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Adel Abdessemed's "Usine": Inhumane?

Adel Abdessemed, RIO
David Zwirner Gallery, NY
April 3 - May 9, 2009

Adel Abdessemed, the 38-year-old Algerian born, French educated artist who now lives in New York, has been a curatorial darling for the past several years. He was included in Rob Storr's 2007 Venice Biennale, and given solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, and at P.S. 1 in Queens. His current gallery show in New York, spread over all three of David Zwirner's expansive Chelsea galleries, reveals a shape shifting, confrontational artist who works in all media and all scales.

There is a room filling installation of several airplane cockpits and tailfins twisted together like a huge pretzel. There are small drawings of proposed projects. There is a steel oil drum that has been morphed into a music box which plays a bit of Wagner when it rotates around a motorized axle.

But the one piece that has achieved the greatest notoriety is Usine, (2009) a minute-and-a-half color video loop that records the interactions among a group of predatory animals - scorpions, iguanas, tarantulas, snakes, pit bulldogs, fighting cocks etc. - who seem grouped together in a concrete pen for the express purpose of fighting and killing each other. And just in case they cannot be roused to combat, some "victim" species - white mice, frogs - are thrown into the mix as food. The fact that the action loops in continual replay emphasizes the "no exit" aspect of the artist's bleak worldview.

The video has many in the New York art world up in arms, accusing Abdessemed of exploitation and brutality, as noted in a recent column by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine.

When I saw Usine several weeks ago (a few days after the opening), I was so aghast I called one of the co-directors (Zwirner has ranks and ranks of them) out onto the gallery floor to justify the exploitative nature of the work. Of course he trotted out the usual, expected rationalizations: that cruelty to animals, however we view it, is an established part of the world; that the pen of predatory species already existed in Mexico; that action movies typically mine violence and sadism in much more sensationalist and commercial ways; that the "factory" of brutality ("usine" means "factory" in French) advanced by Abdessemed in his video is an examination of society's larger hypocrisy regarding violence, its titillations and victims. Blah blah. All the rationalizations in the world do not change the simple fact that the artist is presenting an arena of cruelty to shock and dumbfound us; he is using the suffering of beasts to promote his vaunted rebellion, to advance his career and reputation.

Usine is one of several pieces in the show that suffer from a similar ailment: a self conscious, casual violence in the service of the artist's pervasive, nihilistic, essentially kneejerk gesture of rebellion. There is a soccer ball constructed from razor wire (regard the fruits of nationalism and hooliganism!); three shelves of notebooks containing transcriptions of the Bible, Torah and Koran penned by prostitutes (the sex trade and organized religion, mixing like oil and water?); men without arms or legs trying to draw a circle on the ground while suspended over it by a hovering helicopter. Abdessemed's extremism comes too easily. He is a rebel without a point. Like the Brando character in The Wild One: when asked what he was rebelling against, he sneers: Whaddya got?

Most critics seem to agree that the work in the current Abdessemed show is not particularly strong. Its scattershot gestures of rebellion are too facile and showy, its casual cruelty too self aggrandizing. But the real moral point is not just that the torture of animals is bad, but that the torture of animals to advance a careerist agenda is reprehensible. Which is an issue any critic must also face when he chooses this particular artwork as his ambitious subject. Saltz has recently parlayed the video sidebars of New York Magazine online in an effort to project himself as the art world's new action hero. Now he seems to be using Abdessemed's video as a catapult, to become our new Facebook hero.

Addenda on Abdessemed

1. The artist's turbulent biography - he fled Algeria for France to escape persecution by Islamic fundamentalists during a period of civil unrest - is often cited as a "cause" for the unrelenting brutality often found in his work. He has stated in interview: “Birth is violent. Death is violent. Violence is everywhere."

2. Despite this, the current show is named after his daughter, Rio - a sweet but incongruous moment of sentimentality. Or not. "The show is called Rio, meaning river. I observe the world with the same fascination that my daughter, Rio, contemplates the big animals in the zoo that are thirsty and hungry."

3. Abdessemed is no stranger to controversy. His February 2008 exhibition in San Francisco, ironically titled Don't Trust Me, was shut down by animal rights activists who protested the inclusion of videos showing farm animals killed by blows to the head with a sledgehammer. During an extended period of public debate, the artist received several death threats. Seemingly, the current New York gallery show has passed without prompting such reactions.

the AA show

When I saw the AA show I felt so sorry for the underpaid desk jockey at the front desk who had to endure the yelping of the dog every 1.5 min. That too was cruel. And why the edit?!?

I have met AA twice now at French dinner parties and he seems ever so nice - shy even. But I could not enter his work. I could not fall in love with it. It kept me way way outside - an observant in the society of the spectacle.