In a work from 2007 entitled ‘Le Comble ’, Etienne Chambaud compiled all the preparatory notes for his first solo exhibition at Galerie Lucile Corty, painted them black, and pinned them with magnets to a canvas brushed with black magnetic paint. If this suppression of content seems paradoxical or even maladroit, given how openly it is carried out, it also indicates something of Chambaud with regard to both his forebears and his peers—irreverence toward one kind of mystery, and devotion to another. The first could be called ‘the recondite’ or esoteric, an echelon of knowledge open only to the initiate. Among Chambaud’s neo-conceptualist peers, that knowledge is of conceptualism proper: its tropes, muses and protagonists, whose commitment to transparency has found itself increasingly obscured by neo-conceptualism’s imbricate, hermetic citations of it. In ‘Le Comble ’, these references are low-hanging fruit, from the monochrome to the text, a rejoinder to Yves Klein’s ‘Le Vide ’, 1958, and Arman’s ‘Le Plein ’, 1960, a cunning word play in the tradition of Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, Hollis Frampton.
But these references are a little too ripe, and have a way of annulling each other. One might reasonably wonder why Chambaud would go to such lengths to illustrate the opacity of his intentions, unless, of course, the illustration is just a red herring. The mystery seems to have, in fact, nothing to do with information, no matter how recondite or art historically obscure, but rather with wilful occlusion itself. ‘Er lasst sich nicht lesen ’ (‘There are some secrets do not permit themselves to be told…’), writes Edgar Allan Poe at the beginning of his story ‘The Man in the Crowd’, 1840. This second kind of mystery, that which is buried at the very root of intention and the very identity of which lies in its refusal to be divulged, is Chambaud’s lodestone.
‘The Man in the Crowd’ is a proto-detective story in which an unnamed protagonist tracks an old man who has a most curious expression, through the streets of London, always aware of the man’s whereabouts but never of his intentions. This is a common situation in Chambaud’s work, most explicit in his collaboration with artist Benoît Maire. In ‘Position Actuelle de l’Idéalisme (Current Position of Idealism)’, 2007-2009, the artists constructed a raft, in which they embedded a large white satellite tracker before launching it onto the sea. For months, a virtual audience received Google Earth updates on l’idéalisme’s precise location as it floated westward from its arbitrary point of departure, somewhere off the coast of Brittany. Idealism—as a theory, a concept, and above all, a raft—was cast off, yet constrained to report back consistently on its whereabouts. It was, Chambaud explains, ‘an abandonment that endlessly refers to its status as abandoned’. One might note the degree to which this action inverts a short history of waterborne crossings in contemporary art, anchored, among others, notably in Bas Jan Ader’s tragically terminal ‘In Search of the Miraculous’, 1975, (the Dutch artist set out to cross the Atlantic in a sailboat; ten months later, the boat was discovered floating off the coast of Ireland; Ader’s body was never found), and Piero Golia’s ‘off-radar’ odysseys ‘Going to Tirana’, 2000, and ‘Postcards from the Edge’, 2007. The latter works are structured around departures and destinations, while the voyages remain obscure, romantic, occluded. In Chambaud and Maire’s case, there is no destination, simply a periodic assurance that idealism has survived to this point in its dérive (though, as Chambaud is quick to point out, the predictability of oceanic currents renders specious the notion of dérive, even at sea). It persists through the waves like Poe’s old man through the crowd, without any aesthetic intention or, more precisely, meaningfulness guiding its drift.
A complement to this drift is Chambaud’s series of book works, ‘Atlas,’ 2008, which the artist produced by cutting holes into the pages of an atlas. The incisions produce a ‘lacunary geography’, the missing portions of which suggest global shortcuts through the unexpected juxtaposition of faraway territories. The holes are arranged so as to connect two places in the world (the artist is characteristically mum as to which, except to say that their relation is often historical and, consequently, political. The ‘Atlas,’ however, is displayed under glass and spread to a page at the centre of the book, which renders this relation inaccessible or unreadable. Chambaud’s procedure is thus a secret one, with only the look of being mapped, as it were, on an open book. The map as an object of geographical candor has been negated.
The negating cutout, or hole punch, punctuates Chambaud’s practice. ‘Personne’, 2008, a Depression-era photo of a young boy, retrieved from the Farm Security Administration’s archives, that has been ‘killed’ (the term for de-selecting photo negatives by punching a hole through their centre), recalls the earlier slide projector work, ‘L’Epochè Fantastique’, 2007. In the latter, 74 images of the night sky turn in succession, depicting luminous swaths of cloud slipping past a moon that has been ‘killed’, negative by negative. The black dot in its place reads like a mordant rejection of ‘romantic conceptualism’, as heralded in Jörg Heiser’s exhibition of the same name at the Kunsthalle Nuremburg in 2007. In a catalogue essay for the this exhibition, Jan Verwoert argues for the redemtion of conceptualism from its failure to expand the horizon of art by re-describing it as a ‘practice of producing potentialities’. The concepts adumbrated by conceptual artworks, Verwoert contends, created convergence points for Romantic-style ‘liberated intersubjectivity’. While Chambaud’s killing of the moon need not be a statement about the Romantic objectives of conceptualism (nor my argument, about the validity of Verwoert or Heiser’s re-framing of conceptualism), it does set forth a resistance to continuing in this mode by canceling out the object of romantic, if not Romantic, contemplation.
