Bemis Center For Contemporary Arts

I let them in. Conditional Hospitality and The Stranger

Kader Attia and Candice Breitz
December 13, 2018–March 2, 2019
Curated by Taraneh Fazeli, Bemis 2018 Curator-in-Residence

Kader Attia
Prosody (still), 2017
Digital 1-channel HD video projection
Courtesy the artist, Galleria Continua, Galerie Krinzinger, Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Nagel Draxler

I let them in. Conditional Hospitality and The Stranger is a two-person exhibition featuring videos by Kader Attia and Candice Breitz. Amidst the current global “migration crisis,” these artworks interrogate who is afforded the right to speak or the ability to be understood. The exhibition considers dominant representational narratives and the political, socio-psychological, and technological systems that shape our understandings of self and the communal.

Fazeli is the 2018 Curator-in-Residence at Bemis and asked that the following personal statement be shared:

I grew up a third culture child, or one born to an immigrant within a family of Middle Eastern refugees. I am also the child of a white American and learnt about racism within my own family. I experienced first-hand how institutions in the US—from the school to the hospital to the museum—were built to welcome some but not others unless they lost the parts of themselves that did not conform to prevailing social codes (which are built on a presumed neutrality that is in fact whiteness). As I sometimes had the privilege of passing as white and able-bodied—things I am not—I learnt early on that I had to be one version of myself in those spaces if I wanted to be included. As such, it is my belief that institutions, even while they have seemingly diversified, are often still structurally inaccessible to many due to their race, class, gender, disability, or sexuality. However, since institutions are central to our society’s current infrastructure, I also believe they can and must change. This thinking drives my curatorial work.

I share this personal background—information often left out of a curatorial text—to begin to make apparent the considerations that have influenced how I’ve curated this exhibition, one of which is the messy imbrication of art within the systems that circulate it. Recently, here and more widely, there have been numerous important public dialogues on the politics of representation in art and the complicity of art within various systems of power. While this exhibition is not directly responsive to any one of these conversations 
in particular, it was developed in response to how, in my personal belief, these issues illustrate how codes of whiteness have and continue to shape institutions, as is investigated in the artworks that are in I let them in. Its investigation into the politics of representation continues out of Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time, Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying (on view February–June 2018), the first exhibition I curated at Bemis where the right to self-representation around disability and illness was emphasized and ethical models of allyship were offered. As the symbolic power of art resonates stronger in tandem with socio-political change, I’ve addressed this not only in the artworks I chose to show but also by directing my efforts towards making Bemis more accessible. While I recognize that I am just a short-term guest here, I hope I’ve been able to use my position to deepen dialogue between the organization and its audiences long-term. Please read on after the exhibition description for more information on these efforts and how you can tap into them. —Taraneh Fazeli

I let them in.

Hospitality, meaning the reception of guests or strangers can be scaled from the micro (the home) to the macro (the nation state). While all cultures or societies have some conception of hospitality, conventions as to what is welcoming behavior towards another varies. Philosopher Jacques Derrida articulated hospitality as a self-contradictory set of ethical rules about how to encounter the Other.1 On one side of two opposing regimes is the idealistic law of “unlimited hospitality,” or absolute openness. On the other side is the pragmatic “conditional hospitality,” with moral, political, and juridical terms placed on it. This hospitality requires a guest to identify themselves, expects reciprocity, and often has restrictions such as how long can the guest stay or how many can come. In his definition, a level of violence underlies every act of hospitality. At the very root of hospitality is hostility: “hospes” comes from the Latin “hostis” which originally meant “stranger,” and, later, “power” or “hostility.” Therefore an ethics of hospitality calls for a recognition of the underlying hostility and a constant negotiation between what one sees as their right to a territory and a renunciation of this claim for the good of another.

