Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

In Japan there are several agencies that design cartoon characters for use by publishing houses specializing in manga. The most complex of these characters are best able to become protagonists and therefore survive, but they can be prohibitively expensive for the publishers. Other characters are sold at more moderate prices because they’re unlikely to survive, to keep their place in the narrative, for more than a few pages. French artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe bought the rights to one of these characters destined to disappear in an instant. She became the basis for their project, “No Ghost, Just a Shell,” in which a number of artists, including Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, were invited to create a life, a psychology, and a story to prolong this character’s existence.

Parreno and Huyghe’s play on the title of the famous manga “Ghost in the Shell” emphasizes the initial absence of any character traits: Ann Lee is a simple container waiting to be filled. A character without a story cannot, of course, haunt anyone. But, borrowing the English title of a Baudelaire poem, Anywhere out of the World, 2000, for the episode he directed, Parreno had already lent Ann Lee a melancholic cast. The story of her destiny as a bargain-basement character fated for a rapid death was the tragic beginning of her epos. In the episode by Gonzalez-Foerster, Ann Lee in Anzen Zone, 2000, her air of undeniable melancholy has become even more apparent.

In this tiny gallery, Gonzalez-Foerster once again displayed her facility with space and staging. Large black Japanese cushions were thrown here and there, and both a wall projection and a monitor showed the three-minute loop that introduced and prolonged Ann Lee’s existence. Her small pink and mauve silhouette appeared on the screen as though she were walking onto a stage. In a soft voice, she warned us—in Japanese—of an imminent danger, of the irrevocable disappearance of any zone of safety (anzen in Japanese), of our definitive exile to a place of no return. Ann Lee seemed, in the space of an instant, to split in two, only to return to herself, to her shell. Once her message was delivered, the character disappeared again and left us looking at a black screen streaked with falling rain.

As always in Gonzalez-Foerster’s work, atmosphere is all-important: in this case, one of solitude, strangeness, and death. As a result of Ann Lee’s repeated allusions to the universe and space, Gonzalez-Foerster contributed to the character’s derealization more than she conferred a story upon her. So it was the viewer who was progressively tainted by Ann Lee’s existential absence, who felt the menace of falling with her into the precarious world of ephemeral characters without stories. It is this capacity of the character to evoke anxiety that allows the whole project to go beyond appropriation and opportunism.

Anne Pontégnie

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.