Hugues Reip

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Notes on Shadow Casting and Merry-Go-Rounds

Michel Gauthier

In HUGUES REIP - 1990/2011 - Monographie - Ed. Villa Saint Clair, 2011

We have been gathered together in a dark space. A strange show, the result of a staging conspiracy, has grabbed our attention. The performers are not of flesh and blood, endowed with voice and will, but revolving silhouettes cast from a merry-go-round. For the time being, moreover, we cannot even see the figures. They are hidden by a screen. Their shadows are being cast onto the screen we are looking at thanks to a play of lights. We are therefore looking at a shadowplay. We can only see the images of images.


It could be a version of the Plato's famous allegory, written over two thousand years ago, suggesting that man spends his life looking at a theater of shadows, only seeing phantasmata, believing that nothing else exists and unable, therefore, to perceive the true form of reality. In our case, however, it is a work of art from the first decade of the 21st century.
White Spirit (1) consists of a carousel: a rotating circular platform on the edge of which vertical white figures have been placed. At the carousel's center, a stationary projector is aimed at a nearby white screen. The shadow of the moving figures is projected onto the screen, both sides of which are accessible to the viewer (2).
Whereas White Spirit brings to mind the myth of the cave, this piece, we suspect, cannot be considered as the mere formalization of Plato's allegory. Indeed, the Greek philosopher didn't like shadows. Rejecting all forms of mimetic behavior, Plato considered the shadow as the lowest level of pernicious illusion and false representation, condemning both the shadow and the thaumatopoioi – the puppeteers who cast shadows upon the wall of the cave (3). Reip, on the contrary, seems to extol the former and claim allegiance to the latter.


In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells us that contrary to the unknown geographical origins of painting (Greece or Egypt?), the medium's technical origins are certain: the outlining, by the painter, of a human shadow (4). In thus capturing the projection of a body onto a surface, wall or floor, art had endowed itself with a convenient method of representation stemming from, perhaps, an age-old superstition: the archaic belief that man has a “double”, materialized in shadow during his lifetime, and surviving him after death. Art's primal dealings with the shadow, therefore, hint of a twofold dimension: illusionist trickery, on the one hand, and full-fledged magic on the other. Reip's choice of title, White Spirit, seems to play on this latter aspect, evoking a dedramatized world of spirits, ghosts and specters and expressing a certain humor and distance; the magic here is not black.


