Adel Abdessemed Dans une usine de rêves qui pensent

Franco Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed photographed in his studio.

Two full-scale cast-steel pigeons, each with strips of dynamite and a Blackberry phone tied to its back, sit quietly in Adel Abdessemed’s Parisian studio. Dressed in his trademark blue pants, a black shirt and a matching jacket, the forty-nine-year-old Franco Algerian fixes his gaze on these humble city dwellers and contemplates a modern urbanity as described by Marc Augé in which the city is filled with non-places like cash dispensing machines, banks, airports, train stations, autoroutes, parking garages and lots.

Abdessemed notes that in this city of non-places, “the only presence of animals is in the sky. An eagle who catches a bird. Or a pigeon, that is to say, the pigeons in the public places.”  He acknowledges that rats also inhabit the city, but since they are subterranean and rarely seen, essentially there are no more animals in the city today. “I think about a total disappearance of animal life.” Pigeons are not the only species carrying explosives in his studio. Charcoal drawings also show a turtle, a frog, a hedgehog and an owl, animals that also go extinct in the cities.

Cheval de Turin (2012), a life size aluminium sculpture of a horse.

While the armed animals look unperturbed, the life-size aluminum sculpture of an unarmed horse, Cheval de Turin (2012), looks angry and rebellious, balanced on its front legs and its tail and back feet in the air. According to the artist, it represents the mistreated horse that led the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to plunge into a compassionate delirium. “In my sculpture, it is not the horse that receives blows, but he who is about to give them. Its like overthrowing a power.”

Maquette for Abdessemed’s exhibition at the Cy Twombly Foundation in Rome.

The Cheval de Turin will join six other horses for Abdessemed’s upcoming solo show at the newly opened Cy Twombly Foundation in Rome. “Rome has marked me, because of [Jannis] Kounellis,” says Abdessemed recalling his friendship with the Greek Italian, a leading figure of Arte Povera. Once they met in 2000, he and Kounellis became friends, “friends without talking too much, friends who shared a passion, . . . accomplices but without much exchange.” Kounellis wrote a “un petite jolie texte” about him. “It seems I’m the only artist he wrote on.” As an homage to him, Abdessemed will allude to the Kounellis Untitled (12 horses) installation from 1969, “an essential work of art that I love very much.” He will tether six live horses to the sides of the gallery. “I will call it Bonjour Monsieur Kounellis, like Courbet’s Bonjour Monsieur Courbet.” The live horses, referred to as “Kounellis’s horses” by Abdessemed, will come as a loan from the Italian army and three times a week, when the exhibition is open to the public, will stand well-groomed and disciplined facing the gallery walls, while Abdessemed’s Turin horse will strike a more restless note among them.

N.B.  This interview was conducted before the onslaught of COVID-19 which has put the Rome exhibition on hold.

The exhibition maquette on the floor, still a work in progress, shows the finely detailed toy horses in position and a wide concave screen made with tracing paper mounted vertically behind them. “This is to be a fire hologram,” the artist explains pointing to the drawing of a fire on the screen. Fire is not a new motif for him, but a recurrent one. In the self-portrait Je suis innocent (I am innocent), he put himself in flames, while in the video installation Printemps (Spring), he digitally put chickens in flames. Whether fire symbolizes cleansing and innocence is not clear, but Printemps provoked an angry reaction and was withdrawn from his 2018 show Antidote at Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon (MAC Lyon). “Nobody ever questioned how or why it was made. It’s difficult being an artist when you wish to liberate.” To him, the art world, which sometimes looks like a castle, is in effect a prison. “If it’s the art of denunciation, the art that says no, the art of scream, the art that carries a political conversation, that art comes with a price for an artist.”

Mood board for the opera St Francois d’Assise Abdessemed is directing.
An example of an animal allegory for the opera Saint Francois d'Assise.

