An Interview with Adel Abdessemed: Happiness in Mitte (Metro, 2005)

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Multiple and shifting meanings are the essence of Adel Abdessemed’s work, which ranges across mediums and styles in a way that echoes the migrations of the artist himself after leaving his native Algeria in 1994. Since that time, he has lived and worked in Lyon, Paris, New York and Berlin, crossing national borders almost as frequently as artistic ones.

Born in 1971 to a Kabyle Muslim family in Constantine, Algeria, his departure from his homeland, spurred by the political and military catastrophes that overtook the country in the early 1990s, has clearly been a decisive influence. Not least because despite studying in Algeria, mainly under Russian educated teachers schooled in the rigorous academic techniques of the Soviet era, his work took on its distinctive character in France.

One video piece, Un Cri Court (1998), reflects this change in its filmed portrait of a friend of the artist’s, an Algerian conductor steeped in Western Classical music, and wary of modern developments. Abdessemed persuaded the man to be filmed crying and keening to the beat of a metronome. The resulting sound is not unlike a Muslim prayer, or a piece of trance music.

“The important thing was that this man was given a way of talking with his unconscious, and this became a music piece,” Abdessemed explains. “In Algeria, my training meant that I was like this man, because I painted in a very heavy style, like Rembrandt, and only began to find my own voice when I was able to find ways to talk with my own unconscious, and release it into the work.”

This sense of making work through an exploratory process seems to be the crux of Abdessemed’s art, and his trajectory since the mid-1990s has been as unpredictable as it has been various. He has used sculpture, video and what can be best described as a full spectrum of unclassifiable gestures of one sort or another, sometimes conceptual, often much more direct. Each variation used seems to offer Abdessemed another way to counter the formation of habitual ways of working, helping to clear a path into the unconscious.

Whether it is a cache of handwritten papers purporting to be from the hand of a mysterious figure named Mohammed Karlpolpot (1999), a cast of a star made entirely from cannabis resin (Abdessemed notes that this is still detained somewhere in a Paris museum) or a gigantic sculptural skeleton, suspended in mid air, one thing the artist seems to resist is for his precise intentions to be easily pinned down by the viewer.

Instead, it is Abdessemed’s instinctive leaning towards what he describes as “the sensual, the physical and the uncontrollable” that unifies these disparate techniques into a coherent body of work. His refusal to hold to any dogma that justifies itself by appealing to fears and hatreds means that despite its frequently disturbing themes there’s usually a genuine, hard-won optimism at the core of these works.

“I like my work to operate between the normal borders of things”, he explains. “I have always wanted my work to be sensuous, to have its dark and light, its seasons…I also hope that when you look at all these works together they are something like a city. In any city you might visit anywhere in the world you will find all the same things you can see in my work – sexuality, police, fundamentalism, pleasure…”

The woman emerging like a butterfly from the unravelling woollen chador of Chrysalide (1999) is one example of this tendency, managing to be both dangerously provocative and touchingly poetic and humane at once.

This sense of pleasure is also at the heart of Happiness In Mitte (2003), the video installation at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery this month, which features seven looped films, each showing a stray cat approaching, then drinking, a bowl of milk.

“Mitte is simply the district of Berlin I was living in at the time,” Abdessemed explains. “I wanted to make the work with nine screens featuring nine cats drinking milk. But when I discussed this idea in Japan I was told that nine was a ‘bad’ number. Seven was the number for happiness, they told me, and so that seemed much better for the work.”

Abdessemed is also happy to note the links between the hospitality he extended to the cats featured in the work and his own migrations.

“These cats are strays, but they are also free”, he says. “They have no territory. Freud has a saying I like very much, which is that ‘the stranger is our unconscious’. I didn’t like cats for a long time, perhaps because of something in my unconscious. Yet after my daughter was born, because she also drank milk, I was finally able to make my peace with cats.”

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Interview originally featured in Metro newspaper in April 2005. The exhibition, Happiness in Mitte, ran between Apr 9 – May 30 2005 at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

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