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Prints of air, mouldings of time, readings of memory

Air, this "breath of time" [1] that speaks of life. Time, this immaterial pneuma that invents memory. Both, in François Daireaux’s work, as modality and medium of a project in perpetual evolution, in constant relocation, in tireless reappropriation of materials, forms and spaces. And to articulate this obsessive aesthetic quest onto a singular ethical conquest of that which, in the world, may appear as simple as a ready-made lying at our feet, or as obvious as a dramatisation looming up before our eyes, the artist unceasingly plays on modulation, passage and, thus, variation. In the course of a developed, deployed, unfolded oeuvre, he reminds us that, obviously, "variation is a permanent dialogue between identity and alterity: the same and the other", [2] but also the signature and mode of thinking behind the oeuvre.
It should not, however, be supposed that this mode of operation, which is characteristic of Daireaux’s work (in progress) derives from an artistic desire to construct a genre, or even from an aesthetic ambition in which formalism predominates. No. It is much more a question of an underlying anthropological viewpoint—that of a person who lives, creates and thinks as an artist, but also as an artisan, an "ancillary artist" [3] who produces, perforates, cuts, stitches, sticks, assembles, etc., and finds forms and tools in a studio that is as nomadic as it is real, given the voyages he has made to Algeria, Morocco, Bulgaria, Romania, India, China, Uzbekistan…
When asked, "What does it mean to be an artist?" Bruce Nauman replied, "To begin with, it means having a studio"; [4] and François Daireaux might well add that "it means having the world as your studio". The fact that he displaces his creative space, and particularly towards the Mediterranean region and Asia, from which he draws inspiration for gestures, colours, sounds and materials, drawings and sculptures, videos and photographs, admirably indicates and demonstrates the range of what his eye sees taking shape in the here and now. He knows precisely how to isolate and extract, there and elsewhere, the detail that, in the midst of the insignificant or the unusual, stops him in his tracks and interrogates him—he who always says he’s "waiting for something". This is the photographer’s ethical attitude of non-intervention, the peripatetic sculptor’s exploratory mode, but also the founding gesture of an oeuvre that is always in a state of emergence, and whose aesthetic sensitivity never ceases feeding into the incredible "music" of its world-substance. Daireaux’s home-studio is there as much as it is in "this transport", this sensorial, reflexive act that allows him to turn a place, a situation, an object, an action, a gesture into a "landscape of the psyche… an imprint of intimacy". [5]

Scales and invariants of the artisan-artist

François Daireaux’s first installations followed on from his first long stay in Morocco. It was in 1998, with his Sans titre [Untitled] exhibition, [6] that these "anonymous" pieces were first seen in France, the non-title suggesting that the mere fact of naming them would have given the impression of "petrifying the existence, blocking the movement and energy from which they derive." [7] There were, however, details about dates and materials: "plaster, lithopone, lipstick, nail varnish, stockings, latex, etc…"; in short, a whole range of substances, but also signifiers that left nothing to chance regarding the ways – sometimes novel, often symbolic—in which they were used. Coloured stockings, for example, became plaster sheaths in the form of arquebuses, or giant larvae crawling over the floor; vermilion-varnished pebbles were charged with memories and arranged on a carpet of hair in the shape of a heart. But the autobiographical anecdote was already disappearing behind the metaphorical appropriateness of the material, the meticulous character of its treatment and the accumulative choice expressed in a number of the installations.
So if the decision not to confine these pieces within a "title" could be understood as the intrinsic sense of an evolutive approach, it nonetheless showed that Daireaux was resolved to let the materials "speak" for themselves, and to distance himself from his "ancillary" confections and installations, which are always organised and arranged with great care. He was gradually bringing forth formal invariants that would claim the freedom to drift from one artistic language to another—from drawing to sculpture, and from sculpture to video or photography—while giving the viewer an opportunity to recognise each of them alternately, alternatively, otherwise; but always in its being, there, one way or another.
These invariants were already, for the most part, there, buried or disseminated in the pages of Daireaux’s numerous sketchbooks. They encapsulated the non-completion of an oeuvre which, though diverse and multiple, was also highly constructed and coherent, and whose presence was revealed in these first "portable studios" as a non-referential "material" that was to find its form, its substance, its space in the development of its numerous variations and metamorphoses.
It is to the sculptor’s drawings, but also to those of the photographer—as creatures of gesture and sight—that the sketchbooks refer. In these drawings, forms are already borrowing on the organic, and the pages are sometimes annotated with specifications of materials and spatial configurations; with lines that favour coloured traceries, and volumes that are emergent in air and breath. Obsession and jubilation infuse these graphic, pictorial notes with premonitory purpose.