I let them in. takes Derrida’s understanding of hospitality as a point of departure for what is one of the most pressing problems of our time: the migration crisis. This so-called crisis is actually centuries in the making and due to long histories of occupation, colonization, forced migration, trade, and slavery. In 2016, Nebraska accepted 1,441 refugees, becoming the nation’s top refugee resettlement state per capita.2 The following year, this flow slowed to a trickle due to the current federal administration’s policies. During this moment when refugee resettlement and immigration to the US is declining while xenophobia and indifference in the face of widespread human suffering is growing, art can help us interrogate the aesthetic codes that govern understandings of the stranger and initiate a transformation of these relations. In the weeks leading up to the exhibition’s opening, President Trump is responding to a migrant caravan from South America trying to seek asylum through the US’s southern border with tear gas and accusations of invasion. There is an easy argument to make against nativism and militarism that ignores basic international human rights conventions. What is harder to tease out is the limits of a sanctuary model, which ignores the fact that US territory is not that discreet but, rather, heavily interconnected with other nations via “banana republics,” shadow economies based on immigrant labor, American interventionism, etc. The stranger, alien, or foreigner that would benevolently be let in is, in so many ways, already amongst us.

Candice Breitz
Love Story (stills), 2016
Featuring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin
Top: Shabeena Francis Saveri, Sarah Ezzat Mardini, Mamy Maloba Langa / Bottom: José Maria João
, Farah Abdi Mohamed, Luis Ernesto Nava Molero.
7-Channel Installation
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg
Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW

In her artistic practice, South African artist Candice Breitz examines how in neoliberal economies of attention, in addition to factors of national belonging, race, gender, and religion, there is an increasing influence of mainstream media (such as television and Hollywood films) on how an individual understands themselves in relation to society or a larger community. The exhibition begins with Breitz’s immersive seven-channel video installation Love Story (2016) which, in two rooms, juxtaposes lengthy first-person interviews with six people who fled their countries due to oppressive conditions alongside re-performances of these narratives by two white Hollywood stars. Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore play a version of themselves—“an actor” and “an actress”—in a single-channel video in the first room. Against a green screen backdrop with no costuming and minimal props, Baldwin and Moore deliver tightly intercut monologues detailing horrific plights of violence and migration. Filmed in a manner that plays off the confessional trope common to Hollywood media and video art alike, each actor channels a series of excerpts that are derived from—but severely condense—the lengthy source accounts of the six refugees.

Breitz conducted these interviews in Berlin, Cape Town, and New York with Sarah Ezzat Mardini, a competitive swimmer from war-torn Syria; José Maria João, a former child soldier from Angola; Mamy Maloba Langa, a survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Shabeena Francis Saveri, a transgender activist from India; Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, a political dissident from Venezuela; and Farah Abdi Mohamed, an atheist from Somalia. At first glance, it may seem as if the actors are each telling a single tale of numbing hardship. Fairly quickly, the subtle shifts in their voices, body language, gazes, and accessories indicate character shifts, perhaps even before the nuanced differences in the details of the recollections signal the actors’ ventriloquism of stories that are not their own. A common thread throughout the seventy-three minute long video (notably the length of a feature film) is the shared quest for safety and belonging in the face of barbarity, rejection, and ongoing bureaucracy. However, what necessitated migration for each refugee whose accounts comprise the monologues spans the gamut, ranging from persecution tied to identity or religious and political beliefs to untenable living conditions in war-torn countries. The violence each endured is also unique, including family separation, brutal rape, beatings, humiliation, dangerous journeys on water, and more.

Moving from the theater into a quiet adjoining room, the viewer finds the six largely-unedited original interviews on a series of screens. The interviews range in duration from approximately three to four hours each. Notably, while the high quality and life-size scale of the videos creates the intimate feeling that one is sitting across from each refugee as they share their stories, the length means that even the most-dedicated viewer would be unlikely to absorb it all. Furthermore, these interviews are only accessible after their re-presentation, so viewers must first experience the stories through the mouths of the famous actors whose own lived experience couldn’t be further from the horrors that they share. Through this operation, Love Story mimics, in order to lay bare, the problematic logic by which “true life stories” often migrate into popular media, while also sharing detailed first-hand portraits of the specific individuals and their unique experiences of extreme adversity. The stories unfold in front of a green screen backdrop. In recent years, this particular green has been used as a neutral backdrop against which to film people, so that they can then be easily composited digitally into most any environment. Removed from their homelands and adrift until inclusion in a new country is achieved, the green screen becomes a metaphor for the ontological condition of the refugee. Its use here accentuates the violence inflicted on the refugee—one not only that of being ripped from their homeland, but also representational in nature.

