Kader Attia's dramatic installation consists of a huge cage in which 150 live pigeons peck away at more than forty birdseed sculptures of children. As a French citizen of Algerian descent, Attia's artistic activity is generally interpreted within the "tangle of identity conflicts" that underlies the current context of multicultural, post-colonial Europe: "His art is rooted in the complex relations between East and West, and it reflects the charged encounter between these markedly different worlds-an uprooted North African culture and a seductive Western consumer culture. Deeply embedded within this duality, his work reflects upon the sociopolitical powder cake that is threatening French society from within, and upon the millions of Muslims who have lost all hope of integrating into it" (Y. Aupetitallot and T. Prat, eds., Kader Attia, Zurich, 2006).
Attia has not stayed within margins of the French art world: born in the Parisian suburbs, he grew up in the cosmopolitan, multicultural atmosphere of Sarcelles, and attended the prestigious l'Ecole Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris (1996-98). He was selected for the "Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes" exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2003, had a solo show in Miami during the Art Basel Miami Beach Fair in 2004, and had his first solo show at the Sketch Gallery in London in May 2005. Attia was nominated for the Prix Marcel Duchamp, France's most prestigious award for an emerging artist, in 2005. The installation Flying Rats, which provoked polemics on treatment of animals in contemporary art, was made for Biennale d'art contemporain de Lyon in Fall 2005. In its content, Flying Rats has nothing explicit about the artist's own identity of the "other" in French culture--it brings up issues of children and terror in a rather spectacular gesture.
His opus, influenced by the tension between the two worlds--North African and Western European--deals with difficult content often in ambiguous, yet playful, ways. The ominous dread present in Alfred Hitchcock's classic movie The Birds is evoked in Attia's recreated kindergarten playground with children made of birdseed dressed in everyday colorful outfits. The artist used as a starting point an everyday scene (of children playing), only to reverse the usual order of things by representation of destruction (pigeons eating children). His choice in using the English phrase for the title of the piece-- "flying rats"--emphasizes the common disdain for pigeons in urban environments, considered resilient creatures that carry diseases. Like Hitchcock's film, Attia's use of fear and fantasy is an ambiguous metaphor for the present day, one that is both strangely poignant and unsettling. The children seem to reference a nostalgia for lost innocence. The unexpected assault by the birds reflects a terrifying loss of control over one's environment, a world of pervasive fear wherein even the most mundane and disparaged of creatures becomes a mysterious and inexplicable threat.
In order to explain his artistic process, Attia emphasizes his wish to represent an allegorical vision as a "kind of visual, political, and psychoanalytical condensate" (J. Pradel and K. Attia, interview with the artist, Ibid, p. 158). The political context of Attia's "condensate" is certainly influenced by the embattled yet little discussed historical relationship between the Algerians and the French, and, in particular, French citizens of Algerian descent. Throughout French colonialist cultural history, Algerians, described as "Negroes of France," were signified as "the others." Many of Attia's videos and installations explore the often incommensurate worlds of France and Algeria--of French comfort and complacency on one side and the violence of urban French peripheries on the other side. Attia explored worlds of uprooted families in his work Correspondence (2003) in which he becomes a cross-border messenger of family stories and histories himself. Similarly, in his color-slide projections La Piste d'Atterrissage (2000) he showed Algerian transsexuals and transvestites who work as prostitutes in Paris, having escaped Algeria under threat of murder for being who they are.
Attia's "psychoanalytical condensate" in Flying Rats by virtue of the duration of the piece itself. In its original installation (lasting three and a half months), the pigeons lived inside the cage, slowly devouring the children made of grain seeds. As the birds could not fly away and had been eating incessantly, they became obese. The birdcage became an artificial habitat, a microcosm in which the pigeons now lived, and maybe nested while devouring grain seed children. In Flying Rats, the artist created a moving vision on questions of relationship between creation and destruction, power and the position of the other within dominant culture.