Reip in our case has thus appointed himself skiagrapher - or shadow-drawer -, heir apparent to a rich history rightly tracing its origins to New York, in 1918, when Marcel Duchamp began work on his Sculpture for Traveling: brightly colored strips of rubber, cut from bathing caps and stretched from different corners of his studio space (5). Duchamp quickly became more interested in the shadows cast by the sculpture than in the actual sculpture itself, however. Photographs taken by the artist at the time show not only the shadows of Sculpture for Traveling , but also those of Bicycle Wheel and Hat Rack. A short time later, most likely inspired by the aforementioned shadows, Duchamp worked on what would become his last oil on canvas: Tu m', painted depictions of shadows in trompe-l'oeil. A second episode in the history of shadows in the 20th century was to take place soon after. László Moholy-Nagy's Light Space Modulator would be finished in 1930, a highly complex machine consisting of a rotating platform, a metal frame with overlapping blades, a spiral slanting through a glass plate, perforated metal discs and an ever-changing play of light and cast shadow.
In the objective, if not subjective lineage of White Spirit, we should also mention Christian Boltanski's 1986 installation The Shadows: figures suspended from a gallows, illuminated by several projectors and slightly swaying in a fan-induced wind, cast disproportionately enlarged shadows that seem to partake in a macabre dance. Schattenspiel (2002-2009), by Hans Peter Feldman, however, is probably closer in spirit to Reip's work: small figures and toys, placed on rotating platforms amidst a jumble of knickknacks, cast their shadows onto adjacent wall thanks to a few well-placed lights, a shadowplay that gives the humble artifacts a troubling yet improbable dignity. It is also necessary here to cite Andy Warhol's vast 1978-79 series Shadows and Ed Ruscha's numerous paintings of shadows and silhouettes: Howl (1986), the nocturnal silhouette of a wolf baying at the moon; Untitled (1986), the shadow of an elephant climbing a hill; or Fistful of Aliens (1989), a disturbing Californian nightscape of cacti and Joshua tree shadows. In paintings such as Western or Asphalt Jungle, Ruscha, in 1991, would combine shadows – those of tee pees, in the first case, and a prairie fence, in the second – with scratches often found on the nitrate prints of old movies, Thus is the mystery of the shadow subtly linked to the development of film. This summary of the shadow's recent artistic fate could be concluded with the mention of Tobias Rehberger's retrospective “The chicken-and-egg-no-problem wall-painting”, presented in 2008 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. Spread out in semi-darkness over nearly seventy meters, the artist's works were specifically lit to be set off in shadow against the wall. Thus we have come full circle, with Duchamp, who liked the shadows of his sculptures and readymades at least as much as the works themselves, and Rehberger who, seventy years later, would seem to agree, transforming his works during a retrospective into the accomplices of a phantasmagoria in the truest sense of the word. What if the retrospective, in fact, were an exercise that consistied in showing ghosts?
This is most certainly the case of Reip's White Spirit. Yet the artist's story is one that can only be understood in light of one or several other stories. That of shadow theater, for example, which is believed to have appeared in China and India around the year 1000, before reaching its apogee in Java, where the shadow of the puppet, not the actor, is cast. Shadowplay, however, will not find an outlet in the Western world until the end of the 17th century and will not know genuine popular success until the following century in France, thanks to the legacy of shadow puppeteer Dominique Seraphin. Both the crowning moment and the swan song of the genre, however, will take place at the Chat Noir, the Parisian cabaret where Henri Rivière would distinguish himself with unmatched virtuosity and inventiveness from 1887 to 1897. Indeed, an entire machinery - a screen of stretched canvas surrounded by a wooden frame, silhouettes cut from zinc plates, sliding colored mirrors, strings, oxyhydrogen lights – was developed for shows which quickly gained international renown: Éléphant by Henri Somm, La Tentation de Saint Antoine by Rivière himself, La Marche à l’étoile by George Fragerolle and L’Épopée by Caran d'Ache. Alfred Jarry once referred to Plato's cave as the "Chat Noir of Antiquity" (6); White Spirit is definitely close at hand here. With the screening of the Lumière brothers groundbreaking film, the doors of the Chat Noir would close for good (7). Before moving on to the history of film in relation to Reip's piece, however, let us not forget, alongside shadow theater, the slow rotation of the magic lantern; White Spirit, to a certain extent, is a combination of both.
A film historian looking at White Spirit would be sure to mention the cinema of 1920s Germany, citing first of all, perhaps, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) by Lotte Reiniger, made between 1923 and 1926. This oldest surviving animated feature film was made (8) with delicate paper cutouts jointed for manipulation. The film's background sets were designed by abstract film pioneer Walter Ruttmann (Tetralogy Opus, 1921-1925), who also directed Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), a major work exploring the theme of the changing sensorial landscape of the modern metropolis. The shadows of White Spirit are akin furthermore to the "screen demons" of the day, as certain great shots from expressionistic German cinema clearly testify. There is Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which only the murderer's shadow can be seen as he stabs his victim, and of course Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, in which we see the shadow of a vampire climbing the stairs and about to enter Nina Harker's room, even though ancient lore holds that vampires have no shadows (9). Then there is Walter Robinson's Schatten (The Shadow Show), the entire scenario of which is hinged upon a shadow: a puppeteer invited to put on a show in a private home acts out, in shadow, an imminent drama. An earlier work by Reip, Knock (2001), is also clearly in cohorts with the fiendish silver screen. In a black and white video, we see on the right-hand side of the screen, the shadow of a man with a hatchet or an ax whacking away at an off-camera door to no avail, for thirty long and breathless minutes. Set against the heavy breathing, a falsely childish voice singing Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door (1973) informs the viewer that it may be the door - clearly difficult to break down - to paradise.


