Visitors to Adel Abdessemed’s new exhibition at David Zwirner gallery, Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, are greeted by “Hope,” a rusted, nearly mangled boat discovered on a beach in the Florida Keys. Most likely used as a transport vessel for immigrants looking for illegal passage to the States, Abdessemed presents the boat in its found state and has stuffed it with black garbage bags. On the surface, the suggestion here appears reductive—by using trash bags as a placeholder for passengers, Abdessemed, an Algerian artist living and working in Paris, seems to make a comparison between his materials and the general perception of immigrants in the United States. But the installation is also a reference to Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s “The Wreck of Hope,” which depicts a ship shattered among icebergs. By calling his own piece simply “Hope,” Abdessemed defers finality, leaving us to wonder whether the aspirations of the particular immigrants transported by this abandoned boat were thwarted upon their arrival.
Gestures toward older, canonical works are prevalent throughout Abdessmed’s pieces. The signature image of the exhibition is “Décor,” a set of four identical sculptures of Christ made entirely from razor wire. These life-sized installations recall Renaissance-era religious images, the Christs’ faces contorted in a familiar expression of anguish. This sense of pain is amplified, however, by Abdessemed’s dangerous medium, surely a potential hazard during construction.
And of course there is a dash of dark humor. The walls of one room are covered in the drawings that make up “La Grande Parade.” These simple black and white images show a menagerie of small mammals and reptiles, each with sticks of dynamite strapped to its back. While more loosely drawn than Banksy’s stencils (I’m thinking particularly of the guerrilla artist’s rats, who wreak havoc on the walls of major cities’ buildings and museums worldwide), Abdessemed’s creatures similarly become agents of war, sort of sweet and cuddly suicide bombers.
The artist’s critique of violence gets a bit heavy-handed with “Mémoire.” This film shows a baboon spelling “TUTSI” and “HUTU” with large magnetic letters in an endless loop, recalling the ethnic groups involved in Rwanda’s 1994 civil war and genocide. The eternal nature of the film makes an obvious suggestion—that history repeats itself—and it ultimately relies heavily on an emotional response generated by the Rwandan reference, rather than a response to the film itself.
Arguably, the most brutal of these exhibited works is the titular piece, a massive wall installation made of hundreds of taxidermy animals. A friend called it “an orgy of death.” This is apt. “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” drawing its name from a song featured in the 1933 Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs, is a tangled mass of foxes, wolves, deer, and rabbits—tiny red mouths open, teeth bared, eyes wide, limbs knotted around limbs. Abdessemed scorched the piece, giving it a black hue and a faint chemical smell. The exhibition’s press release calls this a reference to Picasso’s “Guernica,” and the connection is easy to make. Here we are presented with pointless carnage en masse, and are at once overwhelmed and made senseless by it. Abdessemed gorges his audience on an excess of what is often household décor, turning taxidermy of the defenseless into something even more horrifying.
Correction: In the original version of this post, Adel Abdessemed’s first name was misspelled as Abel.