Images that Come to Life... An Exhibition in Paris

July 9, 2018

Art critic, journalist and former head editor of AMA, Clément Thibault is also a curator. He is presenting, in Paris, Rituels, Images vivantes: an exploration of the things handed down from magic and shamanistic thought and surviving in the work of contemporary artists. On show at H Gallery.

Why, in 2018, would anyone set up an exhibition on the permanence of images, gestures and ideas derived from magic thought and living on in contemporary art?

Firstly, because spirituality, as a whole, is experiencing a resurge in interest, echoed and sometimes initiated by artists. Western societies are on the lookout for magic again, and seeking to emerge from long centuries of all-triumphant phenomenology and the excesses of rationalism. As if there were a need to rekindle ties, sometimes awkwardly, with the inexplicable. For some time now, scientific writings have had a lot to say about modified states of consciousness and timeworn religious practices. The New Zealand parliament has recognized the Whanganui River as a living entity with its own legal identity...

There are countless examples of this spiritual upsurge, nurtured by ecological stances, rethinking about humans as opposed to non-humans, and the development of non-anthropocentric materialism, supported by global networking. The second reason is because the H Gallery space and layout are well suited to such an exhibition: its two rooms separated by a corridor are like two states separated by a passageway. A layout that offers an architectural metaphor of ritual.

The Effects of Ritual

The intention, in the first space, was to consider the way in which the iconography of ritual inspires artists, before examining the idea of living images. The fact that an image plays with its referent, and cultivates a type of haziness with it, is a classic basis of all magic thought, as Michel Melot wrote in his work Une brève histoire de l’image (Bulletin des bibliothèques de France, 2007). If one considers the notion of the ritual in particular, we very quickly observe that this is generally an act of mediation, of a rapprochement of worlds, through the use of images. To heal and protect, to consult the Elders, and also to access knowledge, practitioners make use of analogy or metonymy.

Recipients of magic powers act thanks to mediators, totems, staffs, dances, chants or drumbeats, masks or effigies... Among these are Isabelle Levenez’s shaman staffs and divining rods, displayed near watercolors that she has been producing since the start of the 1990s. Watercolors in which Isabelle Levenez uses the liquidity of water-diluted pigments to superimpose forms - figures and faces, skulls, animals, objects and plants. A man’s face on which a reptile’s skull is superimposed... Suggesting the drawing together of interiorities, of souls, of two beings. An animist image.

Jeanne Susplugas’ photographs also move in this direction. Mask (2009), the photo of a human lifting a mask up to their face, initially suggests an aseptic, clinical, alienating world. But there is something magical about the act being performed by this individual, immortalized while donning the mask, eyes left in darkness. The person’s identity vanishes behind that of the mask.  This photograph is displayed near a 1930s mask – a “zakpei ge”, more commonly known as a “fire-watcher mask”, used to monitor fires in villages and to punish those who stir them up too much, at the risk of creating a wildfire.

The exhibition has been structured to combine images by contemporary artists with works by classical African and art brut artists - even if the distinction between art brut / contemporary art is a question worth delving into more deeply. Melvin Way’s notes thus stand alongside Aurore Pallet’s works. The former’s notes - modest-sized talismans that Melvin Way keeps in his pocket or hidden in his books - are produced over time by sticking together pieces of paper covered with mathematical or chemical formulae, accompanied by enigmatic words and symbols, then topped with sticky tape in certain parts.

In an interview with collector Bruno Decharme, Melvin Way declared that he didn’t draw but performed the “science of healing, medical science” - a science that nurtures his obsession for space and time, the links between the cosmos, the Earth and the individual.

Meanwhile, Aurore Pallet has produced, for the exhibition, paper transfers glued to a canvas, which draw inspiration from “active images” – images carried for their active effects by an individual struck by an affliction. The sign in one first work refers to active effects used to reconcile an individual’s cosmic and telluric forces; the sign in a second work refers to active effects that accompany change in harmony.

One of Melvin Way’s notes, offering a definition of “tropisme”, also matches work by Ritual Inhabitual, a collective made up of two artists of Chilean origin: taxidermist Florencia Grisanti and video artist Tito González García. The artistic duo has completed a documentary and photographic project on the Mapuche – literally, the “people of the Earth”, a set of indigenous communities in the south-central zone of Chile and Argentina. Produced using the wet-collodion process (a photographic technique invented by Gustave Le Gray in the mid 19th century), their portraits of shamans and plants in the region are striking for their beauty, precision and delicate shades of grey.

