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Shelf Life
The New Yorker

By Julie Belcove

 

The M’zab Valley, deep in the Algerian Sahara, is renowned for its architecture—curvy white structures built a thousand years ago from sand and clay. On a recent sunny morning, the artist Kader Attia set out to create a model of the M’zab hilltop fortress Ghardaïa for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Standing in for the adobe of the original was another ancient North African invention: couscous—around seven hundred and seventy pounds of it.

 

The M’zab Valley, deep in the Algerian Sahara, is renowned for its architecture—curvy white structures built a thousand years ago from sand and clay. On a recent sunny morning, the artist Kader Attia set out to create a model of the M’zab hilltop fortress Ghardaïa for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Standing in for the adobe of the original was another ancient North African invention: couscous—around seven hundred and seventy pounds of it.

 

The fourth-floor gallery where Attia and a brigade of art handlers worked was enclosed with plastic sheeting, like a construction site. A piece of paper taped to the plastic declared, “CAUTION! ART!” Aromas redolent of a Middle Eastern restaurant hung in the air as three thirty-two-gallon trash cans filled with couscous were wheeled in. This was the final batch, cooked downstairs at the Wright, the museum’s restaurant, following Attia’s recipe: measure couscous into a pan, add a heap of table salt, and steep, covered, in hot water for five minutes.

 

Attia, who is based in Berlin, oversaw the installation. He was dressed in a black T-shirt and baggy jeans, with the kind of cloth booties that surgeons wear pulled over his sneakers. A pink stretchy headband held back his black hair. He is, he says, “educated in couscous.” His mother, a Berber, cooked it daily when he was growing up in Algeria and Paris. Her preferred method was to steam it in a pan on top of a pot of sauce until it was smooth and light, not crumbly or al dente. “My mother’s couscous is a fairy tale,” he said.

 

Attia’s piece, “Untitled (Ghardaïa),” is part of an exhibition called “But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa.” He chose couscous as his medium because the dish is more than a thousand years old, predating the Arabs and modern Europeans who invaded the region, and because it transcends religion, serving as a staple not only in Muslim homes but at the Shabbat dinners of North African Jews. Couscous also bears a nifty resemblance to sand, and the work-in-progress could have passed for an elaborate sandcastle. At the center of a circular platform rose a yellowish minaret, surrounded by squat houses with sloping walls, rounded parapets, and roofs topped by domes. Attia said he was amazed to learn that Le Corbusier visited Ghardaïa in the nineteen-thirties and was captivated by its minimalism and its community-oriented urban plan, lessons that he and his fellow-modernist Fernand Pouillon applied to the apartment blocks they later built in France, which now house North African immigrants.

 

Attia calls his piece a “postmortem dinner” for the architects, chiding them for appropriating North Africa’s aesthetic without giving credit. “Everyone knows that Braque and Picasso were strongly influenced by the tribal, primitive art of Africa,” he said. “This never happened in architecture. We don’t know the influence of traditional architecture on architects like Le Corbusier.”

 

At one worktable, four assistants, whose duties usually run to hanging paintings, stood methodically de-clumping the couscous, a few cups at a time, in wooden boxes. Handlers at a second table scooped the sifted grain into wide stainless-steel bowls and stirred in wallpaper paste. When the consistency was judged to be just right—a formed ball should break in half, not crumble—the couscous would be packed firmly into one of Attia’s thirty-four greased metal molds. Bogyi Banovich, a tall man wearing shorts, his hair in a bun, filled mold No. 7, a small, flat-sided building. With a thick brush, Attia swept stray grains away from the cast’s destination, which he’d outlined with a Sharpie. “This one’s ready,” Banovich said, carefully handing No. 7 to Attia, who unlatched a hinge and removed one side of the mold to assess the casting. He shook his head.

 

“Should I try and fix it, or just start over?” Banovich asked.

 

Attia mumbled something. Banovich dumped the building into a trash bag bulging with the broken remains of sculptures Attia had rejected.

 

“You have to try to put your finger inside,” Attia instructed the crew. “If you can reach half an inch, it’s not good.” He explained, “If you see the density at the bottom part of the sculpture is less than at the top, it means that when it dries it will collapse too fast.”

 

Attia expects “Untitled (Ghardaïa)” to decay considerably by the end of the show’s five-month run. (An entomologist is monitoring it for vermin.) “For me, it’s very important that the piece crumble,” he said. He has asked the Guggenheim’s conservators not to rebuild a sculpture that falls apart. Cracks do not bother him, since they mimic adobe. Several big ones had already opened on the couscous façades, including in the centerpiece minaret. “These cracks are the wrinkles,” he said, likening the art work to the human body. “This is nature. You have to learn to live with your injuries. Injuries are you.”