Candice Breitz
Love Story, 2016
Featuring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin.
Left to Right: Shabeena Francis Saveri, Mamy Maloba Langa, Sarah Ezzat Mardini.
7-Channel Installation
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Outset Germany (Berlin) + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Installation View: Kunstmuseum Stuttgart
Photo: Die Arge Lola

Breitz has described how she is invested in “making visible the mechanics of exceptionalism, whiteness perhaps being the most obvious visual marker of privilege.”3 By applying the voices and craft of actors who are the very embodiment of visibility to experiences that might otherwise fail to compel widespread attention, she points to the limits of representing atrocity. Asking whose stories we are willing to hear and which ones move us, Love Story prompts viewers to consider how identification is often contingent on formulas of representation based in a presumed neutral whiteness and how this governs potential empathetic responses. Love Story does this by breaking down the spectacularized victim tropes that pervade representations of refugees and how representations of the Other are told through the lens of whiteness and other forms of privilege. For example, the artwork’s title refers not only to the labor of love and perseverance against all odds that each story tells, but also the genre of the African love story, wherein white actors, often playing a benevolent aid worker or journalist, find love with each other amidst famine, natural disaster, and/or war in African countries. Pointing to how empathy is easier to feel for people similar to ourselves or how one is more likely to have a positive emotional response to those who have experienced extreme situations at a safe distance, Love Story asks what happens if we are made to feel complicit in the construction of the adversity they experience? Or if we are still willing to care for someone who refuses the narratives that we are comfortable with and insists on a different picture or withdrawal from our gaze?

Candice Breitz
Love Story (stills), 2016
Featuring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore
Interviewee: Luis Ernesto Nava Molero
7-Channel Installation
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg
Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW

“When this guy Alec tells my story, he has to get it right….” As Baldwin parrots José Maria João’s request to himself, he underscores Love Story’s ethical imperative. Far from unaware of how their stories might circulate in today’s media landscape, several interviewees note that the storytelling process undergirding Love Story mirrors how they are constantly compelled to narrate their pain again and again, whether it be in asylum processes or in order to generate awareness around the global refugee condition. A master of her own narrative, Shabeena Francis Saveri sometimes responds to Breitz’s questions with requests for the inquiry to be reframed, saved for later, or skipped altogether. While some recognize that the visibility that the two actors have can help garner attention for their experiences, others reflect on the limits of empathy as it is often elicited as a means towards socio-political change. As Farah Abdi Mohamed emphasizes: “Pictures cannot explain, they can not tell you how someone is feeling.”

Kader Attia
Reason’s Oxymorons, 2015
Installation. 18 films, cubicles, screens, office chairs and desks, carpet, speakers, headphones
Exhibition view Reason's Oxymorons at Lehmann Maupin, New York, 2017
Courtesy the artist, The Collection - Hood Museum of Art - Dartmouth College, and Lehmann Maupin
Photo: Max Yawney

