I’m More Interested in Messy, Concrete Reality

The artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke in conversation with Angelika Stepken

Nadia, you have been living in Berlin for the past six years. In your, biography you always write: “Lives and works in Berlin and Tunis.” How was it for you to experience the events surrounding the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia from afar? Did you have the urge to travel there immediately and become involved?

Not at all. My feeling was mainly one of frustration at not being there while it was happening. Another important moment was the election in the fall of 2011. I was not there at that time either but in London. Unfortunately, I had only spent the summer months in Tunis. But even then, my perception of the revolution changed dramatically.

Can you describe that in more detail?

From afar, for me the revolution meant euphoria and a surge of hope influenced, of course, by the media. And a lot of that has remained. But there was also a feeling of disappointment and major doubts about Tunisia. On the political level, many things happened that I did not expect. For example, that the Salafists would brutally attack the communal cinema CinemAfricArt in Tunis and that the police would do nothing—although the Ministry of the Interior was only two minutes away. Do the police refuse to act because the Tunisians started a revolution against the police? Was this a political goal?

In other words, the police was and still is the same old apparatus from Ben Ali’s regime?

Yes, it is the same people. The only thing that was changed are the uniforms. If you saw a police officer in Tunisia, the first physical reaction you had was one of terror, of fear. But then, after the revolution, there were these trials behind closed doors with more or less symbolic sentences, for instance, that released many members of the Trabelsi family, the wife of Ben Ali. And then the unbelievable disappointment after the elections: I was devastated, I felt physical pain, and almost had to vomit when the Islamists received forty percent of the votes. In Tunisia! I would not have expected that, not even in my worst nightmares. When I was in Tunis, I was disappointed, but more at peace. I am happy I, have so much to do as an artist, that I exhibit, travel … but the price I pay for that is that I cannot be in Tunis for a very long time. That is where the frustration comes from, because I cannot do much from far away. It is all about the civil society that is now very active in Tunisia. I do not want to get involved in politics, but in civil society. For instance, I closely follow the activities of the Dusturna (our constitution). Dusturna took part in the constitution-making elections as an independent group. I wanted to vote for them, but they did not have any representatives in London. They would have had to find enough people to nominate a candidate in London. But the Dusturna did not give up after the elections. They initiated the first sit-in, for example, when the Islamist Nahda party wanted to degrade the president to a mere representative with all powers of decision relegated to the prime minister. In a democracy, the power has to be shared!

Does that mean that the Dusturna now operates as an extra parliamentary movement?

Yes, it is supported by a large number of lawyers, philosophers, and intellectuals who are worried about the future of civil society.

Do artists play a role in this civilian movement?

Artists are citizens. Almost all Tunisian artists are either directly or indirectly involved in one civilian movement or another, for example the artist Hela Ammar is active in the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, which has existed since 1989.

What role have the international foundations been playing during this transformation, for instance the Goethe Institute?

As a curator, my husband Timo is preparing an international art exhibition in Tunis that includes German artists. He has received the support of the British Council, and now the Goethe Institute, the Institut Francais, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, as well as a few private firms that will also be provide sponsorship. Space is being made available and even renovated for this purpose.

You studied in Tunisia at the art academy and then left for Paris. Why?

For us, French is the first foreign language, of course. I was twenty-one, I had just finished art school, and I received a stipend to do a masters degree and a PhD in France. I had no idea what a doctoral thesis entailed. But I wanted to discover something else and then return to Tunisia afterwards. You have experienced Tunis; who would ever want to give that up? In Paris I did a lot of theoretical and philosophical work at the Sorbonne, where I met my husband. When I visited Berlin for the first time, it was love at first sight. It was the only place after Tunis where I immediately felt at home. We lived another two years in Paris before moving to Berlin, where I finished my doctorate.

There are two strong components in your artistic work: a corporeal quality and its traces on the boundary between private and public experience, while on the other hand abstraction and conceptualization. How did this come about?

