The two artists compare notes on their respective practices and their current joint exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in London, Disfigurations: Mandy El-Sayegh and Kader Attia.
Canvas: How did you two come together?
Mandy El-Sayegh: I’ve been a great admirer of Kader’s work since the Sharjah Biennial in 2017, where he was an interlocutor with curator Christine Tohmé. Since we share the same gallery, I was looking forward to meeting him, but I didn’t actually do so until quite recently. I’m drawn to his broad conceptual and communal approaches, as well as to his generous spirit.
Kader Attia: I’ve been able to visit some of Mandy’s exhibitions over time, and what struck me was the immersive capacity of her installations. What I found fascinating when talking with Mandy was her ability to unite the visual and the irrational.
Are there particular narratives that overlap in your works?
KA: I think our practices are both concerned with a deep interest in art as both a tangible and intangible experience – a universe where poetry and politics merge into an unexpected language. That’s why research is paramount to my practice.
MES: I think our practices are connected by a particular type of rigour: observing and reframing given foundations of historical and cultural readings, as well as an interest in reframing these ‘grounds’, especially in relation to colonial histories. I think I do so more literally, in experimentation with material and using material metaphors, whereas Kader does this in a broader sense, through conversation, communities and looking at pedagogical and museological systems of knowledge production.
Injury and repair is a key theme in your joint exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in London. How do the two aspects relate to one another?
KA: Injury and repair are linked forever – one is endlessly trying to catch up its delay on the other, in an infinite loop.
Repair is a conversation with the injury. As soon as human beings create something, they enter an ambivalent relationship of creation and loss, since something created comes from within the subject to be shared with others outside it. So the created entity is an object that endlessly moves away from the original subject, in a movement that makes it lost forever.
This is what the conversation with Mandy’s work inspires in me: the ambivalent feeling activated by the act of gluing fragments of mirrors back together, enhancing the angles of multiple perspectives of reflection. Repair/injury is an endless conversation with its paradoxical universe, like Mandy’s work and mine, but this encounter raises a third experience, which produces an alternate space. For this experience, Mandy’s work is of particular interest to me, because just as my mirror masks reflect the world in a fragmented way, Mandy’s work deconstructs reality, fragmenting it so as to lose us in several realities which multiply the viewer’s subjectivity. What the digital world is actually about virtually, our exhibition aims at making physical.
MES: I would reword this as the body being made and unmade, as in the subjective body and the historical body. Fragments explore what it means to be in that plastic state, to try again.
The apex of the show is Kader’s intricate mirror masks with fractured surfaces – a reworking of these masks so that whoever, or whatever surface, is facing them will be disrupted. This already reflects the way in which I make works. There is always a collection or a gathering of fragments in the studio or in the archive, normally reassembled in an intuitive way. I haven’t had to think too consciously about responding to these masks – it is more that there is a parallel already present in our practices. The works I’m presenting are new things I have been working on, so these specific works have not been seen anywhere before.
Objects play an important role in your practices. How do you collect them? What are their origins?
MES: I try to not think too much about their content, focusing more on their material qualities instead. It’s an instinctual process. There’s no goal, no aim as such. The objects come into play later in unexpected ways. In terms of origins, this is a loaded question… I feel origins are always deferring, even anthropologically speaking. Something that’s dug up in Egypt contains traits of other continents and cultures, and that slippage is always deferring to another place, time or aesthetic. I like this myth of origins because, through culture, we’re all inflecting on each other. Everything’s relational, even artifacts that are studied.
KA: Sometimes research leads me to create dialogues with objects in my work. They are always replicas, but since I have been immersing myself in non-Western art for decades, I am drawn to objects that still bear the traces of their original vibrations. These vibrations echo a pre-modern, non-Western aesthetic that, even before existing as a tangible shape, immerses the viewer in an intangible experience. It is these echoes and experiences that I am interested in.
How do the aesthetics of fragmentation unfold in your work?
MES: The work has a resonating hum: between fragments threatening to fall apart and cohesion that’s created at different perspectives or distances. Movement between these two poles creates feelings of discomfort and resolution.
KA: I’ve been working with mirror fragments for a long time. When I started including them in my practice, they were intended to show how perspective could be based on several vanishing points, and not just a single one, contrary to what Western modernity wants us to believe, erecting the white male gaze as the only possible point of view on the world. One of these works is called Chaos + Repair = Universe (2014). It’s a sphere made of fragments of mirrors turned inwards and stitched together, creating an infinite mise-en-abîme of perspectives.
I’m convinced that universal existence is an infinite accumulation of fragments that attract each other. The gesture I make, which I call repair, is not so much one of gluing or assembling, but instead tends to show this endless universal gravitation.
What does the act of re-assembly mean to you?
MES: It means to feel a sense of agency in response to feeling alienated within the self, within the body, in times of disorder.
KA: Yes, or how repair and chaos meet in an endless vibrating aesthetic.
Kader, can you say more about your Mirrors and Masks (2013–15) series in the show?
KA: Each person can see what they want in this series, but as far as I am concerned, I see an endless re-enactment of the conversation between the greatest modern avant-garde artists, such as Picasso and Braque, and a more pertinent representation of the world, in which Mandy’s work and mine are in dialogue.
Mandy, how does your installation activate or interact with the Mirrors and Masks series?
MES: The paintings have a free-associative multiplicity of sources. They return the gaze of Kader’s fractured objects. So, I think there is an infinity between our practices, through layering and membrane, surface and image. There are these multiple dimensions of superimposition. This is not only between historical surfaces, but also between formal qualities – colour, objects, images.
KA: Yes, and these superimpositions are both virtual and conceptual, both through the reflections of the mirrors on the sculptures, and the superimpositions of layers of colours and graphic models on the visual arts.
What was the process of creating this exhibition?
KA: Mandy and I had long exchanges, which led me to think deeply about a space in which both our practices could meet. So I started to activate gestures of repair that could echo her work and create that joined space.
MES: I buried myself in Kader’s work and thought about responding to fractured surfaces. I even spent time smashing stuff up in the studio. It’s part of my process to surround myself with things that stimulate thoughts in an indirect way.
Disfigurations: Mandy El-Sayegh and Kader Attia runs until 4 November 2023