The Artist Using the Humble Pigeon to Reframe Violence

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Adel Abdessemed 'Bristow' 2016 Bold Tendencies Com
Bristow, 2016Artwork by Adel Abdessemed, Photography by Damian Griffiths, Courtesy of Bold Tendencies

As a new book is released to document the significance of sculptural work Bristow, Adel Abdessemed reflects on its resonance

“My horizon is always a positive one. It is the situation of the world that is full of dangers and promises,” Adel Abdessemed tells me when I ask him about the violence that often permeates his work. One could be forgiven for thinking he is preoccupied by it; he doesn’t shy away from subjects of cruelty and despair. His current show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, entitled Conflict, presents 31 foreboding black chalk drawings of life-size military figures with their guns drawn, accompanied by a harrowing reinterpretation of the infamous photo of Kim Phuc, who is known as ‘the Napalm Girl’.

In this instance, Abdessemed has taken some of the most iconic images of war in recent history and used them to create a new dialogue, but more often he uses a subtler inference to examine the human condition and all its flaws. This is certainly the case in the site-specific sculpture he was commissioned to create by Bold Tendencies, which sits on top of the car park-cum-art gallery in Peckham. The work consists of a full-scale cast steel pigeon that has strips of dynamite and a Blackberry phone tied to its back. Immobilised, it balances on a bollard and looks towards the London skyline.

The symbol of the pigeon is synonymous with metropolitan sprawl, both as a form of vermin and simply a nuisance that has come to symbolise life in the capital. But these animals are also instruments of communication, and were once extremely valuable in times of war due to their fierce intelligence and ability to deliver secret messages.

“My interest in this pigeon is that he shares lots of things with me. It is not my brother, it is my cousin,” he says. By combining this everyday creature with symbols of makeshift terrorism and contemporary interaction, Abdessemed captures the current culture of fear mixed with the mundane everyday (especially considering that the title of the work is inspired by an Evening Standard comic strip that catalogued an insufferably monotonous existence). It embodies the unsettling, suspicious way we often treat our neighbours these days, whether that be next door or across the world.

“For me pigeons are little people, an image to evoke the no-people, the people no-one sees,” the artist explains in a new book published to celebrate the ideas and inspiration surrounding this sculpture. “It is a sort of kamikaze… you see, in some places in the world, some children who are about 15 are blowing themselves [up], these children are moved to death: how is it possible? How come that someone is taking his life but also other people’s lives? Where does it come from? For how long has it been here? We’re no longer safe anywhere.” 

Abdessemed successfully distils this sense of terror in Bristow, but it also maintains a somewhat peaceful, meditative demeanour. It captures an underlying menace that bubbles under the surface of everyday life, permeating even the most positive spirit. “My actions are always set against the loss of memory and the indifference of oblivion,” he says, once again offering insight into his position as an artist who reflects the world around him as opposed to telling a singular narrative. “I am what I am in spite of myself. My condition as an artist and as a human being is to be a witness of my time.”

Adel Abdessemed: Conflict runs until May 7, 2017 at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada. Bristow is on display at Bold Tendencies, London.