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François Daireaux: Names and Things

There’s a man leaning over; bowing down, you might say; motionless.
Broad daylight.
Just before this: nobody; only the set-up; a fountain, but not the usual idea of a fountain, more a basic cube out of a sketch by some Constructivist—or Brancusi maybe—a low-rise cube of three worn paving stones on a paving base, with a vertical spout in the middle for the water to come through.
So the man’s there, leaning forward, legs flexed just a fraction, body forming a right angle; bent over, downturned face parallel to the square of the fountain, forearms reaching into the void. Inclined to drink, taking no notice of the other part of the set-up, even though it’s visible enough from where he is, present enough for the park bench regulars to find these goings-on more than a little strange the first day, worrying by the second, disturbing by the third, and maybe even threatening by the fifth and last, a camera on a tripod to one side, someone watching, a hand, always the same watching, the same framing with much the same shadows, the same depth of field, always the same hand, same movement, same shutter click; and the guy bending over—paying no heed to whoever’s focusing on him—has his head over the block of stone for those few moments, mouth open, taking the gush of cold water right on the palate; then he moves out of shot—the daylight’s broad but the framing’s tight—and out of the story, walking off through the park, we’ll never know anything more about this man who was there, who had ceased to be an individual at that point, as the following image shows, a man bent over, motionless, repeating the scene, repeating the same movements. No: not the same movements; repeating the scene, putting himself at the heart of the same set-up.
The actual intention is the same—inclined to drink, and drink again—but the movements aren’t, the movements are different, the way he approaches the cube, the way he opens his eyes more or less wide (i.e. more or less narcissistically), the positioning of the hands, sometimes on the belly, sometimes on the thighs or the knees—or on the edge of the fountain (when they’re not holding a woman’s bag slung back as a counterweight, or a blouse that would otherwise get soaked); then there’s the placing of the feet, legs parallel, or one foot forward, or feet apart; and the way of bending the legs, or keeping them straight and taut; a posture attuned to the need to quench one’s thirst, inventing endless tricks for neutralizing the cantilever of the torso in a uniquely elegant choreography happening here, in this place, and all this individuation, everything that differentiates one drinker from another, and makes up the narrative of Mnogo, and demonstrates that above and beyond the repetition not only of an urge but also of the set-up that captures it, the 785 participants in the procession, in the theory of drinkers, are "785 people briefly frozen in the act of drinking."
Nor should we forget that everything that takes place between two such moments of need—that extended present of which nothing is shown here—is equally part of the narrative. 785 people caught up in the horizontal unreeling of a long roll, a slide show, all of them advancing towards a single goal: 785 travelers, in the final analysis.
But these 785 people in no way constitute a crowd.
And even less are they lost in a crowd.
Yet there’s a crowd here. After all, Mnogo means "many".

We’re given a clue, and Mnogo takes on another meaning. Above all it reveals one of the—implicit—emphases of the overall agenda: the principle of reversal.
For the fountain is in a precise locality. Mnogo might be possible in Szeged or Bad Cannstadt. But here we’re in Rustschuk in Bulgaria, the "little Vienna" on the Danube where Elias Canetti was born. Mnogo is a tribute to the writer ---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Counterpoint 1 : towards Grisailles

Like any other traditional house, the one I’m writing in has white-painted wrought iron bars set into its beveled turquoise-blue window frames, the blue being neither that of the tiles or the zelliges. The floor is tiled with repeated square motifs outlined with white lines that meet at little squares of a slightly greenish blue. But the color variations from one tile to another make it hard to decide what the base color is. The same motif covers the walls, but doesn’t catch the light in the same way, so the walls sometimes look ultramarine, sometimes blue-black.
The wall decoration rises to head height with a predominantly saffron-yellow tiled frieze running along its top and bottom. But rather than simply following the wall horizontally, the frieze also vertically frames the blue motif of the openings—and the cupboards. This creates a disturbing impression of a room orchestrated by rectangles, those blue rectangles with their yellow borders, as if it were shaped not by the angles of its corners, but by its various openings and cavities, in time with some secondary but essential rhythm.
The upper frieze, the area between the zelliges and the plaster moldings, is made up of geometrically-patterned sharafas. The sharafa, they say here, symbolizes the transition between heaven and earth.
It doubtless symbolizes, too, a transaction between two building guilds, for above the sharafas begin the plaster decorations: these intertwinings of solids and voids, these miniature light wells introducing pale gray into the white.
And lastly, just below the ceiling, is the paneling, its tiny green motifs outlined in red and accompanied by others on an ocher ground. This ornamentation belongs to a geometrical art of soulless figures. Does this make the ornamentation soulless too? This obsession with relentlessly covering walls, this rigorous defiance of the finite suggests little concern with the mind, the mind to be sought elsewhere, perhaps in those sublime patios where decorative proliferation halts abruptly at the blue rectangle of a sky voluptuously fissured by the flight of a crane or an egret.

