Man is Evil. Adel Abdessemed's Religious Pessimism at Centre Pompidou, Paris
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 doors (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 nursing 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 psychology 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