Paradise Lost – art and sensuality
Part I: La Maison de La vache qui rit
Our adventure in the département of the Jura begins at Lons-le-Saunier, where for several months La Maison de La vache qui rit will welcome an ensemble of colourful and playful artworks, sure to please even the most gourmand of visitors. Artists Hans-Peter Feldmann and Thomas Bayrle are well-represented here. In 2014 and 2015, the two artists collaborated with the Bel Group for their special Collector’s Edition Boxes. Their creations have since entered into the collection, just as they were warmly welcomed by the public and adopted by a large number of amateur collectors. Thus, the presence of Feldmann and Bayrle seems only natural in this museum space, dedicated to The Laughing Cow, where in addition to their creations for the Group, their artworks are used to adorn certain architectural elements of the building or as mischievous accessories added to some of the icons of our contemporary culture.
The exhibition Touching the Moon / Toucher La Lune was held at the Galerie 5 at the University of Angers from 12 January – 25 February 2012.
With regard to the title of the exhibition, one might argue that there is an inherent contradiction in this dual process of adorning the walls of the venue and the faces of certain icons. However, the act of adorning or clothing here does not necessarily exclude the notion of ‘stripping bare’. In the bluish and fluid movement that is Blaue Kuhtapete / Blue Cow Wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, which covers part of the hall on the ground floor, the logo of the flagship brand of the Bel Group is essentially reduced to a form of sketch or outline. This simplification reinforces the impact or visual punch of the logo, which is subsequently used as the base motif or starting point—superforms to cite the author—for the creation of other figures for the Collector’s Edition Boxes. This process, which sees a return to a slightly old-fashioned aesthetic—the artist revives the logo used in the sixties, a decade during which Bayrle began to make use of the motif in his work—introduces in its own way a symbolic form of undressing. Indeed, Bayrle’s method may be said to strip the motif of some of its attributes and its primary function, so as to better reveal its essence, which he then appropriates and subverts for other figurative purposes. A few steps from there can be seen the naked bodies of Feldmann’s David and Eve, placed in a prominent position amongst the red noses that illustrate the principle of appropriation used by the artist for the first edition of the Collector’s Boxes. The noses, like the naked sculptures, call for a certain degree of complicity on behalf of the viewer.
Both sculptures may be said to evoke a reinterpreted or reworked version of the Garden of Eden, also suggested by the lush vegetation covering one of the inner walls of La Maison. By endowing nudity with biblical connotations—although this is disrupted somewhat by the substitution of Adam by David—they may be said to echo, albeit indirectly some of the other pieces of the collection. For example, the erotically armoured body of the figure in Anna Molska’s Hecatomb, thrashing about, whip in hand, in its foam environment, may be read as a theatrical and offbeat revival of creation or origin myths. All the while playing with the representation of a kind of earthly paradise, confined to a greenhouse space imbued with a lost innocence, here the environment seems to presage the consequences of man’s fall from grace—a vision that is particularly pertinent to today’s environmental concerns.
The trompe-l’oeil egg sculpture by Ugo Rondinone, still.life. (one egg), on display at the centre of the temporary exhibition space, seems to suggest an opening towards the unknown, in any and every form. The circular platform on which the egg is placed, restricting proximity, makes it as tempting as the apple that Eve offers David with her right hand. It is interesting to note that the apple is another trompe-l’oeil model included by Rondinone in his still.life. series. Although the egg sculpture is not ordinarily presented on this circular platform, here it serves to accentuate the egg’s symbolic dimension, highlighting the promises, lessons or the dangers it might contain despite its nude fragility and false mask of normality.
Further on in the exhibition space, food dyes transform banal pigeons into an unknown species. Just as Hans-Peter Feldmann clothes his sculptures in colour, here the dyes provide the made-over birds with a new sensuality, saddled by their author with the enigmatic title of Naked Parrots. The title chosen by Etienne Chambaud evokes yet another form of exposure or stripping bare. Should we interpret it as the discovery of a filiation with a related but now extinct species? Or should we instead read it as the revelation of the consequences of a mysterious genetic mutation which, echoing the parable recounted in Anna Molska’s video work, may be said to translate the excesses of consumer society? Unless of course the nudity here, in all its plastic dimensions, is nothing more than another means of attracting attention, particularly for the more protean amongst us. In short, a seduction strategy to ensure the survival of the species.
