PRINT December 1991


AS CARLOS FUENTES TELLS the story, he was traveling in a remote part of Mexico when he came upon a village and asked an old man its name. “In troubled times, we call it Zapata,” the old man answered, “and in peace time, we call it Santa Maria.”1

I was reminded of this anecdote—cited by Fuentes in the thick of the American hostage crisis in Iran as a warning against the one-dimensional mentality of his neighbors to the north—because the medieval French church in Bar-le-Duc where Michèle Blondel has done her project for Artforum is alternately known as Saint Pierre or Saint Étienne (and also, on occasion, Saint-Maxe). Admittedly, the explanation is less colorful than that of Fuentes’ villager, involving as it does a thousand years of chapters, canons, and cults that have converged on this particular site. But the point is much the same: notwithstanding rationalism, modern science, and the nightly news, human imagination continues to thrive on ambiguity and paradox.

And where is Michèle Blondel in all this? Following Fuentes, I would place her between Santa Maria and Zapata, unabashedly bridging sacred and profane, fragility and brute force, beauty and decomposition, Eros and death. The first time I saw some of her work—hulking blocks of wood impaled with crowns of welded-steel spikes, menacing iron lances draped with incongruously delicate excretions of crystal—I was struck by the particular and all-too-familiar mix of anxiety and resentment they evoked. Distilled in their visceral, archetypal forms were the New York subway, the spirit of Thelma and Louise, bus stations, open markets, or dark streets anywhere in the world: defense and offense as a woman’s way of life.

Since this first encounter, the question on my mind has been where such a visual idiom comes from, how Blondel has arrived at this abstract narrative of the female condition. Obviously, she does not invent the feelings, much less the situations where they arise; rather, you could say that she discovers them, or, better, uncovers them, preys on them, in her words, “like a parasite.”2 Take, for example, Aqua candida, 1984–88, the public fountain she designed and executed for the main courtyard of the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The triangular shape, she explains, is “an arrow, a spearhead indicating a physical and mental voyage.”3 On one level, this eminently masculine marker, the arrow, is intended to recall the history of the train station as a point of departure for the eastern front (where both of Blondel’s grandfathers were killed) during World War I. But the same form can also be read as the pubic triangle, duly inscribed with a circle of blue crystal blocks. And, through the constant play of light on their irregularly cut and polished surfaces, Blondel adds, these 12 blocks also convey the passage of time.

Interestingly, the fountain is not scaled to the grandiose architectural site but to the people passing by. Blondel herself insists on this intimacy; Aqua candida, she says, is “a cross between a confessional, a telephone booth, and a bus shelter”—a refuge, in other words, for the private contemplation of history, sexuality, the elements, time. But also implicit in her description, with its irreverent amalgam of sacred and profane, is the equally irreverent disregard for artistic tradition. If she is indeed a parasite, as she proposes, it is clear that she preys first of all on her own instincts and experiences, and it could be argued that her evolution as an artist has involved nothing other than eliminating the traditional encumbrances of art from her work.

In fact, Blondel began as a painter in the 1960s, with meticulous architectural views rendered in impossible perspective and strident primary colors as a challenge to the iconography of power. By the late 1970s, the colors were gone, and the white-on-white views were all of cemeteries. “Effacement is also birth,” she notes in a catalogue text. “I efface and I try to overturn the laws leading to death; I’m linking birth and death by painting cemeteries like sugar-coated candies.”4 It was because of the play with light in these paintings that Blondel was invited to design a mural for a crystal-working factory near the northeastern French town of Bar-le-Duc. And this is how she came upon crystal, the material embodiment of her painterly and personal concerns: light, transparency, fluidity, fragility, fragmentation, resistance.

