Paris Based Algerian Conceptual Artist’s Adel Abdessemed’s Poetics of Violence

Adel Abdessemed work seems to not only want to make naked the tragic and the terrible in the world, but to create and use the works as a kind of counter-force in opposition to and against the real. From his most recent work of making a barbed wire chair of a seat of power found in Westminster Abbey, to showcasing airplanes turned up like bananas, he seems to be saying that by doing what he is doing in art, he can be a certain type of master, he can create and or destroy or merely show acts of creation and/or destruction, just like life itself. Evidence of this is seen in his photograph where he appears to be on fire with his arms folded as if in an act of total defiance against the order and disorder of the world. How can I accept that his work is exclusively focused on the unreal realities of violence and sometimes blind human cruelty, perhaps he is seeking a cure to the impossible. Yet I myself have made the claim on multiple occasions that it is Literature than has changed human consciousness, and it is a higher art that is able to come into the world because of this heightened state of positive consciousness. What does this mean for the current production of Conceptual Art by fabrication and machine?What would happen if it were determined that yes, add more of these forms of images into the world, and the world will be made more whole or even completely whole, free of violence, full of love. Which would be that all human beings act at their highest levels of being, as versus sink into mindlessness madness without even a consideration of the effects on the world and all of time.

Vincent Johnson in Los Angeles


Adel Abdessemed
Adel Abdessemed
Adel Abdessemed

Adel Abdessemed Soldaten, 2013
Charcoal on paper

Adel Abdessemed
“Le Vase abominable”
Installation view, David Zwirner, London
22 February – 30 March 2013
© Adel Abdessemed – Photo: all rights reserved
Courtesy David Zwirner, London / New York

Art Review: Adel Abdessemed @ David Zwirner

By · February 23, 2013 at 12:00 pm ·
Installation view of the 2013 solo exhibition Adel Abdessemed: Le Vase abominable at David Zwirner, London.

Though this exhibition is based across two floors it essentially boils down to three installations, all revolving around the central theme of war and conflict. Downstairs we have a large copper pot sat atop what appears to be a large bomb, complete with gas cylinders and sticks of dynamite.

Upstairs we find ‘Cri’, a life size replica of the famous image of Vietnamese children fleeing a napalm attack.

Lastly we have a video of labyrinthine smears across four walls as a homage to the HM Maze Prison hunger strike where prisoners smeared the walls with their excrement. It’s fast paced and erratic to project the intensity of this event but feels at odds with what was in fact a lengthy and slow protest.

Adel Abdessemed: Le Vase Abominable is on at David Zwirner, 24 Grafton Street, W1S 4EZ until 30 March. Admission is free


  • Adel Abdessemed
  • Posted 31 months ago by Jack Lowe · Art & Design · 4002 Views
  • In 1994, artist Adel Abdessemed fled his homeland Algeria to escape the increasing instability and Islamist violence.


Moscow, 2010© — Credit line: © Adel Abdessemed, ADAGP Paris 2012 Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner New York/London
Hand-blown glass 1 pair of skates installed

Adel Abdessemed

Interview by
Paul Ardenne

Paul Ardenne: Love can help pacify things…

Adel Abdessemed: The negative and the positive co-exist in violence. The violence or impact of a work of art is always positive, as it never leaves us. My images are not closed. They are multilinear and can be understood on various different levels. I like works to have a lost corner, a freedom corner, a blind corner….

Paul Ardenne: Whatever his medium, an artist adds matter to the world because he lives with a feeling of inadequacy. I would express a slight reservation about what you say. You profile a work of art as tearing the veil from Isis – in order, as you put it, to empty the pond and ‘find the fish.’ But the therapeutic side to artistic creation, as shown by Freud and many others, is also a pacifying process. Even if a work is violent in itself, it always leads to a situation being pacified. There are works, as you know, which deliberately belong to the repertoire of calm and harmony, like Picasso’s Joie de Vivre – even though it dates from the violent period just after World War II and the discovery of its horrific death-toll. There was widespread rationing, people were traumatized, we were going through a crisis of humanism, and the Cold War was looming. Yet when you look at this work, or at Matisse’s Blue Nude, we verge on the repertoire of the sublime; the viewer is drawn into an instant annihilation of reality, with a feeling of triumphant, blessed idealism. Artists whose work is more to do with global harmony, and its links with salvation, create a visual world that is radically different from yours, but ultimately just as effective. I say this because you’re often criticized for the violence inherent in your work – a  violence that implies that, if you don’t put the violence of the world into your work, then that work is worthless. Take those two metal circles you made, with diameters the same as your height and that of your partner Julie (Wall Drawing, 2006): the circles were in barbed wire! You’ve used live animals in your work – but only after tearing them away from their natural habitat, and throwing them into the alien world of humans. In Mexico, you filmed animals being slaughtered (Don’t Trust Me, 2007). You hung crucified Christs, made of barbed wire, alongside the Issenheim Altarpiece in Colmar – an Expressionist work from the darkest period of the Late Middle Ages, a period racked by recurrent outbreaks of plague and a violent religious crisis that led to the Reformation. You were really beating the drum – irrespective of the title you gave the work (Décor). A décor of violence, then? Personally, I admire your work as an artist. But, Lord knows, I like calm works too…!

