Open sky jails, broken mirrors and repaired bodies. Review of Kader Attia – The Museum of Emotion.

Kader Attia, French-Algerian artist/activist brings his Museum of Emotion to the Hayward Gallery, London. Born in France in 1970 he grew up in France and Algeria, and now works and lives in Berlin and Algiers.[1] In his artistic practice Attia explores themes of memory, identity, post-colonial critique, notions of trauma and repair, as well as the complexity of human emotions. A spherical sculpture made of mirror shards joined together is evocatively titled Chaos + Repair = Universe. Attia sees memory and repair as essential ingredients of life as he actively works with communities that in the Western society would traditionally be perceived as ‘the other’. In one of his projects he documented lives of Algerian transgender sex workers – their portraits pop up as you move along the gallery.

Chaos + Repair = Universe 2016
Kader Attia Chaos + Repair = Universe (2016)

The museum of Emotion includes a wide range of multi-media works, spanning 20 years of the artist’s career. Kicking off with a contemplation of modern life short videos: La Tour Robespierre (The Robespierre Tower) and Oil and Sugar #2 will resonate with many visitors who live in similar ugly and unimaginative concrete post-war blocks of flats dubbed by Attia ‘open sky jails’.

Kader Attia The Museum of Emotion (1)
General view from The Museum of Emotion (on the right – The Robespierre Tower)

The Field of Emotion (2018-19) photo-installation serves as a reminder that nothing in life is really black or white, as smiling 20th-century dictators are juxtaposed with faces of singers, whose faces contorted in their emotional performances.

Field of emotion Kader Attia
detail of Field of Emotion by Kader Attia 


Further along, surprising juxtapositions bridge the Western and Non-Western aesthetic and cultural objects. Images of crude reconstructive face surgeries performed on WWI veterans documented on photographs invite comparison with imagery of the exotic ‘savages’, which were eagerly collected by early anthropologists and include skin scarring and other cultural body modifications that were so incomprehensible to the Western ‘civilised’ nineteenth and early twentieth-century audiences.

Kader Attia The Museum of Emotion (2)
The Museum of Emotion – general view from the exhibition


The exhibition ends with the videos exploring the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea. Consisting of interviews and archive material relating to the bloody uprising the films reflect on the deep trauma that the survivors suffered from. It was interesting to hear a psychiatrist emphasise the fact that people can be helped equally through psychotherapy, or by attending religious or shamanistic ceremonies.* These three videos were so emotionally draining that Diane Arbus photography exhibition upstairs came across as rather bland in comparison. The only downside is that the videos are quite long. To see them in full would require several hours. It is a shame that the majority of the visitors will not have the time to do that.

What follows from Attia’s reflections on chaos and repair is the conviction that the act of repair should never replace memories of what happened in the past, or else we risk an endless cycle of destruction and social trauma.

Prosthetic legs ‘sitting’ on chairs next to the screens in the last room visually link the content of the main exhibition with the film in the HENI Project Space next to the gallery entrance. Inside, visitors can watch Attia’s documentary film Reflecting Memory (2016) free of charge. The main theme of this film is the phantom limb syndrome, a medical condition, which for Attia parallels a range of social and political issues, such as collective trauma.


Very thought provoking. Although some of the works on display can be genuinely upsetting, this is a must-see exhibition.

The Museum of Emotion is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London, 13 Feb – 6 May 2019.


Further reading:


Read more about the artist:


Here you can see stills from Attia’s video installation Oil and Sugar #2 (2007), which is currently on display at The Museum of Emotion Exhibition.


*To read a bit more about Korean Shamanism see my earlier post about the Hyon Gyon exhibition.

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