From the very conception of artistic expression, artists have engaged with the notion of self and the formation of identity. The work of Kader Attia questions the dominance of western hegemonic models in the creation of national culture. Contrasted with the photographs of Diane Arbus, shown on the upper floor as part of a combined ticket, the Hayward Gallery have created a conversation; a dialectic relationship that speaks to societal self-expression. Although the two artists are not placed in direct comparison with each other, there are a number of links which can be drawn between their work, most notably the ways in which they both explore the formulation of identity within marginalised social groups.

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning showcases photographs from the very start of the photographer’s career. The curation of the display breaks from the chronology of the usual gallery structure, fragmenting the consistency of the gallery space through the utilisation of a grid, allowing the viewer to wander freely through the space, constructing their own narrative; in much the same manner as Arbus herself as she explored the city space through instinct, in the manner of the flaneur. The pictures themselves break from the usual removed spectatorship. The camera is prying, inspective, reactionary. Arbus was not interested in uninterrupted documentation, instead, she preferred to provoke a response from the subject that might reveal something about them, moving against the conventions of other photographers at the time such as Cartier Bresson, who preferred to remain invisible when capturing the image. To ensure a connection between photographer and photographed, Arbus switched to a Rolleiflex, utilising the waist level viewfinder to allow her face to be seen at all times.

Diane Arbus. Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Conn. 1961.

Arbus’ subjects form a cross section of life in New York, figures otherwise undocumented, from the taxi driver to the circus performer. The works are provocative and beautiful in their lack of artifice, appearing as intimate reflections of American society. Kader Attia’s practice also explores marginalised societal groups; immigrants and transexual people among them. By placing the practice of these two artists in proximity, one begins to draw similarities between the two fields of work. Alongside Attia’s explorations of identity, his practice also questions the notion of repair in the formulation of selfhood, noting the key contrasts between occidental and non-occidental societies and their approach to to repair, highlighting how western societies attempt to erase the histories of fracture and suffering, to present a homogenised society. He notes how, on the contrary, non-western societies build upon breakdown and decay. This is perhaps most clearly captured by the largest work in the exhibition, The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures (2012). A number of other pieces, perhaps most notably The Scream, which places a reproduction of Munch’s infamous painting, alongside an African mask, explore societal influences and the nature of sharing in the formation of national identity. The works render visible the often overlooked interrelation of cultural influence between Western and non-western societies. Many of the pieces prompt one to consider the possibility of cultural-hybridity in the face of a rising anti-cosmopolitan political rhetoric. Through this, Attia deconstructs the usual ‘us and them’ adage, exhorting the virtues of sharing. So too, do Arbus’ photographs explore this concept, as they re-present shared humanity and experience within the city space, in an attempt to bring groups on the fringes back into society.

Storytelling is a constituent element of both artist’s practice. The titles of Arbus’ photographs are stories in and of themselves, “Young man with a paper bag at night, Coney Island, N.Y, 1957”; “Santa Claus on the street with a lady passing, NYC 1956”. These inherently literal titles lend the work an element of authenticity, enhancing the connection between the viewer and the subject. So too do the titles of the work move against more abstract artistic sensibilities, presenting Arbus as both an artist as an anthropological documentarian. In many cases, the title augments the viewer’s very understanding of the work, “The man who swallows razor blades, Hagerstown, Md. 1960” for example, requires the title for a full comprehension of the image. There is an intrinsic draw to the photographs; the viewer is embroiled in an exchange with the person they are viewing, wishing to know more about their character. In a similar manner, Attia’s The Landing Strip portrays transgender sex workers living in Paris in the 1990s, capturing “moments of joy, of happiness, of hope”. The series avoids becoming voyeuristic; formulating a connection between artist and photographed in much the same way as Arbus’ camera. They are impactful images, reminding one that, despite all the apparent adversity of a situation, moments of beauty and shared humanity are not lost. Kader Attia’s practice is quite varied, extending beyond a focus on identity. His video work defines a relationship between the architectural of the metropolis, and the systems of colonial oppression, through what he terms “complex control machinery … accumulation of people in these open sky jails”. Attia approaches brutal urban architecture in the outskirts of Paris, where he grew up, describing how such residential spaces confine the people who live within them, oppressing immigrant populations. Through his observations of modernity, he draws upon tenets of neo-colonial practices within city planning, providing a fascinating perspective on marginalisation within the urban environment through his work La Tour Robespierre.

Diane Arbus. Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58.

Art does not exist in a bubble, and as such it is important to consider these two exhibitions in in the current political situation – internationally, but particularly in Britain. The practice of Kader Attia reconciles the notion of the collective, of global influence. Through his reconsiderations of national identity, Attia dismantles border distinctions, reminding the viewer of collective emotion and humanity that should be at the core of political thought. The Arbus show, previously in New York and Buenos Aires, has arrived in London at a very pertinent time. Her photographs capture the multiplicity of city lives, prompting the viewer to consider their own place within the community with all of its diversity. The intimacy of Arbus’ images prompts a connection between the viewer and the subject, promoting human interaction. The principle driving force behind both shows in the rendering of emotion. As Attia notes, “our world today cannot be understood without taking into account the psychological and emotional aspects of society”. Both shows are poignant and beautiful reflections on identity, within the city, and in the world at large.

Words by Charlie Dixon.

The exhibitions Diane Arbus: In the Beginning and Kader Attia: Museum of Emotion both run from the 13th February to the 6th of May at the Hayward Gallery, with a ticket to either granting access to both. For more information on Diane Arbus go here, and for more on Kader Attia go here.

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