Walking into Kader Attia’s multimedia installation, Reason’s Oxymorons, feels like entering a low-level corporate office or waiting room. The gallery—normally open and airy—is filled with drab gray. The floor is covered in gray carpeting, and gray cubicles stretch across the expanse of the room in a claustrophobic grid. In each modular workstation is a viewing station built for one: a plastic table, single ergonomic desk chair and PC monitor.
Though far from transporting, this exhibition design proves fitting for the art it houses. The videos (18 in total) capture interviews Attia conducted with European and African psychiatrists, ethnologists and analysts on theoretical topics ranging from “language” and “modernity” to “ancestors” and “religion.” What do these terms signify in Western and non-Western cultures? And how can we reconcile different, or even opposing, understandings of such deeply ingrained concepts? These questions are typical of Attia, who is of French-Algerian descent, and has centered his artistic practice around examining the legacy of colonialism and the experience of immigration. “Reason’s Oxymorons,” which debuted in 2015 at the 13th Biennale de Lyon, in France, forces viewers to confront the split reality that Europe’s many African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees inhabit. As the videos show, their lives exist in perpetual states of limbo, both figurative and literal. Immigrants perform feats of emotional and cultural juggling each day to assimilate into Western society. They also make frequent trips to government agencies, where they sit in colorless, antiseptic rooms to await news of their residency and employment statuses. As one interviewee observes in the video titled Exile, the psychological trauma of migration is often caused less by the act of departure than the act of arrival, and the severe disappointment that comes with realizing one’s sought-after destination is less vibrant and welcoming than anticipated.
Each video lasts about 15 or 20 minutes, and the ensemble, like most work of hours-long duration, comes with its share of dull moments. But thoroughness and patience will be rewarded. Brilliant insights on immigration as well as art, technology, music and medicine abound. Living and legislating multi-culturalism isn’t always easy, but it is intellectually rich and generative—a truth that we could use reminding of, especially now.