In the winter of 2015 I gave a series of lectures at the Centre d’art contemporain Passerelle in Brest. Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique [“Surrender to the Sex Appeal of the inorganic”] was composed of four chapters focused on the artist’s responses to the way the industry and advertisements made consumer objects desirable.
At the same time I was organising the exhibition De toi à la surface [“Surfaces of You”] at the Plateau—Frac Île-de-France, which opened in January. The show brought together a selection of works from different generations of artists that seemed to offer forms of object manipulations. The whole set of these works mobilised an array of situations in which objects played the main part. Frequently placed next to one another, they made up a scene or a vocabulary.
Even though I had elaborated them at the same time, relying on reflections that shared common starting points and convergences, the two projects did not share a relationship of reciprocity. They did not theorise or illustrate one another. In Brest, the aim was not to communicate about an exhibition being produced elsewhere, nor in Paris was it to substantiate the results of my public reflections. Besides, only one artist was present in both contexts: Stuart Sherman was the last artist shown both in Brest and in Paris.
I conceived of these two contexts in order to explore a number of interrogations and their specific formulations, as each of them was characterised by a superposition of sometimes seemingly disparate layers and registers, or at least that did not compose a “problematic” that could be summarised with just a few words and notions, anchored as they were in deliberately crooked research. I consider Les Protagonistes, the present collection, with the same goal in mind. This collection does not circumscribe a precise field of investigation. Yet is seems to me that it encapsulates many ideas into which I wanted to inquire across my two projects. Drawn from diverse fields and sometimes explored in a very concise manner, the notes I have gathered are a piling-up of insights and of thrown-together ideas. But because we need a starting point, it seems to me that my original intuitions were generated by the relationships and unresolved reflections I discovered when tracing exchanges of influence between the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Konrad Klapheck, and Christopher Williams. While the three artists were all mentioned in various chapters in Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique, none of them appears in De toi à la surface. Giorgio de Chirico was nevertheless a constant presence throughout the preparation of the exhibition. After I had dismissed the idea of borrowing a painting from the artist, Yoann Gourmel suggested that I showed a poster. I ordered one that ended up not being displayed. Then, I thought about entitling the exhibition Chant d’amour [“Song of Love”], as a reference to a painting by the Italian artist. I changed my mind upon writing the press release, realising such a title demanded an explanation that would have imposed upon each work a paternal ascendency that was completely irrelevant to the project. Thus Giorgio de Chirico left the exhibition for good. A few visitors may have caught sight of the poster, which was finally hung on the back of the door separating the exhibition space from the gallery staff’s rest area. When they went in or out, they would surreptitiously make it visible in the exhibition.
While Konrad Klapheck expressed his gratitude to Giorgio de Chirico in a text he wrote, his indebtedness is mainly manifested in his paintings.1 His first machine painting in 1955 features the picture of a building on a plaza. Crudely executed and mainly held together thanks to an extremely accentuated perspective, this small image may be seen as a reference to the Place d’Italie paintings Chirico tirelessly produced from 1910 up to the 1960s. According to Emily Braun, the suspended temporality that characterises these scenes results from an over-rational representation, and expresses the painter’s reaction to the photographic “evidence.”2 Faced with photography’s assertion that “this is how things are,” de Chirico retorts by challenging the self-evidence of these standardised representations. In any case, he disputes that this is the only way of experiencing the world. This is how he founded his metaphysical art that invokes imagination as a mode of perception. In short, he borrows photography’s realism to build contradictory situations with it. The Places d’Italie’s representational rationality paradoxically turns them into fictional places. The paintings could thus be seen as an encounter between the factual space of photography and the narrative apparatus of the stage.
Painting his first machine, Klapheck discovered that the familiar could become uncanny without recourse to over-excessive representation. By the artist’s own admission, this painting was a provocation. To lyrical Tachisme, then at its heyday, the painter wished to oppose a banal, coldly prosaic reality. The typewriter that was lying around would make an appropriate subject.
