Adel Abdessemed Profile

What happens when an artist monumentalises moments in time – especially when they already exist as iconic images?

By Christopher Mooney

Telle Mère Tel Fils, 2008, aeroplanes, felt, aluminium, metal, 2700 x 400 x 500 cm; Hope, 2011–12, refugee boat  and resin, 206 x 244 x 579 cm Coup de Tête, 2011–12; Exit (detail), 2007. © the artist, ADAGP Paris 2012. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York & London

You have seen her before. Not like this – frozen in space and machine-carved from an ancient mammoth tusk purchased on the Internet – but identically posed; balanced gracefully on her right foot with her slender arms stretched out wide, as if holding an invisible skipping rope. Eyes squeezed shut, mouth wide open; whether screaming, laughing or singing, it is impossible to tell. Then the pattern receptors kick in. The napalm girl. The Pulitzer Prize-winning icon of Vietnam War atrocity – one of photojournalism’s decisive moments, a snapped shot seen around the world – now an aesthetic object in prehistoric dentine.

It is an unusual operation. Not the brain’s; it does this constantly, and effortlessly, the entire synaptic process taking less than a second. What the artist is processing, however – the conversion of a moment into a monument, in the anachronistic form of figurative statuary, using an instantly recognisable detail of a preexisting photograph – is less common and more problematic.There are plenty of three-dimensional appropriations of famous photographs in the public sphere, but most are heroic, flag-waving affairs – Iwo Jima, the firemen at Ground Zero, that sort of thing – not naked prepubescent girls.

There are plenty of three-dimensional appropriations of famous photographs in the public sphere, but most are heroic, flag-waving affairs – Iwo Jima, the firemen at Ground Zero, that sort of thing – not naked prepubescent girls

In the institutional canon, the artwork most similar to Adel Abdessemed’s Cri (2012), other than Andy Warhol’s screenprints of a grieving First Lady, is Abdessemed’s Coup de Tête (2011–12), a colossal bronze erected last autumn in front of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work (Abdessemed is by far the youngest artist to be thus honoured). Recognition of the moment Coup de Tête monumentalises is even more instantaneous than with Cri: it is French footballer Zinédine Zidane’s career-closing headbutt into the chest of the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final. After the collapse of the Twin Towers, this is probably one of the most mass-communicated images of the twenty-first century, simultaneously experienced by some three-quarters of a billion people. Which explains the crowds of people who have assembled around it on each day of the exhibition’s run to have their pictures taken in its presence, and why, in Google metrics, it already has, in just a few months, a broad cultural notoriety few works of contemporary art ever achieve: more than a Jeff Koons puppy, right up there with a Damien Hirst shark.

Coup de Tête: the title translates as ‘headbutt’ but also as ‘on an impulse’. Materazzi says something nasty about Zidane’s sister and calls him a terrorist, Zidane goes berserk and the world watches as his impulsive explosion of freedom becomes a tragic, inglorious fall from grace. Coup de Tête is replete with ambiguous significance. Counter-commemorating infamy or vengeance, honour or shame, madness or righteousness, in shadow-black bronze; it is easy to see and feel the attraction, not just for the crowds but for the artist. Infamous for his animal snuff films, women-suckled pigs, burnt-out cars, garbage-filled boatpeople boats, immolated self-portraits and razor-wire Christs, Abdessemed is that rarest and most mythic of artists: the engaged and enraged provocateur. Over the last dozen years a prolific outpouring of his drawings, videos, sculpture and photographs have borne unflinching and spectacular witness to things we would rather not see. Violence, oppression, cruelty and death: Abdessemed converts these into works – into ‘acts’ – and asks us to lock eyes with them, take responsibility for them, own them and buy them. The strategy has earned him a privileged position among the contemporary art world’s edgiest enfants terribles, especially in his adopted country of France, where his Algerian origins, like those of Zidane, bring a number of hot-button issues to the fore.

Cri conjures its own complexes of collective recollection, but otherwise seems to operate in a different register. The use of mammoth tusk is arguably provocative, but is the image? Unlike Coup de Tête, or the many antecedents – Picasso’s response to the bombing of Guernica, Géricault’s raft, Goya’s commemorations of resistance to Napoleon, David’s visit to Marat’s bathroom and so on – its depicted moment is not contemporaneous with its creation. Forty years ago (the photograph was first published in 1972, a year after Abdessemed’s birth), the image of a Vietnamese girl, running naked, badly burned, crystallised opposition to the war; since, it has served as metonymic signifier for the abomination and cruelty of all war. But, like this, isolated and ivoried, what does she mean? Is she a war memorial? An antiwar memorial?

Abdessemed has performed appropriations less overt than this with other works: the dimensions of his Helikoptère (I) (2007) drawing, for example – performed by the artist while dangling upside down from a rope attached to a hovering helicopter – correspond exactly to those of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1818–19). And the measurements of his large bas-relief of taxidermied animals, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf (2011–12), match those of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). These correspondences perform some form of mystical mimesis, stealing powers from the original works and indexing them in their elevated canonical register of iconic value. Does this work? Of course it does, once it is pointed out to you, but it feels a bit hollow: an inside joke, a gag.

Compared to these contrivances, however, Abdessemed’s little girl provokes a veritable firestorm of incendiary associations. Yet it is still difficult to see how, in her present form, she is in any way political; and there is nothing, beyond her decontextualised nakedness, that is particularly contentious about her. Surely there is something else at work. The title, borrowed from Munch’s Scream and perhaps Ginsberg’s Howl (from a David Zwirner press release: ‘The title of the work, Cri (French for “scream”), is a direct reference to the poem by Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 1954–1955), which denounced the destructive forces of capitalism while also reflecting the author’s anti-militaristic views’) seems to suggest a broader existentialist meaning. But what, precisely? Anticapitalism? Antimilitarism? On 8 June 1972, Phan Thi Kim Phuc cried, ‘Nóng quá, nóng quá’ (‘Too hot, too hot’). What does she cry now? And what does this cry decry? Anything? Nothing? Everything?

‘Cry’ is the word that Abdessemed uses most often in interviews and statements to describe his ‘acts’, be they cars or Christs: ‘It is a cry’; and ‘I am an artist of the cry’; and ‘The only reality that matters is the cry’. His napalm girl, however, is at best an echo chamber, borrowed for her resonant capacities but otherwise empty, gutted of all performative meaning except, perhaps, an ability to convert provocation into commodity. Beyond that, she is inarticulate. Drowned out. Like so many signals bouncing around in the general hubbub of the everyday, the ‘reality’ of her cry – and his – are lost in the noise.

Adel Abdessemed: Je Suis Innocent is at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, through 7 January; a solo exhibition of his work, Vase Abominable, is at David Zwirner, London, from 22 February through 30 March