Jean-Pierre Bertrand

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

The catalogue for this exhibition, conceived by Jean-Pierre Bertrand, is dedicated to Robinson Kreutzaer, the main character in Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner. Everyone knows the name of Defoe’s protagonist as “Robinson Crusoe,” but few realize that “Crusoe” is the anglicized version of “Kreutzaer,” the German name of the character’s father, and that “Robinson” was his mother’s patronymic. From the outset, then, Bertrand portrays a discrepancy between “reality” and what we read and see.

One might anticipate some sort of “exotic” installation, composed of plastic plants and fruits, and handy gadgets like those devised by the ingenious Robinson in order to survive on his desert island, or perhaps even some taxonomic presentation of these things. But no, the reference to Robinson Crusoe, as the intellectual matrix of Bertrand’s global progression, is to be understood metaphorically. Robinson’s precise, maniacal computations in Defoe’s novel (so many acres to harvest, so many guns and kegs of powder, so many days on the island, etc.) are opposed to the imprecision of the seasons and of the dates on which events take place. In one older work, Les 54 jours de Robinson Crusoe (The 54 days of Robinson Crusoe, 1974), Bertrand took 54 photographs of the book Robinson Crusoe, opened randomly 54 times, and accompanied them with 54 sentences excerpted from Robinson’s diaries. These were representations of chance and necessity; the randomness of events, the necessity of numbers, invented by men to correct chance.

Many of Bertrand’s older works testify to his predilection for the number 54: La couronne aux 54 sucres (The crown with 54 sugar cubes, 1976), and Le sel et les deux citrons (The salt and the two lemons, 1980), 54 boxes filled with salt, accompanied by a 54-letter sentence. Here the catalogue is 54 pages long, and the exhibition ran for 45 days. This recurrence might refer to Plotinus’ Ennaeds, which is composed of 54 treatises on a theory of emanation, reconciling Plato’s philosophy with Eastern mysticism

Now, perhaps in order to negate all esthetic judgment, Bertrand chose to involve us all in a scavenger hunt in which the work itself was at stake. In the catalogue, we see photos taken by the artist of a former installation in the museum: narrow “plaques” of somber red acrylic paint, coagulated like blood, under the protection of Plexiglas, framed with iron, some shown right side up, others backward so the stretcher is visible. We also see, somewhat surprisingly, two photographs taken in Bertrand’s studio of two critics and friends (Bernard Marcadé and Daniel Soutif), who also wrote texts for this catalogue. In the show itself, we saw these same elements, placed a bit differently in the space. The sparse installation showed off the walls and the superb arches of the museum’s 19th-century architecture. We became assistants in an infinite mise-en-abîme, which evoked the Borgesian detours of memory.

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.