Just as the hand, regardless of our volition, conveys itself to places of its own choosing, chance encounters are always the most beautiful. I clearly remember the day I discovered a mysterious installation soberly entitled 11-18 : it was late afternoon on a Thursday, some fifteen years ago, in the depths of museum made out of stone. Several wooden elements – doors, colored dividers and a mishmash of panels – were laid out on the ground, totally kaput yet sensibly stacked, like the pieces of an old Lincoln Logs building set. The whole thing made up a lazy marquetry of sorts that seemed to be waiting for the signal to break up and put itself back together again. And indeed, on a simple cloth screen directly overhead, these very same elements were performing a strange ballet, propelled by the sole magic of rudimentary animation. Against all expectations, the parts moved and were assembled, describing a docile architecture of sorts, hardly even a cabin, a precarious attempt headed for imminent collapse. The scene, a four minute looped segment, was filmed in color video on the rooftop of a building in Marseille. The work's label, at a glance, informed me of the artist's name: Hugues Reip.
In their indecisiveness in choosing a position – lying down or standing up? – the «board figures» of 11-18 inevitably remind me of the inhabitants of Flatland (2) : the title of a scientific romance written by Edwynn A. Abbott in 1844. It recounts the geometric adventures of a humble Square who in a dream is introduced to the third dimension. The square is rebellious, awash in reason-defying thought. As luck will have it, however, a Sphere will initiate him to three-dimensionality. Here are the book's opening words:
“Be patient, for the world is broad and wide. Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows — only hard with luminous edges — and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.”
I ignore whether Abbott would have many fellow countrymen today, but I imagine that Hugues Reip would have gladly joined their ranks. Indeed, certain pages in Flatland seem to have been written specifically for him. Take, at random, a question on page 36: “What does a circle look like seen from the side?”
On my computer screen (as flat as Flatland), I am looking at several reproductions of his work – drawings, sculptures, animated films, shadow puppet shows, neons, magnets and miniature theaters. Hugues Reip often proceeds through reversal, upsetting the nature of the object he has taken hold of, approaching its logic from the rear, or in a “sandwich”, if you like. Volumes, for example, are often flattened. Such is the case of the 18 small flowers of Eden (2003), reproduced as huge flat forms and calmly distributed in space, reminiscent of a giant herbarium. Pebbles (2007) is handled in similar fashion, and so are the delicately cut out mushrooms of Mushbook (2009), their flatness reinforcing their eminently poignant and fragile nature. All of these forms could swoon and slip from sight at any given moment, or with the simple snap of the fingers, like a vision in the hands of the conjurer Robert-Houdin.
* Horn of Plenty
In the mid-19th century Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), a watchmaker by trade, freed magic of its old accouterments – incantations, pointed hat and star-studded tunic -, to transform it into what he called “the art of prestidigitation”. He appeared on stage wearing white gloves and a tuxedo foreshadowing that of Mandrake . Above all, Robert-Houdin loved flowers, children and the rush of air in the horn of plenty, perfecting numerous numbers in which wonderment and the art of mechanics were combined. He brightened up both his life and his house with all sorts of odd inventions and also wrote several works including Secrets of Conjuring and Magic. A few years after his death, his son's widow sold his illusionist theater (complete with ten automatons constructed by the great magician) to none other than Georges Méliès, a great admirer of Robert-Houdin's work. Méliès carefully conserved the automatons over the years, using them to open his own shows.
* A Fantasy
By a sleight of hand, it is Méliès himself who reappears in 2008 in A Fantasy, the animated film put together by Hugues Reip from a number of the filmmaker's unpublished drawings. Key images, such as rocks, mushrooms, tree bark and a stump as well as a galloping horse, a clearing, the planet Saturn and a swordfish crossing the sky, are all swept up into a wonderful medley. The images have come full circle, and chronology is turned upside down. Robert-Houdin would have been proud of his "progeny". In his memoirs, An Artist's Life (4) , I unearthed the following definition, well-suited to each of them: "I wanted to present new experiences free, at last, of all charlatanism and with no other resources than those provided by the dexterity of the hand and the influence of illusions."
According to Clément Rosset, "philosophical illusionism is to announce meaning without demonstrating it, in the same way the magician brings his audience to see vanished objects by the mere power of suggestion." (5)
The illusion, of course, occurs on the sly, in successive shifts. Just as sweat nestles in the pores of the skin, these stealthy yet controlled slips lie in the shadows, echoes and reflections of the world. Illusion, in its way, is an ode to gradualness.
A fine line divides illusion from enticement, and Hugues Reip often crosses that line. In Up, a 1’32” film made in 1996, one of my all time favorites perhaps, a number of scattered objects appear to be nearing one other, drawn by the magnetic force of an old record player in the center of the room. Their progression is slow and choppy, reminiscent of the first fruits of animated film, the patiently shot, image by image movies of Norman McLaren. Such isn't the case here, however. What we are watching, in fact, is a special effect: the objects are attached to the center of the record player by invisible threads. The action is taking place in real time, entropy causing the movements to accelerate, the objects to wind themselves and convulse on the turntable in a wild ritual of sorts. In the end, we realize we are the victims of a hoax. In no way should this be seen as a provocation or as a desire to shock, however. The phenomena occur in spite of themselves, gradually, reluctantly. They have no choice, in other words. Pushing the envelope even farther, we can even see in them the possibility of a certain kind of reassurance, a constantly renewed form of pleasure that is.
