Adel Abdessemed lives in the increasingly fashionable area near the canal St Martin in Paris. His studio is below the flat where he lives with his wife and four young daughters; he says he needs to have his work and his family close together. The girls are always in the studio – "one may be doing a drawing, one an arabesque," he says, mimicking a dance movement.
Abdessemed was born in 1971. He came to France from his native Algeria to study art because, as he reminisces, "in Algeria they assassinate hope".
As an art student in Algeria he made a painting, Paradis (1990), portraying a naked woman bathing by a waterfall. Abdessemed recalls the consternation of staff and professors in the school: "What do you mean showing a naked woman – the school will close down."
It is hard to believe this reaction now when peering at this modest work. "I was so shocked that the directors and professors don't accept this. Afterwards it was the beginning for my paranoia."
Moving to Lyon, he studied at the city's École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. While there, he hitch-hiked to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516). It was an overwhelming experience for a student. Décor (2011-12) replicates in razor wire, in real size, the Christ of the Altarpiece. Razor wire is a material Abdessemed has used before. "I feel always when I make a line I make it like a scalpel," he says. "Drawings like cuts."
Like many contemporary artists, Abdessemed's practice embraces a wide variety of media. A series of memorably perilous photographic works includes Abdessemed on fire, stroking a lion and drawing on a raft in high water. I ask about these actions and where they take place, and he replies: "When I worked in Berlin I did not have a studio. The street became my studio. I did a lot of work because I did not pay for this. Here in Paris, I pay rent, but I use outside and I do not pay rent."
It is true that I can recognise the façade of the building when I manage to look past the burning artist. Abdessemed says this was his most frightening work, as the person with the fire extinguisher was more concerned about getting a picture of the action on his mobile phone than extinguishing the flames. Simple these gestures may be, so I am not surprised when Abdessemed says: "That is why I learnt a lot from minimalism. After Felix Gonzalez Torres, no one knows about minimalism but me. When and how to use it too. It is simple. It is an act with no narration."
Having heard how close to his family Abdessemed is, it is poignant to hear that when his daughter saw the photo of him engulfed in flames, she cried, "I don't like this photograph, daddy!"
'Abdel Abdessemed, Je Suis Innocent' continues at the Centre du Pompidou until 7 January 2013Reuse content