Adel Abdessemed: To me, Barnett Newman’s work is very violent.

Paul Ardenne: Perhaps what you find violent are his colour oppositions on large surfaces…

Adel Abdessemed: It’s the void he leaves that I find violent. To me, a work of art should only exist through tension. It should be all about the force of compression, as when I crush a lemon and the juice spurts out (Pressoir Fais-Le, 2002). A work does not need to justify itself. The comments that surround it are not enough. My comments about my work will never say more than my work itself. In fact, I often speak next to my works, to avoid speaking about them.

Paul Ardenne: We need to build a home for mankind.Adel Abdessemed: I see no difference between a home and a path.

Published — Lundi 24, 2012


Adel Abdessemed: “I am innocent”

From 03-October-2012 to 07-January-2013

Adel Abdessemed,

Adel Abdessemed, “I am innocent”

Since his appearance on the art scene in about 2000, Adel Abdessemed’s work has been fuelled by the disaster of contemporary history. The artist uses the language of art to reclaim the forces of violence and destruction: the plaited aeroplanes of Telle mère tel fils [Like Mother Like Son] (2008) or the folded fuselage of Bourek (2005) recall the trauma of the attack on 11 September 2001 with which the century began, the blackened terracotta car bodies of Practice ZERO TOLERANCE (2006) are the vestiges of the urban riots that shook the French suburbs in the Spring of 2005 ; the rows of barbed wire punctuated by double-sided blades and sharpened points of Wall Drawing (2006) refers to the logic of imprisonment (Guantanamo Bay) and territorial division…

– See more at:




The Butcher: A Q&A With Controversial Artist Adel Abdessemed
By Juliette Soulez, ARTINFO France

How do you go about creating your artworks?

Kippenberger said “not having a style isn’t my style.” I work, I don’t wait. I work like Brecht with a center for the work, meaning that I organise things and create a hypnotic center. I am very fast but at the same time the image itself is slow. Sometimes it takes me three years to finish a piece. Then, when I find my axis, everything happens very quickly. I can share it, I can free myself in some way. Images are internal prisons and with them you liberate yourself, you make your cage bigger. Metaphor would be a nightmare. A nightmare is human, all too human. And, as Baudelaire said, images can sometimes strike hard without hatred, like the butcher. Through my work, I give more than I have. An artist gives everything. The artist is like a gambler, he gives everything he has.

Have your travels had an impact on your work?

Cities have always influenced me. I am like Joyce‘s Ulysses. As soon as I’ve moved in, I’m already moving out. Once I have my third pair of shoes, I have to leave. I like leaving my comfort zone. I just came back from two years in New York, which is an extraordinary city with an incredible density and one of the most beautiful populations in the world. Claude Levi-Strauss stayed in this city for a long time, he let himself get completely emptied out and absorbed. But I’ve also lived in Berlin. My second studio was in Mitte. In Paris, the street I worked with was Lemercier Street. And in New York, it was Belfort Street. I am like a detective who is gathering evidence of a crime.

What role do death and violence play in your work? Innocence is violent, sleeping is violent, and giving birth is, too. I don’t know of anything that isn’t violent, except my soul. I always say that we have to be born, love, think, and die. Death as guilt is not the subject of my work. There is nothing negative, unlike what Christian art produces. Panofsky actually wrote a wonderful essay about the pain associated with death. For me, death can be a path, and eternity is a house. The paths lead to the house and vice-versa. So the question would actually be: which is more difficult, death or eternity?