On the phone one morning, while talking about the music of SPLITt – the group he and Jacques Julien have formed for ages, Hugues explained: «Our sound, you know, is a bit wafer-ish!».
I listen to some of their songs – Climb on My Room, Sandwich, Miaout, Hein? and Dysfunction Me – and I get what he means. The hum of the apartment where the songs were recorded, with next to nothing, inches from the rug, can be heard: a guitar without amplification, the beatbox of a pocket-sized synthesizer, odd noises, rubbings and voices. Their music is like a scratchy vinyl record or a Japon paper model. But it would be wrong to randomly oppose it to the magnificent harmonies of the Beatles or the maniacal arrangements of Brian Wilson. In each of these cases, everything is ordered to the nearest millimeter. Better still: despite appearances, they all meet up at their extremities.
* The Wafer
According to the Larousse, a wafer is a «small dried waffle». We could broaden this humble definition by adding the wafer is a complex architecture hiding its true colors. Indeed, on the surface, the wafer's slight relief forms respect-inspiring geometrical motifs. But everyone knows that even the slightest of pressures will cause the wafer to crumble, will reduce it to crumbs. Indeed, the wafer's fate beckons to fingers and teeth alike. It is all about temptation. Its existence is contingent on the following paradox: the wafer's weakness is also its strength.
* Fossilized Evidence
The “aesthetics of the wafer” can also be seen as the infamous “next to nothing” of bricolage*. In his work The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss put forward an unprecedented parallel: “The characteristic feature of mythological thought, as of 'bricolage' on the practical plane, is that it builds up structured sets by using the remains and debris of events: in French 'des bribes et des morceaux', or odds and ends in English, the fossilized evidence of the history of an individual or a society”. He goes on by saying: “Bricolage also works with 'secondary qualities', i.e. 'second hand'.”
*French term that roughly translates as do-it-yourself or handiwork. More tinkerer than craftsman, however, the “bricoleur”, or French odd job man, gets the job done by using whatever is readily available.
Opportunities abound. Indeed, they are infinite. Thus Hugues Reip, like all true bricoleurs, picks up, amasses and archives, carefully aligning his collections on precious shelves: collections of rocks, photographs and flowers; scientific magazines, filed images and rococo sketches. But the term bricolage is a screen, a modest word hiding the painstaking reality of the actual work at hand. We can make out the shadowy presence of, say, the artist's 2007 film The Storm, yet we would like to penetrate the mystery of the studio itself, to get a whiff of the glue gun and the ruling pen, fastidious lines and all.
Reip progresses through rebounds and affinities. He willingly cites his artistic sources, hiding little to reveal a lot. Amongst his probable friends: Emile Cohl, Joseph Cornell, Elzie Segar, Öyvind Fahlström, Rube Goldberg, Akira Kurosawa, Louis and Bebe Baron, The Tinklers, Étienne-Jules Marey and Buster Keaton.
* A Rush of Air
Buster (2000) is a series of seven black and white snapshots, makeshift chronophotographs in which we discover a man wearing a suit, hat in hand. This man – the title here is clear - is Buster Keaton, captured for eternity rushing madly down a New York City sidewalk. The blurriness of the images is a comment on the rapidity of the tracking shot. Where could he be going?
* The Law's of Nature
Let's go back to square one: In The Cameraman (6), filmed in 1928, Buster Keaton receives a phone call from Sally, the girl he has fallen in love with. The action takes place in the middle of the movie, on Sunday morning. Sally is calling to make a first date. Buster can hardly believe his ears, rushing madly off – and inadvertently pulling the phone out of the wall - to join Sally on the other side of town. He runs like no one has ever run before or since, dashing down sidewalks, crossing streets, encountering a policeman, and a bus. He is almost hit. He zigzags and skids. The city is bustling and bright. Buster crosses town in one go, running erect, head back, hat firmly clenched in fist. Sally, on the end of the line, wonders where he could be and finally hangs up. When she turns around, she finds herself face to face with Buster, who apologizes: “I'm perhaps a bit late...” He has regained his composure and is not a bit out of breath; he shows not the least sign of having exerted himself. Sally thinks it's a vision or a trick. Buster seems to have defied the laws of nature.
* Heart Beats
To me, Buster Keaton is a kind of double agent: the stillness of his face radically opposing the movement of his legs. «The Great Stone Face», as he was nicknamed, could therefore be entirely summed up with the impossible combination of a paused bolt of lightening. This of course brings to mind to another lightening bolt, also forever caught in mid-blast, Bolt (2005). Both remind me of the commotion of the heart called extrasystole, a cardiac rhythm disorder that causes the sensation of one's heart suddenly stopping. A split second that seems an eternity. Then the heart starts up, striking, to compensate, an unusually strong beat. The snapshots of Buster Keaton frozen in mid-dash, pinpointed by Hugues Reip, are each in their own way extrasystoles, the echoing occurrences, that is, of our awareness of the present moment. What we are seeing here, quite simply, as with most works by Hugues Reip, is the beating of our own hearts, skipping a beat and then pumping in unison.
(1) The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, Capitol Records, 1965. (2) Edwynn A. Abbott, Flatland, Denoël, « Présence du futur ». (3) Mandrake the Magician, comic strip character created by Lee Falk and Phil Davis in 1934. (4) Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Comment on devient sorcier, Omnibus. (5) Clément Rosset, Le Réel, traité de l’idiotie, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1977. (6) The Cameraman, dir. Edward Sedgwick, co-produced by Buster Keaton and MGM in 1928.
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