Adel Abdessemed

‘Décor’, 2011–12,
4 elements in razor wire,
210 × 174 × 41 cm,
207 × 174 × 41 cm,
218 × 174 × 40,5 cm
205 × 174 × 37 cm

The four steel-wire figures of Décor constitute an explicit reworking of the image of Christ in the famous Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–1516) by Matthias Grünewald, as indicated by the notorious detail of the spastic clench of the hands. This work was first shown at the David Zwirner gallery in New York in 2012, then shortly after in the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, France, next to Grünewald’s masterpiece. The latter has always been a crucial reference for Abdessemed, who tells how a visit to the altarpiece was one of his priorities on first arriving in France.

Here, the scene of Golgotha and the Cross disappear from the sculpture, leaving just the body of Christ reproduced four times in razor wire, a material first used by Abdessemed in Salam Europe in 2006. The transposition of the figure of Christ into a different material and different volume, plus its fourfold repetition, reactivates certain aspects of the Isenheim Altarpiece, intensifying or displacing certain effects.

In the first place, the repetition revisits the worshipful nature of Christ’s unique body, undermining the coincidence of body, name, identity, and value, all characteristic of the Christian religion; the figure four is aloof from any possibility of symbolic interpretation, unlike the number three, which can refer to Golgotha and the Trinity, or two, which evokes the confrontation between Christ and the anti-Christ, or the figure one of the Crucifix, an object of devotion and a mark of Christ’s uniqueness. As the title of this work suggests, the use of repetition here invokes above all an ornamental dimension related to the metallic weave of abstract patterns; this visual labor exposes every figure with its specific name and identity—including Christ’s—to the figural forces running through it.

The title even evokes an ambivalence between ornament and figure, since “décor” is phonetically similar, in French, to des corps (“bodies”). The tracery of steel wire is not just the medium of representation but also generates a force field that doubles the intensity of certain details. Barbed wire runs throughout the four figures like bundles of nerves and tendons, abolishing the line between inner and outer body, here transformed into a sole, unique wound. The bark-colored solder evokes swellings and lesions, while the blades that bristle in this “décor” turn the wounded body into a lethally dangerous item which keeps the beholder at a distance. Décor thus re-elaborates and updates the mixture of attractiveness and repulsiveness that characterizes Grünewald’s martyr-figure of Christ, as well as the therapeutic role of his wound-covered body, since the altarpiece was made to be worshipped by patients treated at the monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim. The expressiveness of the open mouth of Grünewald’s dying Christ is intensified in Décor—the clutch of metallic strips suggests a cry that encapsulates the human nature of God become flesh. As Abdessemed has pointed out, this flesh-and-blood humanity uttered, at the moment of death, a desperate question that expected no reply: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Angela Megoni

Décor, 2012