In The Studio: Adel Abdessemed, artist

‘When I make a line I make it like a scalpel. Drawings like cuts’

Saturday 24 November 2012

Adel Abdessemed lives in the increasingly fashionable area near the canal St Martin in Paris. His studio is below the flat where he lives with his wife and four young daughters; he says he needs to have his work and his family close together. The girls are always in the studio – “one may be doing a drawing, one an arabesque,” he says, mimicking a dance movement.

Abdessemed was born in 1971. He came to France from his native Algeria to study art because, as he reminisces, “in Algeria they assassinate hope”.

As an art student in Algeria he made a painting, Paradis (1990), portraying a naked woman bathing by a waterfall. Abdessemed recalls the consternation of staff and professors in the school: “What do you mean showing a naked woman – the school will close down.”

It is hard to believe this reaction now when peering at this modest work. “I was so shocked that the directors and professors don’t accept thi

Having heard how close to his family Abdessemed is, it is poignant to hear that when his daughter saw the photo of him engulfed in flames, she cried, “I don’t like this photograph, daddy!”

‘Abdel Abdessemed, Je Suis Innocent’ continues at the Centre du Pompidou until 7 January 2013


  • October 5, 2012, 5:45 p.m. ET
60 Seconds With

Artist Adel Abdessemed

The Paris-based conceptualist on upside-down drawing, his favorite neighborhood spots and the romantic reason he always wears blue pants


Jason Schmidt/David Zwirner, New York/LondonAGENT PROVOCATEUR | Adel Abdessemed

JUST STEPS FROM the fashionable quais of the Canal Saint-Martin, Adel Abdessemed’s Paris studio is teeming with sketches, fabrication plans and prototypes. Tabletop maquettes of exhibition spaces around the globe are adorned with to-scale models of the artist’s recent work. The world is about to see a lot of Mr. Abdessemed.

This is an artist who likes to think and work big—he uses entire airplanes or a foundered boat the way a sculptor might use clay or wood. His recently opened survey, “Adel Abdessemed Je suis innocent,” at the Centre Pompidou (through Jan. 7), greets visitors with intertwined passenger planes (“Telle mère tel fils,” 2008) and a larger-than-life sculpture depicting French soccer star Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt (“Coup de tête,” 2012). Meanwhile, the 41-year-old artist is working with German publisher Steidl and his New York-based gallerist, David Zwirner, on a multi-volume catalogue while preparing major solo exhibitions for Mr. Zwirner’s new gallery space in London (2013), the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow (2014) and the Yuz Museum in Shanghai (2014).


© Adel Abdessemed, ADAGP Paris 2012/David Zwirner, New York/London‘Coup de tête’

My art is an extension of myself—not only conceptually, but physically as well. When I make a drawing while hanging upside-down from a helicopter, I become part of the medium.

To work, I need the noise and presence of my family. I have four daughters: Ksu, Elle, Rio and Elektra, who are welcome in my studio. One will be doing arabesques, the other flying around like a bird and another on my knee. None of it breaks my concentration, but we do have to look out for the youngest, who is only 2.

I always wear blue pants. Bright cobalt is the color of typical workmen’s pants. It’s also the color of the Mediterranean. But for me the color symbolizes something different. I was wearing this blue when I met my wife, Julie, and she loved it. So I made her a promise—I didn’t have a ring, but I vowed I would wear blue from that day on. Yves Saint Laurent has been making these blue pants for me for years.

While I work, I listen to everything from Mahler to Burmese harp music to Charles Ives.


Marie GenelLe Verre Volé


© Adel Abdessemed, ADAGP Paris 2012/David Zwirner, New York/London‘Telle mère tel fils’

I don’t distinguish between works I make with my own hands and projects that require outside manufacture. Historically there have always been artisans and technicians involved with the fabrication process.

I like to give and receive gifts as a gesture of friendship, but I rarely buy things for myself. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky, When an artist or a poet has nothing more to say, he collects.

For poetry, I love Paul Celan. I often come back to Nietzsche. A writer I enjoy, who is also a good friend, is Gilles Clément. He writes fascinating essays about gardens and public squares.

An artist I would have enjoyed meeting is Barnett Newman.

A great local haunt is Le Pont Tournant, which I discovered by chance. I was walking by and the wonderful Raï music drew me in. It’s charming and lively but also a bit raw—sort of a coin perdu.