Kader Attia, a French artist of Algerian descent, investigates the impact of wounds caused by colonization and forced displacement on the individual and collective body. The second gallery of I let them in. contains Attia’s multi-channel video installation Reason’s Oxymorons (2015), which is comprised of viewing stations intentionally installed in a maze of cubicles to signal the bureaucratic nature of various systems that attempt to heal those affected by trauma. Reason’s Oxymorons presents different views on mental illness as a lens to look at the West’s disputable division between reason and unreason—hence the artwork’s title. Without inscribing a simple dichotomy between systems, Reason’s Oxymorons investigates the perceptions of self and other in traditional non-Western and modern Western systems of meaning through the lens of psychiatry, as well as philosophy, political theory, history, and religion. It presents a series of interviews filmed over two years in Africa and Europe with a range of experts positioned between colonial powers and their former territories, including ethnologists, historians, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, musicologists, patients, healers, religious leaders, and griots. Organized in chapters with titles such as “Exile,” “Ancestors,” or “Language,” the divergent perspectives presented highlight how different systems of meaning shape one’s experience of psychological trauma caused by genocide, migration, colonization, and global capitalism. Originally containing sixteen videos, the eight chapters most directly addressing the difficulties of assimilation post-emigration are presented at Bemis. By highlighting the role of music, dance, and ritual movement in processes of non-Western healing, Attia explores the concept of modernity via questions of madness by comparing psychoanalytic beliefs to pre-modern healing. He also suggests art has a crucial role in the restorative process, connecting across varied systems of understanding through emotion.

Attia’s artistic practice, in addition to the documentary interviews that are the core of Reason’s Oxymorons' exploratory research, takes numerous forms including whimsical sculptures, poetic performances, and archival installations, many of which are united through his ongoing investigation of the concept of repair. Attia became interested in repair when focusing on what he saw as counter-reactions to invading modernity in the visual cultures of colonized societies.4 He has identified a tendency within Western cultures to heal by restoring to an intact state, which he sees at odds with the approach of other cultures that do not attempt to erase an injury or see it as weakness or blight. Instead, traditional non-Western cultures prioritize utility and emphasize the scar as an essential trace of one’s history. One example of this that Attia cites is kintsugi, or the repair of tea pots using rough and visible gold sutures in traditional Japanese ceramics. Another would be the repair of fabrics made by Kuba people that have been eaten by insects in which they apply French-style embroideries on top of the holes. In his exhibition Culture, another nature repaired (2014–15, Middelheim Museum, Belgium), Attia applied a similar approach when creating a series of rough wooden busts of wounded soldiers in WWI who were drafted from the colonies and underwent rudimentary battlefield surgeries that left noticeable facial scars. For Attia, to remove the scar is to deny the deepest wounds of the past and prevent any possibility of reparation.  

Kader Attia
Reason’s Oxymorons (still), 2015
Installation. 18 films, cubicles, screens, office chairs and desks, carpet, speakers, headphones
Courtesy the artist, Collection The Hood Museum of Art - Dartmouth College, and Lehmann Maupin

Building on Reason’s Oxymorons’ investigation of how repair is enacted differently in societies across the world, the exhibition culminates with Attia’s single-channel video Prosody (2017) which was originally part of a larger installation entitled Narrative Vibrations (2017) at the 57th Venice Biennial. In classical metrics, the term prosody refers to the study of a specific written verse’s phonetic units, while in contemporary usage it has come to mean how one modulates the intensity and rhythm of their voice while reading aloud in order to arouse emotion.5 One example would be the use of what some call “baby talk” or “motherese.” This is is the exaggerated way of speaking that often occurs between a primary caregiver and infant or young child which links emotion and cognition in the early development of language. Before we know what the exact language means, through prosody we come to understand the expression of need and feeling. Drawing upon this, Prosody shares intimate acts of reading and listening to highlight the fact that how we say something in storytelling can be equally important as what we say.

The video depicts three women reading the verses of Moroccan activist-poet Rachida Madani aloud in French. Her poems address present-day issues surrounding the role of women in society such as poverty, corruption, human rights abuses, and colonialism through a reinterpretation of the story of Scheherazade/Shahrazad. A renowned feminist figure from Middle Eastern literature, Scheherazade/Shahrazad is the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights that keeps herself and other women from being killed by a vengeful king by using her wit and intellect to craft a series of compelling tales she tells him every evening. Reading Madani’s reinterpretation is the poet herself, in Tangiers where she lives; Biyouna, an Algerian singer, dancer, and actress; and Pascale Ourbih, a transgender woman and activist living between Algiers and Paris. While Madani is pictured in a town square, Biyouna and Ourbih appear in domestic settings where their emotional responses to the text are emphasized through tight framing of their faces. In highlighting the healing power of affective bonds produced by the human voice during storytelling, Attia binds viewers at Bemis to the women reading through the material power of sound.