Yet if Reip in White Spirit has chosen to play with shadows of such a portentous heritage, it is because of the dual nature - both immaterial and magical - of the actual shadow. Indeed, the shadow - that oh-so precarious reality, that pure phantasm (10) ever on the point of vanishing – has a fascinating hold over the artist. The title of the work itself, for example, refers to the solvent, developed in the early 1920s, used to dilute paints, varnishes and printing inks, implying, thus, that the dissolving of the shadow is always possible. Indeed, a simple change in light, and lo and behold, it starts to fade. The shadow, furthermore, is a diminished version of the object from which it is cast. It is flat and intangible. It is monochromatic, a mere contour enclosing an interior both indistinct and nondescript. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the shadow is a negative entity; it is a lack of light. In other words, to an artist of those not averse to “losing the substance by grasping at the shadow", it disposes of numerous charms. Thus, by turning to the archaic art of shadowplay, Reip is doing more than just indulging in an exercise in obsolescence. He is following a strong natural inclination, tantamount to the assertion of a moral – and almost political – aesthetic, for an art of modest effects and rudimentary techniques: the magic lantern versus "hypercinema", the primitive carousel of figures casting shadows versus the "image-excess" of hypermodernity (11). Furthermore, the artist's rejection of bombastic form is a sign not of austerity and Jansenism but, on the contrary, of humor and lightness. White Spirit, in other words, proposes enchantment in lieu of staggering effects.
The shadow in Reip's case, however, is also a thing of blackness, the uncanny decal, sensed in all eras, of the enlightened being. Latin poets specifically refer to “the word umbra to evoke the state of the human being after death, [abolishing] any lexical differentiation between the cast shadow, the dead man taking on a lifelike appearance and a series of phenomena related to the absence of light.” (12) White Spirit is thus a work of undecided feeling: funny, poetic and cartoon-like in mood, it is also - because of the play of shadow – melancholic and almost macabre. If further proof of its darker side were necessary, its resemblance to Alain Séchas' Professor Suicide (13) (1995) would be enough. Both works, indeed, have circular platforms (although that of Professor Suicide is static) onto which figures and lights have been placed in close association to a nearby screen (in one case shadows are cast, in the other they are reproduced in cartoon form). That same year, Séchas made his Short Animated Films, some of which, “The Butterflies” for example, are evocative of White Spirit. We could also mention, to bring this chapter to a close, his Small Cutouts in Black Paper (1994) representing a merry-go-round.
Again, Reip, by parading shadows on a screen in White Spirit, is endeavoring to call up a reality that is mysterious and disturbing - a reality that is shadowy. Clearly the shadow is the ideal medium of an art that knows that the desire to break with magic in every shape and form is one of those Modernist utopias, which, if successful, would mean the end of the very thing from which it is born. The artist therefore, as Reip well knows (14), must unabashedly assume his irreducible status of magician. Thus has he schemed up the phantasmagoria of White Spirit, of black silhouettes passing through the white screen, to evince an art that recognizes enchantment as an integral part of itself. "And even if all of this were merely passing ghosts, these ghosts are our happiness while standing here, and, like kids amazed, we rave about the wonderful apparitions”, of the magic lantern (15).
Thus the historical references of White Spirit, and of Reip's work in general, must be considered as attesting to an era of “primitive modernism” (for lack of a better term) in which materialist excitement over medium (including the then new medium of film) in no way contradicted the desire for wonderment (16). Indeed, everything seems to indicate that there was a sort of equilibrium, which would later be broken, in the aesthetic consciousness of the time: art as an artifice, strings and all (17), that retained all the same its power to captivate, to work magic. The historical merit of Reip's work, therefore, is that it forms new ties with this bygone era. Indeed, his work, like the shadows of White Spirit, is shot through with an echoing ambivalence: a steady rhythm, so to speak, of deflation, enchantment, enchantment, deflation...(18)