-------------------------- The reader of Canetti is aware of how radically the experience of fire and its corollary, that of the crowd, shape and direct his thought; and culminate in his masterwork: Crowds and Power.
The book opens with the sentence, "There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown." This is no passing observation. Canetti is going to show us, via a groundbreaking reversal, that the mass instinct, as powerful as the lure of fire, stems from a drive towards the unknown and the loss of the self. He founds this conviction on his personal experience of a Vienna crowd demonstrating against an iniquitous legal decision: after setting fire to the law courts, the crowd was savagely attacked by the forces of law and order.
That black day in 1927 was a turning point for the writer swept along by the crowd. As if the very substance of the event, with its rekindling of his childhood experience of fire, were to drive Crowds and Power from beginning to end.
That day was also a turning point, a hundred kilometers away, for someone used to taking the broad view since his famous Irma dream in the Villa Bellevue, overlooking Vienna. What Sigmund Freud called "a villainous affair"—as if a mighty comet had crossed the sky, he added the next day—would lead to the writing of Civilization and Its Discontents. As envisioned from Freud’s habitual lofty distance, the crowd was of necessity following a rabble-rouser. While for Canetti, there in the thick of things, it was leaderless. The crowd is within me, annihilating the self. Of me, only shadows remain.

At the fountain in Rustschuk, then, the visual response to fire and the crowd as perceived by Canetti—the herd instinct, the parallel loss of individuality and temporal bearings—takes the form of an oxymoron: water; the singularity of each person; the slideshow time frame; and the depiction of individual pleasure in the quenching of thirst. And to round off the list, should it need to be said, a distinctive notion of the crowd.
This principle of reversal recurs frequently. Our exhibition visitor finds a tactile example inTapis, in which rolls of women’s stockings stuffed with silicone provide an unexpected feeling of hardness. Our viewer confirms it visually in Surface, in which close-ups of the monochrome movement of creaking cables alternate with colored, conspicuously silent stills of landscapes ravaged by the voracity of the oil industry.
This critic sees it, schematically this time, emerging out of the artist’s stubborn immersion in Moroccan, Algerian, Indian and Chinese practices rooted in everyday handling of terracotta, plants and woven fabrics, the outcome being modules born of the gestures of a sculptor and incorporating chemically processed substances: silicone; lycra; latex; nail varnish; lipstick; polyester; resin; floral foam; inkjet printer ink; thermosetting glue; lithopone white pigment; plaster sheeting. An outcome that’s surely the message of someone who identifies and calls attention to the flagrant contradictions of today’s social and economic reality -----------------------------------------------

Counterpoint 2

The second sura in the Quran, known as "Moses’ Cow", relates how Adam was taught all the names of things. Then Allah showed these things to the angels, saying, "Tell Me the names of these if you are truthful." This is what a Moroccan friend tells me.
Seen thus, handing on the names of things is inherent in the desire for truth.
Might a truth reside in the handing on of a memory and an experience? And conversely, might the interruption of such a knowledge transmission give rise to error, and even untruth? Not breaking the knowledge chain becomes an obsession. O World of Heritage.
Reactivate, resuscitate. To enable the appropriate use of water, to make good, while ensuring that access to this truth is not universal, and thus preventing, for example, the poisoning of the city.
But in the translation of the Quran I’m reading, Allah teaches Adam the names of beings. Then calls on the angels to name them, if they are truthful. Names of things, or names of beings?
For the Persian poet Mohammad Ali Sepanloo the names are most likely those of Allah. Allah, he tells me, has ninety-nine names and the angels were asked to pronounce them all. I think of the angels conjured up by Walter Benjamin, created to praise the Most High before vanishing into nothingness.
Among these differing interpretations, I’m convinced that things sometimes possess proper names. They lose their ordinary, everyday character and are endowed by those who gaze at them in astonishment with a special virtue on the imaginative plane, a further energy, a rapture. Isn’t this what awaits the traveler?
And even more so the traveling artist?