I often eat lunch at Le Verre Volé, which is around the corner from my home/studio. They serve inventive dishes but nothing overly complicated.

One of my first memories is from when I was about 3, in Algeria. I saw a poster advertising the circus with an image of a lion putting its mouth over the head of the trainer. This image was my first experience of art.

—Edited from an interview by Mara Hoberman


adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf

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adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf

original content
adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
Feb 23, 2012

‘hope’, 2011-2012 by adel abdessemed in ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

adel abdessemed: who’s afraid of the big bad wolf

installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

the boat in ‘hope’ was found abandoned on a beach in the florida keys of the united states of america.

installation view of ‘coup de tête’, 2012, resin, 88 1/2 x 62 x 37 1/2 inches in the foreground with
‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’, 2011-2012, taxidermy, steel, and wire, 143 x 307 inches in the background
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

in ‘coup de tête’, abdessemed has created a sculptural representation capturing the moment in which french footballer zinedine zidane
headbutted italian player marco materazzi during the 2006 world cup final in germany.

the wall-sculptural installation, ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’, is the piece for which the installation is named. the massive work
is comprised of taxidermy animals which have been burnt to a darkened red-black color palate.

detailed view of ‘coup de tête’, 2012 in foreground with
‘mémoire’, 2012, video on monitor, 20 sec. (loop), color, sound, dimensions vary (aspect ratio 16:9) in the background
edition 1 of 5, 2 APs courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

‘l’avenir est aux fantômes’, 2011-2012
handmade glass
33 elements
98 x 224 x 223 inches
image courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

installation view of ‘décour’, 2011-2012
razor wire
four elements
88 x 68 1/2 x 16 inches

‘décour’ is a collection of four to scale representations of jesus on the cross. the piece references ancient history, religious iconography
and contemporary perceptions of these concepts

detail view of ‘décour’ by adel abdessemed in ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
all images courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

‘la grande parade’, 2011-2012
charcoal on paper
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

installation view of adel abdessemed ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ at david zwirner, new york
courtesy the artist and david zwirner, new york

leigha db

(3 articles)


Man is Evil. Adel Abdessemed’s Religious Pessimism at Centre Pompidou, Paris

Man is Evil. Adel Abdessemed's Religious Pessimism at Centre Pompidou, Paris   - ArtLife Magazine

Paris – Paris has a brand-new tourist attraction, people of all ages and origins can be observed posing for photographs with a giant sculpture in front of the Centre Pompidou. The work shows a bald man sinking his head into the face of a younger one, the latter falling back in obvious pain; both carry shorts and jerseys. For our American readers: this is about soccer.Yes, exactly, that boring game for arm amputated Eurosissies!
More precisely it is about an episode that got deeply implanted in the world’s cultural memory. In the 2006 World Cup final Zinedine Zidane, an Algerian born French international player and the star of his team, had a little disagreement with Italian team’s defender Marco Materazzi. Materazzi’s repeated pulling at Zidane’s jersey resulted in the following dialogue as it has been established afterwards: (Z.:) “If you want my jersey, I’ll give it to you after the match” – (M.:) “I’d prefer your sister, the whore” – (Z.:) Headbutt, expulsion and France lost the match. An episode that obviously exceeds the world of sports and remains in memory as the most significant event of that day (hardly anybody still remembers the final score). It marked the end of Zidane’s career, who in France is remembered as the Michael Jordan of soccer, and in other nations as a good player. Presented in overnatural size, sculpted in the tradition of antique Olympian athletes, the two personages also symbolise the attention paid to sport idols but this is not the major concern of the artist; we will come back to it later.The sculpture is a first teaser for Adel Abdessemed‘s exhibition and crossing the Centre Pompidou‘s


(French call it the “Beaubourg“, important thing to hold back if you want to be considered an insider), we are confronted with three intertwined airplanes in the entry hall. Abdessemed took actual cockpits and attached them to cotton tubes, thus creating three entangled snakes or one giant hydra; two of the “heads” feature the American and Texan flag respectively.
But hold on a second, an artist of Arabian descent doing this? With airplanes – two heads got cut off about a decade ago?
Quite irritated we get a first idea of what this exhibition may be about, without really understanding it for now.