Ever since I can remember my work has always referred to a context, in other words, it has always been clearly determined by time and space. I am interested in history, which is why time is such an important element in my work. Although time is abstract and invisible, it’s interesting to me as a medium; it is current events, and the time things occur in. That explain my interest in traces. Through this interest, I discovered and developed new techniques that are seldom use in art and that acquire a new meaning there for instance forensic methods. I believe that abstraction is only a result. I am more interested in what happens prior to the abstraction — the messy, concrete reality. That is what I work with. My art never completely departs from this context. The installation Flying Carpets (2011) for instance, appears very abstract, but it is actually a three-dimensional record. I simply documented the movement of carpets carried by illegal street merchants on a bridge in Venice. The installation reflects on everyday situation. Abstraction and geometry are means of expression that are supposed to create a cool, objective quality. They are not the goal of my work.

And you found this profile for your work after leaving the academy in Tunis, that is, in Paris and during your travels?

Yes, and it definitely has to do with the fact that I left Tunisia. Last year I spoke with Kamel Lazaar, a Tunisian collector who started a foundation and initiated a Tunisian art prize. He told me that one reason why the professional level among Tunisian artists was still in the beginning stages was because there were no constructive competitions; that the Tunisian art scene exists in a kind of cocoon. This made me angry at first, but today I find that he’s not entirely wrong. Maybe I was just lucky that I always lived in different places and got to know a range of art scenes. Had I stayed in Tunisia with my thoughts, concepts, and feelings, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today. In Tunisia, the art world is easily manageable; the artists know one another and enjoy being together. Things are very different in Europe. There are a lot of opportunities here, and many more artists taking advantage of these possibilities. You have to fight your way through; there’s no time to wait. I think there is a very young generation of artists in Tunisia that is increasingly interested in how things are done outside Tunisia. They will surely succeed in changing some things. What is missing there most of all is a direct confrontation with international art and its artists, so that a constructive competition can occur. In May 2012, an international exhibition of contemporary art was opened in the archaeological museum in Carthage; it was titled Chkoun Ahna: On the Track of History. For the first time, works by Ayse Erkmen, Lara Favaretto, Kader Attia, Timo Nassri, Nida Sinnokrot, Saadane Afif and Zineb Sedira can be seen alongside those of Tunisian artists. Initiative such as these are very important, because they speak directly to the artists in Tunisia and show that the country is a place for international art, although it does not have a museum and only very few alternative locations.

What is the subject of your dissertation?

I explored the idea of the invisible in the perception of art. It was largely about painting, the extension of surfaces into space and how this space can be viewed in a painterly way. It was an excursion in a scientific direction that could not be reconciled with my artistic goals. I have wanted to be an artist since I was twelve. The dissertation put a brake on my art making, even though the philosophical and scientific working methods were a good education. I could have taught at the university, but then I would have been a part-time artist. That is why I preferred to wash cars and hold down jobs in call centers-that is what one of my works is titled-in order not to limit my time for my artistic work. I never lost belief in my art; I worked on many concepts and sent them to exhibition makers.

You sent your dossier to galleries?

No, never – only to exhibitions, biennials, and public institutions. That was a very important strategy for me. Galleries and collectors want to discover things on their own. You have to let them have their fun. Besides, they receive so many applications; who can look at all that work in peace? That was why I had to be in a position where they could discover me and see that I make good work. And I managed this, for instance with the 9th Sharjah Biennial in 2009 in the United Arab Emirates and the 30th Pontevedra Biennial in 2008 in Spain.

In your work, you operate largely with the polarities of violence and aesthetics, for instance in “Parkverbot (Looted Art)” of 2010.

Yes, there is almost always violence and beauty. I find that the two are usually very close together, something that has to do with my own personal biography, and not with Tunisia in this case. My mother is Russian, my father Tunisian. I carry this split inside me somehow, and I find it everywhere I look. Through my family, I grew up in very violent circumstances. My work Untitled (2010), a nest of barbed wire and hair, is the only clearly autobiographical work about my childhood. Although I have to say that the series Impunities, which I began in the fall of 2011 in London, investigates wounding and violence.

