Marcelline Delbecq

Galerie Xippas’s project space, La Chambre, is a room between floors, its proportions nearly those of a perfect cube. Separated from the main gallery by a rope divider and a flight of stairs, the space offers an intimate yet theatrical setting that resonates with French artist Marcelline Delbecq’s work. Inspired by Diane Arbus, Delbecq began her practice in photography but later turned toward voice-based performance and what she describes as “narrative cinematography.” Her interest in cinema, she says, arises not necessarily from a romance with the moving image but rather from a love of screenplays and literature.

Delbecq’s multifaceted installation Daleko (meaning “far” in Russian), 2008, activates visual and sculptural cues, conjuring atmosphere and narrative through the spoken word. The visual center of the work is a color photograph of a river flowing at the edge of a thick forest, which Delbecq has digitally altered. Obscuring the landscape with a dark veil, save for a perfect circle (like a spotlight), she mirrors the vision of a doomed character she describes with words. A wooden bench made from a steamer trunk and containing a compartment is aligned in the center of the space, in stark contrast to the virgin forest we see framed in her photograph. There are hinges on one side of the bench and a slice down the middle of the seat. Presumably, the piece could be opened—I tried, but managed to budge the hulking surface only slightly. The mystery as to what is inside is deliberate. Delbecq’s looping sound piece, filling the space with a female voice, is the work’s linchpin.

Although Delbecq often uses her own voice in her performances and sound pieces, here the Romanian actress Elina Löwensohn (now based in France) reads the artist’s text. (Since 2006, the pair have collaborated on a number of Delbecq’s works.) Löwensohn’s rhythmic voice pours from two small speakers, installed at ear level on either side of the space. In French, she speaks of a flowing river, too far away for its murmuring waves to be heard, and the sound of the trees’ rustling leaves, barely audible. We hear no other noise except that of Löwensohn’s voice as she describes the soundscape imagined by Delbecq. Although the actress’s voice never loses its velvety calmness, a drama quickly arises in the artist’s text. Men with bare arms are chopping trees, sending their trunks to float down the river. There is also another man, working alone on a small canvas with one eye shut and one half open. Concentrating on the still image of the landscape before him, he somehow seems to miss the sounds and movements that surround him. The text ends with the platform on which he is standing being hit by a falling tree, the painter falling, and his painting being thrown into the river—the murky water melting his composition away. The recording loops, beginning again with the phrase “The snow has melted.”

“The voice, more than the image, is at the origin—the backbone of my practice,” Delbecq wrote recently. In this installation, her conviction not only rings true but seems to resonate as a warning. Her painter loses himself and his work in the river as the sound of the space, the lector’s voice, carries on. “A film can be a film without moving images; the presence of a voice is sufficient for its animation,” Delbecq asserts, and her dramatic mastery of language lingers as compelling evidence.

Lillian Davies