When describing his first contact with art as a child in the working-class neighborhoods of Tangier, Mounir Fatmi often recalls once witnessing a sheep eat an upside-down reproduction of the Mona Lisa in a neighborhood flea market. This scene serves as a metaphor for numerous aspects of his practice, based on an oftentimes iconoclastic relationship to art history, a reflection on the status of art in the world and an inquiry into the way in which aesthetic questions come into contact with politics, economics and even religion. While he now lives in Paris, through the course of his travels in different countries, Fatmi has developed an approach to displacement as a critical tool for interpreting the contemporary world: “Out of exile,” he writes, “I created glasses so I could see.” He spoke with Christophe Gallois about various aspects of his work, including issues which center around religion, memory and forgetting, the violence of images and identity.
Christophe Gallois: I would like to begin this interview by speaking about a work you recently presented in the exhibition Traces du sacré at the Centre Pompidou. Visible from the entrance of the exhibition, Tête dure (2005-2008) was presented as a wall painting depicting a human head that contained, in place of a brain, Arabic calligraphy, a loose transcription of an excerpt from the Koran that reads, “Do they look alike, those who know and those who do not?” The work seems like a commentary, expressed as a rhetorical question, on the status of belief and religion today. Could you speak about your use of this phrase?
mounir fatmi: This phrase takes us directly to the question of knowledge. These days, so many clichés are associated with the Koran and Arabic calligraphy: fundamentalism, terrorism, etc. Standing before this work, the spectator is confronted with two parallel things, the beauty of the text and its violence. The work also has to do with the question of ignorance. It creates two types of audience members: those who have an aesthetic relationship to the work, and those who come to read, and believe they get it, but who in fact don’t get it because there’s no response to the question it poses. So who gets it? I think that the ones who understand are the dead, because they have an answer to the real question of life: what lies beyond. For that reason, I really liked the decision of Jean de Loisy, the curator of the exhibition, to place my work next to a Goya, Ello dirà (ca.1810-1823), a work that depicts a person who comes back from the dead and says nada, nothing.
CG: Religious disorientation runs through many of your works. I’m thinking, for example, of Sans où (1999), a series of prayer rugs rigged with wheels and compasses, and Manipulations (2004), a video in which one sees a pair of hands playing with a black Rubik’s cube. At the beginning of the video, the object has a white line suggesting the Kaaba, but as the hands continue to reconfigure the cube, the black starts to come off on them, as if the surface were liquefying in some sort of oil.
MF: Starting a work is like composing an equation. All of my works have an aesthetic dimension, but the equation becomes more interesting when I can develop political, religious or economic suggestions out of this dimension. Manipulations seems at first like a merely aesthetic work, but it becomes religious when it references the Kaaba, economic with its transformation of the color black into oil, etc. One of the critiques made about this video concerns the moment when, for a fraction of a second while the hand is rearranging the Rubik’s cube, you see Mecca with a crowd encircling it. Certain people found that image disturbing, over the top. But I’m not interested in making a perfect work. Producing an artistic proposition in response to what’s happening in the world is so complicated and perhaps so pretentious. Art touches life, and life is messy; art therefore has a messy side that you have to deal with and share.
CG: Many of your pieces use VHS tapes, which are combined with each other to form different objects, like an electric chair in Gardons espoir (2007), or a grave in Va et attends moi (2007). What interests you in these materials, ones which—even if they’re part of recent history—are already obsolete?
MF: The VHS tape is a material of memory, like antenna cables, another material I often use. I’ve always thought that there was a memory that persists within these materials. They are also a medium that is on the road to disappearance. They mark the end of a thought, a way of seeing things. My reflections around VHS tapes began at the beginning of the 90s, because the tapes served as a way to disseminate propaganda in Morocco that came from Saudi-Arabian preaching. A second stage was Bin Laden’s famous tape. After bombing in the mountains, they found an intact tape, and understood pretty much right away that this tape was an element of manipulation par excellence. You had to accept this tape, believe it at its word. If you doubted it, you would automatically be siding with the terrorists. I created my first work using VHS tapes in 2004-2005, for the exhibition Uit de landen van ondergaande zon in Amsterdam. The work came out of the assassination of Theo Van Gogh and took the form of a black screen made from 500 tapes placed on the wall, like a black monochrome. But you can’t project anything onto this screen; you cannot create images like on a film screen because, with the white spools in VHS tapes, it’s impossible to find a focus.
CG: Still on this question of the relationship between memory and disappearance, many of your works concern historical events or people who have been lost to the sands of time, often for political reasons. Your installation Face au silence (2002), for example, is based on Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan dissident who vanished from Paris in 1965 and was never found. The work seems to illustrate a phrase from your manifesto, which reads, “Those who were made strong have lost their voice.”
