Photo by Frank Perrin


By Lise Géhenneux

Adel Abdessemed is an artist and a witness to his time. For over twenty years now, he has used his work to open up a critical space tied to the events that have marked his past, from his childhood in Algeria – including his love for his mother and the women’s rights struggle – and time spent living in different countries, to his recent return to France, the county where he met the love of his life, Julie. Ever attentive to the world around him, he is haunted by images, which he twists, flattens, and mashes together to recreate the energy – and often the violence – of experience. In an interview on the topic of revolution, he shared the details of his practice with respect to two exhibitions: one a symphonic manifesto at the Grand-Hornu (MAC’s) in Brussels, the other on the city’s ability to host life at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon. Interview by Lise Guéhenneux.

You put together an exhibition in the form of a manifesto at Grand-Hornu. Manifestos often go hand-in-hand with revolution. Considering that this notion relates primarily to the individual rather than to any political apparatus in your artistic practice, what does revolution mean for you? I remember that some time ago you compared your actions to a dog barking to get attention, to shed light on something that everyone has overlooked, until finally people notice and heed the warning – as illustrated by the animals you have drawn with explosives on their backs, like the pigeon sculpture at Grand-Hornu. 

As an artist, I am a witness to my time. For me, the inevitable intimate aspect of our experience is always faced with the barrage of everyday events, the barrage of the world or of images, these intensely aggressive things that we receive every day.

And there is certainly a reason that you qualify this exhibition at the Grand-Hornu as a manifesto, because along with the present, you are also sensitive to the history of all places where you have been.

The Grand-Hornu was once a production site, a mining complex where coal was extracted; and it was designed as a palace. When I first saw the architecture of this space, I immediately thought of the protocol for when a head of state enters a place like this, a palace, and he must walk through on a red carpet. From one room to the next, he sees the artworks representing hunting scenes, or history scenes full of heroes, until he reaches the room where he will deliver his speech.

Are you referring to the red carpet that you are going to set up at the Grand-Hornu?

Yes, a red carpet will run through all the rooms. In December 2016, a Russian airplane crashed while carrying members of the Red Army Choir to sing Christmas carols in Syria. That made me think of the song Otchi Tchiornie (« Dark Eyes »), a magnificent Tzigane song, and I chose the original Russian title for the name of the exhibition. 

That hugely famous song is an odd fit within the Red Army’s classic repertory.

And it’s wonderful that this love song is part of their repertory.

The song is not in the same register as other revolutionary hymns. It leaves behind the slogan that masks reality to access a tangible reality.

Like always.

You organized the exhibition inside a site connected to industrial and labor history, while reflecting on the mysterious plane crash involving the Red Army Choir, and planned it as a sort of mash-up, a montage of two situations.

At the Grand-Hornu, the exhibition unfolds within a single room, composed in the form of a symphony, while at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, the exhibition is spread across two levels, one on top of the other. I started with the top floor. It corresponds in a way to the idea of the human condition, exploitation, and above all fatigue. All the bodies of laborers are made in clay so that they dry over the course of the exhibition. It’s the weight of forty-seven tons of clay, not including the metal, wood, etc. And I designed the lower level as a city, based on the idea of the visible and the invisible city. The visible part is represented by the bars, that’s why I called the exhibition “L’Antidote” (“Antidote”), from the name of the bar where I met my partner, Julie, and so there is an obvious autobiographical element there. And I also added the “Aïcha” bar in Paris: I named it after the owner, and it’s also the same name as the prophet’s most important wife. What a name for a bar! It’s not around anymore, but I wanted to evoke the end of a world. Considering that when Pasolini filmed the ragazzi in Rome, it was the end of a world, we have to remember we are also living through the end of a world now. The working class who once occupied certain areas of Paris are no longer there, now they are outside the city center. Aïcha was a bar for a lot of undocumented people: Tunisians, Algerians, and even some Chinese. Everything invisible that a city might contain. And within the city I represent, I’ve also placed trucks that are part of a vast series I call Judd; they are like David Judd’s sculptures with empty space, which I fill with material and symbolic substances. Each truck tells a story. It might be a bomb, a jar, a lamp, charcuterie, and I even inserted a model of the Rosa Luxemburg memorial made in brick by Mies van der Rohe in 1926. A truck containing an enormous block of ice, Gin ‘N’ Tonic, is placed on the exterior. And this group of trucks that I transformed is called Le Merveilleux, for the moment when marvelous things arrive in the city. 

