Kader Attia is fond of emptiness. His exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery is full of it. A large wall sculpture is a circling of metal around a hole, modeled on the diaphragm of a camera. Rows of silver crouching figures cast in foil have holes, voids, nothing where their faces should be. A maze of oversize boxes made of Sheetrock is defined by the oddly angled alleys between the boxes. And then there are empty plastic shopping bags, sitting on wide, plain-like plywood tables like gaping lungs ready to collapse.
In a piece of writing printed on the gallery wall, the French-Algerian artist explains that the emptiness in this work describes "the limits of political and social discourses in art in the face of the concrete and fatalist reality of everyday life all around the world." The message is an unusual interjection from an artist—like an artist's statement in the heart of the galleries, which is weird on top of the introductory text at both ends. The wall it's on is in the plastic-bags section of the show, which in addition to actual bags includes pen drawings of plastic bags on recent newspapers from around the world and on photocopied pages from a book about French ethnic politics.
Attia was born in 1970 in Paris to Algerian immigrant parents, and his work often has a blatant sociopolitical bent. For one project, he documented a community of transgender Algerian refugees in Paris and organized them for a public protest "against clandestinity." In another, he set a chic Parisian neighborhood on edge by opening a downmarket clothing boutique called Hallal Sweatshop (named after the Muslim equivalent of kosher). Flying Rats is his best-known installation, in which children made of birdseed were pecked away at by live pigeons until their remains looked like the aftermath of a bombing.
His exhibition at the Henry, organized by Henry chief curator Liz Brown, turns more abstract, and follows right on the heels of another show of new work he did this winter at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. A favorite quote of Attia's by Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, "Human beings create things, but emptiness gives them meaning," is the advertised motto for both shows. It's in the intro to ICA's description of the show, and it appears three times on the walls at the Henry (in the text at the beginning and end of the exhibition and in the artist's text).
In Boston, as in Seattle, Attia uses Home Depot–style materials and other people's bodies; at the ICA, Attia fashioned crude beds with cheap foam mattresses, in a re-creation of his family's crowded sleeping quarters in a suburb of Paris, and local students tore out their own silhouettes from the foam. The magazine Art Papers called it a "funhouse simulation" that represented a dominant-culture fantasy about the conditions of immigrant life rather than a real portrait—and that allowed the artist to do a disappearing act.
The plastic bags and empty bodies in Seattle are also signs of an evacuated presence, as if the artist has taken leave of his own work, perhaps for reasons either caused by or signifying a lack of connection between him and the hosting institution or city. This condition must afflict many of the artists who travel around the world producing art for international biennials and so-called global audiences, and Attia may be characterizing the futility of this experience. It would help to account for the scattered, disembodied feeling of the exhibition, which, paired with the museum's constrictingly high, bright-white walls, gives the environment an unpleasant air.
In part, that's planned. Horror is a recurring theme. Attia has choreographed the exhibition so that the slumped foil bodies of Ghost—praying? begging?—are seen first from behind, where their backs look full and meaty. It's not until later in the progression through the galleries that the terrible gaps on the front of them are revealed, when you turn a corner and enter the room from the other direction.
In another inversion elsewhere, Attia turned the most spacious gallery into a brutalist, constricting maze, modeled after a barricade of cast-concrete blocks on the Algerian coast which are there to prevent flooding but are used by poor locals as a beach with a view of distant, wealthy Europe. The maze of Sheetrock boxes looks easily navigable, but some of the angled alleys only appear large enough to pass through comfortably. What looks like the fastest route out of the grid is sometimes, actually, a trap.
In addition, there's a video of oil being poured on a sugar sculpture and the sculpture buckling, collapsing, and melting into a sparkling mess in the afternoon sun. The political implications seem a touch blatant.
Attia spent a month and a half building this exhibition at the Henry, and only one of the works—the video, dated 2007—is not new. (Ghost was created elsewhere, but re-created here using six local models; the figures will be destroyed when the show is over.) This represents a major output from both artist and museum. Yet the effect of it is underwhelming, a little thin, richer on paper than in person. It's hard to fathom why, except to wonder whether, in terms of execution, Attia is somewhat too in love with the gaps, the flimsiness, the discardability both of his own presence and of his materials. In the end, his formalist stainless-steel sculpture mimicking a camera diaphragm may be the most hardworking of these pieces. The hole at its center is all the more soft for being bounded by such freezing solidity, such certain and still-present decisions made by the artist. Probably he likes it least.