Adel Abdessemed: Rio at David Zwirner
525 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
April 3 through May 9, 2009
Adel Abdessemed’s new installations at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea don’t occupy space so much as they subdue it. This holds true most dramatically for the exhibition’s centerpiece: Telle mère tel fils, a soft, braided orgy of three elongated airplanes, their fuselages replaced by long tubes of flesh-colored felt, their cockpits and tailfins curling around each other like snakes. The massive sculpture rests partially suspended from the low ceiling of a hangar (as it were) adjacent to the main gallery, allowing intrepid viewers to walk not only around the twisted planes but under and between them as well. The effect is oddly—and probably intentionally—similar to walking through one of Richard Serra’s famous ovoid steel corridors: you feel as if you’re exploring the guts of an organic machine.
The striking face about Abdessemed’s work in Rio is that, varied and sometimes jarringly incongrouous as it is, it coheres. Between five videos, six installations or sculptures, a handful of photographs and an oven-sized rock that he may or may not have smuggled out of the Grand Canyon, Abdessemed remains chiefly concerned with portraits of physical extremity, often violent or potentially dangerous ones. One video shows the artist trying to draw while balancing on a piece of wood in the ocean, while waves threaten to upend him into the water. Two other videos, comprising the kind of exploration of physicality for which artists like Nan Goldin or Diane Arbus are routinely (and wrongly) criticized, feature two men—one with no arms, one with no legs—suspended just above the ground by a helicopter, trying to paint on slabs of plywood as the vehicle hovers far above them, sometimes bodily lifting them from the surface.
A similar juxtaposition of softness and rigidity plays into Abdessemed’s Usine, a video shot with a handheld camera, showing a concrete yard crammed with lizards, snakes, tarantulas, scorpions, roosters, and pit-bull puppies, all crawling or scuttling amongst each other and occasionally engaging in explosive territorial battles. There are few things more unsettling, or more unnatural, than watching a chicken square off against a tarantula. Less startling (though, presumably, less orchestrated as well) is the photograph Jasmine, taken near the artist’s home in lower Manhattan, which shows a dog calmly nursing her litter on the median of a busy street.
To say that Abdemessed is ‘exploring themes of destruction’ or ‘questioning the nature of violence’ seems too glib a judgment—it’s probably more accurate simply to say that he’s interested in the way objects interact with spaces that don’t quite suit them. In this sense, there’s something a little bit ‘off’ about every piece in this exhibition, whether it’s the surreal tangle of soft planes (reminiscent not just of Serra but also of Claes Oldenburg’s huge foam hamburgers and canvas ice-cream cones) or the much smaller sculpture Soccer ball, a ball made entirely from barbs of razor wire.
Adel Abdessemed, Telle mère tel fils, 2009, courtesy David Zwirner
The same is true of a large photograph showing the artist clinging to an overhanging rock in the Grand Canyon: he is described as ‘suspended,’ as if he was at risk of falling. This may be true, but the photograph’s perspective is so ambiguous that he could also be standing, or even lying down to rest: comfortable postures that form a stark contrast to the wild empty space and towering rock walls of the canyon itself.
What’s interesting, however, is not that Abdemessed can take an innocuous object like a ball or a rock and infuse it with the aura of violence. Instead, it’s that despite the alteration, the sense of physical danger never quite overcomes the object that it transforms. Such is the case with Practice zero tolerance, a black terracotta sculpture cast from the burnt-out carcass of a car destroyed in 2005 in France’s banlieue riots. From a distance the sculpture could very well be the car itself, but up close, its smooth, abstracted bulk almost seems to serve as a monument, a quiet reminder of the costs of urban warfare rather than a victim of it.
Given Abdessemed’s blackened car, his razor-wire soccer ball, and his limbless painters, it’s impossible not to see a strong political element in Rio. Yet it succeeds, not because it conveys a political message, but because it refuses to let a political expediency subsume what, for the artist, is a much more important physical curiosity.
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Matthew Ladd graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2004 with an MPhil in Divinity. He has since taught classes at the University of Florida and the Columbus College of Art and Design, and he has written for such journals as The American Scholar, The Humanist and Berkeley's Threepenny Review. He lives and works in Brooklyn. email@example.com