Footsteps patter along the concrete-walled hall, becoming louder, more urgent, as they gain proximity. The performers, dressed in grey-white pyjamas, hurtle down the length of the bending corridor and climb over, under and around pieces of wicker furniture. In the dimly-lit, echoing expanse of the Barbican’s Curve, the effect is disconcerting. Moroccan artist, Yto Barrada, has transformed the space into a metaphorical fault-line, where distant rumbles of the Agadir earthquake can still be felt today.
The quake, which hit Agadir at nighttime, on 29 February 1960, destroyed the city and left around a third of its population dead. For 12 days following the disaster, live bodies continued to be pulled from the rubble and the city was evacuated in an attempt to avoid the spread of disease, feared due to the constant proximity to decaying bodies. Around 35,000 people lost their homes and the final death toll was estimated at 12,000, with 12,000 injured.
“Disasters, their aftermath, and reconstruction are interesting to me,” Barrada told Art in America, in an interview last year. Her new exhibition, Agadir, explores the impact of the earthquake and the consequent rebuilding of the Moroccan city, two kilometres from its epicentre. Designs for the new Agadir were influenced by the Brutalist style of French architect, Le Corbusier, reflecting a similar ideology to London’s post-war Brutalist buildings. The resonance with the Barbican Centre’s architectural history made it the perfect exhibition space for Barrada’s work.
A translation of Khaïr-Eddine’s Agadir (1967), provides the text for the exhibition’s performers. The Moroccan author worked for the government and was involved in the effort to help restore order in the city of Agadir, following the disaster. Known for subverting and merging genres and his use of invented words, Khaïr-Eddine disrupts formal syntax with violent imagery, to disconcerting effect. The abstract script, combined with the performers’ childlike actions, as they roll, run and climb around the space, evokes a sense of foreboding, as you enter the gallery.
Barrada’s enlarged sketches of Agadir’s architecture, before and after the disaster, cover the two walls on either side of the gallery. As you travel deeper into the dark, echoing space, a large screen showing documentary footage of the earthquake’s aftermath becomes visible. A woman speaks of her traumatic experience, of the pushchair her husband carries from the rubble, now empty of a child.
Agadir induces a chilling sense of the uncanny, as a recognisable city space is shown transformed overnight into a post-apocalyptic world. At the far end of The Curve’s space are further, suspended structures. However, these hang out of reach of both performers and visitors. Suspended in mid-air, they unsettlingly evoke an enlarged child’s mobile, or, perhaps they memorialise those lost in the disaster. Their structural strength, built from the comparative weakness of their bare components – single palm leaves – becomes a metaphor for the resilience of a people able to rebuild their lives, after experiencing unimaginable tragedy.
Yto Barrada: Agadir open now until 20 May 2018 at The Curve, Barbican Centre.
Feature image: Yto Barrada: Agadir, Installation View, The Curve, Barbican Centre | Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images | All images courtesy The Barbican
Words by Niamh Leonard-Bedwell