The oxymoron in question is, I think, more fundamental. More profound. And thus riskier. For the artist sets about the most disarming oxymoron of all: "North-South relations", as today’s world so lullingly terms it. But he does so without confrontation, because the point is neither to demonstrate nor to denounce, but to produce a work of sculpture.
Doing this means reinventing the old dialectic of repetition and journey.

Deleuze, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard before them, wanted to set thought in motion; wanted the work of art in action. They made repetition a category of the future, going counter to classical reminiscence and the modern habitus. When there’s repetition there’s neither anxiety nor hope, neither melancholy nor recollection. But there is, Kierkegaard tells us, the certainty of the present moment. Hope is a garment never worn, recollection is an old garment, repetition is an everlasting garment that fits the body perfectly. To experience the meaning of repetition, the Danish philosopher sends his character Constantin Constantinus to Berlin. This is the retelling of a previous journey.
Travel makes possible what is inaccessible for others: the discovery, the gathering of impressions that count only for the traveler. To relate them would be to risk having right-thinking folk revise their good opinion of Kierkegaard’s traveler.
Travel triggers the surfacing of "possible selves", revealing via repetition and accumulation the succession of segments of identities which identity contains. Being on the move brings to the surface the shadows of the self included in identity. There is no longer an identity.
But if traveling entailed a few upheavals, the traveler was nonetheless hoping to return to a home in perfect order. _ This was the era that gave birth to the word "tourism".
Which is exactly what today’s artist is not looking for when he leaves his studio.

Counterpoint 3 : towards 78 suite

When we watch the potters dug into the floor of their workshops, their buried legs working the pedal of a wheel whose turning surface is all we can discern, when we see the man knee-deep in grey mud as he kneads the clay with his feet, we sense, via metaphor, the power of rootedness. Yet this craft district was deliberately set up outside the city to enable reorganization of the cooperatives. To invent cooperative functioning. The gestures, however, remain unchanged.
To a certain extent these gestures could be those of my grandparents. No value judgment here, though: in one case the gestures have disappeared, in the other preserved. I remember the milling motions my grandmother made on her deathbed. Doubtless an unconscious resurgence of those she had made so often so long ago. But were they really a repetition of the same thing, or rather a reinvention in response to the primary human need to establish a rhythm?

The gestures, which from a distance look like ritual repetitions, in fact vary in line with discreet games to which proximity gives access. Innovation, when sought, often comes via color: for the moment the stylized panel abandons the ritual red oxide and ventures into other hues. Color becomes the vector of mobility, catching the eye from the djellabas and caftans that parade their orange, ultramarine, vivid almond green, mauve or violet through the Medina, but keeping to a lackluster ocher-gray range outside its walls. Plain, solid color is an affirmation of movement, while we could say that conversely the infinitely repeated geometrical motif points to a halt, to identity. When decorators ornament the inside of palaces to the point of leaving not a single plain surface, are they acting less out of fear of the void than of concern with a statement of identity, an assertion of a stability supposed to ensure peace? Traumatized by tribal wars, this traditionally nomadic society doubtless finds in immobility a peace it knew little of in the course of its migrations.
This aspiration to stability stands revealed in the implacable dualism of the sharafas: good and evil; high and low; heaven and earth; black and white. But the world is drawn towards suture, towards ligature, in the name of honor: sharafe. And upwards: towards the mistress, the sharafa.
Identity is affirmed in a system of symbols, while mobility finds expression through signs.
In one case furrow, in the other trajectory. In one case rut, in the other vapor trail.

This contrast between our customs and those observed here could lead, if the difference between the two realities were pushed too far, to a polarization. To the notion that over recent centuries one society has opted for technical advance—the "superstition of progress", Antonin Artaud called it—and its bedfellow, the urge to make a clean slate of a past that is a drag on modern evolution; while the other has chosen the repetition of ancestral gestures and schemas that admittedly does not exclude recent technology (especially that of long-distance communication), but is seen as rejecting the instinctual projection towards the new and as inconsistent, most of the time, with a future.
These two societies which in fact are not antithetical, both being richly complex and diverse, are shaping paths that are parallel—maybe convergent in the infinitely long run—and which raise questions about the destiny of men and their relationship to time (and the times) and the multiplicity of memory. The creature of the new and the creature of rootedness express their identical anxieties in different terms.

