PRINT October 2008


THE INTERACTIVE SCULPTURE Who here listens (to) BBC news on Friday night?, 2008, might be said to offer a key or a code to French artist Aurélien Froment’s photographic, video, book, and object-based practice. The piece, whose title is a mnemonic for the first lines of the periodic table, consists of a glass table covered with fifty-two “playing cards,” all white on one side and with various pictures on the other, in pairs. The depicted items—as diverse as a Bauhaus staircase, a fossil, a billiard ball, and Froment’s own works—circulate around the artist’s concerns both formal (e.g., the image of a spiral) and conceptual (e.g., the spiraling of information). When the piece was on view this past April in “Acknowledgement,” a solo show at Motive Gallery in Amsterdam, visitors were invited to invent games with the cards (they generally matched up the identical images, as in the game Memory). People handling and moving them around complicated the status of the cards: Were these functional objects, or images? Was this representation, or documentation? Were these pictures to be looked at, or to be used? Considering Who here listens (to) BBC news on Friday night? in conjunction with Froment’s other works in the exhibition, some of which were depicted on or otherwise related to the cards, one had the distinct feeling that the artist was offering a lexicon to his broad and yet distinct image library—with which it was a challenge, but also a pleasure, to engage.

Yet the uncertainty generated here signals only one of the ways in which Froment’s art calls into question our computation of the image-based world that surrounds us. He uses flattened perspectives, the distorted view of an occluded field of vision, the personal (and thus partial) recollection of images, and other oddities of perception to complicate our reception of images, often by confusing the categories of distance and proximity, scale and relationship. It is as if he wants us to be continually aware of the illusion of the immediacy of pictures. This is not intended necessarily as a form of critical commentary, or as a reflection of a theoretical urge to constantly analyze or deconstruct, but rather to make manifest the endlessly shifting creation of meaning through the realm of the visible. What one image suggests on its own is quite different from the effect of its pairing or grouping, for instance; similarly, a simple shift in perspective can utterly alter our understanding of a form.

The origin of Froment’s emphasis on the hermeneutic slipperiness of visual signification no doubt lies in part in his former job as a projectionist for the arthouse cinema MK2 Parnasse in Paris. Cinematic staging and production evidently play a key role in his work: Werner Herzog, 2002, to take an obvious example, is a scale model of the famous ship-over-mountain scene in the German director’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), a film that—pointedly, in this context—involved the actual (as opposed to simulated) realization of an epic adventure. Froment frequently borrows from the cinematic world to present a wide range of visual information as well as to investigate the positions that inform our reception of this material. Cinema emerges as a metaphor for the layered interpretation of meaning in images, bringing into simultaneous play the various “eyes” involved in the creation and reception of film as well as the tension between fiction and reality (and how this might ultimately be a futile distinction).

Froment’s interest in such questions of perspective is evident in a work that references the peculiar fact that a number of successful film directors have had only one eye. Taking its title from an article by André Bazin in the first issue of Cahiers du cinéma, the assemblage Pour en finir avec la profondeur de champ (My Final Words on the Depth of Field), 2008, shows the eye-patched John Ford as a two-dimensional vertical cutout (emerging from his Taschen monograph), while Fritz Lang appears behind him—also with an eye patch—in a black-and-white reproduction. The eye patches physically suggest the singular lens of the camera, as if Ford and Lang personify “man as a movie camera,” leading one to wonder what the relationship is between the flattened vision of the one-eyed and the artifice—both on- and offscreen—of three-dimensional “reality.” A similar interest is pursued in Le Retour du monde (The World’s Return), 2005–2008, a photograph of a projection of Lang’s iconic film Metropolis (1927) in the cinema where Froment worked, which is so small that films must be rear-projected onto the screen. The picture was taken from outside the projectionist’s booth, and tellingly captures the reversed text of the Metropolis intertitle asking, “Was hattest Du in den Maschinen-Sälen zu suchen, Freder?” (What were you doing in the machine rooms, Freder?).

Books, archives, and libraries, in addition to film, feature frequently in Froment’s work. In the wall-mounted piece De l’Île à hélice à Ellis Island (From Propeller Island to Ellis Island), 2005/2007, for example, forty-four books are arranged on a shelf so that the last word of each title is identical to the first word of the next. And in the recent video work L’Adaptation manifeste (The Genuine Adaptation), 2008, the artist investigates the act of reading as represented in film. An actor, Karine Lazard, was hired to perform scenes from movies in which reading takes place, imitating the actions of Brigitte Bardot in Le Mépris, Julianne Moore in The Hours, Oskar Werner in Fahrenheit 451, and others. The props are limited to a chair, a bed, and so forth, and aside from the acting, no information is given or attempt made to indicate the sources. Expanding on Froment’s characteristic technique of isolating and distorting perspective, the video functions as both an anthology of the “reading on film” motif and a précis of various film genres and acting styles, while drawing our attention to the role of the inanimate book as we consider the scenes at hand. The reenacted episodes at the same time almost perversely turn the solitary and cerebral act of reading into a highly performative and manifestly outward act. Indeed, the translation from head space to stage set is entirely in keeping with Froment’s investigations into the transmission of information—and it is perhaps also in this case (especially given the Fahrenheit 451 quotation) a melancholy reflection on the demise of the book as anything other than an occasional prop in our image-sodden world.