But the machine avenged itself from my exhibitionistic farce. Against my will, it turned into an unusual monster, both foreign and familiar, an unflattering portrait of my own self.3
Thus, with strict rules of production—Klapheck painted by following a methodical process, after outlining the contours of his machines with a ruler and a compass, like any industrial designer—the artist discovers a phantasmagorical world in which objects convey the affects, psyches and obsessions of the human beings that use them daily. Typewriters, sewing machines, telephones, taps and irons appear in his paintings as sometimes menacing and always enigmatic individuals. In an interview with Christopher Williams, Klapheck referred to them as protagonists.4
Christopher Williams: I really think if I’ve been lucky enough to have learned something from you, it’s that you really know how to stage an object. […] And for lack of a better term, I think it has a lot to do with staging.
Konrad Klapheck: Yes, the word stage is a word I like. The stage of a theater. And I might call my objects subjects, but I call them protagonists, too.5
I do not know Christopher Williams’ opinions on Giorgio de Chirico’s work. The surrealist painter indeed seems far removed from the post-conceptual concerns of the American photographer, who examines the social constructs that solidify around industrial artefacts. And yet the titles of his works, by providing far more information on their subject than needed, possess the same kind of unreasonable precision as de Chirico. Whether he indicates the type, the provenance, where it was sold and a lot more information so that we know exactly which Renault Dauphine is shown lying on its side, or, more generally, whether he informs us as much about what is shown, as on the conditions of production of the image itself, Christopher Williams always seems to indicate that a photograph does not say everything. Deeply indebted to German New Objectivity, his aesthetic is always complemented with signs casting doubt upon its “veracity.” Or at least upon the fact that an image alone may suffice to provide a representation. The For example: Die Welt ist Schön series thus explicitly refers to Albert Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 book Die Welt ist Schön, which heralded a formalist photographic vision in which objects were glorified by a vision that treated them as surfaces endowed with aesthetic qualities highlighted by the black-and-white, hence a vision that eliminated the social conditions of their existence. Now, Williams is precisely interested in objects because of the modes of production, circulation and value that turn them into objects of desire. This set of phenomena, from manufacturing to consumption, was to be found in the title of a recent solo exhibition, The Production Line of Happiness, in which he inscribed enslavement and happiness into a dialectical relationship of reciprocity.
In order to uncover the rationalisation process of consumption and behaviour, Christopher Williams did not borrow the staging of objects from Klapheck only. He indeed makes use of aesthetics typical to the advertising world, historically connected with photography. He states he works “within the programme” in order to underline the bond between his medium and industrial production.6 Photography makes what it represents desirable thanks to a set of activities ranging from stage setting to the production of images to their circulation. Christopher Williams explores this happiness-producing assembly chain according to a process similar to that of the manufacturing of goods.7 With his images and their captions, he shows that the guise of “objective” representation hides a system of irrational meanings.
In short, from methodical metaphysics to the analysis of the senseless mechanisms that guarantee industrial production and consumption, we find, in various forms, the same search for the contradictions of objectivity. This is, to my mind, what traverses these three works. Whether the artist stages surrealistic scenes, provides objects with an identity, or reveals the conditions of their glorification, a seemingly neutral and rigorous language is subverted.
We may consider this question from another angle. That of the distinction between an idea and its production. This is what in my sense is being articulated in Barbara Bloom’s “The Space Between the Lines.” Without trying to put forward a definitive theory, the artist takes pleasure in formulating anecdotes, historical facts, and personal experience from which she learns several lessons. A similar approach is to be found in most of her works, where objects and images are presented in such a way so as to generate associations that the viewers are invited to discover. She invites us to a similar quest for meaning by alternating reflections on stereotypes and their uses, on the ways tales provide a structure to our lives, on the distance separating a fact from an illustration. On the way, we encounter the main character of Wim Wenders’ The State of Things, a filmmaker forced to interrupt his movie because a producer has pulled out of the project. He comes to question the film industry’s expectations. “What are they always looking for ‘A Story’? Isn’t it enough to have the characters and the space between them?” he asks. We also discover a case study reported by Sigmund Freud of a child who, not having learned to use bad language yet, hurls names of common objects at his father during his fits of temper.
