At BAMPFA, Kader Attia’s ‘MATRIX 274’ posits airing, not erasure, as repair

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Kader Attia’s “MATRIX 274,” the latest in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s rotating contemporary art series that opened last month, lays gashes bare in all their imperfect reality and poses the question of the healing accomplished by exposure to the public. 

Broadly, the exhibit is about repair, a concept Attia has chewed over in both his writings and his visual art. A forest of 26 towering busts composes the core substance of the exhibition, drooping and asymmetrical visages that gaze solemnly from the metal plinths upon which they are propped. Attia modeled these countenances on preserved photographs of the 7 million or so Allied soldiers who returned from battle disfigured — known in French as gueules cassées or the “broken faces.” In their imperfection, the models are a reclamation of the right of these faces to be shown to the world and of the potentials for healing through not idealization but full disclosure. 

The exhibit proposes a conscious counterforce to the modern Western conception of repair, to use Attia’s word, through concealment. These carved gueules cassées stand in stark contrast to, for instance, the most revered sculpted works from the seminally western artistic golden age of Classical Greece or Rome; we’re not allowed the gratification of marble-chiseled features or heroic gestures. Instead, Attia presents us with these uneven faces, carved by him and Senegalese craftsmen with wood from trees as old as the war itself. Their display, Attia affirms, proposes not only an acceptance, but a celebration of the damage suffered. They form an allusion to the traditional celebratory African masks depicting illness that Attia studied while living in the Congo in the 1990s.

Two films complement and complicate the presence of the sculptures. The first and final scenes of Abel Gance’s 1938 remake of his 1919 “J’accuse” privileges shots of gueules cassées recently returned from the war; in the film, the veterans play dead soldiers who rise from their graves and march back to their homes. Although millions of gueules cassées passed through Paris upon returning from the war, during a renaissance of modern painting in the city, their faces were shunned in favor of less inflammatory subject material by the likes of Picasso and Braque. “J’accuse” is one of the few remaining tangible testaments to their visible presence and, positioned before Attia’s busts, it falls under the gaze of the wounded themselves who seem to pay testament to their own legacies. 

The second film installation, “Reflecting Memory,” is Attia’s own. Partly an investigation into a medical phenomenon, partly an experimental avant-garde dive into trauma and healing, the film explores the condition of phantom limb syndrome, whereby an individual continues to experience sensation in an extremity after losing it. The meditation is far-reaching. One professor Huey Copeland notes the “relationship between political will and visual evidence.” To acknowledge suffering, Copeland says, we need to see it. Fethi Benslama, a French psychoanalyst, points out that, “The world that we live in is one of phantoms … The history of colonization is traumatic and negating it can only make it worse.” Quiet and simple shots inspiring visual dissonance substantiate these claims. For instance, in one scene a woman sits in a church, hands delicately pressing against one another in devout supplication. It’s only when the angle of the camera shifts that the viewer realizes that that woman only has one arm and that a mirror creates the optical illusion of symmetry. Such snippets beg the question of perspective as it relates to repair — what wounds in others do we refuse, or simply fail, to see and thus address? What communal or global ills suffer the same oversight? 

“All beings can be integrated into human society through repair,” one French doctor tells us in “Reflecting Memory.” But if Attia makes anything clear in this MATRIX, it’s that removal does not equal erasure. The reverberations of trauma persist both within the body and outside, and repair is a process — not necessarily a definite destination — that demands recognition of the wound itself. As Benslama says, “The phantom limb … doesn’t stop reclaiming its lost space.”

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected]ilycal.org.