When the meal is over the bones will remain. Adel Abdessemed’s Drawings

Daniel Birnbaum
Cahiers d'Art (n°Revue 2016-2017), 2016
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Remember Stavrogin’s bite: Nikolay listened with vexation and impatience. All at once there was a gleam of something sly and mocking in his eyes. “I’ll tell you what drives me to it,” he said sullenly, and looking around him he bent down to Ivan Ossipovitch’s ear. The refined Alyosha Telyatnikov moved three steps farther away towards the window, and the colonel coughed over the Golos. Poor Ivan Ossipovitch hurriedly and trustfully inclined his ear; he was exceedingly curious. And then something utterly incredible, though on the other hand all too unmistakable, took place. The old man suddenly felt that, instead of telling him some interesting secret, Nikolay had seized the upper part of his ear between his teeth and was nipping it rather hard. He shuddered, and breath failed him.

Nicolas, this is beyond a joke!” he moaned mechanically in a voice not his own.[1]

This is the third scene, and as well the third public scandal, in which the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, the young prince Stavrogin, is introduced to the reader. We have heard about his peculiar upbringing, alone with his mother, with a tutor who quite simply was entirely lacking in character. We have heard about the outbreaks of brutal mania during his military service, which led to his having killed one man and rendered another invalid in a duel. But – as is so often the case in Dostoevsky – it is the dramatic scene that reveals who a human being really is. We have heard much about him, and we will continue to hear much about him – this demonic beast – who is as icily distant as he is corporeally tangible. But he is never entirely real until we arrive at the scenes in which he himself makes an appearance. People have been trying to understand his incomprehensible outbursts: they bring in three doctors, a diagnosis is reached. His outrageous behavior is determined to be the expression of a mental disorder, of delirium, of a manic dizziness. He is exculpated, the people around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Not the reader. The reader grasps that this is just the beginning, a disturbing and incisive prologue to a horrible tale of terror.

Who is this Stavrogin, who is described as proud, elegant, silent and somber, strong as an ox, pale, and surprisingly thoughtful? His tutor has apparently awoken an eternal, holy longing in his initiate even at the tender age of sixteen, a longing for something that, once tasted, “almost never is traded for a more common satisfaction.”[2] Stavrogin, he who bites, is a Lucifer, a fallen angel, who apparently enjoys his state of degeneration and his manic dissipations, but who dreams of a different, absolute nourishment. He is a timid, ice-cold melancholic who suddenly and capriciously reveals his innermost secret: he is a highly dangerous cannibal, ready to sink his teeth into the first sacrificial victim that comes along.

To eat or not to eat: In a statement about essential creative alternatives, Harald Szeemann declared, “There are two fundamental possibilities available to an artist: to negate, stripping away until nothing remains, or to accumulate, to embrace additively until one has reached the limit of fullness.” Think of the emaciated figures of Giacometti as an example of the prior alternative, or the anorectic drawings of Franz Kafka. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of artists who verge on bulimia, creators of accumulative works that seem capable of swallowing anything coming their way. There simply is no limit to what Anselm Kiefer wants to devour and make a part of his expansive symbolic cosmos. And in the world of recent sculpture we have artists with limitless hunger, from Paul McCarthy to the late Jason Rhoades, in which the additive tendency rules supreme. But are there artist who do both, who eat and refuse to eat? Artists who negate and strip away, but also accumulate. Says Szeemann, ”The subversive, at times contrarian Dieter Roth—loving and caustic, chaotic and precise—has pursued both paths at once.” Had Szeemann known the work of Adel Abdessemed he could have added his combination of sprawling sculptural installations and Spartan charcoal drawings as another example of an artist who pursues the two paths in question, that of expansion and that of extreme reduction. Known for his video, sculptural, and conceptual art, Abdessemed also produces monochromatic drawings that, in spite of sometimes being exceedingly large, seem to have been produced swiftly, during a shot period of time. They typically display swathes of charcoal, cross-hatching, and a signature that crawls up the side. They somehow manage to convey a sense of casualness and lightness ­– even a certain nonchalance – in combination with great exactitude and precise economy of means. Simple yet complete, they are, in a word, perfect.