Why did you include the tribute to Rosa Luxemburg?

The tribute to Rosa Luxembourg is connected to a work about my mother called Nafissa Nafissa. So there is my mother, Gœthe, and many surprises.

Rosa Luxembourg, your mother… Your practice always includes female figures. I remember when you talked about participating in feminist protests in Algeria.

The only time in my life when I was politically active, it was for the women’s movement. I’ve never been active for any other cause because it’s beyond me. What should I protest against? There are too many things. Protest against epidemics, protest against crashes, protest against terrorism…

Your activism is placed entirely in the service of your artistic practice.

Adel Abdessemed. Yes, if you like, in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard in 1968 when he said that a just image is not just an image.

And yet, the way audiences react to your works is also important, just to mention the Headbutt sculpture of Zidane in front of the Centre Pompidou in 2012. The text by Tom McDonough, who is known for his work on the relationship between art and political struggle in the postwar era, notably in France, and on the Situationist International, offered an interesting analysis of Headbutt in the Centre Pompidou catalog, which most people in the French art world did not fully grasp.

Obviously, the hero – whether it’s Caesar or Alexander the Great – must die before the artwork is made. Of course the Headbutt is not a sculpture, it’s a three-dimensional icon, and an anti-monument made not by artisans, but by machines, robotic laser cutters. I do a lot of work with 3D printing.

Would you like to talk about your two exhibitions in Lyon?

I already mentioned the structure: one is presented like a palace that viewers walk through on a red carpet, which can also represent the Soviet red flag, and the other is spread across two levels and focuses on the human condition. Fatigue on top, and below, the city, the bar, the marvelous, with violence, and an era set ablaze. There is also another bar, “the relaxation café” with the video Passé simple (1997) that I made while living in Lyon, with bullet holes. My artist practice grows out of all the experiences I’ve had and which affect me, and it all comes back, it has to get out.

Like in the video Pressoir, fais-le (2002), in which you press a lemon with your heel, or when you draw your brain with arrows pointing in every direction and write « Nervous.”

Exactly. My work does not come from closing myself off in my studio where I might arbitrarily say, “Now I’m going to do an artwork.” It’s the opposite: I’m not cut off from the energy of life when I make art and my work has always been connected to the vitality of life experiences. That’s generally how I encounter things, they come to me. I also like to walk through museums where I can find older artistic works, and sometimes I reference them. But I do it like Rimbaud when he wrote The Drunken Boat while consulting books about boats and shipwrecks. When I present an image of Angela Merkel (Is Beautiful) or a work like Headbutt, my point is very specific. Mon Enfant (2014), which I’ve shown several times, represents a young boy coming out of the Warsaw ghetto with his hands in the air after the insurrection.

In your work, you take images you find to save them from amnesia, to bring them to life in the present, and refresh our memory.

I don’t actively take the images, it’s the images that strike me and that constantly return to haunt me. Sometimes the reference is direct, sometimes it’s less specific. A writer talking about suicide has not necessarily lived through that experience. Selecting images is a complex but always very specific process, and I reproduce them because they are always coming back to me. The Vietnamese girl’s cry haunted me from the moment I saw Kim Phuc’s image of her naked and screaming from pain after her village was napalmed during the Vietnam War. That led to Cri (2013). Grünewald’s crucified Christ is another image that has long haunted me, similar to the way Eisenstein was haunted by Tintoretto. I’m an artist of my time but my work lives many lives. If you consider my body of work, you can see that I am gathering lessons from several lives.

Several lives like several cycles.

No, actually it’s not a cycle. You might say that I have spoken about art from the moment it became global, it’s about globalization and its effects on our existence.

But these specific things also include the imam Messaoud in Joueur de Flûte (1996), Angela Merkel in Is beautiful, based on a photograph from a moment in her youth when she was a nudist in the GDR. You depict nude people so that beyond their status, their power, their role, we can see a person revealing themselves and existing as an individual. Newspapers published this photo of Angela Merkel to discredit her, but you turned the tables. You turned it into a 3D image with the women accompanying her in the photo to show the joy and free body culture of the women enjoying a moment of relaxation, as in Le Café de la détente, in which people are shown in the nude to affirm that value in a manifest way…


Adel Abdessemed, Alfred Dreyfus, 2017, black chalk on paper

Adel Abdessemed, Joseph Beuys, 2016, black chalk on paper

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