Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, David Zwirner, New York

Text by Dan Tarnowski

War, violence, death – these aren’t pretty topics. Nevertheless they’re topics that are explored in Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, an exhibition of artwork by Adel Abdessemed. Despite the dark subject matter of the artwork, people were laughing and having a good time at the opening for the exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery.

No surprise, as there’s an ambition in Abdessemed’s work that can’t help but impress. When one first walks into the gallery, they approach Hope, a life-sized installation of a boat filled with trash bags. The abandoned boat, which was home to immigrants traveling to the US, was discovered on a beach in the Florida Keys. While the piece is a hopeful evocation of people searching for a better life, the sculpture seems dashed off, as if it were thrown into the gallery to counterbalance the heavy themes of the exhibition. Perhaps the boat seems out of place due to its readymade nature, or maybe it just fails to captivate as much as what lies ahead.

As the viewer walks into the next room, a rippled mass seems to unfurl across the wall. The mass is as wide as a movie screen and the color of a bear. From afar, the texture of the wall-hanging resembles a prune. As the viewer moves in, they discover the surface is a mass of contorted animals, bearing teeth, covered in burnt fur. It looks like all the taxidermy in the Museum of Natural History was wired together and hung on the wall. That’s right, the surface of the wall installation Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf consists of hundreds of taxidermied animals, including foxes, wolves, deer, goats, and even tiny rabbits. The dead animals snarl and grope at each other in a vicious mass that inspires dread. The sheer latitude of the piece hammers the viewer with an overwhelming sense of violence—one that conjures war.

A rhythmic clack made by a nearby video adds to the sinister atmosphere in the room. The video is Memoir, a loop of a baboon slapping magnetic letters onto a metal wall. The mechanical movements of the trained baboon are creepy. Even more unnerving are the words spelled out by the primate: “Tutsi” and “Hutu,” the names of the opposing ethnicities involved in the civil war in Rwanda in 1994. Adding to the impression that the dead animals in Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf are embalmed is the fact that the whole room smells like some kind of plastic or varnish. Perhaps the smell comes from Coupe de tête a resin sculpture in the same room. The sculpture of two men is larger than life, so the figures are anatomically correct but around 8 feet tall.

The sculpture portrays an event from the World Cup in 2006, in which a shouting match between two players escalated to one player head-butting another. With the sculpture magnifying the emotions of the players, it’s as if the sculpture is a video set to ‘pause,’ and the viewer is invited to sit down and watch the impending fight. The thrill that the viewer may receive from the violent situation seems to be what the artist aims for. Same goes for the wall-installation, Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, in which the magnitude of the piece entreats a sense of wonder despite the repulsiveness of the dead animals.

Such ambivalence is continued in Décor, a wall-installation consisting of four sculptures of Jesus Christ. The traditional image of the crucified Jesus is replicated—arms spread, head tilted, crown of thorns, but there’s no cross, and more peculiarly, the sculptures are woven from barbed wire. The lips of Jesus’s anguished face are sculpted from pieces of the barbed wire. The tightly shut eyelids are made of curved planes of the barbed wire. The figures bristle with blades, turning the vulnerable body of Jesus into something that looks as menacing as a porcupine.

Across from the row of sculptures is an installation entitled L’avenir est aux fantômes. The installation consists of over thirty microphones mounted on glass stands. The microphones are set at different heights and their cables hang to the ground, plugged into nothing. Like the abandoned boat at the entrance to the gallery, this piece seems like excess padding to the exhibition. It wasn’t necessary to fill the floor with another sculpture, as the barbed wire wall-hangings of Jesus are the focal point.

There’s something familiar about Abdessemed’s artwork, it revisits well-known imagery, such as the crucified Jesus seen in Renaissance paintings and the taxidermy seen in children’s museums. More importantly, the artwork gives form to our dark fears and impulses, as if dragging them from a cellar into the light. As the viewer finds enjoyment and repulsion in the brutal content of Abdessemed’s works, they are forced to reconsider their role as a spectator.

Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, 17/02/2012 – 17/03/2012, 525 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011.


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Installation view of Adel Abdessemed: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf at David Zwirner, New York
February 17 – March 17, 2012
Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York