Proceeding to the principal exhibition space a sign informs us that some of the works are not deemed suitable for minor audiences; our expectations rise even higher.
The first room is harmless though: a

carpet on

the wall carrying the French inscription “Thus spoke Allah“, alluding to Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra” next to a sculpted horse (donkey? It is female, in any case) with blinders kicking out.

Upon entering a separated section another sign warns about works of explicit violent and sexual content. – “Yeah, this is gonna be fun, now let’s get the party started!
Inside a naked guy plays an oriental flute on video.
On a second screen a foot is crushing lemons.
Finally the first work to meet the dirty promises (more or less): a film of a red haired woman


a piglet. Yes, take it literally.
The whore of Babylon with a haram animal, and the image of Western civilisation in the eyes of a Taliban. Next to it the artist placed a cube built from exploded airplane parts. Rather obvious, isn’t it?
The piglet is really cute and did you know that sociology ascribes the contempt certain desert religions hold for pigs to the animals’ exorbitant need of water, breeding pigs in a desert is an extraordinarily decadent thing to do – today you should declare champagne and caviar impure, if ever you intend to found a religion (please excuse me for playing the smarta%#)?

Next are flurry images of a small arena where the artist placed numerous living animals. Scorpions, spiders, toads, cocks, snakes. A snake eats a toad, two cocks fight, as do three wild dogs, we listen to the loser screaming. Is this necessary?
We don’t allow cruelty to animals in movies anymore, but Abdessemed takes us back. And he is incorrigible; obviously he has learned nothing of the scandal he caused in 2008, when the San Francisco Art Institute was forced to end an exhibition containing a slaughterhouse movie of his. Sure, Abdessemed did nothing himself (have I mentioned already, the exhibition’s title is “I am innocent“?) but he arranged the disgusting spectacle that we are to witness.

Wondering if this was all of the promised debauchery we continue to the next room where a wall relief of hundreds of taxidermic animals – foxes, deer, rabbits etc. – takes most of the space. To its side a Bosch like painting from Monsu Desiderio: “The Infernos” (1622) and a paradisiac scene from Abdessemed’s own hand. And finally we get a little bit more, a video from a performance he organised at his New York gallery, with spectators cheering at a circle of copulating couples; it strongly recalls that 90s music clip of The Beloved (yes, the song was s%#&).
Primal instincts in a supposed place of high culture. Oh, and the images are not that explicit, the artist would definitely make a lousy porn director. Though on the other hand, given the totality of his works, forty years ago he could easily have adopted an Italian alias and directed some mondo trash.

Leaving the adult section we may admire more works: four impressive crucifixions in razor blades on one wall; four big metal circles on another one; a projection of more ornamental forms; three resin car wrecks (bombed?) and a boat carrying sculpted garbage (or body) bags in the middle of the room.

After my visit it took me a while to make up my mind. Some interpretations are easy at hand, but the artist’s motivation is much harder to grasp. Adel Abdessemed presents the old perception of human being as a beast among others. Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand shares and teaches this belief, not only with regards to modern Western culture: the reason to cover your women with a veil is that you don’t trust men like yourself to behave, to control your instincts, to behave civilised. The image of a man in those cultures is much more degrading than that of a woman, as men are supposed to automatically fall on any unveiled women like a hungry lion on a sheep.
On the other hand, defining man as brute means dehumanisation and may easily justify violence/terrorist acts that according to the underlying theory should be condemned as belonging to the “animal” sphere (the grounding dualism man-animal that is continued in man himself, of course is a highly irrational concept).

The contempt for human nature and the animal within is shared by most religions, or to put it positively: Religious cults of all kinds teach self-denial and purification, saints and buddhas need to overcome their worldly wants. (This is by the way the major difference to modern ersatz religion


that equally reduces man to instinct driven beast, but formulates it positively, defining “sanity” and “happiness” as fulfilment of instinct and any longing beyond as vain delusion.) The Centre Pompidou makes a secret of Abdessemed‘s beliefs, neither is his Algerian origin mentioned in the official documentation, but as it seems he has chosen his camp.
A friend of mine told me he was sure Abdessemed belongs to an extremist catholic cult; of course he might also be a Copt… (I really wonder if the exhibition title has been fixed before all that fuss about “Innocence of Muslims“).

