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Block Museum kicks off a season of urgent art with Kader Attia’s ‘Reflecting Memory’

The French-Algerian artist explores loss through repair.

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What does it mean to "fix" something? If a bond—physical, social, psychological—is broken, can it ever truly be reconnected? If so, how can such a repair be achieved? Internationally acclaimed French-Algerian artist Kader Attia mines historical archives to understand complicated relationships between people: colonizer and colonized, master and slave, residents of the geopolitical north and south. He has pursued these inquiries primarily through the lens of colonial legacies, particularly in Africa, and their influence on European modernism. Attia's research residency at Northwestern University's Herskovits Library of African Studies allowed him to spend a year poring over the library's vast collection of books, journals, and ephemera, and conduct interviews with university faculty in disciplines ranging from science and philosophy to history and anthropology. "Reflecting Memory," the result of this deep scholarly engagement, is an exhibition consisting of three collages, one sculpture, and a filmic essay of the same title. It expands on Attia's preoccupation with fraught connections and the ways they manifest themselves through collective and individual memories.

Attia spent his childhood between the homes of relatives in Algeria and the Paris suburbs; he then studied in Barcelona, followed by three years during which he lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These experiences made him a keen observer of cultural practices and traditions. Attia's navigated his sometimes contentious cultural identities (Algeria remained a French colony for more than 100 years) and noticed patterns of relating to the communities where he's lived, worked, and studied. He's perhaps best known for the massive installation The Repair From Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012), presented at Documenta(13), the international art exhibition held in Kassel, Germany, every five years. The work juxtaposes traditional African sculptures and images of African body-adornment practices with pictures of soldiers who'd undergone experimental facial reconstructive surgeries during World War I. "Reflecting Memory" explores similar themes of heritage and the impact of relationships among various versions of history—the ways we remember events separately and together, and how those memories might shift over time.

Alongside this examination of memory and relationship, Attia has also been studying loss through the notion of repair. He has come to regard repair as much more than merely "fixing" something that's damaged or broken, but as an act of transformation. His more recent research has focused on phantom limb syndrome, a psychological phenomenon amputees may experience where they feel the presence or sensation of the appendage they've lost. Attia's film Reflecting Memory (2016) argues that repair is reconciliation within the self. Throughout Reflecting Memory scholars, surgeons, and patients share different perspectives on grief, memory, and trauma, using examples as varied as the Holocaust, the Turkish government's official denial of the Armenian genocide, slavery, terrorist attacks, and freak accidents, all in an effort to explain the perception of loss created through rupture.

The doctors go on to discuss mirroring therapy as a healing technique for people with phantom limb syndrome. Scientists define mirror neurons in the brain as those that perform similarly whether we experience an action directly or simply bear witness to it. They believe misfiring neurons, those that are still generating sensations that occur even though the appendage is gone, are at the heart of phantom limb syndrome. During therapy, patients use a mirror to reflect their missing limb, giving the appearance of wholeness, as if the limb were there again. One of Attia's mirroring sculptures, shown in the film, is installed in the gallery. A stainless-steel divider bisects a desk, on top of which half a typewriter is positioned against the divider's reflective surface; the other side of the partition isn't reflective at all. The disparity heightens an awareness of how images contribute to our sense of understanding the world.

There's a belief that not only do people need to "see" trauma in order to believe it, feel it, or understand it, they also need to have that trauma presented to them in very particular ways. Huey Copeland, associate professor of art history at Northwestern, expands on notions of memory and visual images in the film, drawing parallels between the contemporary phenomenon of people sharing video of police violence, usually against black people, and authors writing about slavery who use images of indentured servants rather than actual slaves to illustrate conditions.

Much of Attia's oeuvre rails against this flattening of culture and experience. For him there's no singular or institutionally sanctioned way to mourn, grieve, see or feel, or repair. In a panel discussion during the exhibition opening, Attia likened repair to a cultural act, one that transforms one thing—positively or negatively, and in this case a social or psychological wound—into another. An amputated limb doesn't determine how trauma might be converted into some sort of healing, but the loss, in Attia's view, can be used as information. Rather than negating its presence (or absence), people might approach the act of repair like they approach scar tissue: it will remain even after the wound has healed. In fact, it's part of the healing.

Repair is a paradox. On one hand, repair offers hope that what's lost can be restored eventually; on the other, repair occasions the despair that occurs when one realizes that things can't be as they were, or as they're remembered—a nostalgic view of the time before. Repair requires that trauma be carried forward into a new reality, a future that incorporates the present while embracing the past. "Reflecting Memory" is a meditation on such a daunting task.  v

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