The Devil’s Laugh

Michele Robecchi
February 2018

Traditionally, when it comes to analyse the relationship artists entertain with their work, the first step is to take a hard look at their personalities and see how this is reflected in what they do. In principle, it is a procedure that carries a certain plausibility, although examples of cathartic relations with introvert artists making the most joyous art or conversely flamboyant characters giving relief to some of the darkest ideas ever seen in a gallery or in a museum abound. Whether the personality of authors and their creations have to be so congruent is obviously not written here or there, yet a logical explanation for these apparent contradictions could be also that such gap is the result of the activation of a mechanism of defence designed to protect an individual from the pitfalls that beset the exercise of adhering to a life code to the full. History is full of examples of the dangers that come if the clown decides to always be a clown or the dramatist decides to invariably display dramatic pretensions. Live arts in particular seem to be the place where this phenomenon is most common, a fact probably emphasised by the inclusion of the author in the work. Artists, however, are not actors. With a few notable exceptions, they do not wear masks, and unlike actors they do not have the luxury of wearing their alter ego’s shoes with full intensity for a limited amount of time with the knowledge that the pantomime is only on for a limited amount of time and that the format to which the performance is committed will eventually determine its life span. But another substantial difference is that what artists do, or are conjured to do in most cases, is not to impersonate somebody else but to actually do something that contributes to give form to their inner thoughts. Even the most decorative or shallow art, it can be safely said, is a reflection of the artist’s persona, and this is a factor that all artists have to take into account at the moment of meeting their audience. Many artists had no qualms at playing this game but for every Picasso, Dali, Warhol and Beuys there is also a large number who is less interested in living up to their image to the full if at all, regardless of the sense of scrutiny permeating the room when viewers try to match the picture in their mind and the ones on the wall with the person in front of them.

Those who have met Adel Abdessemed and know him reasonably well won’t have failed to notice his formidable laugh. Unapologetic, loud and vaguely mysterious, his chuckle is a rather frequent occurrence, and it pops up even in the least expected moment. As it happens, it is also contagious, although it is difficult to say how often his interlocutors join the party with a full understanding of what they are getting into. Abdessemed’s laugh, as it happens,  has been with him since very early on his life and it carried him through some challenging times. It was there in his childhood, and it stayed with him all the way up to his art college days in Algeria, when one of his most insightful professors, evidently disturbed by it, defined it ‘The Devil’s Laugh’. It is of course impossible to determine for sure what the man exactly meant. Perhaps he was speaking literally indeed, and had reached the conclusion that Abdessemed and his creative efforts, due to their proclivity for reacting rather than conforming, were the product of evil. Or, to embrace a more tempting option, the metaphor was used to illustrate an edge – the concept of an entity inexplicably positioned in a way so that it can see things from a perspective inaccessible to most. The Devil, after all, laughs because he knows something that we don’t know. The awareness of holding this card gives him the upper hand no matter what obstacles will be thrown at him, to the point where he can confidently rejoice in his advantage. Abdessemed’s trademark expression of joviality could, and indeed on a few occasions have been, mistaken for the snigger of the conman – an act of derision for the art world he has been successfully mocking for years as well as for the disingenuous people who went along with his game plan. But following the proverbial line that still waters can be deep, further intimacy with Abdessemed reveals something that suggests that the first option is actually closer to the truth. He is no Devil but a careful research shows that, at all the decisive points in his life, he always displayed an instinctive knowledge of what the future would hold. This happened when he met his wife to be in a bar in Lyon called L’Antidote in the mid-1990s (an episode represented in the small replica of the venue in a vitrine in the exhibition at MAC in Lyon). But it is also borne out by one statement he once gave to Pier Luigi Tazzi in response to the question ‘How did you choose to become an artist?’. ‘I didn’t choose art’, was the reply. ‘Art chose me’. Men of religion often describe their vocation with a similar choice of words – what can be perceived as a passive acceptance of events is actually an act of faith in the destiny as a guiding light, and how this can be dealt with through a philosophical rather than an analytical approach.

As someone born in Algeria in the early 1970s, in a time of political and social turmoil for the country, Abdessemed was forced very soon in life to witness one of the worse forms of confrontation in existence – civil war. His subsequent move to France in the 1990s, a decade generally acknowledged as a moment of relative peace and prosperity, didn’t seem to fare better, at least at the beginning. It was in Lyon where he learned about the outbreak of the first truly global conflict since World War 2 – Operation Desert Shield, also known as the Gulf War. Despite its taking place in the immediate pre-internet age, Gulf War was the first war to receive extensive media coverage, mostly thanks to Ted Turner’s media outlet CNN and its 24/7 reportages from the front. Violence, in some of its more radical form, was now a spectacle on global scale, fragmented by advertising and the occasional studio commentary. Never before was war so accessible, overexposed, trivialized and exploited for drama purposes, and it’s impossible to ignore the role this chain of events played in shaping Abdessemed’s art. Years later, while reflecting on the accusations on his work being too graphic, he would deliver another line that would reinforce his acceptance of some events as part of a bigger scheme. ‘I think my work is actually positive. The world is violent – not me’. If the collapse of the machine and the first Big War at the beginning of the 20th Century contributed in no small part to the establishment of an art that was suddenly provoking and difficult to look at, the availability of images from the war front in the 1990s made the same process impossible. There is little point in trying to tackle brutality by denouncing it via a series of trite statements or graphic imagery. Abdessemed adopted a trickier but much more effective strategy to give to our present and recent past the ultimate accolade by deploying what seems to be so important in contemporary culture at the moment of defining what is relevant and what is not – a pedestal.

Hence the exceptionally televised conflict reinforced Abdessemed’s predilection for not inventing images but rather for letting them come to him. Guided by a selective process and filtered by personal experience, these images partially adhere to the ready-made logic of decontextualisation and partially take a step forward through a formal reinterpretation. Abdessemed’s life-size sculptural variations of iconic images, such as the nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc (otherwise known by the cynical nickname of ‘the Napalm Girl’) running away naked from an explosion throughout the Vietnam War in 1972 or the French football player Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi during the 2006 Football World Cup final are only two examples of how the immediacy of such moments take on fresh meaning when solidified in a form designed to make them still and everlasting. And even in those moments when the relationship between subject and rendition is a bit more fluid, as for example with the combination of the Antonio Canova-inspired sculpture group Is Beautiful with the terracotta-made, hard working men depicted in Sham, the outcome doesn’t seem to change. This is not a literal representation of reality, but rather an elevation of its most iconic images to art that takes place by giving them the format but not acknowledging their status as content. The Devil’s laugh can almost be heard in the background.

Michel Robecchi