In contrast, for example, to the appellative ‘Please Don’t Leave Me’, 1969, by Bas Jan Ader or Robert Barry’s ‘Marcuse Piece’, 1970, a wall text that reads ‘A place to which we can come for a while and be free to think about what we are going to do’, Chambaud’s neon work ‘Disclaimer’, 2007, responds to a quite different ethos, one neither of potential relation nor potential conversation. ‘I would prefer not to too’, it reads in cursive, on a neon left unlit and thus doubly contrary, in echo of Herman Melville’s exemplary artist-of-withdrawal, the legal copyist Bartleby.
Bartleby was decidedly not a man of the crowd, however his motivations were no less obscure than Poe’s man. His refusal to ‘create’, that is, to copy, takes on particular irony when parroted by Chambaud, who in turn parrots the neon in post-1960s art. Bruce Nauman’s ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’, 1967, is one such neon, standing in apt, albeit equally ironic, counterpoint. For if Chambaud’s work often constitutes a negation of the hermetic conceptualist legacy, if it is, at the very least, an attempt to refuse its potentialities, then what else is at stake? Or, put otherwise, what’s the mystery, and why all the secrecy?
By way of an answer, one might turn first to ‘mystic truths’, or more precisely, a notion of gnostic knowledge. Gnosticism, according to the philosopher and gnostic scholar Hans Jonas, opposes the rational knowledge whereby a knowing subject is ‘informed’, and instead describes a particular esotericism in which ‘the known divulges itself and the knower is “transformed”’. It is characteristic of gnostic knowledge, in other words, to resist rational, however hard-won, information. Gnostic knowledge is a shard of the divine; if it were discoverable, even to an initiate, it would not be the truth. Its nature is precisely its secrecy, its inscrutablility, ‘Er lasst sich nicht lesen’ . The Gnostics were, furthermore, heretics, in claiming the existence of an ‘alien God’, distinct from the evil Creator who is responsible for the fallen, corrupt and decidedly evil world. Chambaud’s playful ‘heresies’, whether in negations or a certain doltish self-evidence, oppose a conceptualist legacy and its transmission in the ‘informed’ works of neo-conceptualism.
One such instance of self-evidence is Chambaud’s series ‘Les Coloristes Coloriées (The Coloured Colourists)’, 2009. Three different archival images from early 20th century workshops, in which groups of women are portrayed tinting the details on film stock, are silkscreened onto canvases. Chambaud then paints their faces in tones ranging from beige to peony. His gesture is tautological, and not a little ridiculous—yet it takes on growing complexity the longer one considers it, suggesting references from Warhol’s fuchsia-faced Marilyn to Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’, 1850. The three photographs depict three different stages in the development of the film-painting factory. In the second image, there are more women than the first, standing at podiums rather than sitting at desks. In the third image, the number of workers is greatly reduced, as though in anticipation of the imminent obsolescence of their labour with the advent of colour film stock. At his recent exhibition in a module at the Palais de Tokyo, these three images were repeated and interspersed in a band around the room, like the reassembled scraps of a film sequence documenting the end of trade, a trade the artist anachronistically repeats. This copying seems a little too ingenuous, as though the images were hiding some knowledge that might be revealed through force of repetition (but, of course, is not).
For a recent project at L’Espace Blank in Paris, Chambaud once again took up the mantle of the copyist. Asked to partner with an artist from a different generation (an elder bien entendu ), Chambaud elected instead to work with the curator’s nephew, Sebastien Macel, aged seven. Together with Macel, Chambaud produced four series of seven drawings: an original drawn by ‘le petit Macel ’, and six others faithfully copied by hand by Chambaud. The versions of the drawings—a shark, elephant, snake and ‘a seated giraffe’—are indistinguishable one from the other. In the exhibition, five of each are displayed, one having been kept for each of the artists’ private collections. Accompanying them are one of Chambaud’s own drawings from 1983, ‘The Zoo Guards’, and a sculpture produced in collaboration with the young Macel, consisting of large stones and coloured shards of Plexiglass. Reminiscent of Liam Gillick’s relational structures, the arrangement reflects Macel’s design and Chambaud’s heavy lifting. The imbalance of power in this collaboration, in terms of both social roles and economic benefits, creates an aura of illicitness around the enterprise and its private economy of labour and vision. One imagines a secret pact seems to govern their relationship, one that the spectator, in his inability to distinguish artist from juvenile from juvenilia, is also called upon to uphold.
A final secret, perhaps Chambaud’s most elaborate to date, is planned for the spring of 2010: an exhibition at three art foundations, the David Roberts Foundation in London, the Kadist Art Foundation in Paris and the Nomas Foundation in Rome, each of which will simultaneously interpret a ‘script’, the details of which are confidential but which will include a protean staging of objects, individuals and operations. The components of the exhibition, The Sirens’ Stage will vary from place to place and day to day, evoking Robert Morris’s Continuous Project, Altered Daily at Leo Castelli in 1969, yet perverting the legacy of this benchmark exhibition. Instead of an art historically-informed awareness of non-fixity and its complement, unique experience, Chambaud’s project promises to produce the absence of two other experiences, carried out in other metropolises among other (art) crowds. Like Poe’s man, The Sirens’ Stage ’s essence is constant movement; each site refuses to be alone, to be cornered by any one spectator. The crowd, after all, is a superb context for losing someone in a chase, though this never comes to pass in Poe’s story. Instead, its narrator ends his pursuit himself, concluding, ‘He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him… and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that “er lasst sich nicht lesen ”.’ That, or it is but one of the great prerogatives of art.
Joanna Fiduccia is a writer based in Paris
Etienne Chambaud, The Sirens’ Stage, will be showing simultaneously at David Roberts Foundation London, Kadist Art Foundation Paris, Nomas Foundation Rome, spring 2010