Kader Attia at the Hood Downtown: A Singular Experience

International artist Kader Attia's Reason's Oxymorons at the Hood Downtown is full of large ideas, staged in an improbable setting that is reminiscent of a modern call center or a university language lab--an expanse of individual cubicles with chairs, screens and headsets. It's bewildering. I found it best to dip a toe in, absorbing it one screen at a time.

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Each cubicle contains one of a series of interviews the artist conducted with philosophers, psychiatrists, anthropologists, traditional healers, and immigrants, about Western and non-Western approaches to psychiatric conditions. In my initial visit, I opted for Cubicle #3--Art as Therapy. (An on-site map may help you to choose.) The video presented more than a simplistic notion that art can be used as a therapy for mental illness, but rather, provided a detailed description of certain kinds of music and instruments that use a particular melody and rhythm to heal; an experience with music might even diagnose autism. It is both talking head and demonstration, and profoundly interesting.

From Art as Therapy—demonstrating use of a lamellophone 

One of the many themes Attia explores is that of repair. In Western societies, to repair is to restore something to its original state. A skillfully done repair is invisible, or "good as new." By contrast, African societies may "celebrate" an injury with a repair that is seen and becomes part of an object's history and aesthetic. I was reminded of the process of kintsugi, (see photo, top, not part of this exhibition), a Japanese method of repairing broken pottery with a special metallic adhesive that is meant to be seen rather than hidden, transforming what might otherwise be termed a "flaw" into something more meaningful and beautiful. In a conversation with the artist, Professor Chad Elias asks whether "modern and traditional methods of treating mental illness point to a similar cultural gap." 

And the sea of cubicles? Elias comments that they are symbolic of "atomized labor and the corporate exploitation of the mind," and like many stateless refugees confronting borders and checkpoints, the viewer is "forced to negotiate a maze of parallel and perpendicular lines that restrict movement (hence my bewilderment was purposeful) and obstruct interpersonal exchange." Though I was in fact alone in the gallery space upon my first viewing and therefore had no one with whom to discuss what I was seeing, I still felt the isolation Elias describes. Unlike art that occupies a common space and allows a shared experience with one's fellow observers, this exhibition is strictly solo viewing.

Reason's Oxymorons will be at the Hood Downtown, Main Street, Hanover NH through March 18, 2018, and is free to the public. For hours and further information, go to the Hood Museum website.


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