Many of these examples question the ways we give meaning to the gap separating an idea from a factual thing. According to Bérénice Reynaud, only when he was confronted with the need to use writing did Stuart Sherman exclusively turn toward the “cheap artefacts” that abound in his pieces. In "Wrestling with Angels and Demons—A Passion in Three Acts” a text written in the first person that also recounts the story of a friendship, Bérénice Reynaud recalls the way the actor, having decided to create his own pieces, turned away from language in order to use of what was at hand in his everyday life: trivial, common objects. From then on, these objects would become his letters and words. They constitute a vocabulary—that of a practice, the ritualising of which allows the repression of language and its replacement with another form of syntax. This practice gets written through the manipulation, the displacement and the combination of these objects. Reynaud’s analysis of the process relies on concepts borrowed from Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, and as such does not approach this practice only in terms of what it produces—a text—but also in terms of what it represses: the word. Psychoanalytic tools turn out to be highly efficient instruments for articulating the way this play on substitution is meant to keep desire at bay. Thus, in order to turn objects into words, in order to change their meaning, one needs to play with the affects and desire they convoke and convey. In other words, providing these “cheap artefacts” with new meanings demands the intensification of the psychological vehicle.
Significantly, around the same time Stuart Sherman invented his Spectacles, Matt Mullican was engaged in similar considerations. The starting point of his project concerned the mode of existence of representations. Where and how do they take place, the artist asks? This led him to create Glen, a character with simplified forms, as well as his feelings and his conditions of existence, and to mentally immerse himself, through a kind of trance that would guide him to the practice of hypnosis, in the representations he was drawing. In “Attending to Forms of Drunkenness” Vanessa Desclaux uses these experiences as a starting point to define the way the artist blurs the distance between objective reality and subjective reality. She finds a similar distance in the writing of Gertrude Stein and in the installations of Geoffrey Farmer. Each in a distinct way, the three practices have a challenging of depiction in common: what we see, or what we read, is shown in a distorted way, for our apprehension is troubled by the disruption produced by the artists’ subjectivity, thus complicating the distinction between objective apprehension and subjective interpretation. Once again, it is the psychological investment that makes inanimate objects as strange as they are irrational, as if they were the expressions of their users’ fantasies and impulses.
This moment of convergence between a psyche and the outside world was considered and described by Michel Leiris in a 1929 essay on Alberto Giacometti.
There are moments of what can be called crisis, which are the only ones that count in life. They are moments when what is going on outside seems to respond suddenly to the turbulence hurled out from within us, moments when the external world opens up and establishes a sudden communication with our heart.8
These intense, unpredictable moments are for Leiris the true fetishes humanity is seeking in its everyday life, made out of standards that only propose false fetishes. Opposed to the rationalised trickery of the latter is the osmosis of incoherent crises. Here imagination and desires appear as instruments of emancipation, leading the way toward a more impassioned sense of life.
One object has imposed itself as the purveyor of relations to the world: the computer. In “Contrat entre les hommes et l’ordinateur” a text written to be performed, borrowing its title from a text by Olympe de Gouges, its structure from a manifesto, and ending with a song, Judith Hopf aims to propose a sane relationship with machines that replace and channel our perception. Confronted with this situation, the artist seems to tell us, the danger does not arise from the machine but from the subordination of humanity to its mode of functioning. This is the reason why love is invoked as a redeeming principle.
A similar merging of science fiction, linguistic approaches and love is to be found in Samuel R. Delany’s novel Babel 17. The book portrays a futuristic world in which a new type of weapon appears. It is a language that turns whoever speaks it into a traitor. In this world, machines are controlled by the feelings shared by their users. Thus machines are activated through amorous human mediations. The enemy code is deciphered and destroyed by a poet who discovers that this language denies the possibility for self-expression. This triangulation that binds human feelings, objects and language is the starting point for Camille Pageard’s “To Cease or Continue.” The art historian considers various “speaking objects”: those archaeologists discovered in Greece, inscribed with engravings informing on their function or their owner; the poems Mallarmé wrote on various objects for carefully chosen addressees; and Marcel Duchamp’s Unhappy Ready-Made. These productions, stemming from separate contexts, are associated through Camille Pageard’s reflection on the object as the vehicle for a language in which the address becomes a crucial factor to be considered. Indeed, in order to make an object “speak,” it needs to be enclosed within a threefold relationship—the speaker, the vehicle-object, and the addressee—with the particularity that the roles of each participant are not truly independent.