Astonished as he was that a work of art was censored without questioning why or how it was made, Abdessemed continues to play with fire and contemplate new allegories. An animal advocate, in his own way, he is now hoping to create a work for the Cy Twombly Foundation with a live ox that refers to the work of stage artist Romeo Castellucci and the work of all the artists who have drawn attention to animals. And, he plans to use a donkey to metaphorically carry the earth in Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise that he is directing at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I don’t know why Kafka, Beuys, Kounellis, myself, numerous other artists, Derida, as a philosopher, talk about animals, but I think we are really talking about suffering.” Abdessemed sees humans as the most ferocious of all animals. Our violence is extraordinary, he reminds as he recalls “the Tutsi, the Hutu, and many other examples including what we are living and seeing every day, like bombings.” And, to Abdessemed’s eyes what humans do to animals is genocide. “We’ve never seen this in the history of this homo sapiens. Never. I decided that I have to talk about it; something has to be done.” Haunted by this idea he created Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? a three-dimensional installation of taxidermy animals: rabbits, squirrels, boar, deer, and fox. Purposely, he used the exact dimensions of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

The actual painting of Guernica is housed permanently at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, but during the course of the exhibition Guernica at the Picasso Museum in Paris, Abdessemed was asked to go on a quest to discover the spirit of the painting in one night at the museum. Journalist/author Christophe Ono-dit-Biot followed him that night as his fellow traveler, and in their book Spanish Night, they record their intimate journey — its souvenirs, revelations, and also affronts. Picasso is described as a warrior. “Guernica is a both a work of propaganda and a work denunciation by an artist who is at the same time a megalomaniac and a genius, a Spanish man and a French artist. Everything is there [in the painting] to sabotage, to speak about, to place blame, or to bring clarity, because he has a lamp. There are things we don’t want to see.  We prefer to be born blind, so as not to see any more. Or, to voyage like Homer, who was blind, or become a god like Borges?  Why not?”

Besides Homer and Borges, Abdessemed has also turned to Baudelaire and picked two lines from the book L’Héautontimorouménos that correspond to the role and work of the artist.

I will strike you without anger
and without hatred, like a butcher

“An artist and a work of art are witnesses to their time and can strike hard, but without hatred, like a butcher, like Goya was. Another round of hatred is not necessary. We don’t have to hate. A work of art is not at all charged or hateful, luckily.” Abdessemed compares the artist to a prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave who, freed from the cave, goes out to look at the sun and then returns to talk about his experience to the other prisoners.  Art works “are luminous, right? Besides, a work of art is first and foremost a capturing of light. Or even if we want to speak of the history of cinema, Edison, with his bulb, that’s it; it’s the light. Always is a work of art luminous. Even in Bruegel’s The Triumph of War, despite all the dimensions of death, the work does not speak about death. Basically, Bruegel does not like death, because death is easy. What is hard is eternity.”

Sculpture is beyond anything perhaps. It is a witness, but a witness who does not die.

Adel Abdessemed

Resistance and courage are eternal according to Abdessemed, so he chose ivory, a material that has survived from the time of the mammoths to today, to render two iconic news photographs in three dimensions. The first one, Cri (Scream, 2013), is Nick Ut’s 1972 image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc burning with Napalm as she runs down the road naked. The second one is Mon Enfant (My Child, 2014), a photo of a boy walking out of the Warsaw ghetto with his hands up in the air. “On the Internet images are trivialized, even ‘assassinated,’ with a click, but we need to explain to our children that this image is a testimony of one of the greatest massacres, one of the greatest violences committed with human ferocity. So how are we going to do that?” Ironically, his answer lies in using an animal material that poachers have grievously exploited. However, he uses CITES, traceable, ivory. “I am against how we treat animals, especially what we do to elephants. Still, I am not using the ivory for a comb for brushing hair or a box to contain jewelry. The sculpture is a work of art. It is beyond perhaps anything. It is a witness, but a witness who does not die.”

Other subjects call for other materials. For Coup de tête (2012) depicting Franco Algerian football hero Zinedine Zidane head butting Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup, he chose bronze. “It speaks of mass, weight and defeat.” Is beautiful, of Carrara marble, depicts a young Angela Merkel (Germany’s chancellor) walking naked on a beach with two friends, at a time when naturism was popular in the former East Germany (GDR). “It’s about freedom and beauty.”

Abdessemed, who sees the three women as The Three Graces, hopes to render them also in cement.“The Turks first published the chancellor’s photograph in 2013, hoping to broadcast her intimacy, but it is not a tragic intimacy … I think shes beautiful. She already has a consciousness of her political body, because she looks at the camera. Isnt this amazing? She is the only one.”