In recent years Blondel has turned from the kind of massive cut blocks used in Aqua candida to an assortment of hand-blown vessels and projectiles that are at once emblems of erotic desire, fecundity, and fragility. Much more than the blocks, these small objects depend on an external environment, but the loss of autonomy is a voluntary means of heightening the dialogue with reality. If the white walls of a gallery or museum can become somewhat sterile surroundings for her “parasitism,” it thrives on the history, the myths, the memories inhabiting a site like the church of Saint Étienne/Pierre. Already in a 1989 installation at Saint Louis de la Pitié, the chapel of the Salpétrière hospital in Paris, Blondel introduced her crystal objects, metal lances, and blocks of wood as ritual instruments of a visibly sadomasochistic Passion that she called La Foi, le sexe, le crime (Faith, sex, crime). Similarly, Saint Étienne/Pierre has provided her with fertile territory for “fleshing out” the multiple meanings inherent in the religious mise-en-scène.

Suffice it to cite the macabre sculpture in the south transept variously known as Le Transi (The transfixed one), L’Écorché (The flayed one), and Le Squelette (The skeleton). A monument to a young noble killed in battle in 1544, it was conceived as a memento mori exalting the greater glories of the soul over the worldly vanities of the flesh and was once accompanied by equally macabre assemblages of sculpted shinbones and teardrops in each of the 12 niches surrounding it.5 In fact, Blondel knew nothing of these details, but by insinuating her phallic ex-votos into the site, she has sought to counter the ravages of death with the reminder of the sexuality so discreetly obscured by the fig leaf of peeled-back flesh on the sculpture. Likewise, in a now-abandoned side chapel, a single crystal penis posed at the foot of the Virgin rather startlingly recalls that alongside the miracle of the Immaculate Conception, there are the carnal wonders of sex, fertility, pregnancy, and the physical act of giving birth. And with three barely perceptible crystal drops suspended above the Crucifixion in the choir, Christ and the two thieves regain their bodily fluids—sweat, saliva, sperm.

Obviously, Blondel’s “objects of personal devotion,” as she calls them, are intended to confront head-on the hypocrisy of denial. But it would be a mistake to overlook the simultaneous acceptance, and celebration, of myths and miracles that are part of her own history, and that have been from childhood, she insists, a continual source of “beauty and voluptuousness.” Her critical stance is inclusive rather than exclusive and, like the fountain that refuses to be monumental, constantly proposes a rereading on a human scale.

But for all the womanly connotations of the process, there is also something distinctly (new) Old World about Blondel’s work, existing as it does in the interstices of past and present, where every space has its history, its traditions, its ghosts to be embraced, exorcised, or simply acknowledged. If, as Claude Lévi-Strauss pointedly observes, apropos of 1992, “we don’t know anything about America from before because we’ve destroyed it all,” Europe still lives in the midst of “before.” It is, however, increasingly faced with its own identity crisis: how to reconcile long-standing local traditions with norms of modernity made-in-the-U.S.A.

Michèle Blondel’s exaltation of extremes confronts us with the paradoxical continuities that, like Fuentes’ villager, we must all learn to live with.

Miriam Rosen is a writer who lives in Paris.


1. Carlos Fuentes, quoted in Richard Eder, “For the Writer Carlos Fuentes, Iran Crisis Brings Déjà Vu,” The New York Times, 9 January 1980, p. A2.

2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Michèle Blondel come from our many hours of conversation between June and October 1991.

3. Blondel, quoted in Jean-Pierre Poggi, “Aqua candida 1984–1988,” inaugural brochure, Paris: Centre National des Arts Plastiques, 22 November 1988.

4. Blondel, “Le Pays du dessous,” in Nuit Blanche, exhibition catalogue, Le Creusot: CRACAP, 1983, n.p.

5. See Lucien Braye, “À propos du mausolée du coeur; dit Le Squelette chef d’oeuvre de Ligier Richier,” Bulletin Archéologique, 1938–1940, pp. 575-82; and Paul Denis, Ligier Richier, L’Artiste et son oeuvre, Paris and Nancy: Berger-Levrault, 1911, p. 209.

6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, in a television interview with Bernard Rapp, “Caractères,” FR3, 11 October 1991.