Ralph Rugoff: You began to explore the aftermath of physical injury, and different cultural ideas about repair, with your major installation The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012). A key and disturbing element in this work is the group of historical images that depict severe facial injuries suffered by soldiers in the First World War. How did you get interested in working with these portraits of men whose faces – the visual marker of our identity – had been brutally altered by violence?
Kader Attia: It was while I was doing research into the ritual scarification practiced in some traditional African cultures that I started to remember what I call the ‘broken faces’, these soldiers from the First World War. I’d seen images of them in the past, but I hadn’t looked carefully. Across seven years of research, reviewing thousands of images of these broken faces, I discovered that in the early years of the war the body retained a significant presence of the injury. The French and German armies were so overwhelmed by the number of injuries that they sent nurses onto the battlefield to sew up the faces of soldiers before they took them away.
I then discovered that towards the end of the war, doctors evolved new techniques of repair – they began to work with sculptors and painters to imagine the missing jaw, for example, and to build resin prosthetics and paint them in skin tones. The repair had moved much closer to a fantasy of modernity, based on the Latin etymology of repair, reparare, which means going back to the original state.
The First World War is the most interesting, significant event in modernity – probably the first collapse of modernity. And the ambition of giving back the injured body its original shape was tied up with this modernist vision. That is how society works now – we are fascinated with staying younger, removing wrinkles, all traces of aging. For me, this myth of the perfect is like the prehistory of the world we’re living in today. The notion of beauty is very important in this work too.
The other main components in this installation are displays of damaged and repaired traditional carved masks from Africa. You placed these masks in proximity to the images of damaged human faces as if setting up an equivalency between them. The juxtaposing of these two types of elements, which no normal Western museum would have put together, is very unsettling.
What interested me with this project was how to connect the facial injuries of soldiers with these broken artefacts that have been treated and repaired in a non-modern or even anti-modern way. In Western society, the pinnacle of repair has become to erase all signs of the injury (though these pictures show this wasn’t always the case). In traditional societies, it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible. I’ve always been fascinated by traces, by the way that objects are used by time – broken, rusted, and so on – and as I continued my research I also became fascinated by this difference between traditional and modern modes of repair: one that acknowledges the passing of time, and the other one that aims to deny the effects of time.
So you’re contrasting two aesthetics – one that embraces the traces of activity, and another that is trying to conceal or erase them.
In the course of my research I discovered that when you look at these kinds of objects that I’ve included in The Repair… you’re not only looking at a repair but an injury. The word ‘repair’ is an oxymoron. Every repair is entangled with the injury – you cannot separate the two.
Museums, of course, typically look askance at historical objects that have been repaired, as if they had lost their original meaning and were no longer ‘authentic’. By showcasing repaired artefacts in your installation, you raise a question about how institutions view the damaged works in their own collections…
When I had a residency at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., the first question I asked of their anthropologists was, ‘Do you have a category for repaired objects in the database?’ Databases in such museums are huge: they have categories you have never even thought about. But I was surprised to find out they didn’t have one for repair.
Later, a woman who had worked there for years showed me some of the repaired objects they had in storage, which were not easy to find. They had amazing objects, like a mask from Congo covered by a piece of tin metal torn from a milk box. For me these repairs are not only smart, they also have a lot to say. I think the fact that anthropologists from the West have completely neglected these objects is a sign; it explains something. It shows how much Western museography has been colonising these objects.
The dramatic lighting for your installation and the way you group and display the various images and objects seems to refer to the theatrical presentations of old-fashioned history and natural history museums.
For me that style of presentation was ironic, it was partly a critique of the modern obsession with classification. When I use the word ‘modern’ here, I’m talking about the period following the rise of the age of reason, which saw the development of forms of certainties surrounding knowledge – what we today call epistemology. I’m critiquing those social sciences that claim to control and understand the world better than other ways of thinking, just by classifying it.
The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, 2012
Mixed media installation
Installation view dOCUMENTA (13), at Fridericianum, Kassel, 2012
Commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA (13) with the support and courtesy of the artist, Galleria Continua, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Galerie Krinzinger. Further support by Fondation nationale des arts graphiques et plastiques, France
Photo: Roman März & Kader Attia