MF: The point of departure for Face au silence was the total absence of serious information on the Ben Barka case. Because you have to make up for this lack, you’re forced to imagine all sorts of stories. Many people accepted this lack. They think that you have to leave politics to the politicians. For quite a while, this position also dominated in the field of art, and it’s interesting to see that today art has accepted politics. I think that you can’t leave religion to the religious, philosophy to the philosophers… I have my own position as regards religion, which is why, for example, I use prayer rugs as an artistic medium. The term religion comes from the Latin religare, which means to link up (relier). The religious question is above all a question of connections: connecting things to others, connecting the past with the future. I can’t understand the world by reading just one religious text, or one political tract.
CG: The series Les Connexions (2003-2007) refers directly to this approach. It consists of a collection of books arranged on a table, connected by electrical clamps. It looks like some sort of terrorist device, like a homemade bomb. You also created a series of photographs entitled L’Evolution ou la mort which depicts people wearing these books as belts, prepared to set off a “literary attack.”
MF: Les Connexions came from reflecting on the mutation of the word “Taliban,” which in Arab means “student.” But for the Talibans, to study is to study one sole book, the Koran. I don’t thank that we can understand the world by studying just one book. We need to make links with other things, sometimes contradictory things. I began by connecting different religious texts. Then I connected books from my own bookshelves, like Bataille’s L’Erotisme, Burrough’s The Wild Boys, Hegel’s Aesthetics. Then I looked for books that could enter into this connection. I’ve made several pieces around this idea, up until the fifth one, which is composed entirely of religious texts. The work plays with a paradox: danger does not seem to lie in reading the Koran alone, but in connecting it with other books. Do you risk explosion in making these connections? There is furthermore an idea of transmission between these books. You have the impression that there is energy passing from one book to another, that the work generates energy.
CG: The question of violence is latent in many of your works. Art critic Paul Ardenne defines your practice as an “aestheticized collection of every contemporary form of violence” from terrorism to the politics of fear, religious indoctrination, etc. I would like you to comment on a phrase in one of your works that reads, “If you are an enemy, I will kill you for money. If you are a friend I will kill you for free.”
MF: Violence is fascinating. If you refuse it, you come down to the idea of purity, innocence. This phrase says that there is no innocence. I am against the idea of Christian guilt, but I think that there is a human truth in violence that is all too easy to ignore. I chose to work with this violence. Like everyone, I was profoundly affected by the images of September 11. We were disconnected from reality and when September 11 happened, there was a return to the reality that had splattered over all of us. Many of my works operate on our obligation to live with certain images.
CG: Many of your works take the form of equestrian obstacles, variously painted and arranged in the exhibition space. An important aspect of these works is that they are located at a midpoint between construction and deconstruction.
MF: To speak about the series of obstacles, I would like to talk about architecture. I spent four years at a firm in Mantes-la-Jolie, in the suburbs of Paris, where I worked on architecture. I discovered that architecture doesn’t offer anything. Even the idea that architecture can be a solution for humanity is totally false. These obstacles are closely linked with architecture, the apprehension of space, the idea of balance, rifts, failure. They put forward a very personal experience by forcing you to negotiate your route around the exhibition, to confront the installation.
CG: Another significant aspect of this series is the plurality of points of view. You perceive the piece in a very different way depending on whether it is in front of you, where the work can function like an image, or whether you’re crossing through it. The work deconstructs as you pace through the installation.
MF: These installations function like metaphors for humanity’s fragility. With the destruction of the Twin Towers, I think that we’ve reintegrated the question of fragility. We rediscovered that everything is fragile, that everything is ephemeral, that we are nothing faced with so many obstacles. There is a return to fragility and reality. I think that we are going to get beyond the question of God to ask ourselves questions about reality.
CG: To conclude, I’d like to address the issue of identity. One of the phrases in your manifesto states, “I want a transparent flag.” This phrase corresponds to an attempt, which is very present in your work, to reject received identities in order to develop a new identity.
MF: For me, identity is the worst heritage you can receive. For many people, identity is a simply way to handle a social situation. Where I’m concerned, I prefer to appropriate other identities. I think that it’s rather interesting to see what is implied, for instance, by the idea of simply being an earthling. This global vision interests me. I am Moroccan, Arab, Muslim geographically, Mediterranean, African. If I could be something else tomorrow, that would be great. The question of identity is also very present in art. It’s something that I experienced during the exhibition Africa Remix (Hayward Gallery and Centre Pompidou, 2005). Many of my friends asked me if exhibiting in this context would risk reducing my work to a uniquely African reading. I thought this was a pretty simplistic critique. When a European artist creates a fork, we’re going to talk about design, material, utility. But if an African artist creates a fork, we’re going to talk about Africa. You feel like you’re shouldering all the misunderstandings about Africa, colonialism, African dictators, oil money, diamonds. So far as I’m concerned, I have dealt with this question of identity by treating it like a script, and working with it like an actor. In each exhibition, I play a role: in the US, I’m treated like a Frenchman; in France, I’m Moroccan or North African; when I go back to Morocco, I’m a fake-Frenchman, an immigrant. Identity is a false subject, one that is interesting to play with.
imounir fatmi interviewed by Christophe Gallois, 2008.