BEIRUT: Sometime last century this writer was working as a bartender, someplace in North America. Most days, university students, many draped in the uniform of the performing arts faculty – funereal black, Latin American and South Asian textiles – drifted in to sip drip coffee and cheap beer.
One afternoon the bartender found an object, which all five customers denied owning.
It had once been a Casio F-91W, a quartz digital watch whose sleek, black plastic design made it popular among members of the urban poor, especially those who had never got the hang of hour-hand/minute-hand time-telling.
It was no longer a Casio F-91W.
At one edge of the watch – where dainty metal pins hold the black plastic strap in place – the dimples formed to house the pins had been punched through completely. Through these maws in the watch casing ran a copper wire, bent and soldered to form a rigid loop, from which hung an indestructibly ugly black fabric strap.
At the other edge, five holes had been bored into the watch body. Using these, someone had stitched a second indestructibly ugly fabric strap to the watch, using heavy-duty fishing line.
For years the former-Casio was my favorite possession. I stopped using it only because – thanks to the labors of the craftsman who’d left it on the bar for someone to find – it was impossible to remove the back of the watch, and so to change the battery.
Other than the violence done to the Casio’s casing, the timepiece looked new. The artisan hadn’t been trying to repair it. She had simply decided to subvert the nature of a bland, factory-stamped consumer good, remaking it as a handicraft.
Notions of “repair” drift throughout Kader Attia’s “Contre Nature,” his current solo show at the Beirut Art Center.
The Berlin-based Algerian artist treats repair as a sort of corollary of mimesis. One of the root concepts of Western cultural production, mimesis (like the more familiar “mimicry”) traces its origins back to the ancient Greek term for art’s imitating the natural world.
Attia’s concerns with mimesis and repair are wedged within a broader discussion of the relationship between culture (stuff we’ve made) and nature (stuff we didn’t make).
The sheet of A4 paper that serves as an exhibition guide suggests that some thought has gone into assembling “Contre Nature.” Anyway it’s festooned with references to intellectual luminaries – philosophers Franz Fanon, Achille Mbembe and Bruno Latour, naturalists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, poet Oswalde de Andrade, architects Ugo La Pietra, Roland Simounet and Le Corbusier, anthropologist Marcel Mercier and cultural critic Suely Rolnik.
Indeed, some who accompanied the artist on his exhibition tour have attested to the energy, and stamina, with which he explains his work’s debt to these thinkers.
Attia’s A4 subdivides “Contre Nature” into four chapters that in some respects reflect the objects and images on display: “Mimesis As Resistance,” “Kasbah – Beirut the Urban Condition,” “Constructions, Reconstructions,” and “Modernity’s Debts.”
Comprised of installations, sculptures, collages, videos, slide projections, photos, newspaper clippings and plenty of found objects, Attia’s show resembles that of a curator of 20th-century mass culture as much as a contemporary artist who makes things. In this respect, the curatorial design of “Contre Nature” is indebted to modernist collage as much as anything else.
There are things of interest.
Attia’s basic premise – that repair, “the act of mending a ‘broken’ object,” is basically a mimetic practice – does provide a pliable conceptual foundation for the bits and pieces he’s jumbled together.
The artist restages his 2008 work “Kasbah,” using locally found objects (wood sheets and timbers, discarded corrugated iron and other metal bits, SAT dishes and antennae, tires and wires).
“Kasbah” reproduces innumerable photographs that look down on various shantytowns around the world – perhaps even the eponymous popular quarter of Algiers – as installation. It’s designed in such a manner that visitors are encouraged to walk over it en route to the rest of the exhibition. The gallery layout doesn’t make this wobbling obstacle course a necessity, but there’s a visceral pleasure in stomping on mimetic gesture.
“Constructions, Reconstructions” deploys historical photos, sketches and photo collage.
Renderings of traditional North African dwellings (whether rural tents, mud-brick buildings or urban neighborhoods) are placed alongside photos of Le Corbusier’s brutalist tower blocks. Collages include photos of (non-Caucasian, perhaps North African) men in contemporary urban attire, cutouts of transgender individuals applying makeup and samples of Hellenic statuary, with rough stitchesaffixed to the images, as if to suggest their repair.
The exhibits seem to invite the public to see these works as variations on a theme of mimesis.
The juxtaposition of architectures suggest not only that colonial administrations tend to ape the prevailing architectural styles of the metropole (witness contemporary Beirut), but that the facades of Le Corbusier’s structures resemble (or mimic) the sprawling density of traditional urban quarters, but only if the latter is viewed from above.
Though hardly startling, the mimesis of “repaired stone, once sculpted to mimic humans” is transparent enough. The readings of some collages – “men mimicking women,” “non-Europeans mimicking European culture” – are just distasteful enough to suggest Attia wants to provoke them without himself ascribing to them.
Other works elaborate upon these themes.
The hourlong video “Collages” (2011) loosely assembles a European anthropologist’s interviews with several “hijras” – a group of transgender Muslim men in South Asia who make a meager living offering blessings to people.
A pair of slideshows mingles headshots of mutilated First World War combatants (before and after the mimesis of “cosmetic surgery”) with photos of figurative sculpture (folk and modern) and samples of traditional African flesh-scarring practices.
If there is a weakness in “Contre Nature,” it lies in the artist’s sometimes demanding more of his terms than the structural integrity of meaning can bear. In his show’s first installation, Attia’s conceptual foundation snaps audibly.
“Mimesis as Resistance” (2013) restages a fun three-minute segment from David Attenborough’s BBC nature program as a room-sized video installation – a wall-mounted television monitor and wall-suspended speakers in an unlit gallery.
The segment is devoted to the mimetic virtuosity of the male lyrebird. He rehearses his mating call while Attenborough (his post-colonial visage expurgated here) redundantly tells his audience what it is they’re hearing.
The creature elaborates his call by sampling those of different birds and mimicking other arboreal sounds – that of a camera shutter (manual and automatic), distant car alarms, woodsmen’s axes and chainsaws.
“Mimesis,” you nod. “Sure.”
Consulting Attia’s A4 paper, though, you find the artist reads the lyrebird’s practice as “repair.”
“The animal ... repairs in the sense of integration, of sensorial incorporation [into] ... a failure in the order of things that it depends on. Aggressed by the machine, ... it imitates it, perhaps to seduce it ... but also to overcome the impact of the machine and by extension the system that generates it: culture.”
Sometimes, as the widely mimicked Sigmund Freud is said to have remarked, a cigar is just a cigar.
Kader Attia’s “Contre Nature” is up at the Beirut Art Center until Aug. 22. For more information see www.beirutartcenter.org.