The last room may appear like an inadmissible comparison of religions. Abdessemed‘s crucifixions are masterpieces without a doubt; after a famous French collector (yes, that one) bought them they have been exposed next to a medieval Alsatian church’s Grünewald earlier this year. In comparison the ornamental forms that strongly recall Islamic art look kind of boring. (Abdessemed should visit the newly renovated Department of Islamic arts at the Louvre, maybe it could appease him). And even if there is nothing left of Christian culture but some garbage (again: or body) bags, at least those will be rescued by an ark?

Finally there is the story of Zidane. Professional sports can be traced back to Gladiator arenas (that again are comparable to Abdessemed‘s fighting animals). The soccer player is a Muslim, but not a fanatic at all; here he is presented as another example of savage violence and lack of self-control. Abdessemed is a fellow Algerian, but self-flagellation is a very catholic tradition. Among Westerners a phrase like Materazzi’s would be worth but a laugh, the times of duels are long over (and even they were highly ritualised). Terms like “honour” sound almost ridiculous in today’s Europe and are rarely expressed without irony, we abandoned these abstract values for good reasons. Would Zidane be of European descent he would have continued the above reported dialogue with something in the line of “Great, that will pay my dinner” or “So your wife’s free tonight?” – if he had bothered with an answer at all (his opponent knowing this, the provocation most certainly had never taken place). Contrarily, a person raised in Arabian culture (even in exile) is – a prejudice confirmed by empirics – supposed to use violence in defence of his “family honour”. Zidane’s action is – on a much lower scale – comparable to that of a suicide bomber.

After all, “I am innocent“, it is but my nature (or my culture), can hardly be a serious excuse for any human action. The artist implicitly reminds us that humanity is a lot more, that man can and should control his instincts and be free. It is a good thing, when an exhibition encourages discussion, and though Abdessemed crosses the line sometimes, he gives us much to think about.

Adel Abdessemed, “I am innocent”, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 3 October 2012 through 7 January 2013

Art – Exhibitions
by Christian Hain | Monday, 05 November 201


Man on fire: Adel Abdessemed brings his work to Mayfair

Controversial artist Adel Abdessemed brings his latest works to Mayfair’s David Zwirner gallery next month. From a sculpture of a Vietnamese napalm victim to a portrait of him setting himself alight, his best ideas are sparked by battle, he tells Ben Luke


03 January 2013

Adel Abdessemed has a knack for making viewers uncomfortable. Rather like the Chapman brothers, the Algerian-born artist brutally pushes boundaries while questioning our morals. He has made a film of a woman breastfeeding a piglet; instigated a performance in a Milan gallery where people had sex in front of an applauding audience; set himself on fire for a photographic portrait, and created sculptures of Christ made from barbed wire.

I meet Abdessemed at his studio, near the Gare de l’Est station in Paris, to talk about his final preparations for the show which will open at Mayfair’s David Zwirner gallery on February 22.

Given his background, I find it impossible to look at Abdessemed on fire in his photograph — which he did for real, burning his neck and hands in the process — without thinking of another Maghreb man, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world in 2011, an event regarded as the genesis of the Arab Spring.But Abdessemed dismisses the connection. “I am not a chronicle,” he says. Instead, he quotes another artist-provocateur, Francis Picabia, the Dadaist, who said that a man could surround himself with fire to protect himself. So is the photo a kind of manifesto? “All my work is a manifesto,” he shoots back.

For his London exhibition, the British context will be fundamental, with many works taking on the theme of empire. Abdessemed has recreated the coronation chair from Westminster Abbey in barbed wire, a regular material in his armoury, “because empires are always connected with wars, I think — war and justice,” he says.

Around the studio are images inspired by some of the great works in recent British art history. “When I started to work on the show, I thought of the [British] Empire, and it came to me that a ‘colleague’, Richard Hamilton, made The state and The citizen.”

“What I like about Richard Hamilton is that he was one of the first pre-pop artists, and has a sensuality which American pop art doesn’t have,” Abdessemed says.

He frequently refers to artists from the far or recent past in his work — or invites them into his studio, as he puts it. His barbed-wire crucifixions, called Décor, were based on Matthias Grünewald’s 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece, featuring a distressingly diseased Christ. But he feels his relationship to the past is different to contemporary masters steeped in the European painting tradition, such as Gerhard Richter.

“I don’t have this debt because I am not a European, I am a Mediterranean,” he says. “I am aware of history, but I don’t feel any responsibility or debt to it.”