The works in I let them in. address the ongoing representational problem of how to represent the stranger without objectifying them. Breitz’s artwork does so by illuminating the traps of popular political representation that is contingent on visibility or empathy as the primary way to be understood by another. Attia’s artwork looks at how understandings of self and other are fundamentally different in various societies and takes voice as both a vehicle of representation and acoustic material that can facilitate affective bonds beyond a shared language or experience. I let them in. invites viewers to consider their role in a process of repair around long histories of objectification of the Other.

Kader Attia
Prosody (still),2017
Digital 1-channel HD video projection
Courtesy the artist, Galleria Continua, Galerie Krinzinger, Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Nagel Draxler

In applying Derrida’s conception of hospitality to the current migrant crisis, the most apparent interpretation might be that the US/US citizens are the host and the refugee or immigrant is the guest. But further troubling this relationship and perceived mastery of one over the land is another looming figure of the guest—as unwanted settler. As such, we’d like to recognize that Bemis Center operates on land that has been the site of human activity for thousands of years. The site Bemis is on was the territory of the UmonHon (Omaha), Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, Missouri, and the Ioway peoples. In 1854, the UmonHon tribe was led to believe that they were securing US protection by signing a treaty giving up the land that now makes up the city of Omaha. Through several broken treaties, the UmonHon have a reservation one hour north of Omaha.

Kader Attia
Prosody, 2017
Digital 1-channel HD video projection
Exhibition view of Kader Attia, Narrative Vibrations, mixed media installation, "57th Venice Biennial", Venice, 2017
Courtesy the artist, Galleria Continua, Galerie Krinzinger, Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Nagel Draxler
Photo: Simon Vogel

Kader Attia (b. 1970, Dugny, France) lives and works in Berlin and Paris, and grew up in Paris and in Algeria. Preceding his studies in Paris and Barcelona, he spent several years in Congo and in South America. Kader Attia’s intercultural and interdisciplinary approach of research explores the perspective societies have on their history, especially as regards experiences of deprivation and suppression, violence and loss, and their traces in collective memory. Attia’s socio-cultural research has led to the notion of Repair: Describing an infinite process closely linked to loss and wounds, to recuperation and re-appropriation, Repair reaches far beyond the subject and involves it in evolutionary processes in nature, culture, myth, and history. In 2016, Kader Attia founded La Colonie, a space in Paris providing an agora for vivid discussion. Focusing on decolonialization of knowledge, attitudes, and practices, it aspires to de-compartmentalize knowledge by a transcultural, transdisciplinary, and transgenerational approach.

Attia’s past solo exhibitions include Scars Remind Us that Our Past is Real at Fundacio Joan Miro (Barcelona), Roots also grow in concrete at MacVal (Vitry-sur-Seine), The Field of Emotion at The Power Plant (Toronto), Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney), SMAK (Gent), Museum für Moderne Kunst (Frankfurt), Musée Cantonal des Beaux Arts (de Lausanne), Beirut Art Center (Beirut), Whitechapel Gallery (London), KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin). His works have been shown in group shows and biennials such as the 12th Gwangju Biennial (Gwangju), the 12th Shanghai Biennial (Shanghai), the 12th Manifesta (Palermo), The 57th Venice Biennial (Venice), dOCUMENTA(13) (Kassel, Germany), Met Breuer (New York), Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna), MoMA (New York), Tate Modern (London), Centre Pompidou (Paris), and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York)—just to name a few. In 2016, Attia was awarded the Marcel Duchamp Prize, followed in 2017 by the Prize of the Miró Foundation (Barcelona) and the Yanghyun Art Prize (Seoul).

