PRINT May 1993


THE WORK OF PHILIPPE Ramette, a 32-year-old French artist working mostly in Nice, belongs to a peculiarly French tradition of engineering gone awry, a lineage that includes the complex devices exhaustively described by Raymond Roussel in Locus Solus and the “bachelor machines” of Marcel Duchamp, not to mention the bizarre objects that the Surrealists used to seek out in the flea markets of Paris. Imagine Ramette’s works, then, listed in a mail-order catalogue, or displayed in a stall at the Marché aux Puces, thus:

1. Objet intolerable (Intolerable object, 1991): a brass headband supporting a glass lens. When sunlight strikes this powerful lens, a concentrated beam almost immediately begins to burn a hole through the top of the user’s head.

2. Objet pour se faire foudroyer (Object to make yourself be struck by lightning, 1991): another brass headband, this time replacing the lens with a thin metal rod rising in the air. Brass cables attach this rod and headband to a pair of brass sandals, so that when lightning bolts are attracted by the rod the electrical charge is instantly and efficiently transmitted through the entire body.

3. Miroir à ciel (Mirror to the sky, 1989–90): a relatively simple device consisting of a mirror attached to a long pole (a little over ten feet) that the user can hold up to show the sky its own reflection.

4. Objet pour arrêter le temps (Object to stop time, 1991): a wristwatch lacking both hands and numerals. In the middle of the circular white face, under the glass, is a small capsule. To employ this device, one simply breaks the glass and swallows the enclosed capsule, which presumably contains a fatal dose of poison.

5. Boîte à isolement (Isolation box, 1989): a wooden box that opens and closes like a suitcase. A hole in the bottom allows the user to place the box over the head and close it, thus shutting out light and sound. A pair of shoulder braces helps keep this heavy box securely on the wearer’s head, and a small hole lets in air.

6. Le Socle à réflexion (The pedestal for reflection, 1989): a pair of wooden stilts whose weighted bases allow the user to see the world from some three feet higher than usual. These wooden supports come with a portable carrying-case/stepladder that permits a person to carry the heavy apparatus around and to climb up onto the stilts without assistance.

All of Ramette’s works are distinguished by meticulous craftsmanship, the handiwork either of the artist or of the artisans with whom he collaborates. As Christian Bernard has pointed out, the detailed finish and the primitive technology of these objects bring to mind the 19th-century science fiction of Jules Verne, yet their condensed scenarios of ingenious self-destruction and poetic solipsism eventually override such associations. The works may resemble antique scientific instruments, but they are really prostheses of the spirit.

Although his art is often physically threatening, Ramette also produces works of extreme tenderness, such as an untitled device that offers adults the chance to sing along with a sweet-voiced choir of children. While they may share with much of Surrealism and body art a sense of implicit threat, their “power to hurt” is not the point of these unwieldy objects. In essence, this austere, conceptually streamlined, yet emotionally potent work is offered as an aid to thought and contemplation. What they ask us to contemplate most is how our senses perceive the world. Ramette has taken deadpan photographs of himself using his devices, and these images, and the recent short “demonstration” film Conversation avec l’air (Conversation with the air, 1993),1 make the implications of his work clearer. One photograph in particular could stand for the rest: it shows the artist against a majestic mountain background, dressed conventionally in a dark suit, blue shirt, and tie. He is turned slightly toward the camera, but much of his face is obscured by the wooden box strapped to his head—the Objet à voir le monde en détail (Object with which to see the world in detail, 1990), a box that restricts the wearer’s view to what is visible through a small aperture, somewhat as if one were wearing a pinhole camera.

We might say that all of Ramette’s work is about allowing or forcing us to see the world in detail, the details being our field of vision, or the power of the sun or of lightning, or the different qualities of young and old voices. But the underlying power of this art derives from its ability to focus our attention on that distance, so physically minor, so metaphysically immense, between the gaze and the touch, between the experience of looking at one of his works and the prospect of using it. For all their old-fashioned craft, Ramette’s meditations on human vulnerability traverse that space between work and viewer with a speed that is positively frightening.

Meyer Raphael Rubinstein is a writer who lives in Milan. He recently curated “Postcards from Alphaville: Jean-Luc Godard in Contemporary Art 1963–92,” at P.S.1, New York.



1. Directed by Jean-Marc Simonet, from a screenplay by Simonet and Ramette.