All of these bodies and exposed objects, whether revealed through colour or accentuated by the lights of Ryan Gander’s lamps, arranged side by side a little further away in the exhibition space of La Maison, seem to offer various forms of sensory temptation to the visitor. The moulds of Rubén Grilo’s chocolate bars, in various pastel shades, provide the visitor with a visual and veritable sense of gourmandise. The complex and extremely precise scientific titles of his paintings/installations keep an account of the bite marks already received. We imagine that this is likely to whet the appetite of the visitor even further.
The visitor’s gaze undresses the artworks on display. The tantalizing, shimmering colours encourage a form of denuding, a return to our origins in a sense, insidiously shifting our perception of the works of art towards an edible and seductive dimension. Appetizing, the bodies offer themselves up in an environment that is both round and smooth, which, like the candy universe within which the story of Hansel and Gretel unfolds, contains no less of a threat to anyone who dares to venture there. By marrying a harmless children’s toy to a sharp axe in A Lamp made by the artist For His wife (9th Attempt), Ryan Gander pays particular attention to this mixture of seduction and danger, and literally puts in the spotlight the possibility of a sharp reversal. This work highlights how the visitor’s gaze may seesaw violently at any moment; at the risk of falling into an unexpected abyss, thereby recalling certain images of Anna Molska’s film. Indeed, this risk is inherent to the sensitive and ambivalent work of art when one seeks, a little too closely, to reveal it.
The seat of thought – systems of de-layering and exhaustion at work
Part II: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dole
Dole presents a completely different facet of the collection. While the works at Lons-le-Saunier may be said to engage with the register of sensation or feeling, renewing even with a form of childlike innocence reminiscent of the exhibitions Rewind and Histoires sans sorcière hosted by La Maison de La vache qui rit in 2010 and 2014 respectively, the stripping bare or denuding of the collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts operates at a more cerebral or aloof register which, despite its similarities or resonances with the first part of the exhibition, calls into question the status of the artist and his/her production, as well as the historical setting and social context in which it is inscribed.
This intellectual, reflective and generally more conceptual dimension is quite obvious with Benoît Maire’s work, Tête. The work consists of a reproduction of a head in wax, stuck on top of a glass carafe. A knife can be seen protruding from the sculpture, the handle of the blade planted in the jaw. Incisive, this knife may be said to be representative of the thought process stimulated by a work of art, and even more so within the context of an exhibition. In dire ce qui est caché est l’ennui, the contents of the drawer of a desk and the display cabinet placed on top of it introduce the same kind of thought process that all artistic work is likely to generate. Indeed, through its title, presentation and the heterogeneity of its formal vocabulary, the installation hints at a complexity of approaches, of multiple meanings. Like Tête, the latter work generates a dialogue between opacity and transparency, interiority and the externalization of that which is hidden. The installation illustrates a practice common to Maire’s recent work, the subtle and discreet use of words, which in this particular piece are tied in with the promise of an ongoing intellectual trajectory, a questioning of sorts, the materialization of a thought process. Similar to the never-ending action of disrobing or undressing as conceived by Méliès2 in his day, Maire too seems to allude to the impossibility of understanding as a result of the sheer number of meanings hidden behind each meaning—a meaning within a meaning within a meaning—and the vast field of references, indeed strata of references, to which they are linked.
In Clods I and II by Chris Evans, thought is transposed to a more meditative dimension, through the presence of the yoga mats on the floor. These undermine the imposing intimidating plaster sculptures placed alongside them, seemingly incapable of finding a foothold in the space of the exhibition. Beyond the political dimension introduced through the transposition of elements evocative of the Hull prison riot of 1976, a form of deracination is represented here in a very literal fashion, which seems to celebrate, at the heart of these two installations, art’s power of elevation, as well as its potential for hope and spirituality. A notion echoed a few metres from there in the fragile vertical rod used to structure the airy sculpture-installation Upright (No. 4) by James Clarkson. Parallels may also be drawn between the aeriality of Clarkson’s piece and the fragility of the plant-based drawings which Chris Evans assigns to diplomatic figures, and which may be seen on the walls of the exhibition space. In the same game of contrasts between the materials on show, the butts of cigarettes stuck in the sand between two large sections of the marble sculpture Untitled (R L Butts) by Gabriel Kuri in another space of the Museum, are symbolic of another type of suspension. Counterbalancing the mass of the marble structure, they encourage the visitor to free his mind of the sculptural body and to imagine, albeit for a brief spell, a sense of both dematerialization and gravitational detachment.
In John Stezaker’s series Marriage, the photographic hybridization results in a form of laying bare of the psyche that recreates the contours and nature of the bodies. Like the knife in Tête, the formal exploration creates a destabilization of the codes, reassuring of sorts, which govern appearances, particularly within this rather academic context. This hybridization disturbs the gaze of the viewer, as is evidenced in the folds of Blind II—here identity is unstable, floating, and the very genres that circumscribe it are themselves badly shaken. In Mask CVL and Night I, this extrication of thought or meaning evolves towards mental landscapes through the symbolic resonances created through the use of postcards covering the faces of the figures in the appropriated vintage photographs. Rather than acting as a mask whose purpose is to hide or conceal —like the tickets pasted onto the faces of sportspeople by Gabriel Kuri—here the postcards point towards an interior relief, the waterfalls and grottos of the psyche, enabling the viewer to gain some kind of insight into the artworks and the models they depict.
One may wonder whether in Jorge Pedro Nuñez’s work, Madame Duvaucey’s nose, far from being reduced as it is in Feldmann’s to the closed roundness of the clown’s accessory, is used as a device to strip bare thought processes. Indeed a kind of openness or expansion of thought seems to be at play in the Sergio Leone landscapes towards which the nose extends, an extension that is significantly less aggressive than Benoît Maire’s work with the jaw and the protruding knife. Indeed, Madame Duvaucey’s nose may be said to echo the practice of antinaturalistic deformation to which Ingres was accustomed. This assemblage clearly expresses the dynamics of a liberation and expansion of thought through the lamp stand that protrudes from the confined frame of the portrait that holds the Ingres-like figure prisoner, to the more generous Cinemascope expanses associated with the father of the Spaghetti Western. While decompartmentalizing the body, but expanding its limits and experimenting its elasticity in a much more controlled way than the head stuck in the carafe, this anatomical expansion allows the artist to allude to—from what he may deduce from the contents of the albeit closed book—the multiplicity of thought relating to this female figure. However, the content of this vast mental landscape is less clearly asserted than in John Stezaker’s work, however opaque the motifs associated with his glazed photographic portraits may be. All of the complexity and ambiguity of Ingres’ painting are echoed in this association, skilfully freed from its academic immobility, in a movement towards an expansion and illumination (hence the use of the lamp stand), which offers countless keys to deciphering the smile of the model, all the while highlighting the difficulty that such an attempt entails. Like Pinocchio’s nose, the excessive prolongation of the appendage which connects these aesthetic worlds, from one book to another, implies the possibility of failure with regard to an analytical de-layering. In this piece, Nuñez alludes to the ultimate impossibility of penetrating Madame Duvaucey’s thoughts while paradoxically attempting to reveal her through an analytical de-layering. He underlines her ambivalence while highlighting her complexity in such a way that the mystery of her femininity remains intact. Perhaps a similar message can be seen in the red nose used by Hans-Peter Feldmann to adorn a cow or even President George Washington in his One Dollar Bill with red nose. The simple figurative and chromatic intervention of the red nose suggests a form of effervescence beneath the seemingly bland surface of the artist’s models hinting perhaps at an unexpected depth, marrying mischief and gravity.
The different forms of mental undressing or de-layering generated by these vistas seem in effect, to lead to an impasse. Just like the viewer whose attempts to penetrate the thoughts of Madame Duvaucey are frustrated by their multiplicity, the proliferation of copies of Ed Ruscha’s Crackers used by Jonathan Monk in his eponymous work hints at the impossibility of appropriating the fascination they provoke. Demonstrated in a more radical fashion than in Nuñez’s work, Monk’s video bears witness to the impenetrable character of the formal universe under exploration and emphasizes the failure that results from any attempt at appropriation. The analytical undressing planned by the artist brutally resists the exercise. The systems and universes under study reinforce their impenetrability; as if the artist, turned into a collector or critic, had become aware of the full force of the power of the aesthetic movement in which he was inscribed or was driven to make use of masks so as to better signify the difficulty inherent in unveiling it himself.
If Kuri’s Self portrait as a distribution diagram introduces elements of self-definition which may be considered as poetic, the different expressive structures employed in his Declared Preferences vs. Revealed References seem to lead to the same kind of impasse. A single motif (a black metal trashcan), seen in various sizes within the installation, is affected by its association with a range of different objects (including the shells that also adorn his self-portrait), and the readings these imply. Despite the shifts brought about by the changes in scale, the work seems to systematically withdraw into itself. While the title of the work translates a degree of indecision, a lack of objectivity or even opposition within its seemingly structured discourse, the formal universe of the work clearly imposes a closure, a shift towards closed and obscure spaces, with the inherent threat of a fall similar to that from Paradise Lost. Although it gives the illusion of proceeding by the gradual liberation or broadening of our field of vision, if one follows the arrangement of the motifs, a form of opacity nevertheless remains.
The process of analysis ends up turning back on itself, exhausting its possibilities. It comes up against a form of resistance confirmed in the work of some of the other artists from the collection in their attempts to define or understand events to which they are connected or the environment within which they live. Roman Ondák’s methodical reconstruction in the piece Tomorrows (Handshake) however, barely succeeds in providing a greater depth of understanding of the facts. Rather than providing the answers with regard to what might have happened during this historic encounter, re-enacted by children, it highlights the propensity of events to repeat themselves or indeed of history to close in on itself in a kind of folding effect translated by the formal presentation of the work, with the two sides of the folded photograph suggesting that the future harks back to the past.
In this movement of de-layering (disrobing) and analysis that takes place around him, the artist may often seem somewhat powerless. He can only indicate a form of opposition to the movement in which he is caught up, as Chris Evans does through his symbolic and politically-charged appropriation of a historic revolt, or Slaven Tolj through his direct denunciation of both the currents threatening to undermine his professional environment and the aberration of a political system which, under cover of promises of economic viability, systematically programmes the elimination of artists. In the series of photographs, Citius, Altius, Fortius, the egg of our Lost Paradise can be seen caught between the fingers of a Madonna with child, as if suddenly charged with a destructive power on the verge of annihilating everything that surrounds it. But this motif with its almost atomic undertones and which in this particular piece takes on the appearance of a golf ball, also translates through a surprising U-turn, the hope that art can also bring about a wave of intellectual destabilization strong enough to undermine the very mechanisms of thought criticized by his artworks. Between the fingers of the Madonna and the other religious figures with which the artist associates it, the golf ball becomes a kind of weapon that Tolj can use to his advantage. A weapon that benefits from the complicity of strategically positioned allies who are at once extremely spiritual and liberating, and endowed with a power greater than that of the political system that vies for his destruction. An element which successfully summarizes the pernicious approach of his adversaries and ends up introducing the same promises of openness as the egg in still.life. (one egg) by Ugo Rondinone through its way of revealing, behind the denunciation that its illustrates, a field of possibilities that do not necessarily engage an eviction.
By questioning visitors and affecting their way of thinking, the work of art is endowed with a political force capable of overturning the movement of History in the same way as the fold used in Roman Ondák’s Tomorrows (Handshake), or the movement towards the exterior symbolized by the carpet in Public Balcony, which subtly allows the artist to transfer the subversive dimension of an artwork outside of the confines of the museum (in an act of invading the public space reminiscent of Thomas Bayrle’s wallpaper). The artwork has the potential to bring about this blossoming and intellectual germination hinted at in Chris Evans’s plant drawings or in the representation, on a lifelike scale of a packet of seeds by Jef Geys in his composition Choux de Bruxelles (Sonda). Parallels may be drawn between the multiple copies of Jonathan Monk’s Crackers and the portent of expansion and proliferation inherent in Gey’s piece—the impressive amount of sprouts juxtaposed, filled with the promise of flavour and fragrance, ready to revegetate the Garden of Eden from which the visitor seems to have been displaced. The thought or reflection that the work engenders seems to break free of its confines, as if released by the disrobing to which it lends itself and of which it is the object.
