrors that create the illusion of a limb where there is none came as a complete shock, as did the disclosure that several of the interviewees, heretofore filmed from the shoulders up, are amputees themselves. In film theory, “suture” refers to the phenomenon by which the mind produces a narrative whole from the fragments combined through cinematic cuts, creating a semblance of totality even when we should know better than to expect one. Attia’s film deftly exposes how the desire to perceive a choate subject can itself operate as an act of erasure.