Controversy follows Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed at every step. You may know him for his signature piece in which he wove three giant airliners together. He upsets feminists, the IRA, prisoners, the devout (Christian and Muslim) and animal rights advocates but sometimes with good reason. It’s not always his intent but his subjects are often too emotionally, politically and religiously charged to read the truth he posits objectively.
In his latest outing, a solo exhibition, L’âge d’or (The Golden Age) at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar, Abdessemed has outraged conservatives who have made accusations of anti-Islamic idolatry. He’s caused derision from the Qatari public and the removal of at least one work. This comes as little surprise and museum director, Abdellah Karroum, acknowledged the “challenging” nature of the show from the outset. Karroum deserves kudos for his courage. The exhibition was curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi.
From CFile’s point of view, Abdessemed’s exhibition includes several works of particular interest: Zero Tolerance (2006), a black terracotta car upended as if burnt in a riot; Le Vase abominable (2013), a nineteen foot sculpture of a tall brass pot on top of an explosive device; Little pot (2013), which consists of 11 vessels each made from a different material, including clay, gold, gum and salt and Shams (Sun) (2013), a room-sized clay wall relief created in situ.
Shams is described as being made of “unfired terra cotta” (a curious way to describe clay). It weighs 30 tons and shows figures of workers climbing up ladders, carrying sacks and shoveling. It brings to mind the dramatic images of workers in the Sierra Salgado mines in Brazil by Sebastião Salgado and similarly it is a paean to the world’s workers.
Sabine B. Vogel wites in Artforum, “By the exhibition’s close, all the figures will have fallen from the wall, as the clay is wet and malleable. As spectacle, the work can be seen as a superlative summation of the exhibition as a whole— the emotional outdoes itself, burning these scenes into memory.”
Le Vase abominable is from a series that Abdessemed also showed in London at David Zwirner in 2013. Writing about the London vase (which was about half the size of the one in Qatar), William Summerfield of ArtLyst comments:
In Flash Art, Joshua White writes, “A giant, golden urn is equipped with a series of gas tanks, explosives and a digital clock counting down to zero. It is a confrontational object marrying craft, luxury and danger. Operating as an absurd self-portrait, the work embodies both aggressor and victim; an ostensibly ‘Orientalist’ and desirable artifact is transformed into an object of fear. This satirical thrust characterizes the rest of the works on show.”
It could be said that Abdessemed does not exhibit work, he detonates it. Or, as the artist puts it, “Art is a fire that cannot be put out.”
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above: Adel Abdessemed, Shams (Sun), 2013, clay. Photograph courtesy the artist and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.
Installation views of Adel Abdessemed’s L’âge d’or exhibition at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. Video courtesy of the museum.
Video of Le Vase abominable by Adel Abdessemed at the David Zwirner gallery in London. Video courtesy of the gallery.