Rituals of variation

Sans titre, 1998, shows a floor strewn with multiple filamentary silicone forms moulded in lycra and coated in lithopone, "half-animal, half-plant, at once embryo and mortal remains", [8] like giant seeds proliferating in a closed space so that the viewer can fully experience their disturbing presence. Once again there is the metaphor, and the metamorphosis, of a line that has become volume, but above all the reiteration of a module, both the same and different, which illustrates Daireaux’s mode of predilection for "variation"—a structural and emblematic form taken by a number of his installations.
Mes Ruines, 2001-2002, is a maquette of a city open to the sky, between non-completion and demolition, the victim of a seismic catastrophe or the irreversible attrition of time. Between archaeological excavation and vestige of bygone times, a memory of construction haunts this complex of 154 modules in polyester plaster, unlike the clay tile pieces the artist later filmed in Morocco, which later recurred in one of the 78 videos that made up his installation 78 suite, 2004-2008.
But it is also within reality itself that Daireaux, as a sculptor and video artist, finds the index of passing time, as another natural variation generated by the wearing-away of matter and the ticking-off of years. It was during his visit to the College of Fine Arts in Trivandrum, India, that he came across some abandoned busts of P. Chellappan, who had worked as a model at the school. He decided to make white plaster moulds of the busts, which were somewhat eroded, thereby capturing, in video images against a white background, the furrowed face of the model himself, who was by then very old. Sculpture and video, the single and the multiple, the same and the other, the instantaneous and the enduring, the bust and the face: a challenge to the impossibility of representation by dipping into the infinitude of its possibilities. But modelling matter and varying its aspects means inventing memory, while moulding it means trying to hold onto it, in the same way that the photographic image tries to do, with its inexorable "moulding" of luminescent reality onto sensitive film. Modelling, moulding, photographing—responding to one and the same desire to write history and construct memory. It was a strange and moving encounter, this improbable dialogue between the copy and the original, the moulding and the model, the past and the present, the engraved and the recorded.
Another cycle of repetition, duplication, displacement and exhaustion of a form, an image, through repeated modulation; a passage from one medium to another, from one process to another. It is the story, once more, of a variational ritual favoured by Daireaux, for whom "making variations" means the use of modulation to shape, and pin down, the infinitesimal, infinite changes of a receptive matrix or an adaptable mould. For him, the action of modulating with a view to "making variations" is as reflective as it is experimental, as ethical as it is stylistic, with the matching of objects, matter, colour, elements, structures and entities to situations as much as to environments.
Vert de terre [Green of earth, homophonic with the French term meaning "earthworm"], 2000, comprised 15 large-format colour photographs. Its metaphorical title referred to images of sculptures that were the object of an initial installation whose linear trajectory [9] later made way for a work of larger dimensions arranged in bundles. The 1,200 figurines, as different as they were similar—inverted mouldings resulting from random perforations in foam bricks like those used by florists, filled with thermoplastic glue, then separated from their envelope—were transformed into impressive artificial plant totems (Formité, 2002) whose colours in turn faded in the light, thus marking the passage of time "at the heart of a material that is a simulacrum of nature". [10] The evolution of this work was thus already inscribed in its "genes", as much through the artist’s will as by the arbitrary effects of time, with changes of scale and medium for the first mouldings, the "foam branchings", and the obliteration of a fragile memory by the action of light on these artificial "verts de terre".
Other metamorphoses of the same foam material were to follow, with the idea of hollowing out, or at any rate drawing, lineaments of landscape in the form of two "doormats"—Welcome, 2008, with grooves made by blasts of compressed air before being moulded in silicone and subjected to vagaries of passage. Welcome became emblematic of this oeuvre in perpetual variation. And it has now taken on the dimensions of a large green carpet. Using the same technique—compressed-air-imprint/filling-moulding—this monumental bas relief is a patchwork of 203 mouldings of photographs, including 101 that were spread out on the floor for the exhibition Goodbye, [11] hence the name of the piece, Cent une. The other 102 resulted from recent trips to North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Like a transfer, or a foam "contact print" that retains the memory of a matrix-image, Skizzes will open, more than symbolically, the 2009 retrospective Tout commence par les pieds [Everything starts with the feet]. [12] It is a piece to be walked around, leaving the original photographs to pattern the walls of the surrounding spaces. From Welcome to Goodbye, the route was already traced out, and the impenitent walker had to follow it right to the end. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Daireaux also works with video. It allows him to experiment—as in the first pieces by Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman—on the extenuation of matter and time in the obsessive repetition of a gesture.

