PRINT December 1992


CHILDHOOD IS NOT ONLY a period in life, it is also a tense in language. The infancy of language—picture books, illustrated alphabets, primers—from which Xavier Veilhan culls his imagery is that happy time when words coincide with things in the process of their discovery and acquisition as knowledge. In Veilhan’s art we confront this transitory moment when, lacking experience, we encountered the world as a game of recognition, manipulation, and appropriation. In his exhibition last winter at Galerie Jennifer Flay, Paris, the floor was covered in a multicolored checkerboard pattern. Nine game pieces of the same colors made up a semiotic landscape comprising such objects as a suspension bridge, a fence, a rocket, a signpost, a sulky and pony, and two fat birds. Each piece was familiar and immediately recognizable, painted with a monochromatic mat color that seemed to efface its volume and push it toward two-dimensionality. Finally the objects were reproduced, “reimaged,” via a dry-transfer process. It was by this method of reproduction—involving only a simple layer of ink—that the artist, in transposing the exhibited objects into a configuration of signs on the wall, designated a textual dimension revealing the linguistics of childhood experience. Behind the sculpture we saw an image and behind that image we read a sign: this is a fence, this is a rocket, this is a signpost.

Indeed, to look is to name things. To name is to shape the landscape and to give it meaning. Here is a tautological experience that is disconcerting in its simplicity and accessibility: a rocket is a rocket is a rocket. The world of childhood is the world of language giving itself over—it’s the world at one’s fingertips, immediately graspable and semioticized. The signs are there, waiting to be displaced into language’s lexicon.

Veilhan’s work thus functions as a playful nominalism. His sculptures and paintings do not designate an exterior reality but, rather, an interior, semiotic universe, enacted through the ancestral game of codification—a game of pure convention. Between linguistic reality (the sign) and the world of form there is a momentary and tacit concurrence, a short circuit of the real. This is not an infantile poetic or an evasion of the world (as in Walt Disney), but a demystification of the illusion of an immediate rapport between words and things (as in Lewis Carroll). The “real,” Veilhan shows us, is nothing other than a secondary manifestation of this initial language game.

To obtain this result, Veilhan resorts to a series of simultaneous operations: the disruption of scale in various relationships (I am as big as a rocket. The bird is as big as I am); the creation of a generic look (he uses the simplest figures in order to allow for the immediate recognition of a model); semiotic manipulations (he employs fragmentation and out-of-the-blue shifts in syntax). We move from one sculpture to another, without the cushioning effect of any transition. What is neutralized here is the word itself, the possibility of connections and syntactic links. One remains within the semiotic without ever plunging into a mythology (as we do looking at Pino Pascali’s landscapes and animals, Panamarenko’s airplanes, or Claes Oldenburg’s objects). Veilhan’s world is flat. His images are one-dimensional, without connotative resonance. He presents us with a common language, but one that suggests a moment that precedes our entry into language proper—that predates our appropriation of the world through discourse.

Veilhan’s works are pieces in a mute game—that of the essential experience of childhood. By setting himself apart from the outside world, Veilhan moves us outside linear time, to a place divorced from the media calendar where TV, magazines, and newspapers perform their numbing ritual function. Insidiously iconoclastic, these objects foreground the antiritual function of toys, disrupting chronological time and opening the dangerous, if attractive, possibility of immersion in a shattered temporality, a discontinuous process that momentarily arrests the flux of history. Suddenly, the game is revealed as less superficial than it may at first have seemed. And as much less innocent.

Olivier Zahm is an art critic who lives in Paris.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.