Size and grand gestures matter to Abdessemed. Last year, he created a storm in France with a 5.34m high bronze sculpture depicting the moment French footballing hero Zinédine Zidane headbutted his Italian adversary Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, a devastating coup de grâce to an otherwise coruscating footballing career. It towers over the entrance of the Pompidou, like a warning to those entering. “It is odd to celebrate defeats,” he says. “From the ancient Greeks until today, sculpture always celebrated winners, it was heroic. Mine is an icon of a defeat.”He was interested in Zidane being “trapped by his identity”. Zidane’s parents were also Algerian — does he mean as a North African? “Maybe. He didn’t behave as a professional, as a footballer — he expressed himself as a human.” I ask if he sought controversy with the work. But he insists his interest was more sculptural — the challenge was how to “recreate the effect of when Zidane gave the head butt” in three dimensions, “because when he headbutted Materazzi, it was something like a mass crash”.

“My work is not pessimistic,” he counters. “At the base of it there probably is despair, but inside it is the force to create, and if there is a creative force, then that as an activity is something positive. My work is extremely positive — it is the world that is negative.”

As I leave, I take away a sense of an artist with a profound need to speak to his audience. “Of course, I want my work to be universal,” he explains. “My work is talking about our humanity — we are monsters.”

Adel Abdessemed: Vase Abominable is at David Zwirner, W1 (020 3538 3165, from February 22 to March 30. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm; Monday by appointment. Free.


Adel Abdessemed


by Emily Nathan/ArtNet


The attitude of Algerian-born, Paris-based artist Adel Abdessemed (b. 1971) is distinctly embodied in an installation that anchors his current exhibition at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea — a foundered dinghy that he discovered in the Florida Keys, shipped to New York, filled with cast resin sculptures of black garbage bags and perversely titled Hope (2011-2012).

Abdessemed surmises that the “refugee boat” was used by immigrants to come to the U.S. The contrast between the ugly, heavy trash bags and the picturesque vessel, with its rusty rudder, exposed caulking and panels of peeling, blue-painted wood, seems to say something about the uncertain fate of seekers on U.S. shores, and hints at the falseness of the American dream.

Abdessemed, who is preparing for an October 2012 survey of his work at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, is certainly no optimist. Although he was born and raised in Algeria, his adult life has been marked by wandering, and he describes himself as a modern-day Ulysses, a world traveler — and an eternal exile. Critics have explained his work in terms of a life lived without national identity, lacking roots, but his art reflects more tangibly the violence he has unwittingly encountered at every step.

He left his civil-war-ravaged native country in 1994, after


at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Algiers — where its progressive director was murdered on the school steps — and enrolled at an art school in Lyon, France. He arrived in New York for a residency at PS1 just in time for 9/11, and almost immediately returned to Europe. His transfer from Berlin to the rough outer boroughs of Paris in 2004, where he has been based ever since, nearly coincided with the ethnic street riots of 2005. While Abdessemed does not like to revisit these experiences, he is quick to express the realization to which they have led him. “Reality is ill,” he says.“Hope is the only negative thing in the world,” he told Artnet Magazine last week, while guiding a walk-through of his exhibition, titled “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” on view at Zwirner’s two West 19th Street galleries through Mar. 17, 2012. “We don’t need hope. What we need is truth.”

And “truth” is what he has sententiously resolved to show us, a brutal, dire truth that places cruelty, suffering and every sort of “ism,” from racism to chauvinism, at the heart of human existence. Working in sculpture, installation and video, he favors stark imagery and masculine


; his provocative works have included the crushed fuselage of a commander jet, which he folded into itself like rolled pastry dough and exhibits upright (Bourek, 2005), a cast terracotta model of an overturned car he found on fire in the street (Practice Zero Tolerance, 2006), and the enormous Telle mère, tel fils (2008) — three braided airplanes, their bodies replaced with felt-covered armatures and literally woven together.Despite their lack of subtlety, his smart, meticulous artworks make lofty philosophical and historical references. Abdessemed frequently quotes Heidegger, and he invokes Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857) to assert that the image, like the word, must “strike like a butcher — but without anger or hate.” To that end, he envisions his “performances” as “acts,” which do not merely evoke or represent violence, but enact it. Not surprisingly, the more “striking” of these have courted controversy.

Don’t Trust Me, six looping videos of animals being slaughtered by a blow to the head, brought vehement opposition from animal rights activists and death threats against the artist when presented at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2008. Abdessemed issued a statement in response but refused to justify, excuse or contextualize the killings, instead declaring his commitment to preserve the status of “an act of slaughter,” full stop, “without spectacularization and without dramatization.” The show was shut down.

