PRINT December 1989


According to [Bergson’s] first thesis, movement is distinct from the space covered. Space covered is past, movement is present, the act of blue covering. The space covered divisible, whilst movement is divisible, indeed infinitely is indivisible, or cannot be divided without changing qualitatively each time it is divided. This already presupposes a more complex idea: the spaces covered all belong to a single, identical, homogeneous space, while the movements are heterogeneous, irreducible among themselves
—Gilles Deleuze

I don’t believe in chance.
—Lili Dujourie

BETWEEN 1968 AND 1972, Lili Dujourie produced a series of works under the collective title “American Imperialism,” a familiar term for describing U.S. military and industrial influence globe-wide, but also an apt characterization of the nature of American hegemony in the international art world at the end of the ’60s. Painting the gallery wall what the artist calls a “heavy” color1—such as green, red, or blue—Dujourie would lean a large steel sheet against the surface. But with the area directly behind the sheet left unpainted, any given version of “American Imperialism” called attention to the altered character of the original space. This basic strategy or cannot be lies at the root of much Minimalist-based practice, yet Dujourie’s intervention cannot be called Minimalist. Her disruption of the space is contingent on a notion of duration far from the Minimalist sensibility, and even farther from the effects it engenders. Depending upon the length of time spent in the space of Dujourie’s “American Imperialism,” what at first seems a white wall that has been painted green may take on the appearance of a green wall on which a white square has been painted.Which is the “original” space? Is that steel plate a mask? Are Minimalist strategies being exposed or affirmed? It is the temporal element, the duration of the viewer’s gaze, that generates these questions, that seeds the conflict between illusion and immanence, and moves the viewer gently but persistently from one perception to the next. And that the viewer assume responsibility for these perceptual shifts lies at the heart of Dujourie’s work; these works serve to demonstrate that the now timeworn tactics of Minimalism can produce structures that invite successive, independent readings. Undei the auspices of a ruthlessly direct title, “American Imperialism” merges a distant, cod.! attitude to materials with a determination to provide an “open” field for interpretation.

Moreover, as a European, specifically a Belgian, artist in a context that often seems overwhelmingly American, Dujourie is consistently producing works that respond to the threats of marginalization. “American Imperialism” and many of the works to follow are provocative—not in the knee-jerk mode that engenders a predictable (albeit sometimes uncomfortable) response by hitting exactly the right buttons, but by providing an atmosphere in which the viewer is stimulated to take an active, rather than a predetermined, stance. Like narratives in which enigmatic characters operate, Dujourie’s works require that the “reader” move farther and farther “inside,” as Dujourie puts it, for inside lie the personal signification(s) that are often belied by the formal presentation we encounter on the outside.

It may seem a contradiction, then, that Dujourie characterizes her subsequent turn to videotape works, produced between 1972 and 1978, as an attempt “to open things up.” Yet for Dujourie, it is by “going inside,” by going beyond appearances, that one is able to “open up” a work’s encoded meaning: the movement of the artist parallels the movement of the viewer in an exploration of the “indirect or unsaid.” As in Bergson’s notion of movement, Dujourie gives us space infinitely divisible, each division representing a different aspect of the object or idea being represented.

For instance, in her video Hommage à, 1972, a static camera records a woman (Dujourie herself) in bed. For thirty minutes we see her, wrapped in a sheet, assuming a series of different postures. Yet Dujourie still considers Hommage à a kind of sculpture. Similarly, in Orange, 1978, in which the camera records an orange being slowly peeled and eaten, a Proustian sensibility toward time prevails; each articulation of movement triggers a trajectory of emotional and intellectual associations. While a description of these tapes may bring to mind those of Warhol, Dujourie eschews the reductive quality that typifies many of his films. Despite their flatness, despite their single-mindedness, Dujourie’s tapes are additive in effect. For Warhol, the ideal film would be endless. For Dujourie, it would only appear that way.

A Dujourie work that weds the articulation of temporal, physical, and intellectual movement is an untitled piece from 1980. Two slide projectors are the artist’s medium, casting images side by side on the wall. On the left, we see a nude woman photographed against a velvet background. She faces the camera, looking downward. In the slide on the right, the same woman appears in profile, as if looking toward her own image in the accompanying panel. Once again, Dujourie uses the sparest of materials—two static images—to suggest all kinds of movement. Do these shots represent two moments in time, a before and an after? Has the gaze on the left resulted in its subsequent aversion on the right? Have we, catching sight of the woman on the left, forced her to confront her own image? Here again a Minimalist strategy is deployed for cross-purposes: to produce a maximal field of signification.

By 1982 the velvet in the background of Dujourie’s videos would move to the foreground of her work. Again, Dujourie would further her experiments in the production of movement (physical and emotional) from the conditions of stasis, through an “opening up” of materials—and thus subject matter. “Velvet,” Dujourie declares, “signifies a richness of culture. My use of it represents a conscious decision to quote the baroque works of the Flemish masters, like Van Der Weyden or Van Eyck.” The tactile and cultural richness of velvet nourishes an artistic practice concerned with afterimages, with moments and motions arrested in time. For an artist who “does not believe in chance,” the transitions from Minimalist-derived sculpture to video to the distanced sensuality of velvet constructions seems both intuitive and calculated: each step, each choice of material, is a logical consequence of the previous works. Whatever the medium, Dujourie’s works refuse to be fixed in time. And velvet, with its rippling undulations and its classical, baroque, and contemporary associations, is in fact a material uncommonly suited to the simultaneous representation of past, present, and future. Moreover, for Dujourie, “the movement of velvet is like the movements of the video.”

