A city made of cous cous

2012-11-19 16.24.00

Untitled (Ghardaïa) 2009 Kadar Attia

This is one of the exhibits featured in Tate Liverpool’s exhibition,  Thresholds, which is one of their contributions to the Liverpool Biennial. It’s a representation of the Algerian city of Ghardaïa made entirely out of cooked cous cous by Kadar Attia, an artist who now lives in Germany but who grew up in the Parisian banlieue (suburbs) and whose parents were from Algeria.

On the wall, alongside the work, there are  photographs of the architects, Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, as well a print of the UNESCO declaration that the town is a World Heritage site.

2012-11-19 16.23.20

Le Corbusier visited Ghardaïa in 1931 and made sketches of the buildings, which are very characteristic of Mozabite (better known as Berber) architecture. He was clearly influenced by what he saw – simple, box like buildings that fulfilled the function for which they were built, not unlike the Modernist architecture that he advocated.

Fernand Pouillon worked in Algeria and designed and renovated buildings in Ghardaïa


View of Ghardaïa  (source: Wikipedia)

It was interesting that cous cous was used by the artist. A post on the Tate’s blog gives an interpretation of this aspect of the work

The use of cous cous as the material to ‘build’ the model is appropriate as it will provide an approximation of the town’s decay over time throughout the exhibition, while representing one of the region’s most popular foods – now a staple of European cuisine.

In a recent interview in the Independent, talking about the work being shown at Tate Liverpool Attia tells how he likes working with cous cous.

"(It’s) …… unstable like sand. You see it first as a sandy city and you come back in one month or two months. You get some mould and degradation and all the buildings are collapsing."

Untitled (Ghardaïa) was created in 2009, but due to the nature of the material used, the version on display at Tate Liverpool can’t be the exact same work. Once installed, the model will decay and the cous cous, being foodstuff, will begin to deteriorate. And, if the gallery is unlucky, leaving foodstuff on the floor could attract vermin.

An article in the Times explains about the work and what the Tate actually bought

“(The work)… is made at the time you show it. What we have acquired is the moulds to make the buildings, photographs of what it should look like, and the table to put it on. Like many installations, you don’t keep made versions [in storage] because they are too massive or too ephemeral.” The artist does not have to make the model himself, but makers handling the 30-odd moulds should follow his instructions on what to do and which type of couscous to buy.

Pieces like this raise the question of “what is art?”. Most people would probably consider an art work to be something tangible, created by the hands of the artist. But this work clearly doesn’t fit that description. Instead it’s an idea, a design, that can be recreated by others if they follow the artist’s instructions. In fact many works of art are like this. A building, designed by an architect (or, more likely a team of architects and other with the building being attributed to the team leader who conceived the idea) but constructed by large numbers of builders, tradesmen and craftsmen, can be considered a work of art. And many sculptures, large scale works like those by Anthony Gormley, for example, and even smaller pieces that have been cast and finished in a foundry. Even many of the great masters, painters and sculptors, have employed assistants. The realisation of works of art often involves collaboration, but the “artist” is the person who comes up with the original idea and sees it through.

Anyway, I like it.