March 2012: Adel Abdessemed @ David Zwirner

Installation view of Adel Abdessemed Décor at David Zwirner, 2011-2012
Razor wire, Four elements, each: 88 x 68 1/2 x 16 inches
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York


Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf
David Zwirner Gallery
525 W. 19th Street
New York, New York 10011
February 17 through March 17, 2012

In Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf at the David Zwirner Gallery, Adel Abdessemed steers clear of any distinctly recognizable artistic signatures by creating a pastiche of diverse sources and media.  Rather, Abdessemed’s conceptual continuity is the thread that ties these works together.  He works by employing blasphemy, irony, and nihilism with equal weight, employing provocative titles to construct a fourth dimension in which to perceive his messages.

Sparing in detail, the installations in Zwirner’s 525 gallery space greet each other with harmonious discord.  For Décor, Abdessemed borrowed the image of Christ crucified from Mattias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, a devotional work created for a monastic hospital of the Order of Saint Anthony.  In its original context this image of Christ served to both comfort and humble patients by reminding them of Christ’s suffering.  Abdessemed draws upon this theme with his use of industrial grade razor wire, which imbues the work with a visceral prompt for searing pain.  As a sculptural group of four identical figures, the artist denies us a focal point, and furthermore emphasizes his objectification of the image through his use of the title Décor.  In so doing Abdessemed has reduced one of the most sacred of holy representations in the life of Christ to serialized ornamentation. 

Featured in the same space, l’Avenir est aux fantômes makes reference to Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology, in which the future, following the end of socio-cultural development, will hold nothing but spectral remnants of the past. For this work, Abdessemed turns a forest of microphones into ethereal ciphers, removing this instrument of communication’s ability to transmit audio, therefore denying its functionality altogether and turning it into a symbol of itself.  These microphones stand at an uncomfortable hauteur, dwarfing the viewer, who is made to feel insignificant in comparison, thus transcending the human, and perhaps even the living world.  Why he chose to use the microphone to illustrate this concept remains a mystery in that it doesn’t present any particular referent, other than that of celebrity, or public recognition.  Once again, the interplay between title and installation enhances the allure of Abdessemed’s conceptual ruse ten-fold.

For a brief moment, the artist verges on the political with his immigration-themed Hope in the 533 gallery space. This installation features a boat once used to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States filled with polyurethane resin casts of plastic garbage bags.  Abdessemed claims that the work references Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of Hope and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa.  However, his personification of everyday objects through molded replicas owes much more to Robert Gober than Friedrich and Géricault.  Rather than displaying desperate, starving victims of the unforgiving sea, Abdessemed depicts a boat overloaded with a seemingly valueless and overly abundant entity.  The anonymity of the black plastic bag adds metaphorical import to the concept of nameless masses, thus exemplifying a sheer lack of hope.  Alongside Mémoire and Coup de tête, Hope betrays a reflection upon the predicament of the ethnic other, even though Abdessemed has frequently denied the presence of postcolonial themes in his work.

Finally, Abdessemed’s monumental Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf imposes itself with what can best be described as a large-scaled vision of bestial angst.  Much like an animalistic version of a medieval Hellmouth, it features both fearful and contemptuous beasts frozen in a state of writhing unrest, in which some appear anxious to break free from this eternal claustrophobia.  When contemplating this work the viewer must come to terms with the fact that the artist meticulously fashioned these animals to create this composition and manipulated them to produce such pained expressions.  Once he had methodically planned everything about this work down to its most minute detail, he then set it ablaze.  The aftermath is gut wrenching, but the artist implies a nearly sacrificial ritual in his process, which must have been an undeniably horrifying and compelling experience.

Throughout the entire exhibition Abdessemed seeks to both confirm and deny the power of spiritual symbolism.  Although his outlook appears pessimistic, the artist maintains a wry, twisted humor that invokes the brutal reality of trauma.  While his works such as Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf work may serve as fodder for his relationship with the animal rights community, Abdessemed has quite successfully mimicked images of human suffering with animal counterparts, perhaps as an allusion to the base nature of man.  He draws similar conclusions by anthropomorphizing inanimate objects.  In Abdessemed’s world every animal and object becomes a vessel through which to depict the human experience, rendering sacred objects irrelevant and irrelevant objects sacred.


Installation view of Adel Abdessemed Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, 2011-2012
Taxidermy, steel, and wire, 143 x 307 inches
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York

Installation view of Adel Abdessemed Hope, 2011-2012
Refugee boat and resin, 81 x 96 x 228 inches
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York

Stephanie Peterson

Stephanie Peterson is a New York-based writer. Her research interests include figurative painting in Europe, intersections between traditional and contemporary media, and the revival of historical techniques and themes as a means to cope with trauma. She is currently enrolled in the art history PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

view all articles from this author