PRINT September 1993

Bertrand Lavier’s Giulietta

CERTAIN WORKS OF ART make their mark in history by breaking the thread of a tradition; others, perhaps more rare, endure because they are able to knot together numerous threads. Giulietta, 1993, belongs to the second category.

So who is Giulietta? And how does she present herself? In answer to the first question, suffice it to say, for now, that Giulietta is an Italian sports car produced by Alfa Romeo. As to the second question, we will also content ourselves with an abbreviated response: Giulietta presents herself in a rather bad light. Although placed on a white pedestal, like some precious object of contemplation, she is only, in fact, a wreck, bearing the spectacular scars of an accident: shattered windshield and windows, dented fender, smashed body and doors, crushed bumpers, blinded headlights. In short, Giulietta is not quite a pile of scrap metal, she is still recognizable as a car, but a car that will never run again—the corpse of a car. First thread: Giulietta is a recumbent figure on a tomb, similar to those sculptures of princes that functioned as lids for their own stone coffins or, even more so, to those prelates mummified in glass caskets typically found in Baroque abbeys in Austria. The origin of art, death in effigy, eidolon.

Giulietta, nevertheless, has a form—or, rather, two types of form: form born of a good design, characteristic of Italian manufacturing, and form acquired accidentally, the product of a violent impact. The result of this addition is a new form that can be inscribed in a modern history of sculpture. Second thread: Gonzales and his soldered bits of scrap metal; Picasso and his female monkey; Cesar and his compressions; Chamberlain and his assemblages of bruised sheet-metal. . . .Giulietta, just as it is, with its lines, its aerodynamism, its hollows, and its lumps.

Giulietta has traveled, too, and not only on the road where she met her first end. Before biting the dust, she had her day at the market. She was a commodity before she became a practical object—property. Then, brutally, in one false turn of the wheel, she became a scrap-heap, a commodity once again. In acquiring her, Lavier took the first step in leading her into another world (and another market), into a kind of final paradise of the commodity—art. The classic voyage of the readymade, you might say. Third thread: the bottle-rack, the urinal, etc. Certainly, but this thread is called into question by being tied to others, some of which we have already mentioned. In fact, according to Duchamp the readymades are things we don’t even look at. But we cannot not look at Giulietta, who is too tragic, and also too beautiful to pass unnoticed. Even readymade art is in reality made for the viewer, who himself makes the work, but only in part. “Readydestroyed” is not “readymade,” or, rather, it is the critique of the readymade itself, of what comes up short in the readymade: of the idea that exhibiting an object borrowed from industry would only be destined to short-circuit the idea of art. Art, on the contrary, always exceeds its idea, and hence this idea: a matter of form and meaning.

Giulietta has—like a fresco, a painting, a sculpture, or a photograph—not only forms made to be looked at and appreciated, but meaning, or meanings. In presenting herself, she tells—she will tell—all kinds of stories. Fourth thread: a red car, an Alfa Romeo like Giulietta, flattened under a truck; inside, Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance—the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963). Which is to say that Giulietta is not a slice of the banal transfigured, but, rather, the unforgettable memory of a fracture within the banal: of the exceptional, the Romanesque, the filmic, all suddenly fixed, effigized—the opposite, of course, of an object transsubstantiated by virtue of a theory of art or through some mechanism of display. Giulietta is neither a Brillo box identically remade by an artist/philosopher without the knowledge to be a philosopher, nor a vacuum cleaner behind glass, transfigured by neon light, and by the signature of a champion of post-Modern simulation.

Fifth thread: Giulietta belongs, rather, to the family of press photos from which Warhol took his “Car Crashes,” 1962–64, but without the photography, without the representation. No photochemical index added to the physical traces of the crash, no punctum that might focus the gaze (one haunted by a sense of “that has been”) of a reader of Barthes’s La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucida, 1980). Nothing but the visible, present marks of the impact that splintered its trajectory—one that was perhaps too fast, but definitely carefree. No representation either, no painting that would depict an event. Giulietta is only presented by Lavier that is, she only needs to present herself in order, by this very act of presentation, to induce multiple representations in the spectators.

Sixth thread: Giulietta is a work by Bertrand Lavier, i.e., a work that aims at art through addition rather than subtraction, through synthesis rather than rupture, through the overabundance of meaning rather than through Formalist purification, through play and the pleasure of forms rather than through conceptualist reduction. Like the objects that Lavier repaints, like those he puts on top of each other, like those he cuts along the edges of an imaginary photographic frame, Giulietta enters into the realm of art through the semantic density conveyed by its forms.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.