Waking State (etc).
With Otto Berchem, Armin Boehm, Tim Eitel, Clarisse Hahn, Julien Prévieux,Taryn Simon, Slavs and Tatars and Jeff Wall
Galerie Jousse-Entreprise, Paris
September 8 – October 27, 2012
The French term “état de veille” has many meanings. First off, it means being awake, in a waking state, as opposed to being asleep; but it also means being on stand-by, ready to start up again, like a machine set on stand-by, with a little red light glowing in the half-light of an apartment. We also talk of “travail de veille”, meaning a state of vigilance, the activity of a lookout—and this is veille as in “monitoring”, of information, health matters, and the like. In this sense, you have to be on the alert, eyes peeled, on the lookout for the slightest of signs. This state only makes sense because we know that something can happen, and we must have seen it coming. This is the state of the day-before, for veille also means eve—the state of time spent waiting, or in expectation, prior to the event, sometimes with the awareness of an imminent threat.
What here gives rise to anxiety, what here calls for vigilance, is perhaps first and foremost the contemporary condition of migrants, refugees and nomads, at a moment when xenophobic policies here, there and everywhere are the name of the game. Because this is one of the main threads of the exhibition: the fate of displaced existences.
We should perhaps simply start by seeing these lives. And this is the first level: the condition of people in transit grasped by what is seen of them. Bodies taking refuge, makeshift shelters, tarpaulins and sacks on a pavement. Poverty’s petty ways of making do, recycling materials, embedding itself in the urban space’s available leftovers, getting warm in a phone booth, siphoning off some petrol to keep moving…
The images of these bodies are handed to us in a manner akin to the documentary or photo-realism. But we must not be taken in. If Tim Eitel works from photographs, he gradually abandons them in such a way that the picture becomes an independent thing. Jeff Wall, for his part, starts by not taking photographs, memorizing the motif grasped by the eye to reconstruct it after the fact and methodically in front of the lens. What is displayed by these phoney snapshot images, over and above their formal beauty, is the idea of certain existential states. As it happens, those of “lives situated in border zones”.
But the issue raised is also that of the conditions of groups’ possibilities. What is it that makes a group possible or impossible? Based on what systems of logic? “How are we to live together, where we are?” asks Clarisse Hahn. Needless to say, there are different sorts of groups, with specific forms, vectors and affects in each instance. Groups of guerilleros, groups of refugees. Combat groupings and exodus groupings… There are also those living-dead figures in rags who haunt the composite canvases of Armin Boehm, side by side without appearing to be able to be together.
The primary group, of course, is the family—blood bonds, and kinship bonds, which means that the child has its grandmother’s eyes and its great-uncle’s chin. Taryn Simon revives the art of the photographic portrait and with it the classic device of the family album—with the sole difference that the tranquil order of genealogy is torn up here. There has been a concertina-ing of history, about which Marx wrote that, from a materialist viewpoint, it is “nothing other than the succession of different generations”, and of history this time understood in a second sense as a distressing eruption, in life’s course, of the event. Instead of the lineage or a broken line, and it is this break which must then be involved in a labour of reconstruction.
Another type of group is the nation. How are we to ward off the demons of “national identity”? How are we to thwart the essentialist mythologies of membership? This possibly passes by way of the fact of re-materializing its emblems, giving them back their very prosaic status of decorative elements, with which it is then possible to play. Or, with Slav and Tatars, we learn that a “cultural identity” is beautiful, like the haphazard encounter on an exhibition table of a brick and a mould full of wheat…
There is no group or community without sign systems, without common codes with which to interact, albeit in a clandestine way, like the hobo graffiti that Otto Berchem has fun re-drawing on the walls of Istanbul. It is the common language, developed in space, which makes the group.
But what the etymology of the term also reminds us of is that there is no group without knots, without ties. Plato saw the role of politics like that of a weaver, to which he returned, assembling eclectic threads, to put together a “social fabric”. The claims of weaver-kings armed with abstract models nevertheless contrast historically with another figure, a minority one, treated with contempt, which Julien Prévieux restores life to—the life of knitters or tricoteuses, those “scurrying harridans of the teeming neighbourhoods around City Hall, darning or knitting stockings in the stands during turbulent discussions” of the revolutionary Assembly under the Convention. Dickens, who featured one of them in a novel, imagined her offering a hidden meaning in the patterns of her work, secretly writing down the proceedings of revolutionary policies in the stitches of her knitwear: “It is a secret language if ever there was, because nobody knew of its existence; but will we be able to decipher it or, rather, will she still be capable of doing so? […] Jacques, replied the wine merchant standing tall, my wife probably etched all her accounts in her memory, and never lost a syllable of them. Stay calm, these stitches which, based on a special combination, form a script whose characters are fixed, will never lack clarity for the person who made them.”
Translated by Simon Pleasance
Exhibition curated by Sophie Vigourous