Known for embracing themes of history, religion, and politics in his works, Abdessemed is not afraid of producing works that convey multilayered significance, even a surplus of meaning. But the sparseness of these reduced works on paper, which concentrate on the very emergence of a figure, are intentionally meager. Produced with a stick of sharpened black chalk on paper placed either flat or upright they dodge all metaphors. They do depict recognizable features, shapes and objects: a pair of boots, a soldier, two humans suspended or hovering in the air, a pair casting a shadow whilst walking away from the viewer. Yet these skeletal drawings cut right through the meat, through the layers of meaning that we tend to read into works of art. They confront us with an irreducible kernel that remains when all interpretations are over. What is left is, in the words of Philippe-Alain Michaud, drawing as a ”rigorously monolingual medium,” i.e., drawing as that which remains when one concentrates on the very emergence of figuration to the detriment of any “spatialization.”[3] With the exception of the sketchy cast shadows and elusively evoked perspective these figures have no setting, no horizon, no hermeneutical milieu. These Spartan sketches are somehow beyond meaning, if by meaning we mean that which can be assimilated and metabolized – the oral metaphors here intentionally emphasized to bring us back to the scene were we began: the aggressive bite of the melancholic cannibal. Cutting through the meat of meaning to the skeletal infrastructure of his art, Abdessemed, whose obsession with bones has been obvious for many years, creates chalk marks that will remain when he is gone. What remains: the bones. The skeleton, the cranium, and the drawings that are a continuation of the bones with other means. When the meal is over the bones will stay.

The scene from The Possessed, Stavrogin’s infamous bite, provides a clue to the alarming connection between the two extremes that can be seen as extreme poles in a dynamic that permeates our Western cultural heritage, a dynamic which requires a special optics to be detected: eating, and certainly its cannibalistic Christian variant, is surrounded by so many taboos, habits, and rules that we do not see that which is most obvious. Primitive, violent eating has undergone a symbolic transformation, which has pushed aside its prehistory. As is so often the case, it is the poets and artist who lead us deeper into the labyrinth of hunger. They are distanced from the requirements to which the community-engendering meal is connected, either because they are outside the community, or because they have an appetite or hunger that consistently exceeds the boundaries of culture’s sacrosanct regulatory scheme. Often, they have adopted a melancholic position, unable to forget the Golden Age of Saturn, an era associated with images of an infinitely rich, flowing abundance – a memory, so easily projected onto the future as a utopia, before which the world in its present form easily pales into the background.

Abdessemed eats and yet does not eat. His oeuvre has been called polymorphous and ungraspable, and yet certain fundamental themes migrate across materials and techniques. An example is the scream, which is more than a leitmotif, more than an intellectual topic or subject matter. The scream, that most fundamental of oral expressions, linked perhaps to the furious bite through its lack of intentionality, is what remains when everything has been said and done. “For me, a work that counts is a cry of solitude,” says the artist.[4] We can link the cry in Abdessemed’s ouvre to the screams in Dostoevsky or Munch, Eisentein or Bacon, but does that ultimately bring us closer to that core which remains when all intellectual metabolism is over?

In the case of Stavrogin, Dostoevsky is giving us an extreme version of this transcendental hunger. He bites, but he does not eat. His appetite is of a different order. Abdessemed bites too. His teeth are particularly sharp. They cut right through. But the bones and the scull cannot be metabolized, they endure and survive us all. As do the drawings, the very skeleton of his art.

Daniel Birnbaum

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed, Transl. Constance Garnett (New York: MacMillan, 1931), 51.

[2] Ibid, 47.

[3] Drawings 1995-2015 (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 7.

[4] Quoted in Adel Abdessemed (London: Koenig Books, 2016), 25.