Utopia as Ruin
“In the suburbs, postmodern buildings have a strong effect on the population. They take away your identity. In my culture, people used to build their own houses, so they adapted their homes to themselves. In the French suburbs it is the opposite. The inhabitants have adapted themselves to the houses. That, for me, is a postmodern mistake.” Kader Attia
The multifaceted work of Kader Attia (*1970) comes out of poetical and philosophical forays into the histories of identity and mentality in the East and West. Their complex relationships are woven into a colonial history, the effects of which the artist has experienced since his childhood during numerous journeys between Europe and Africa. Attia’s allegorical works are based on the concept of cultural reappropriation. The French-born artist with Algerian ancestry derives his notion of reappropriation from the anarchist theories of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Charles Fourier, using it to contextualise distributions of property within heterotopic societies. One of Attia’s basic assumptions is that any reappropriation is always preceded by (violent) expropriation.
The photographic work dispossession/reappropriation (2009/2013), commissioned by Werkleitz for the Festival, visualises instances of representation at the intersection of nature and culture. Attia juxtaposes peripheries of two different worlds, Algeria and Germany – literal utopias or non-places, in which human beings only participate through the architectural remains in Attia’s comparative image cosmos. Here the dystopian potential of dispossession/reappropriation already resonates, closely tied to the history of architecture in which talk of utopia always involves a consideration of its failure.
Although the subjects of this work may be located in a spatiotemporal vacuum, the images themselves can be indexed to precise points on the world map. A seemingly unreal photograph made by the artist in 2009 in the oasis region of Ghardaïa, Algeria, 600 km from Algiers and in the middle of the Sahara desert is juxtaposed with a photograph taken of the Holzplatz in Halle shortly before the opening of the Werkleitz Festival. Like a memento mori, the photograph depicts nature growing back amidst the structure of a derelict industrial building, the previous purpose of which is not apparent. Both images are presented in the type of light boxes associated with advertisements. The image from Ghardaïa appears at first to represent a flourishing paradisiacal landscape, yet the lush green foliage cannot conceal the human encroachment determined by global politics, the market, power relations, and globalised human intervention. This is shown in the image through the depiction of a new, freshly painted, deep blue mechanical pump of affordable Asian provenance. Its efficiency has pushed aside the traditional pump system of the water-rich Wadi M’zab region, the original architecture of which has been retained by its inhabitants as a sort of a monument to memory. For centuries, camels were used as natural engines to draw water and therefore energy from thousands of pumps (with creaking pulleys, known in the area as the “song of the M’zab”), giving way in recent years to the quieter motorised pumps.
In the juxtaposition of the two photographs showing an expropriated palm oasis in the middle of the sandy African desert and the depiction of architectural remains in the immediate vicinity of a concrete European desert, Attia creates an allegory of global dislocation transcending the limitations of space and time. Despite all human efforts to the contrary, nature inexorably pierces through the thicket of culture to reconquer its territory. Nature’s hopeful doggedness, in the form of a blooming oasis among inhospitable surroundings, must be less threatening to humans, as homo faber, than the cultural selection processes of its own species that mark the dystopian potential presented in the artist’s work. Attia is less concerned with the evolutionary problem of human adaptation to environment; he is agitated rather by the question of how humans can adapt to other humans, as those responsible for a total transformation of nature.
Cultural colonisation and its effects form one of Attia’s main themes, particularly in light of the shattered self-esteem of colonised countries whose wounds cicatrise but don’t entirely heal. In his often ephemeral pieces, the artist repeatedly refers back to episodes from the history of architecture. He is especially interested in the connection, recognised late in academic circles, between European modernism and the rich building and living forms of the Orient, whose tradition-steeped culture exerted a strong influence on the proponents of modernist architecture, above all on the Swiss visionary Le Corbusier. In 2009, Attia staged a memorial banquet in “honour” of the radical planner with his installation Untitled (Ghardaïa), a replica of the Kasbah, the old centre of Ghardaïa, in the form of a fragile model made of couscous on a round wooden table (couscous is a staple food of the artist’s native region and has become popular in western cuisine). Under portraits of Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon – who directed the building of modernist housing in Algiers on behalf of the French government in the 1950s – and a copy of the 1982 UNESCO world cultural heritage declaration of the city, Attia dished up in the fictional role of subservient colonised Algeria a course of traditional cultural possessions en miniature for the delectation of the two representatives of the colonial power.
Le Corbusier, who had been living in Paris since 1917, travelled to Algeria for the first time in 1931, coming to Ghardaïa in 1933, where he was deeply impressed by the minimalist buildings, subsequently introducing elements of Mozabite architecture into his designs and theory. This appropriation of an aspect of Algerian culture thereby seamlessly merged into the history of forms of Western modernism without acknowledging intellectual authorship to its true authors. Moreover, Le Corbusier’s unrealised plans for redesigning Algiers would have destroyed 60% of the Kasbah, showing a surprising lack of interest in the social and historical context of the region he had imagined subjecting to such broad alteration. Such megalomania is not seldom in the history of modern urbanism, and its rigour harks back to Thomas More’s Utopia from 1516, where already grass is cut and trees are chopped down to make room for architectures in service of “ideal” communities.
Attia, who regards the concrete deserts of the Paris Banlieues where he grew up as a means of dominating the masses, made social housing the subject of his installation Fridges (2006), in which 172 refrigerators painted with squares of different levels of grey resembling windows simulate the social coldness of suburban concrete architecture. Following the standardising of modernist, ornament-free architecture, the type of prefab buildings typical of the GDR that dominate Halle-Neustadt achieve a formal reduction or rigidity that can be read as a metaphor for the restricted choices in the lives of their inhabitants. Monotonous rows of prefab apartment complexes have become the anti-monuments of a failed socialist utopia.
In Attia’s photograph of the remains of one such complex in Halle the ruin as a blank space becomes the binding element between two pictorial worlds, pointing toward both past and future. Despite its state of disrepair, it outlives its human inhabitants. Attia’s diptych dispossession/reappropriation allows nature to transcend the human being, as though bearing the inscription of Georg Simmel’s notion from 1907 that located the ruins’ appeal in that they “contrast between human work and the effect of nature”.1