Wild animals figure frequently in his works, and he often places them in dangerous situations. In 2007, he let seven wild boars loose on a Paris street to produce a photograph called Sept frères (Seven brothers), and his 2009 video Usine (Factory), shown in his first solo show at David Zwirner, featured snakes, spiders, frogs, dogs and cocks thrown together into a pit to fight it out. “Other artists use animals to represent something else,” he explains, “While for me, they are a real presence; our interaction is direct.” This, of course, echoes the relationship between Joseph Beuys and a wild coyote in his 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me.

If Abdessemed is a “pitiless young festivalist,” as the New Yorker described him in 2009, the art world


him for it. He has had solo shows at New York’s PS1 (2007), Grenoble’s Le Magasin and MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (2008), and London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art (2010), and his new exhibition at David Zwirner had nearly sold out even before it opened last Friday, with buyers including mega-collector François Pinault and prices ranging from $800,000-$2 million.The show gets its title, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” from one large tableau hanging on the wall, to which Abdessemed has affixed 500 densely packed taxidermied hunting animals, like a morbid homage to Mike Kelley’s tapestry of stuffed dolls, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987). The creatures are frozen in every position imaginable, necks tangled, hooves over muzzles, eyes wide. Abdessemed has taken a blow torch to the lumpy surface of brown limbs and varnished it with cedar oil, which lends the charred composition an eerie monochromatic sheen.

Who’s afraid is equal in size — 12 x 26 feet — to Picasso’s Guernica, the great artist’s most pronounced political artwork. Abdessemed more gothic version, which could be an elegy to the end of nature, effectively transfigures meaningless slaughter into a disturbingly decorative taxidermied landscape. (The artist has reportedly chosen to keep this work for himself, though it will be included in his survey at the Pompidou.)

In its undifferentiated tangle of limbs, where predatory wolves and foxes are entwined with their prey, the work underlines what Abdessemed sees as a universal capacity for destruction. He does not frame his perspective in terms of victims or perpetrators but cites Dostoevsky’s proclamation, in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), that “each of us is guilty.”

Mémoire (2011-2012), a short, looping video presented on a monitor in the same room, features a trained baboon who affixes magnetic letters to a chalkboard one by one, spelling out the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi” — warring Rwandan ethnic groups who committed mutual genocide during their country’s civil war. The gallery is filled with the mechanical echo of each letter as it is slammed into place, an unpleasant aural reminder of the clangor of battle. The video suggests that meaning is like a bowl of alphabet soup, from which we can fish out whatever suits our purposes.

Décor (2011-2012) is an installation that consists of four life-sized sculptures of a crucified Jesus Christ, made from barbed wire and hung, arms extended and head drooping, in a row on the wall. Abdessemed has described religion as a bunch of “pretty stories,” and his use of a loaded religious icon for a work presented as mere décor is polemical. Its sharp metal barbs have been bent into smooth, rounded submission, and they suggest the sublimation of a tool of oppression — barbed wire, religion — into something else that is acceptable, and even innocuous, like a decorative work of art. (Its buyer, François Pinault, has agreed to lend it to a museum in France for temporary installation alongside its inspiration, Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, before it travels to the Pompidou in October.)

Lastly, Abdessemed turns his attention to the future. L’avenir est aux fantômes (The future belongs to ghosts) (2011-2012), shares a gallery with Décor, and consists of 30 nine-foot-tall microphones on stands made entirely from hand-blown glass, clustered together in the center of the room. The work’s title references a statement made by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullan’s 1983 film Ghost Dance, and is perhaps the artist’s sole acknowledgement of the potential for redemption. While in Décor, Abdessemed desiccates a loaded presence and reduces it to something empty, L’avenir offers presence by way of absence. The unmanned microphones, delicate despite their size, issue a silent


to be occupied — who will speak into them? Who will write the future?“When I look at the work of an artist,” Abdessemed mused, suggestively, “I am not


in his biography. I want to be struck by what he makes; I want to hear his cry.”Abdessemed’s cry, grim and dramatic, resounds in the stark gallery. “If I need to deform the truth in order to touch it, then that is what I’ll do.”

“Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” Feb. 17-Mar. 17, 2012, David Zwirner Gallery, 525 & 533 W 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email


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