Related preoccupations are explored in the artist’s book Théâtre de poche: Volume 1 (Pocket Theater: Volume 1), 2007, the bulk of which consists of interviews that Froment conducted with professional image manipulators about their work. The first is with an architect, Benjamin Colboc, who is questioned about the process of creating architectural renderings and makes such pronouncements as: “People have to look happy, the sky has to be blue, there have to be kids at play, leaves on the trees.” In the second interview, Froment speaks with Françoise Richard, a picture retoucher who began her career working for magazines in the 1940s. She recalls “putting Kennedy and Khrushchev on the same photo at a time when they were ‘at daggers drawn’ ” and discusses the clandestine nature of chemical retouching: “You had to work with the chemist. . . . It was a very secretive world where people didn’t want to reveal what they knew how to do.” In the text following this interview, “Aurélien”—the semifictional character representing Froment in the book—examines an old copy of Jardin des modes and inevitably considers each image a fabrication: “It looks too beautiful to be real. Françoise must have added a drop of gouache to the model’s eye. And just look how smooth the skin is, she must have eliminated some wrinkles, or a scar, or maybe a beauty-mark.” The third interview is with Sophie Ollé-Laprune, who owns the Parisian handmade-jigsaw-puzzle firm Michèle Wilson, and here reveals the process of selection and then dissection of an existing picture, noting: “When you make a puzzle, instead of seeing the image in rapid, overall manner, you look first at the details, perceiving things differently, little by little.” Froment mentions the passage in Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual (1978) in which Perec describes how jigsaw-puzzle parts are associated with familiar shapes: “the heel of Italy, a rabbit, a cactus, a star, and so on.” Similar improvised relationships between images clearly play an important part in Froment’s own work. Indeed, the significance of these interviews and the questions they raise in the context of Froment’s practice is signaled in a subsequent further fictionalization of both the artist and his interlocutors: A reenactment of the three interviews serves as the audio component of For Argument’s Sake, 2008—an “image screening” Froment has held several times, during which he presents a variety of projected images, including some of the pictures in Who here listens (to) BBC news on Friday night? and several stills from the 2007 video piece likewise titled Théâtre de poche.

This last work is probably the artist’s most ambitious thus far. Inspired by Froment’s ongoing interest in the magician Arthur Lloyd, a ’30s vaudeville performer nicknamed “the human card index” for his ability to retrieve on demand any printed item from among the fifteen thousand pieces of paper he had in his pockets, Théâtre de poche shows a black-clad figure (played by another magician, Stéphane Corréas) standing against a stark black background, presenting a variety of images printed on cards. The piece quickly becomes a tour de force of endless referentiality in the guise of lighthearted entertainment. From family photographs to playing cards, color spectrums to found cinematic images and reproductions of works of art, images are variously shuffled and spread out like a deck of cards or placed illusionistically within the depth of the image screen (in fact on vertical transparent Plexiglas boards charged with static electricity), the action ultimately reaching a crescendo that brings to mind surrealistic associative play while recalling personal image archives such as Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas.”

As both this piece and Who here listens (to) BBC news on Friday night? make plain, to describe Froment’s work by isolating individual objects or photographs can easily be misleading: It is through their mise-en-scènes that one begins to better understand the artist’s intention to build layer upon layer of meaning and comprehension. This becomes especially clear when one attempts to track the multiple connections forged within Froment’s exhibitions—never more so, perhaps, than in “La Ligne dure” (which translates as either “The Hard Line” or “The Line Continues”), a show on view at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris this past June that might best be described as an exhibition-as-artwork. On entering the gallery, one was immediately confronted with a thick, white, vertical strip that made up the end of a wall, on both sides of which photographic images were taped. One side was occupied primarily by a sequence of installation views of the “Acknowledgement” exhibition in Amsterdam, which here began to take on the quality of a stage set made specifically for the purpose of this two-dimensional afterlife. On the other side, Froment presented several images of his own works as well as four photographs (by himself, Pierre Leguillon, Luc Frey, and Marina Faust, working together) made in 2003 for the catalogue of “Pale Fire,” a group show at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. These pictures were originally shot through a frame construction designed in collaboration with Leguillon—a mat board, behind which found images were placed some distance away in order to fit into the space of the frame from the perspective of the camera. All signs of this elaborate staging were, of course, invisible here.

Roughly in the middle of each side of the wall of “La Ligne dure” was a panel giving details of the works reproduced. Not unlike Ryan Gander (with whom he has occasionally collaborated) or Christopher Williams, Froment includes extensive information regarding the sources of his work in such texts, providing clues that function in dialogue with the image or object presented. The consequent layering of information—from the reproduction to the original piece and from the original to the source of its own imagery—results in a complex process of deciphering and decoding, with the referents taking on a complexity that parallels Froment’s visual ingenuity. Were we here looking at artworks or reproductions? What was the status of the “original” works in any case, given that they often made use of appropriated material? In addition, the movement of the audience looking from text to image took on an unexpectedly performative aspect when viewed from the end of the wall, where visitors on either side could be seen in mirror formation reading the list of works and then moving sideways to match the text with the related images. With viewers divided by the wall and oblivious to one another, an unchoreographed, crablike dance took place.

On the far right edge of each face of the wall was a work that seemed to link together the two sides: half a large black-and-yellow Jack of Spades, titled Le Poème de l’angle mort (The Poem of the Blind Spot), 2008. Identical on both sides, perhaps to preempt any hypothetical closure, the work brought to mind an exchange in the Théâtre de poche book, which itself features the Jack of Spades on its front cover and the other one-eyed Jack, the Jack of Hearts, on the back. In a playlike scene, the two Jacks reflect upon their condition, telling “Aurélien” univocally: “Seen in profile, all pictures take on the same edge. . . . The picture vanishes—a straight line.” (This evidently links to the exhibition design of “La Ligne dure.”) He replies, “But when you disappear, you must go somewhere. Where do you go?” and the Jacks respond: “That all depends on you, my friend”—a line that seems to apply not just to “Aurélien” but also to us, Froment’s audience, challenged by the artist’s erudite visual and referential play to experiment with our often underused visual atlas.

Jessica Morgan is curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern in London.

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