Kader Attia, Installation Art and the Ethics of Space
Shaped like mihrabs and stained glass windows, the mirrors in Kader Attia’s Holy Land (2006) may instantly evoke thoughts of faith and religion. First erected in the Canary Islands and later in Tuscan green space, this installation (especially in its second location) brings to mind the Ifá belief that the Earth is ultimately an òrìsà — a deity in which several other deities reside, and should therefore be protected and propitiated. Yet with mirrors also shaped like tombstones, Attia’s installation can equally be interpreted as a memento mori, causing spectators to grapple with the inevitability of existential displacement and death. But what actually motivated Attia to create an installation that resembles a graveyard? The French-Algerian artist has spoken about his Holy Land installation in the Canary Islands as an outcome of ruminations on the complex processes and tragic outcomes of maritime migration. He tries to capture the difficulties and disappointments experienced by refugees who feel forced to leave places of domicile in search of a brighter and less burdensome life, only to begin the arduous journey to a foreign land and discover that it isn't 'the holy land' they had imagined it to be. For those snatched by death along the way, such a discovery is never made. In line with Hannah Feldman's interpretation of the mirrors as "unmarked tombstones," Attia's decision to partially bury these mirrors on the beaches of the Canary Islands speaks to lives already lost at sea and those that remain stalked by death as they embrace the risks of building a new life. The profound message(s) of Holy Land point(s) to the moving power of installation art and the reflective opportunities it allows.
Like other forms of installation art, Holy Land brings to mind John Berger’s theorisations about art and possession. In his 1967 essay, Art and Property Now, Berger reflects on kinetic and installation art as that which cannot be owned in the same way as paintings and traditional sculptures which continue to be accumulated by self-proclaimed art lovers. Space-loving art like Attia's resists the mechanisms of property accumulation that have permeated and polluted contemporary art culture. This type of art cannot be owned because its existence is intertwined with and heavily reliant on the viewer’s consciousness and active engagement. One may purchase a photograph of an installation but that photograph can never assume the same identity and functions of the installation as Julie Reiss notes in From Margin to Center. Attia's installations are expansions of visual experiences but they are also outcomes of philosophical and political thought. He is not simply an artist but also a critical scholar, interdisciplinary researcher, and revolutionary. He relies on space and memory to transport messages about complex global affairs and the politics of human connectedness.
Attia has reiterated in multiple conversations, including that with art critic Régis Durand, that space is an important element of his work. Referring to another of his installations, Plastic Bags (2008), Attia claims that the emptiness not only within the plastic bags but also outside of them “expresses the frontier between aesthetics and ethics”. This distinction between aesthetics and ethics is useful for understanding the essence of installation art, which represents an iconoclastic movement in modern art history. Installation art embodies elements of anarchism; it tells us that space is not to be owned, but navigated by anyone and everyone. Space should be experienced and left uncorrupted by impositions of power relations. Space offers an opportunity to imagine and exercise freedom. In many ways, space is political. Contrary to classical paintings which often require a passive meeting and may silence the observer or impose a hierarchical relation onto the space of encounter as implied by Erwin Panofsky, installation art openly embraces active and equal participation. There remains much more to experience and learn from interactions with this radical art form and from artists like Attia whose works can be interpreted as demonstrations or 'rehearsals for revolution' as John Berger might argue. Such works of art sensitise us to social ills and continue to play a significant role in democratising not only the art world but wider society.