There’s a warm – if slightly unusual – welcome over at Parasol Unit this autumn. Habibi – ‘my beloved’ – greets you: a 17-metre, horizontal human skeleton, arms outstretched, palms down, bulbous skull looming with a grinning ‘hello’. A self-portrait of the artist, Abdel Abdessemed, this fibreglass installation hangs suspended from wires, floating ahead of an aeroplane engine turbine. Is he being propelled forwards, perhaps from one life to the next, or dragged backwards? With his cavernous rib-cage, dangling knee-caps and toes as long as your arm, Habibi is unforgettably large, and strange, and beautiful.
The other works in Abdessemed’s first London solo show have perhaps less immediate impact, but repay close attention. Enter the Circle is a 25-second looped video of a performance in which the artist sketches a circle in charcoal on MDF boards on the floor (displayed alongside), whilst suspended by the ankles from a rope attached to a helicopter. Nearby is another film of a similarly gravity-defying feat performed almost in the reverse position, where Abdessemed scratches out the phrase Also Sprach Allah on a mat spread out on the ceiling, achieving the necessary height by being bounced up and down on another mat held by about 10 helpers, who grunt with the exertion. While both of these works might seem to have a touch of the Matthew Barneys about them, I got the feeling that the artist was less concerned with restraining (and developing) his own creativity than with the viewer’s response to his baffling yet clearly significant actions.
Upstairs is the most recent work, Silent Warrior, an eye-popping installation of 800 masks made from flattened and soldered tin cans once used to contain food and industrial materials. They are bright, beetle-like shiny ovals, some with traces of their former incarnations: ‘insecticide parfumé à la citronelle’, ‘Dolmio’, or ‘sardines’ (with brand names including ‘Princesse’, ‘Dora’ and the brilliant ‘Hot Titus’). Resembling toy robots, these masks hint at transformations of many kinds – but not, Abdessemed explains, of the kind that his position as an Algerian living and working in Paris might suggest. As he insists in the accompanying publication, ‘I do not lie between two cultures. I am not a post-colonial artist, I am not working on the scar, and I am not mending anything.’ Looking at his work, the kind of interpretation that might make such an assumption does seem inadequate at best, although what exactly he is working on remains mysterious. This show is an intriguing glimpse, while we (and perhaps he) wait to find out.
The show continues until 21st November.
First Thursday of each month, open until 9
14 Wharf Road, London
P.S. While you’re at it, have a look at what’s on at Victoria Miro. One floor up from Abdessemed there are some luminous photographs from Isaac Julien – all stills from his film installation Ten Thousand Waves, featuring screen siren Maggie Cheung, which can be seen at the Hayward as part of the show ‘Move: Choreographing You’. Also at Victoria Miro are some spooky paintings of poets by Hernan Bas, and spotty flowers from Yayoi Kusama.