In a darkened room, 17 larger-than-life busts confront visitors to Kader Attia’s powerful installation J’Accuse (2016), on view through November 17, 2019. Presented with straightforward directness on rebar pedestals of varying heights, the heads—based on photographs of profoundly disfigured French World War I veterans—were carved out of cedar wood by the artist and Senegalese craftsmen.
All facing in one direction, the 17 heads seem to be watching an eight-minute loop from Abel Gance’s 1938 film by the same name. In the projected scene, the ghosts of dead soldiers summoned to warn the living about the horrors of war are played by French WWI veterans with visible mutilations, known as les gueules cassées (“broken faces”). It’s crowded in the room; to watch the film, visitors must stand between and among the busts.
Both sculptures and film are simultaneously difficult to look at and eerily beautiful, disfigurements mirroring each other in a process deliberately initiated by Attia to create what he has called “a space in between”: essentially, an entrance into the world of the dead. Only there, he asserts, can we choose to live, in part by confronting the destruction of war. He reminds viewers that the First World War began the kind of fighting in which hundreds of thousands died in a single battle—a loss of life on a previously unimaginable scale. As Walter Benjamin put it, “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.”
Attia, a French Algerian artist currently living in Berlin and Algiers, has been working with the concept of repair from the trauma of war for more than a decade. He is particularly interested in the process of healing—for individuals and for societies—and in repairing the damage caused by conflict and by colonization. In an earlier exhibition, he showed photographs of les gueules cassées alongside African masks that had been broken and repaired, noting the striking formal analogy between these traditional carved forms and early experiments in reconstructive surgery. He believes that modern art was as influenced by the broken faces of soldiers as it was by African sculpture; literally millions of the injured passed through Paris during the war years and afterwards.
His interest, however, extends beyond physical wounds, to those of a psychological nature. One hundred years have passed since the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars. Repair and injury, he suggests, are linked in an endless loop, like the film clip that plays over and over in the installation—the soldiers’ broken faces becoming the first signs of the failure of modernity, precursors to the second war that was soon to come, bringing with it Hiroshima’s devastation.
We are in an equally urgent moment, Attia believes—one in which we need to confront what is taking place, before it is too late. As so many times before, emotions have been hijacked by fear and anger. Is repair a process with an end point? Or does that which has been broken stay that way, even when it has been mended? Attia’s magnificently grotesque watchers ask us to consider these questions and many more.