A violence that shows itself in a seductive aesthetic …

The spikes on the park bench in the work Parkverbot (Looted Art) are intended to keep birds away. Only in Europe can you find these bird control spikes that prevent buildings from becoming damaged by bird excrement. I actually stole the park bench, hence the title Looted Art. I designed the work for a project in Egypt, while discussions over the return of Nefertiti were taking place. The museums in Berlin, London, and Paris are full of looted art that once belonged to everyday life somewhere, in some former time, just like the Berlin park bench. The aesthetic becomes an unintentional result similar to abstraction. The aesthetic in my work is often comprised of various different conceptual layers. In my art, I never think about wanting to make a beautiful work. Beauty just happens. Here you can see a test for Impunities, a scar engraved in glass, like a mere whiff of breath. I collected traces of people who had experienced domestic violence and archived them-men and women, traces of both emotional and physical violence. I used a forensic technique for this purpose; each bit of evidence carries a number. From the conversations I held, I selected with those affected sentences such as: “I didn’t realize that it was wrong”, “I started taking my daughter everywhere with me, even to the toilet”, “In a few hours you will end up with a black eye”. The London series encompasses twenty-six Impunities, which will be continued in other places, for example when I return to Tunisia.

Just as you removed skin samples for this series, after the revolution you made rubbings from public walls in Tunis and the writing engraved in them …

The wall prints are a series that I had begun in 2008. Particularly before the revolution, public walls were a place where people expressed themselves more or less openly. At the time, you escaped state control by engraving messages in the walls-painting them would have been too obvious, too dangerous. People never spoke about politics directly. It is different today. After the dictatorship, you can find tags everywhere with political messages. There is a work that is currently on show in the exhibition Lines of Control at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca: it is about representing the shadow of a perch in the exhibition space of a museum. The work was made using airbrush.

Is there a relationship to your theoretical work on the effects of the invisible, of painting in space?

Yes. In terms of the idea, it is about the surveillance society of course, and about the fact that we no longer feel that we’re being observed, like animals. The perch looks like a watchtower, whereas you do not even see the real object, just its shadow. This tower brought something new to my work …

In the sense that you departed from the direct trace?

There is realism—the original size of the shadow is six meters—and there is this moment when it becomes clear that there is a double absence happening. The shadow is like the trace of an indexical sign, and so there is this real relationship to the source, and thus a relationship to reality. What is new, however, is that I never used to have any control over the source, whereas in working on All Along the Watchtower (2012), I create the tower myself and so I control the source of the shadow. It is a kind of practical fiction that holds a mirror up to reality …

… And unsettles the viewer, who finds no certainty in the work he or she sees, but has to suspect something going on behind his or her back.

Yes, the viewer is in their kingdom, the gallery or museum, where he or she observes things. At the same time, the viewer is reminded that they are also being observed.

For your solo show in the Lawrie Shabibi Gallery in Dubai, in the spring of 2012, you treated a picture’s surface as an advertisement.

I just received the ad for the gallery: it is an image that works like an ad, a fake ad. Actually, the work consists of a light box, a citylight poster surface 170x 114 cm in size, of the kind you find outside, on bus stops. The work advertises a fictional fashion label, Joseph van Helt, using the slogan Black Is the New White. The traditional garb of men living at the Persian Gulf is a light cotton garment white in color, while the women wear thick black synthetic fabric. I switched this around and, if you look very carefully, you can see the sweat beading on the forehead of the male model.

It is twice as far from Tunis to Dubai as it is to Liverpool, where you’re taking part in the Biennial in the fall of 2012. How central is the European art market for you still?

There are many things happening all over the world. What I criticize is that things are often regionalized when they take place elsewhere than in the West. When it is a matter of Western art, less classification takes place in terms of the artist’s background. But when it is a question of artists from Egypt or Tunisia, they quickly get stuck with the background label. And that means there are certain expectations concerning the artistic work. I am not at all interested in classifications of this kind.