Page 96 from Henri Chopin’s La Crevette Amoureuse (The Shrimp in Love), 1967–75, typescript  and collage on paper, 11 1/2 x 8 1/4".

Page 96 from Henri Chopin’s La Crevette Amoureuse (The Shrimp in Love), 1967–75, typescript and collage on paper, 11 1/2 x 8 1/4".

Henri Chopin

Supportico Lopez

Page 96 from Henri Chopin’s La Crevette Amoureuse (The Shrimp in Love), 1967–75, typescript  and collage on paper, 11 1/2 x 8 1/4".

How to write about Henri Chopin? How to do justice to an artist who devoted himself to the purification of language? How to honor beautiful, brilliant works when the artist would have rejected such attributes because of their philosophical implications and when the vocabulary used to describe a “pure” practice is per se contaminated, trailing so much philosophical and ideological baggage behind it? When deconstructing language by means of language is like fighting fire with fire? Chopin (1922–2008) set out to deconstruct language as we know it, fusing sense and nonsense and transforming words into imagery. Yet his texts—perhaps better understood as textures—do convey what he meant, or meant to do.

Chopin’s project was motivated by his experience of the atrocities and terror of twentieth-century dictatorships. To the Paris-born artist, poet, curator, editor, and publisher, language was the primal medium of expression and a willing accomplice of domination and power. But he also saw great potential in language: for the cathartic, the poetic, the anarchic, the unspoiled. This he tried to reveal in his performances, uttering and recording sounds he considered immune to the virus of language, and in his dactylopoèmes, or typewriter poems, in which letters, symbols, and numbers are organized into geometric shapes and patterns. And then there are what Chopin himself called his novels; in fact, they owe more to Dada and Surrealist word adventures and to concrete poetry than to the traditions and conventions of the novel.

One such work has now had an overdue exhibition premiere: the 146-page French manuscript of La Crevette Amoureuse (The Shrimp in Love), composed between 1967 and 1975 and part of a trilogy of novels. It is as much a picture book as it is a (partly) intelligible text. The volume’s pages were unbound, and the fanfold-style display in a vitrine running along the gallery walls supported a viewing experience between reading and looking. This self-declared “metaphysical novel” and “homage to Kant”—subdivided into twelve chapters, each ending with an image made on a typewriter, often a sketchy representation of a human figure that owes its reduced palette in black and red to the typewriter’s ribbon—has no narrative, and yet it does tell the story of Western thought. The novel starts out conventionally enough by introducing its protagonists, lovers ERnest and MARiette, who are engaged in an ongoing (Platonic) dialogue. Yet it quickly evolves into a dizzying journey through history and philosophy on the heels of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. Kant’s stipulation that man’s world is a creation of his consciousness informed Chopin’s unease regarding modern concepts of the self. Chopin morphed his own creation, ERnest, into the various egos, bodies, and minds Western thinkers have constructed since then. ERnest is described as a superdictator, an über-mensch, omnipotent ruler, or—with a nod to Freud—ErEs (that is, He/Id), stipulating laws and reflecting not only on the concepts of freedom, government, and justice but also on various artistic, mostly literary, approaches.

Obscurity certainly isn’t foreign to contemporary French philosophy, yet Chopin can be even more obscure. La Crevette Amoureuse marries poetry, a critical review of philosophy and literature, and collages that combine the dactylopoèmes with clippings from magazines, snippets of history, and onomatopoeic experiments. It adheres to the rules of grammar only to break them, builds up and destroys semantic structures, allows words and letters to run free, to coalesce into drawings and funny shapes. But the manuscript functions on a purely visual level as well. By signing all of his pages, Chopin clearly indicated that he considered them individual artworks, images in their own right. It is this ambiguity that makes reading and regarding La Crevette Amoureuse such an enthralling experience. Although it would have made Chopin cringe to hear me say this, I’m tempted to call it a work of genius.

Astrid Mania