Naked women also figure in One Thousand One, an unrealized project. The artist envisioned having a thousand and one women, with nude bodies and heads wrapped in black burkas, besiege the Arc de Triomphe and march around. “It’s a very old project, conceived ten years ago, but I couldn’t obtain the authorization.” A father of four girls and one boy, Absessemed says that he is deeply feminist. “I became my mother’s spokesperson, because my mother never knew how to express herself. She wasn’t allowed. So, I had to do it for her. I never understood why women were at home while men were outside.”

Coup de tete (2012) depicting Franco Algerian football player Zinedine Zidane head butting Italian Marco Materazzi at the the 2006 World Cup final
A model sculpture of Cri, inspired by Nick Ut’s 1972 image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc burning with Napalm as she runs down the road naked
Maquette of One Thousand One, an installation surrounding the Arc de Triomphe

Instinctively opposing traditional gender stereotypes, Abdessemed prefers to talk about the time an artist spends inside the studio. He characterizes his as “juste une usine de rêves, ce sont des rêves qui pensent.” Here the world arrives to him in his bed, as it did for Proust. “You know artists are lazy. We are somewhat illusionists. We don’t work. We dream. We work in our bed.” Meditative in front of Cocorico, a painting composed of thin vertical stripes, he notes that each stripe comes from a different metallic can. “Cans of olives or sardines, but also cans of toxic products, or poison . . . Mixing these two different things is like two individuals talking to each other, but not getting along.” Every painting carries a different quotation. The one on this particular painting is “L’histoire de la peinture a été tellement longue et lourde / C’est surprenant de la retrouver encore vivante” (the history of painting was so long and heavy / it is surprising to find it still alive). “I’m talking about painting, about the surface, about color of course. I’m talking about all these eternal questions that interest us artists.”

Adel Abdessemed meditative in front of a Cocorico painting.
Abdessemed making a charcoal drawing of a refugee boat.
Charcoal drawing of two snails.

Even when he was young, he was gifted in drawing. “All the kids in the neighborhood called me an artist. It made a big impression on me. How did they know?” Growing up in the Aures Mountains of Algeria he had very little access to art, but there was one illustration in his cousin’s Petit Robert that struck him and has stayed with him ever since. “Rembrandt’s La Baigneuse is this extraordinary illustration showing a woman bathing in this darkness. For me it was very violent as a work, because I told myself that she was raped and she was disappearing in this stream.” Alluding to this darkness he picks a thick stick of charcoal and fills a blank piece of paper with dark velvety marks. These quickly create an image of a boat filled with refugees floating in the open sea. He has actually done a refugee series, based on images found through the Internet, which he calls Lampedusa, the island off Sicily that is a frequent point of arrival for migrants crossing from the North African coast. “In Rome I want to talk about Lampedusa. Plus, Kounellis is an artist who worked a lot with charcoal. So, I need this presence of darkness.”

Abdessemed can relate to the idea of displacement because he is also a migrant. Recalling his life as an art student in Algiers, he says, “my homeland sought to eliminate me, to take my life.” He has no desire to return. A fundamentalist assassinated the director of his art school together with his son, and Abdessemed received numerous death threats. To escape he fled the country and moved to Lyon in France where he enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Free from the cruelty, at the Lyonnaise bar fittingly named Antidote, he met his future wife and muse, Julie. “When I met Julie at L’Antidote, I was dressed in blue, in work clothes in fact. She said to me: ‘I like how you are dressed in blue like that,’ and so I said, ‘I don’t have a wedding band to offer you, but I really want to offer you blue, all the time’. There were moments, at the time, when it was very rare to find blue, so I had to wear other pants, but I had given her a promise. That evening was my alliance with Julie.”

And so today faithful to that promise, he stands dressed in blue in his atelier, which is also his home. It’s winter break in France and all the kids are home in the apartment just above the studio. His three-year-old son walks down the round staircase holding his mother by the hand. He moves around the studio and stops in front of one of his father’s charcoal drawings of animals. ‘Escargot!’ he says pleased with the discovery. “If in my office we see books or vinyl records that are of the brain, we also see the heart which is there.” Abdessemed points to a picture of his family. “I work here, with my family, my children, my house. I practice an art of responsibility, and therefore I must be responsible. So, I don’t see my life, my very existence, without this renewal of tradition, of continuity too, that is the family … I think it’s a very beautiful project!”

Maquette of the Bar Aicha.

Paris, 2020. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni