This is Aurelien Froment’s first solo show in the UK and it quietly confirms why he has been garnering favourable press. His work carries intellectual weight with a light touch, conceptual but personable, playful even. The show contains two main elements; the first relates to the 19th century German educationalist Friedrich Froebel, theorist of the kindergarten; the second to the contemporary feature and documentary director Werner Herzog, specifically to the myths and struggles surrounding the making of his seminal film, Fitzcarraldo . The two parts function like musical themes, the physical works like a series of variations, sometimes reflecting each other and at other times parrying.
Friedrich Froebel’s significant insight was to acknowledge the essential role of play and activity in childhood learning. He introduced the concept of freiarbeit (free play) into pedagogy and established, that in childhood, reality primarily takes the form of a game. He also developed and produced the ‘Froebel Gifts’, a series of geometric forms (sphere, cube, cylinder etc) for children’s play, believing that interaction with these universal forms helped a child to evolve a sophisticated understanding of nature, frame concepts of beauty and foster creativity and mathematical understanding. His educational concepts were banned by the Prussian state for being ‘atheistic and demagogic’ with ‘destructive tendencies in the areas of religion and politics’. However, Foebel’s theories had significant influence in the field of modernist architecture, particularly on the works of Frank Lloyd-Wright, who acknowledged Froebels’ ‘gifts’ in his autobiography, writing:
The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterwards leaves the fingers; so form becomes feeling… These primary forms and figures were the secret [of] all effects which were ever got into the architecture of the world.
Froment’s interest in Froebel makes sense; his work has centred on issues of learning and semantics for some time. In his 2007 film ‘Théâtre de Poche’ he showed a magician aligning iconic images from art history on the screen in front of him. The film demonstrated Froment’s interest in structuralism and how the semantic ordering of images or words constructs understanding. It also contains a trademark playfulness. Theory informs the work but has been assimilated successfully and does not flag itself up unnecessarily. At Gasworks, a film entitled ‘Knot Experiments’ deals with similar territory. It shows the tying of a series of knots, with subtitles showing mnemonic poems for remembering the series of actions necessary for the tying of each one. It examines the distance between a linguistic construct and the reality it attempts to describe, riffing on the frailty of memory.
The artist created some of his own mnemonics for knots too complex for the mnemonic technique. These memory poems become comically over-long and demonstrate the weakness of linguistic learning in the face of this level of complexity. Froment has placed a series of giant geometric forms in homage to Froebel’s ‘gifts’ right in front of the film, opening up a dialogue concerning themes of learning, language, play, memory and meaning, between film and objects.
This interest in meaning and its construction is continued in ‘Now I Bring in the Brick what Rhymes with Brick’, which shows a series of photographs of a hand holding a brick through the cycle of a full rotation, and a second series of photographs of a hand holding the complete works of Shakespeare performing the same action. With the full cycle the action becomes obvious, but if shots were shown individually the meaning would be completely altered with the brick appearing to be thrown or the book passed on to another. Similarly, on its own, this work appears to be a simplistic exercise, but within the context of the other works it is rewarding.
The show moves on to what might be described as the Herzog section, incorporating Froment’s concerns with celluloid, story, myth and memory. The artist worked for some time as a projectionist in a small Parisien cinema that was also a distributor.
During this time he came across various documents concerning Herzog and Fitzcarraldo including the plans for a ship built for the film. Using these plans, Froment built a 30cm scale replica of the boat and the mountain over which it is pulled. The reconstruction of memory and its failures is a recurring theme. Froment has built an exact replica of the wall in the cinema in Paris from behind which films were presented.
However, the most important piece in this installation is the artist’s book Like the Cow Jumped Over the Moon that presents a conversation between the artist and Herzog about the making of Fitzcarraldo . Froment presents a series of myths surrounding the film that the director fails to remember or remembers quite differently. Memory fails but the artwork triumphs. At one point in the conversation they discuss the theory that Herzog based the character of Fitzcarraldo on a rubber baron named Fitzgerald and Herzog’s obsession with the moving of the Neolithic standing stones at Locmariaquer in France:
Aurélien Froment: And how are Fitzgerald and Locmariaquer connected?
Werner Herzog: I don’t know. I’m a storyteller! Things connect automatically. I’m a poet. (chuckles)
Aurélien Froment: That’s a good answer.
It feels likely that if Froment were asked the same question about the elements of this show he might well give the same answer.
John Douglas Millar is a writer based in London