Sami Benhadj’s work is a 21st-century take on what the linguist Viktor Shklovsky called ostranenie or estrangement. His series of cats effectively render what is familiar strange by defamiliarizing us to our surroundings, the situations we encounter and the figures we usually take for granted.
One hundred cats are the sole inhabitants of a home rented for their exclusive use by an elderly lady. They enjoy a brief, almost insurgent freedom: including bars on the windows of the home. We are tempted to ask if the security serves to keep the cats from escaping or, more plausibly, to keep the outside world from discovering the cats.
Just as we are told the human touch necessarily imbues a space with a sense of human order, here we are shown that the same rings true for the feline estate. They have established their own hierarchy. The bastard cats – distinguishable from their missing eyes or teeth – rule the kitchen and let few of their more legitimate housemates inside.
One cat even hides behind a black monolith – coyly and alternatively reminding us of Cindy Sherman’s film stills and ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ – ready to throw a spanner in our present day evolutionary program. When people broach the subject of their domestic pets – worse still, cats – I feign to be hard of hearing. Shklovsky spoke of playing with context in order to revitalize our (staid) world. Sami Benhadj seems to have done just that. Vélimir Hoveyda-McCauley