But what exactly are these shadow-casting forms? Where do the white figures revolving on the carousel come from? Their origins, in fact, can be traced to occasional drawings made by the artist in small sketch books (19)*. The figures are not directly borrowed from comics, cartoons or works of other artists, and indeed, upon closer scrutiny, one notes that they are rather odd: botany (20), molecular chemistry, geology and the vocabulary of traditional phantasmagoria seem to account for most of them, but also... Rodtchenko and Lissitzky (21). Thus while some are easily identifiable - plants, snakes, caterpillars, skull and clouds, even when depending on the whim of an unusual hybridization such as a ghost octopus, [reminiscent of The Octopus (1990) by Alain Séchas] - others flirt with abstraction. Their morphology, furthermore, depending on the rotation of the platform, is more or less distorted on the screen.
Some of these shapes inevitably bring to mind Martin Boyce's astonishing work Phantom Limb (Undead Dreams) (2003): a molded plywood leg splint designed in 1942 by Charles and Ray Eames for American soldiers with broken legs that, modified and painted white by Boyce, takes on the allure of a ghost. It is undoubtedly a sign of the times to see such modernist emblems returning in ghostlike form. Reip's White Spirit contributes, in its way, to the same aesthetic phenomenon: forms from modern art, ghostly and chimeric creatures, appear on the screen in a never-ending chase of sorts. It would be interesting to exhibit White Spirit with another one of the artist's important works, Stick Cutter (1997-98): forty elements in cardboard or colored paper laid out on the floor, on the walls and suspended in air, whose shapes have been borrowed from modernity's repertory; Leko and follow spot projectors dramatize the space by casting the shadows of numerous forms onto the wall. Both works cover a large part of Reip's formal spectrum: the small modernist structures in Stick Cutter are on the verge of cartoonishness; while the creatures of White Spirit give us an occasional glimpse of their modernist origins. A number of them are also of vegetable origin. Reip clearly seems to like making plants spin. In The Pistils (2009), he placed other small white sculptures on rotating platforms – but this time with one platform per figure - confirming thus the importance of the vegetable family in his imaginary world. Something like a three-dimensional rendering of Karl Blossfeldt's famous vegetable photographs seem to be at work here (22).
3 of the 28 numbers performed in the miniature ring of Alexander Calder's Cirque Calder (1926-1931) - “The Four Seasons”, “The Three Graces” and “Dawn and Dusk” - are presented on small circular platforms upon which miniature sculptures are spun. The theme of “Dawn and Dusk” being shadow and light, it is not completely incongruous to add Calder's tiny merry-go-round to the family tree of White Spirit and The Pistils. A branch must also be found for Charles Ray's extraordinary Revolution-Counter-Revolution, 1990, in which wooden merry-go-round horses spin counter to the direction of the carousel platform. During the first years of the 21st century, rotating sculpture podiums see sculptures giving in to the joys of slowly spinning round, as with Didier Marcel's molded resin trees flocked in pastel colors slowly rotating on polished stainless steel discs (23), or Bruno Peinado's Sans titre, Thepiperatthegateatdawn (2006), a diverse ensemble of black shapes (musical instruments, soap bubbles, martial arts film characters and Art Nouveau floral motifs presented in Rorschach test form) backed by stroboscopic lighting and a fog machine. The allusion to the 1967 Pink Floyd album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn makes the parallel to Reip's work even more flagrant, as in 2001 Reip made a drawing entitled Overdrive in homage to Interstellar Overdrive by Syd Barrett, the visionary author of the aforementioned album. On the back of the original album sleeve, furthermore, the distorted black silhouettes of the four members of the group are gesturing to their audience with signs that Reip, in White Spirit, has clearly understood.