--------------------------- Like a latter-day Victor Segalen, our traveler is conscious that the leaving of the studio implies a possible non-return. With return-rebirth comes a turnabout resulting also from the new relationship with the studio: with its out-of-reach outsideness. In great part the artwork is executed under the open sky. It is born of itineroaming, sometimes of a chance event, something unforeseeable, a gesture caught on the fly. But also from the irony of reiterated facts. The world, we know, is the sum of the events that have taken place in it, doubled by the places they happened in. The artist throws himself open to circumstance: a receptive organism, he spreads to the world’s boundaries. Beauty is to be found in the enchantment, the astonishment of having been able to capture a region’s crucial moment, gesture or rhythms. The artwork is enriched by a daily accumulation of things unfinished. It is enriched by vernacular skills intended not for export, but rather for assimilation and translation within the transforming force field of art.
Opening the door on his return, the artist-voyager, the voyartist, would recognize his former studio only as a place of memory. The ruins are not those of others, but his own. My Ruins. And then an urge towards dematerialization gradually takes over. The sculptor has achieved an autonomy driven by repeated gestures and accumulated modules, one that is now exercised more in the act of seeing and less in material creation. This is doubtless the meaning of the digital on-screen portrait of Chellappan, the old model from the art school in India, posing opposite plaster casts whose academicism we find it hard to like—we even have trouble looking at them—but which look at us, just like Chellappan as he poses and brings the installation to life in a new surge of meaning.
When the sculptor makes a photographic collection of unusual bags—to which we could only give a proper name—as a veritable allegory of the Rabat textile worker’s trade, endowed with a charming demotic elegance, the photographer is sculpting; whence, maybe, the problem he has with making portraits. As we know, artistic practice depends first and foremost on the eye brought to bear on the surroundings. Nothing more pertinent here than the remark by Robert Rauschenberg to Richard Kostelanetz in a 1968 interview in New York’s Partisan Review: "Being a painter, I probably take painting more seriously than someone who drives a truck or something. Being a painter, I probably also take his truck more seriously.... in the senses of looking at it and listening to it and comparing it to other trucks and having a sense of its relationship to the road and the sidewalk and the things around it and the driver himself. Observation and measure are my business"--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Counterpoint 4 : towards P. Chellappan

The Medina is home to a host of places for drinking water. Their organization is complex, all but invisible and indecipherable, the outcome of a usage utterly perplexing to the European mind. The mallem is a water diviner possessing not only the technique, but also non-technical knowledge he passes on orally to his apprentice towards the end of his life. So it sometimes happens that a mallem dies without handing on his secrets, as recently happened here.
To the extent that the Medina has become the focus of fresh interest with a view to its restoration, this hitherto oral transmission will be a significant matter should the function of the mallem die out. Yussef the architect has been helping to map the places and complex networks of the water circulation system. He claims that a technical understanding is enough: diameter, height and length of the pipes, etc.
This understanding is the visible tip of the body of knowledge. It is not enough. The handing on of knowledge on the verge of extinction, or already extinct, requires the locating of the last mallems and the ability to trigger memory afresh: to draw on word of mouth; to make contact with people whose fathers were authorities and handed on, perhaps unwittingly, something vital—like this young bell-founder, working away beneath the gaze of Andrei Roublev. In this situation you become aware that knowledge is not simply a matter of knowing how: in parallel there exists a virtuality of knowledge, a kind of acquired sense that transcends the making and processing of materials, and which can be seen in some respects as like the eye the artist brings to bear on the things around him and their circumstances.

---------------------------- And that measure is present in each of the installations on offer here, in that our initial contact with the exhibition space is a confrontation between our own size and the spatial envelope.
The venue has been approached with the utmost care. The ever-present pull of the infinite—which could have been used as a title—is contained along its perimeter by the architecture of the place.
In general terms there’s a tension, a conflict between the accumulation of the modules, the unrestrained repetition of minimal differences deliberately verging on saturation, the excess and the vertiginousness on the one hand, and the sheer clarity on the other, the breathing space and the social instinct exuding from what’s on the walls and the (ephemeral) takeover of a floor area. The "filling" of the place with such a multitude of objects results in sobriety of form.
This is as true of the installations of "things" as of the video installation 78 Suite, in which each film shows rapid gestures whose dexterity is compelling—moving, even, when the hands tremble—and which, because of the tight focus on the forearms and hands, generate a hypnotic fascination with the tools and the objects they produce: garlands; incense sticks; loofahs; beads; terracotta tiles; straw hats. This visual ardor is cooled by the airiness of the space and the serenity through which we stroll.