In Caresse l’Horizon de la Nuit (Caress the night’s horizon, 1983), the black-and-pink velvet mounted on the wall resembles a reclining, mournful figure, like David’s Marat. Yet the placement of the pink velvet inside the black evokes an enclosure, perhaps a vestment to be worn, or to be placed in. Its sagging center as well as its descending sash suggest a moment of rest, be it temporary or permanent. The disposition of the material, strikingly displayed against a white background, is inherently dramatic—asserting the object as a shadow or fragment of some larger event. Similarly, the swirling, intricately arranged swatches of velvet enwrapping a wooden two-headed snake in Pandora, 1983, invite us to speculate on this combination of materials. Is the circular form in the center, around which the snake winds, a kind of mirror? Did the woes safely contained in the original Pandora’s box emerge with such a lush beauty as this deep red velvet? Just as Pandora’s casual gesture set a whole series of narratives into play, so does Dujourie’s piece set in motion the multiple chains of interpretation. Just as Pandora could not resist opening the box, we desire to “penetrate” this elegant configuration. Dujourie’s most successful pieces, however mysterious, coax us to do so. At times, however, the formal beauty of the outside can overwhelm us, and the delicate balance between the enigmatic and the hermetic that Dujourie is capable of striking is disturbed; we can’t go past appearances.

In 1983, Dujourie began a new series of works in which the fluid, dynamic properties of the velvet are contrasted with the fixed, relatively stable parameters of the frame. While the previous velvet works were situated within a sculptural context, the newer works explicitly refer to painting. Yet movement again aligns the two, challenging a number of accepted distinctions between them. In these wall works, velvet might literally spill out of its frame, animating the boundaries between the space outside and the space inside, drawing attention to the notion of containment—and the possibility of escape. In La Traviata, 1984, for example, a huge piece of black velvet is arrested in its movement three-quarters of the way across a boldly painted red frame; it slopes off its “container” to fall to the floor in a rippling puddle. We are confronted by a work whose very creation seems to have been suspended mid process. In explicitly referring to the conditions of its own making, the piece seems to comment on its own objectivity and the wearying struggle of producing—much less extending—meaning. As in the 19th-century operas from which this and other works such as Tosca, 1984, draw their titles, melodramatic excess—and exhaustion—is part of the message. But La Traviata can also serve to take us back to some coded messages in Dujourie’s early “American Imperialism.” For what are the black and red of La Traviata but a color field stripped of its aura, a grand statement that may only finish in a state of collapse?

In Untitled, 1984, Dujourie returns us to the human figure itself, as opposed to its implied presence. Two photographs, exactly alike, show a nude woman sprawling languorously on a bed of red velvet. Behind her, a backdrop of the same material effectively fills the frame. Displayed within an ornate gold frame, the work recalls Hommage à in its placement of the woman’s body in a situation both static and evolving. And as in the video, secondary materials command our attention: the lush velvet, the rich frame, etc. Like Duchamp’s Etant Donnés: 1. la chute d’eau, 2. le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. the waterfall, 2. the illuminating gas, 1946–66), or Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (Origin of the world, 1866), Dujourie’s piece invites our voyeurism. Her arm raised to shield her face but her sex twisted toward the viewer, Dujourie’s subject broadcasts her objectification. But Duchamp forces the viewer to peer through a peephole; Courbet controls the spectator’s gaze by eliminating all but the woman’s genitalia from his painting. Though Dujourie masks her subject, she positions her stage center, without any obscuring devices. The viewer cannot fixate on the woman portrayed: he or she must integrate her “excessive” surroundings. The seemingly obvious—and problematic—point of reference is confused. As Dujourie consistently brings formal effects to the forefront, her blatant imagery becomes more and more intransigent to the projection of emotional states at the same time that it rigorously solicits them.

It makes sense, then, that the title of her current series, “En ze gingen samen weg in de dondere nacht” (And, together, they left in the dark night, 1988–89), describes an action taken in secrecy, an action meant not to be seen. The title is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, and the work, when completed this year, will include eight pieces. With photographic shadow figures on canvas making their appearance in the “doorways” suggested by Dujourie’s recessed wood frames, this series represents the artist’s closest brush so far with traditional conventions of narrative. Yet as in the wall constructions that immediately preceded it, the effect of the work is to question the terms under which any representation is constructed. Moving from the far left and right ends of this linear arrangement of pieces, the viewer’s eye, as Dujourie currently plots the piece, will travel from clearly articulated shadow figures exiting (or entering?) individual frames (serrated white marble constituting the bottom of each frame suggests the stairways they might take for their journeys) to a triptych in which the figures are increasingly abstracted. The center panel of this triptych is, in fact, empty of any suggestion of a human figure; only the barest hint remains of two archlike forms. The result, if a narrative, is one that swallows its own story; that, as the artist puts it, “has no beginning and end; it is all one movement.”

Like a director, Dujourie consistently fashions a mise-en-scène whose serene surfaces belie charged and often mixed messages. If seduction and aggression exist simultaneously in Dujourie’s art, it is to keep, for her viewers, the multiple possibilities of contextualization, and its attendant afterimages, alive.

Michael Tarantino is a writer who lives in Brussels.



1. All quotations of the artist come from a conversation with the author, summer 1989.

An exhibition of the works of Lili Dujourie will be on view at the Bonn Kunstverein, West Germany, from 7 December 1989 through 4 February 1990. Amended installations of this show will travel to the Magasin, Grenoble, in May and June 1990, and to the DAAD Galcrie, West Berlin, in the summer of 1990.