It is important to see White Spirit's slowly rotating procession of figures several times over; repetition - that never-ending return of the same - in a work like this is a determining aesthetic mechanism. To account for this unending repetitive process – that has no dialectic relief and that constantly undoes what has been done in order to undermine the idea of "right form" - Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss put forward the concept of beat (24), the rotation of the platform and the on-screen parade of shadows constituting a gentle beat of sorts. Not a flickering, but a slow turning and returning of figures, actors in a narrative who serve no dramatic function. Like a beat in slow motion, bringing to mind the boy of Freudian theory with a spool of string (25). The child throws a spool of string over the edge of the bed, representing thus his mother, who often absent, is going away. By pulling the string in, the child is pulling the maternal spool back to himself. White Spirit, in a way, is a staging of this pattern of fort/da, forth and here. This explains the deep emotional response the work elicits in us. Given the endless cycle of the appearance and disappearance of the figures, the onlooker becomes the little boy of Freudian theory, experiencing the joy of seeing the silhouettes appear and the anguish of seeing them disappear. If at first the recurrence happily allows us to recognize the figures, it is soon equated to what it is in itself: the pure logic of the fort/da, the simple and incessant alternation of emotions related to arrival and departure, appearance and disappearance.


"In that opaque cube, one light: the film, the screen? Yes, of course. But also (especially?), visible and unperceived, the dancing cone that pierces the darkness like a laser beam. This beam is minted, according to the rotation of particles, into changing figures (26); we turn our face toward the currency of a gleaming vibration, whose imperious jet brushes our skull, glancing off someone's hair, someone's face. [...] It is exactly as if a long shaft of light had outlined a keyhole, and we all peered, flabbergasted, through that hole (27)" . While these beautiful lines written by Roland Barthes on the movie theater could be a commentary on Blank (1998), a video by Reip of the beam guiding the images of a movie to the screen, they do not, however, apply to White Spirit. With this latter, in fact, there is no deepening of the fictional space on and beyond the screen. Rather passageways set up on either side of the white canvas give the viewer a literal behind-the-scenes look at the work's mechanisms. Thus can Reip's viewers, like Plato's prisoners once outside the cave, journey towards the truth. They will not, however, be asked to leave the cave for good, to confront their long-abused eyes to the sun's bright rays. The artistic experience here is content with the revealing of thaumata on their rotating device.
Thus, after watching the parade of shadows, the public has access to the machinery producing them - a carousel, almost a work in its own right – as in Reip's poetic universe, there is no fundamental difference between stage and stagehand, between images projected and projection equipment. Just as the shadows make their on-screen entrances and exits, the viewer comes and goes from one side of the screen to the next. Not to go from illusion, or poetry, on one side to mundane prose on the other, but to create a coming and going between front and back, between shadow and light. Such, it can be argued, is the very principle of the magic of art (28).


White Spirit - shadow theater, magic lantern - ghosts and anti-illusionism - white figures: Rodchenko + Tex Avery? - the slow motion game of fort/da; appearance / disappearance - a magical merry-go-round → the childhood of art ...

(1) Three versions of this particular piece exist. Two of them have a single rotating platform: White Spirit (2005), made for an exhibition at the Frac Limousin (Limoges) and Shirei Seirie (2009), made at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, (shirei seirie is Japanese for « white spirit »). A third, White (Night) Spirit, with three rotating platforms, was shown in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris for the 2009 Nuit Blanche.

(2) The first time White Spirit was shown, at the Frac Limousin, a white screen, made out of a large sheet of paper spread across the entire exhibition space, prevented the viewer from seeing the actual carousel. When next exhibited, at the Galerie Agnes B. (Paris) in 2007, the piece was shown as described here.

(3) Plato also uses this term to designate the Sophists.

(4) Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson made a series of paintings and photographs in the 00s based on the representations of the shadows of people, objects and plants (see catalog Sigurdur Árni Sigurdsson, École des Beaux-Arts de Montpellier Agglomération / Villa Saint Clair Sète, 2004).

(5) Reip made a version of Duchamp's Traveling Sculpture in 2005.

(6) André Velter, « Liberté fin de siècle », preface to Poètes du Chat Noir, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Poésie », 1996, p. 35.