3. The revelation of the body in the landscape jurassien*
Part III: Belvédère Calonne de Sappel
It is in the closed and private garden of Belvédère Calonne de Sappel, located in one of the most beautiful villages of the Jura—Baume-les-Messieurs—that the third part of the exhibition takes place. An ensemble of sculptures by Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel explore nudity in a very literal fashion. However, similar to Hans-Peter Feldmann’s work at La Maison de La vache qui rit, they do so in a form devoid of any sexual provocation or voyeurism, shielded by their reference to sculpture, both ancient and in its more contemporary forms, and whose codes they enjoy subverting with their customary irreverence.
The finely-knit cardigan of Buste, placed in a prominent position at the entrance to the garden, serves paradoxically to better highlight the notion of nudity, just as a tightly-fitting top would accentuate the curves of its wearer. One can easily imagine that the cardigan was worn against the skin of this strangely truncated body, perhaps due to inclement weather conditions. The choice of material (the concrete) brings a true sense of transparency. While Hans-Peter Feldmann chose to clothe the bodies of David and Eve (rather like Godard’s Mépris [Contempt]) in a layer of colour, Daniel Dewar and Grégory Gicquel prefer the almost expressionless uniformity of a concrete knit that renders the distinction between the body and garment barely noticeable, in places. The carnal dimension gradually fades, almost as if the body itself had disappeared, in stark contrast to the elaborate details of the cardigan.
At a short distance from here, in the park a pair of Fantômes (ghosts) can be said to further emphasize this phenomenon: they suffer the same loss of physicality through their fluidity of form within the compact mass of the material. Similar to the photographic duos in John Stezaker’s Marriage series, the contours of the models are blurred as if to better fit inside the other, marking a lack of distinction that culminates in another area of the park in the quasi abstraction that is Figure, a sculpture of two connected legs with absurd undertones.
In The Minuet, the work reduces the bodies—again truncated at waist level—to an abstraction, with all the fragility of a choreographic movement. The bodies lose themselves in the uniform succession of images similar to Jonathan Monk’s Crackers, diluted in the influence of a musicality punctuated by the subtle changes in the light.
It is as if the power of the landscape jurassien* succeeds in orchestrating, in this Paradise Regained, a series of disappearances. Through the richness and subtlety of its palette, it seemingly highlights the immateriality of the mass of concrete; through the rich detail and the nuances of the hollows, it seemingly emphasizes the sheer weight of the mass, and through its shifting and chameleon-like nature, it seemingly throws light on the fragility and inconsistency of the material. However, it is through the sense of mischief employed by the artists in their work that the disappearance of the body, reminiscent of the ideas explored in Benoît Maire, Gabriel Kuri and Chris Evans’ sculptures and installations at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dole, acquires a form of poetry and lightness. Far from being oppressive or hopeless, the disappearing or vanishing that the landscape succeeds in orchestrating, ultimately allows the works to absorb the subtle spirit of the place.
Identities on Display
At the entrance to each of the three exhibition sites, a locker from Karin Sander’s installation Identities on Display offers yet another form of dematerialization and bareness. Although this effect can be said to be created by the presence of the transparent Plexiglas walls or by the fact that the lockers, when not used by the visitors, are left empty, the effect of dematerialization and bareness that this work generates lies primarily in its propensity to invite visitors to an unveiling, comparable to the stripping bare of the artworks they are about to discover. The visitor may use the locker/installation to hang his coat during his visit and in this way, the installation becomes charged with the visitor’s essence. In other words, the artwork is formally redefined by the visitor.
Therefore, over the duration of this three-part exhibition, a series of portraits are gradually drawn, allowing the collection to display new variations. Karin Sander contributes to sketching a typography of the sites in which the three distinct units of her work act as a bridge or point of connection. She seeks to define the sociological identity of each place and emphasize, through the contrasts that exist between them, their unique characteristics.
The actual process of the exhibition finds itself stripped bare, as if unclothed by its visitors, even. It is revealed through the same dynamics of critical analysis that allows the works on display to be deflowered, one by one. Indeed through this process, the presence of the visitor and the impact of his gaze may be said to be rendered sensitive, perceptible and tangible, caught in a shift that reveals the visitor both to himself and to others.
*relating to the Jura