But the project quickly reveals a more political side. The whole ethnological tradition surrounding the Mapuche has proven erroneous as it is founded on ethnographic documents that are inaccurate: photographers using the same wet-collodion technique at the start of the 20th century, rather than taking objective portraits, projected a Western gaze on their subjects. This project thus becomes a way to soothe a historical wound...

For the exhibition, Ritual Inhabitual has also produced two pieces based on a royal python: the knot of its vertebral column, and a series of cards inspired by a spider-divination ritual, the N’gam, used by the Bafias in Cameroon.

A Passage to Living Images

Following the trail of walking artists like Hamish Fulton, Arthur Novak made two voyages to Amazonia (in 2014 and 2017), which have nourished his artistic practice. The discovery of the flora and fauna, age-old survival methods, living in the forest with the blessing of the region’s shamans... These moments spent in another world seep through his large-format charcoal drawings, his sculptures, as well as his documentary and archive work.

Arthur Novak sometimes alludes to a feeling of “amazonism”, similar to a new type of orientalism. Just as Edward Saïd pointed out that 19th century artists projected their fantasies, namely a quest for origins, in North Africa, perhaps we also project our fantasies of a rediscovered union with nature and spirituality, in these territories that remain exotic to us? For the exhibition, Arthur Novak has created a large-scale wall drawing between the exhibition’s two spaces: the leaves of a palm grove invade the corridor, like those that a person pushes aside before discovering a clearing.

This wall drawing offers a passage from one exhibition space to the other, as from one state to another, peopled with living images: first the dolls of Michel Nedjar and his more recent series of drawings, infiltrated by childhood and primitivism, life and death, magic and travels.

The same goes for Sandrine Elberg’s camera-less photographs. Ever since this artist acquired a studio in 2013 and constructed a darkroom, her work has focused on photographic research anchored in the exploration of images straight out of a cosmic imaginary realm and taking frequent recourse to play on scale. Are we in the micro or the macro? In matter, the cosmos, or a poetic space? Her two prints from the Corps célestes series were produced without a camera, purely from dark-room experiments using scanned Polaroids – no longer on sale and past their expiry date, the chemical composition of these Polaroids are only all the more unstable.

Obtained out of sight, through an artistic process that is not unlike ritual, these images demonstrate a capacity to reveal life, a spirit beyond the visible. In some way, they recall the long-exposure shots that 19th century mediums produced to prove the existence of the spirit world.

The exhibition concludes with Caroline Le Méhauté, whose sculptural work is characterized by a strong presence in space, a certain physical power. Through her frequent use of coco peat, Caroline Le Méhauté places her works in close proximity to nature. Note that a large number of her pieces are Négociations (negotiations), thus reflecting an artist who does not create ex-nihilo in a godlike act whereby the artist acts all-powerfully over matter. Negotiation is a type of economy. In sculpture, it manifests a non-anthropocentric vision of matter, which sometimes flirts with political intentions.

At first sight, Négociation 57 – Grow, grow, grow looks like a heap of the type seen elsewhere in contemporary art – think Bernard Pagès’ heap of gravel or Bernar Venet’s heap of coal, not forgetting Félix González-Torres’ pile of sweets, Yoko Ono’s stacks and even the facetious ones in Ruben Östlund’s film The Square (2017). Unlike the aforementioned heaps, Caroline Le Méhauté’s version is enlivened by delicate breathing. The Earth breathes...

Beside this work is an Akan statuette (Côte d’Ivoire, circa 1930), a representation of motherhood, from which the child (originally clinging to the mother’s back) has vanished due to the vicissitudes of time. A poignant poetic absence. An allegory of maternity that is all the more eloquent.

In 1971, Mircea Eliade published La Nostalgie des origines, a work gathering different articles on methodology and the history of religions, from which emerged a project, one might say a fantasy: that this historian specialising in religion, in a desacralized society, might contribute towards elaborating a new spirituality, a “new humanism”, by bringing the West face to face with the worlds foreign to it, both in time and space. Artists too, by drawing inspiration from these living images, these gestures and ideas from other worlds, by combining their culture with other ones, prepare the ground for the emergence of new ways of seeing the world, new spiritualities.

The exhibition Rituels, Images vivantes unveils these images. Just as it does the permanence of other functions of art… and the permanence of art itself. On view until 21 July. H Gallery, Paris.

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Featured image: Jeanne Susplugas - Mask, 2009. Courtesy H Gallery.