(7) Denis Bordat and Francis Boucrot, Les Théâtres d’ombres. Histoires et techniques, Paris, L’Arche, 1956.

(8) Laurent Mannoni and Donata Pesenti Campagnoni, Lanterne magique et film peint. 400 ans de cinéma, Paris, La Cinémathèque française / La Martinière, 2009.

(9) As Victor I. Stoichita points out in Brève Histoire de l’ombre, Genève, Droz, 2000, p. 161.

(10) The shadow is not a normal image, an icon, but a phantasm, a « demonic image ». On the difference between the icon and the phantasm, see Gilles Deleuze's analysis, Différence et répétition, Paris, PUF, coll. « Épiméthée », 1968, p. 166-167.

(11) Gilles Lipovetsky a,nd Jean Serroy, L’Écran global, Paris, Le Seuil, 2007.

(12) Max Milner, L’Envers du visible. Essai sur l’ombre, Le Seuil, 2005, p. 26-27.

(13) In his monograph on Séchas, Patrick Javault evokes, in relation to Professeur Suicide, both the films of Méliès and the machines of Émile Cohl (Alain Séchas, Paris, Hazan, 1998, p. 7). As with Reip, Méliès and Cohl are clearly part of the Séchas Pantheon.

(14) Isn't the same conviction apparent in works like It’s All Gone (2008) by Pierre Huyghe: a magic wand placed on the ground of the exhibition space?

(15) Goethe, Les Souffrances du jeune Werther, transl. B. Groethuysen, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Folio classique », 1973, p. 70.

(16) On Reip's connection to primitive modernism, I am referring to Arnauld Pierre's study, « Futur antérieur. Une uchronie contemporaine », 20/27, n° 4, M19, 2010, p. 4-29.

(17) Just as the teatrino of The Stage (2009) shows various reenactments of the dreams of Joseph Cornell by staging them throughout the miniature stage in its entirety. See Catherine Corman (éd.), Joseph Cornell’s Dreams, Cambridge, Mass., Exact Change, 2007.

(18) On the essential ambivalence of the artist's poeticalness, see my article « Inspirez, expirez. Hugues Reip et le battement », 20/27, n° 1, 2007, p. 140-155.

(19) On the artist's drawings, see « Conversation Hugues Reip – Paul Sztulman », cat. Hugues Reip, Arles, Actes Sud / Altadis, 2005, p.11-19.

(20) In 2009, Reip published Monday Nothing - title borrowed from Tuli Kupferberg and the Fugs - a photographic herbarium. Certain images could be models for the merry-go-round figures of White Spirit (Paris, M19, coll. « Inventaire supplémentaire »).

(21) « Conversation Hugues Reip – Paul Sztulman », op. cit., p. 13.

(22) Before becoming a photographer, Karl Blossfeldt worked as an iron caster at a foundry.

(23) In 1992, Didier Marcel made a model of a modern building rotating on a platform on a cube-shaped podium; the whole thing was white (Sans titre).

(24) Yves-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss, L’Informe. Mode d’emploi, ch. « Battement », Paris, Centre Pompidou, 1996, p. 124-157.

(25) Sigmund Freud, « Au-delà du principe de plaisir », Essais de psychanalyse, transl. from the German by S. Jankélévitch, mag. ed. by A. Hesnard, Paris, Petite Bibliothèque Payot, 1977.

(26) Just as Barthes was writing these lines, Anthony McCall designated the luminous cone as the essence of works like Line Describing a Cone (1973) or Long Film for Four Projectors (1974).

(27) Roland Barthes, « En sortant du cinéma » [1975], Œuvres complètes IV. Livres, textes, entretiens. 1972-1976, É. Marty, Paris, Le Seuil, p. 780.

(28) For another approach of the same phenomenon, see « Christopher Reeve. Les coulisses du réenchantement », Fresh Théorie, Paris, Léo Scheer, 2005, p. 62-77 and « Laurent Montaron : le temps du médium », 20/27, n° 4, 2010, p. 176-193.

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