Extracts of worlds

To talk of life, and to choose that which expresses the human, so as to make of one’s work (in progress) the metaphor of an endless ritual in the manner of cyclical time conveying a life and a creative force—this, in effect, is what seems to be charted by François Daireaux’s work with the image.
The entire series of videos produced since 2000—including 78 suite—confirm the notion that if they cannot be grasped without taking into account physical, territorial and sensorial shifts, it is because "the life of an artist [is] a journey towards the work, and the work [is perhaps] a journey into the forgetting of life". [13] But Daireaux never forgets what gives his journeys, and his deviations, a sense both as a part of his life and—in particular—what speaks of humanity, and of humanness. A number of his photographs are close-up, tight shots of artisanal gestures in which the hand may be the leading player, but whose first "inhabitants" are the feet. It was at foot level—like Jana Sterbak, when she equipped a dog with a video camera to roam around a town (From Here to There, 2004), or Lisette Model, who had already photographed a city at ground level (Running Legs, 1940-1942)—that he tirelessly filmed feet with shoes being taken off and put back on at the entrance to the Eminonu mosque in Istanbul (No Visit, 2004), followed by another in Tashkent (A La Limite, 2007). And it was a choreography for a boxwood broom that sent dead leaves swirling round in a ritualised figure on the pavements of Kutaisi, Georgia (Saisons, 2006). These simple, repetitive but universal movements, at ground level, recall the fact that "it is ’down below’, starting at thresholds where visibility ceases, that the ordinary practitioners of the city are to be found", [14] and that human habits and gestures are invented.
But to come back to the major works Welcome and Skizzes: both are thresholds, either trodden on (for the former) or visually apprehended (for the latter); and both are also symbols of windows, either open onto other worlds (in the case of Welcome) or already imprinted by a world of 203 photographs (in the case of Skizzes).
And it is precisely in this quest for an "elsewhere", but also in his attitude to interpretation and framing (distancing and memorising), that François Daireaux develops and tests his faculty of, on the one hand, extracting worlds from distant lands, and on the other hand rediscovering "his" worlds, which he has already "seen", sensed, glimpsed in his drawings and sculpture. Or perhaps it is just the opposite, and the drawings and sculptures are "influenced" by the multitudes of dramas that are to be found in the street, on a suburban corner, or in passing through a town or a village. For this purpose he crosses borders, but he also takes forms over thresholds so as to render them "other" and "elsewhere". From sculpture to video, but also from drawing to sculpture, or vice versa, and certainly from sculpture to photography, he experiments with the fact that "sculpture stops at the point where it meets photography". [15] And what is it that induces the passage from one to the other, if not the plane that the sculptor seeks in volumes, and that the photographer extracts from reality? [16]
The plane of the sculptor, the architecture of the photographer—these are also invariants that Daireaux permutes in colours, in still or animated images, in splendid monochromes with an infinitely nuanced palette, in extracts from an installation found "here" or a gesture filmed "there", in an archaic repetition of the movements made by the person who tans the skin, who spreads the dough, who grinds the stone, who smooths the swathes of dyed fabric, who moistens the brick, who builds a business… But there is no documentary intention here. A hint of the unknown resists what is done, made, woven, confected, distributed, offered for sale… Never does the final object or the economic act appear, any more than the face of the person who polishes, incises, piles up or induces… Or rather yes, perhaps once, with a strange session of Chinese massage where a wire is stretched across the cheek of an impassive young woman, recalling a video, Untitled, 1977, [17] by the Brazilian artist Sonia Andrade, who wound her face around with nylon twine to the point of disfiguring it, as a way of condemning the violence wrought on her country. With Daireaux there is no condemnation, just presence, air and time—life, in sum.
But the question may actually be one of energy, and of what is most essential, but least figurable, about the body; the breath of life that is exhaled by the gestural choreographies of 78 suite—splendid portraits of objects, materials, colour palettes, luminous fields marked by the rhythmic noises and sounds of filmed action. And the living body is presented elsewhere in psychotic delirium or autistic swaying in two distinctive videos, Panorama, 2006, and Alternipenné, 2006, these titles being divergent, or dissociated, from the subjects of the films as such, as with a number of the 101 photographs that Daireaux spread out on a floor in the Goodbye exhibition; which is another way of plunging deep into these images that continually go back and forth between reality and presentation, and of recalling previous drawings and installations.
In one of the photographs, it is red that dominates—that of an imposing watermelon set down beside some surprising animal sculptures abandoned on a pavement. In another, there are memories of accumulation: a ball of string or a tower of painted tyres rising up as a totem pole in the middle of a street. Elsewhere, there is an upturned umbrella that acts as a base for another corolla, this one composed of multicoloured handkerchiefs; and farther on, small packets of incense that look like the bundles in "vert de terre", or again the mysterious silvery fish that make waves on the floor in the first Sans titre pieces, 1996-1998.
Always, ceaselessly, here and there, between reality as a concentrate of abstraction and its appearance as fiction and dramatisation, between the photography, with its inexhaustible extracts, and the sculpture, with its infinite models, a perception insinuates itself, scanning air and sculpting time. The unfinished story of a work without end is being written: a story of measurements, imprints, mouldings, repetitions and recurrences, in which the action of the photographer merges with the gesture of the sculptor. While the former remains at the threshold of the world, the better to grasp it, the latter follows passages, the better to apprehend them. But neither uses anything other than variation to write the memory of a work, from thresholds to pathways. And François Daireaux’s oeuvre is inventing itself in this way, in successive drawings that are always "other"—sculptures or photographs—but always, also, extracted from a breath, and raised up out of time.