Here again the image of an object emerges that, beyond its rational functionality, turns out to be the site of a subjective sleight of hand. A relation, always consented to even when it is repressed, is also uncovered. For if our desires are what draw us toward them, the same desires allow us to reinvent a less standardised relationship with objects.
Still, when Konrad Klapheck speaks about the stage, he also seems in my sense to evoke a particular disposition. The space in which his protagonists evolve is built from the framing that structures his images. The same kind of curious staging effect also seems at play in Giorgio de Chirico’s Places d’Italie: an unaltered context in which only the positions of the elements inhabiting the site are recomposed. This is certainly the role played by the folding table on which Stuart Sherman elaborates his vocabulary. It is also various kinds of stages that could be experienced at Le Plateau with Barbara Bloom’s Presence/Absence and Shelly Nadashy’s Water Feature, or that could be conveyed by videos such as Simon Dybbroe Møller’s Animate V, Anouchka Oler’s Episode 2 and James Welling’s Middle Video. Likewise, we could extrapolate by noting that the conditions of presentation of the objects are what render them expressive, charged with affects and desirable, whether one needs to use pedestals, shelves or shop windows. However, what all of these apparatuses have in common is the way they build an autonomous space possessing its own bounds.
In The Movement-Image, Gilles Deleuze claims that making a close-up shot of an object is to turn it into a face.9 His assertion follows a consideration about the face as a site of expression for actors. In film, however, the way to accentuate this externalisation of feelings is the close-up. As an instrument enabling filmmakers to make the most of their actors, this type of framing is used to spark off emotions. From this the idea results that the close-up as such, in its essence, is affect. While, for Deleuze, an object may acquire an expression in certain images, it is because the framing has a fragmentary agency. Indeed, the close-up does not present a partial object, but “raises it to the state of Entity.”10 What it shows is taken out of its context, and as such it ceases to be perceptible according to precise spatial-temporal co-ordinates. This leads Deleuze to assert that the affect may even emerge without the close-up, when it is replaced by its sole effect: fragmentation. Yet fragmentation is produced by the very stage-effect that seems to inform all the previously mentioned works. However, fragmentation is also active when objects are used as words or letters, like Jean-Pascal Flavien, Karl Larsson and Stuart Sherman do, each in their own way. I would therefore like to conclude that the affect appears in a space that has lost its homogeneity. In other words, an indeterminate environment gets charged with affect. In the end, what I am seeking, with these lectures, this exhibition and this collection is perhaps the means to make everyday close-ups.
Konrad Klapheck, “Quelques lignes de gratitude d’un peintre d’aujourd’hui à un maître d’hier,” in Fabrice Hergott (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: La fabrique des rêves (Paris: Musée d’art moderne, 2009), 355-56. ↩
Emily Braun, “La non-photographie,” Ibid., 169-79. ↩
Konrad Klapheck, “La Machine et moi,” in Fabrice Hergott (ed.), Konrad Klapheck (Strasbourg: Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, 2005), 104. ↩
I would like to thank Paul Bernard for notifying me this conversation between the two artists. ↩
“Konrad Klapheck in Conversation with Christopher Williams,” in Konrad Klapheck: Paintings (Göttingen—New York: Steidl—Zwirner & Wirth, 2007), 12. ↩
Guillaume Leingre, “La 19e Leçon: Christopher Williams,” 20/27 5 (2011): 155. ↩
See for instance Mark Godfrey, “Conversation with Christopher Williams,” Afterall 16 (Fall–Winter 2007): 62-70. ↩
Michel Leiris, “Alberto Giacometti” , in Écrits sur l’art (Paris: CNRS, 2011), 236. ↩
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomslison & Barbra Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 87-101. ↩
Ibid., 96. ↩
Published on <o> future <o>, April 18, 2016.
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This text introduces The Protagonists, a series of new contributions and translations edited by François Aubart, to accompany two recent projects: a series of talks entitled Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique (September 26, 2015–February 25, 2016) at centre d'art Passerelle, in Brest, and the exhibition Surfaces of You (January 21–April 10, 2016) at Le Plateau—Frac Île-de-France in Paris.