Candice Breitz (born in Johannesburg, 1972) is a Berlin-based artist. Most recently, her work has focused on the conditions under which empathy is produced, reflecting on a media-saturated global culture in which strong identification with fictional characters and celebrity figures runs parallel to widespread indifference to the plight of those facing real world adversity. Following the completion of her works Love Story (2016) and TLDR (2017), she is currently working on the third part of a video trilogy that critically probes the attention economy. Breitz has been a tenured professor at the HBK Braunschweig since 2007.

In recent years, solo exhibitions of Breitz’s work have been held at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Palais de Tokyo (Paris), The Power Plant (Toronto), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk), Modern Art Oxford, De Appel Foundation (Amsterdam), Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead), Moderna Museet (Stockholm), Castello di Rivoli (Turin) and the South African National Gallery (Cape Town). In 2017, Breitz represented South Africa at the 57th Venice Biennale (alongside Mohau Modisakeng). In the past, she has also participated in biennials and triennials in Johannesburg (1997), São Paulo (1998), Istanbul (1999), Taipei (2000), Gwangju (2000), Tirana (2001), Göteborg (2003 + 2009), Venice (2005), New Orleans (2008), Singapore (2011), Dakar (2014), Melbourne (2017) and Cleveland (2018). Her work has been featured at the Sundance Film Festival (New Frontier, 2009) and the Toronto International Film Festival (David Cronenberg: Transformation, 2013).

I let them in. Conditional Hospitality and The Stranger is sponsored, in part, by Omaha Steaks and Security National Bank. 

The 2018 Curator-in-Residence program is sponsored, in part, by Carol Gendler, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

ON STEPS TOWARD GREATER ACCESS TO BEMIS:

During the production of I let them in., Fazeli worked with Rachel Adams, Chief Curator and Director of Programs; Chris Cook, Executive Director; and Davina Schrier, Communications Director to think through how arts and cultural organizations have effectively made steps toward greater equity and provided input on the future plans Bemis has for this work.

For Sick Time…, in dialogue with Cook and Schrier, Fazeli posted basic information related to accessibility on Bemis Center’s website and at the gallery main entrance. The posted note also includes the email address access@bemiscenter.org where people can send questions and request support that would make their visit to Bemis possible, or share general feedback about what they need for Bemis become more accessible for them. An access note traditionally occurs on an organization’s website alongside general visitor information and reflects on limits to the built environment that may impede access for persons with disabilities. In order to expand questions of access beyond concerns related to disability, conversations are underway about how to think about access intersectionally by addressing factors of class, gender, race, and sexuality. For example, one consideration is when ASL translation might be provided alongside foreign language translation, and how finite resources can be best allocated to achieve ongoing accessibility goals.

As your feedback is important, Bemis will continue to use the email address to dialogue about what is needed for you to better see yourself represented in the organization and its programs. Bemis staff will consider your feedback during monthly senior leadership team meetings and respond accordingly. You can also reach out to Fazeli with any comments about the exhibition, I let them in.

ACCESS NOTE


1Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000). Derrida’s writings on hospitality address the treatment of Algerian Muslims around the World War periods by the French state and culture. This is of note as this specific process of colonization is also examined by Attia, who was raised in Algeria and France years later.

2Erin Grace, “Nebraska's recent refugee resettlement numbers are 'as bad as it can get,' official says. But plenty of work remains.” Omaha-World Herald, November 1, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.omaha.com/news/nebraska/nebraska-s-recent-refugee-resettlement-numbers-are-as-bad-as/article_993db1c2-bf2f-11e7-b0b2-97f5c2fb55db.html

3Zoé Whitley interview with Candice Breitz, Cape Town: February 20, 2017.

4Kader Attia and Gabriele Sassone, “Injury and Repair,” Mousse Magazine, 2018.

5Giovanna Zapperi, “Kader Attia: Voices of Resistance,” Afterall, Autumn/Winter 2018, 119.

 

 

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
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Omaha, NE 68102
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Phone:: 402.341.7130
E-mail: info@bemiscenter.org