Michelle Debat, 2009

Translation by John Doherty


[1] Georges Didi-Huberman, Génie du non-lieu, air, poussière, empreinte, hantise, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 2001. Comparing Claudio Parmiggiani’s Delocazione with Duchamp’s Elevage de poussière, Didi-Huberman notes that "in both cases, dust is used as a material of imprinting, and air itself—the breath of time—as the general medium of the process" (p. 64).

[2] Massin, De la variation, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 2000, p. 40.

[3] "Artiste en petite main"—an expression used by Bernard Laffargue in the presentation of the aesthetic review he edits, Figures de l’art, Paris, Editions PUP, whose issue No. 7, 2004, was devoted to the theme "Artiste/Artisan".

[4] Quoted by Françoise Parfait in Vidéo, un art contemporain, Paris, Editions du Regard, 2001, p. 179.

[5] 5Georges Didi-Huberman, op. cit., note 1, p. 13.

[6] At Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris, 1998.

[7] Jean-Marc Huitorel, in Sans titre, a text included in the catalogue co-published by Les Filles du Calvaire and Huit Novembre, Paris, 1998.

[8] Célia Charvet, in the catalogue for the exhibitions Ce que je cherche à faire and L’un après l’autre, at L’Ecole d’Art Gérard Jacot, Belfort, and the Maison de la Céramique, centre d’art international, Mulhouse, 2001.

[9] In the François Daireaux exhibition, at the Duchamp gallery, Yvetot, and Idéal, at the Edouard Manet municipal gallery, Gennevilliers, 1999.

[10] Bernard Point, in the catalogue of the Idéal exhibition, p.12.

[11] At the abbey of Maubuisson, Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, 28 March-1 September 2008, with five new installations using various media (photography, video, sculpture): Welcome, Cent une, P. Chellappan, 78 suite, Saisons, Prise.

[12] At the Centre d’art La Villa Tamaris, La Seyne-sur-Mer, 24 January-1 March 2009.

[13] Claudio Parmiggiani, Stella Sangue Spirito, Arles, Actes Sud, 2004, pp. 54-55, quoted by G. Didi-Huberman, op. cit., p. 74.

[14] Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, Volume 1, Arts de faire, Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1990, p. 141.

[15] Jacques Aumont, "Où s’arrête la sculpture?", in Sculpter-Photographier, Photographie-Sculpture, proceedings of a conference at the Louvre organised by M. Frizot and D. Païni, Paris, Editions Marval/Musée du Louvre, 1993, p. 143.

[16] Ibid., p. 134: "Does the photographer not materialise […] nothing less than one of the planes through which the sculptor works space?".

[17] Presented at the exhibition Corps étrangers: danse, dessin, films, Paris, Louvre, 13 October 2006-15 January 2007.