The haunting thing here, I think, is what could be termed the ultimate check. The moment at which indefiniteness is ended, when excess becomes measure; when the film’s narrative comes to a halt, undramatically, because the drama is the moment of the cut, or of the viewer’s departure. No high point, then, no disaster out of the blue. The two films making up Alternipenné—which are linked to Panorama—have no climax. Prisoners of their fevered bodies, the two central characters seem to be serving a life sentence. "If time attacks not the work," writes Victor Segalen in Steles, "then it bites the worker." Only an external spatial or technical constraint—an objective one, so to speak—puts an end to process, establishes dimensions and defines duration.

The individual appears only rarely in the photographs, often in back view or with the face invisible. But taken as a whole the images, as in the installation Cent Une, suggest a crowd through which the visitor moves, surprised to find himself caught up in a weird choreography of comings and goings and torso-twistings as he strives to establish discreet connections among the host of images on the floor.
This is an orderly crowd, however, never claimed by the herd instinct. A crowd of icons, with its leader taking a bird’s-eye view of his images.
Because art, while it explores disorder and the pushing of limits, is inwardly aware of chaos. But without abandoning the hope of controlling it. And this hope: is it not in fact form, form as guarantee of the present, never repeated, ceaselessly put to the test?
This is surely what led Canetti, in a prophetic speech in Munich in 1976, to declare the artist—the subject was the "métier of poet"—responsible for braving this chaos. The artist is the "defender of metamorphosis"; and metamorphosis is ever more stifled in a self-destroying world of endless prowesses and specialization, a world that despises and represses multiplicity. Alone, the artist follows his personal compass. _ His task, according to Canetti, is to keep the points of access open between human beings, to keep alive his urge to experience others from within. Thus the artist must bear this chaos within him. "But he does not have the right to succumb to chaos; through his very experience of it, he must challenge and counter it with the impetuousness of his hope."

Counterpoint 5 : towards Mes Ruines

Might this society be maintaining the same relationship with ornament as with sound? The rejection of emptiness as much as the refusal of silence? In the collective space all is sound, words—or rather endless talk. The point being to fill the silence, for any or no reason. The buses are filled with people listening to the radio and its interminable sports commentaries. Car horns blast without a break. Symmetry might permeate the collective visual space here, but in the sound space I can detect no harmony.
There’s also lots of music, basically a mix of pop, traditional tunes and electrified stuff. Is there mom-and-pop music and another music for the kids? Sound and the visual are part of the same necessary repetition. The sign seems bereft of all underpinning unless it’s part of a system of reiteration. Words have to be repeated several times before any action takes place, and the pictogram must appear several times in the same space. The thoroughfares are incessantly punctuated by car horns. Once again, the point is to saturate the space. Is there a connection between these reiterations and the prayers, the calls of the muezzin that divide the day into five?

The urbanism of the Medina differs from the interior organization of the houses. Nothing’s straight, everything’s added on and juxtaposed in an initially startling disorder underscored by the uniformity of the facades. Gradually the complexity of the broken-line alleys emerges. The growth of neighborhoods according to business activity seems to have taken place ad hoc, in a process of accretion that suggests tumult and palavering. Once you’re inside the surrounding wall, the structure goes non-geometrical, reflecting a style of life and demonstrating that the interior is seen as more important than surface appearances.
The complexity of it all is too much even for the locals. To get to the leather neighborhood, a worker from another area will ask a shoemaker he knows, who will then lead him through a succession of stalls to a man who will point him in the right direction. The path is made up of segments and markers that doubtless protect certain mysteries.
For behind the permanent seething of the traffic, of the transitory, the transport and the noise, are hidden inner calm and the sheltered intimacy of the gaze. Like a garment, the facade of a house conceals something secret. It’s probably, too, the awareness of this secretness in others that governs social ties.

Patrick Beurard-Valdoye

English translation by John Tittensor