Near Brick Lane and Spitalfields Markets, and amidst the hustle and bustle of a Saturday afternoon crowd, I discovered Kader Attia’s (b. 1970, Paris) new work of art at the Whitechapel Gallery, “Continuum of Repair: The Light of Jacob’s Ladder.” No photographs were allowed, but I took a picture of his taped interview that was shown at the Gallery, which gives you a good idea of the installation visible in the background.
Said to be inspired by the religious story of Jacob’s ladder (specifically Jacob’s vision of angels ascending to heaven), as well as by the history of the room of the installation itself (it was the reading room of a former library), it is a work that engages, questions, moves and, well, speaks volumes!
The leaflet of the exhibit describes,
“a warmly lit cabinet of curiosities above which a vast mirror reflects a beam of light, transforming it into rungs of a ladder to infinity. A series of marble busts of wounded soldiers from World War I and repaired North African wooden learning boards (ketab) observe this towering structure of bookshelves filled with centuries of accumulated human knowledge.”
It is in this context of knowledge overseen and underlined by war and destruction, that Attia’s concept of repair acquires extra layers of meaning, adding depth to our quest for ever increasing heights of aspiration. This work is a detailed and serious reflection on our Faustian search for knowledge and certainty, for ever new ideas and creativity to define our identity, and the illusions, and disillusionment this effort entails. Our ‘new’ creations, placed within the context of history of science, of art, of humanity, are shown to be, on some level, ‘appropriations’, or ‘partial repairs’ of what has come before, what has been previously discovered, then forgotten/destroyed, and lost; on another level, this rediscovery serves as a prompt to humility: our ideas, our achievements are but a part of a greater whole and not so much new, as rediscoveries, archaeological specimens in the cabinet of a wider, richer, and vast cosmos.
It is in this sense that Attia sees himself not as an artist, but as a researcher, looking into the meeting points as well as shifts of meaning between ideas and cultures, appropriation and reappropriation, and repair between East and West. Attracted by the fragility, malleability, and ultimate instability of meaning, understanding, and materials, Attia builds his castles out of all sorts of objects, including plastic bags, foil, couscous. We are all part of this process, he says:
“I like the way it (material) gradually loses its substance. The artist is the shadow of the art work.”
the sands of time
in a bottle
This post is part of a series written for Blog Action Day, to be held on the 16th of October 2014, on the theme of Inequality.
Attia contributes to a body of work that reflects on the effects of human ambition — First and Second World Wars, and their aftermath, of colonial and imperial ambitions — and the attempts to rebuild, repair, and re-appropriate its objects.
The Guardian review