François Chalifour
No. 103-104 – spring-summer 2013

Depart, Remain; Nostalgia and Melancholy in the Work of Jean-Yves Vigneau

In this imaginary constellation, the hope for a better life, for a radical discovery of the self—since all voyages are a kind of personal conversion—are associated with the existence, somewhere, of a rare, special place, at which one must arrive […] To be modern is to depart, being able to tear oneself away from ‘here.’
—Anne Barrère and Danilo Martucelli 1

The island is a utopia, above and beyond the intentions of Plato or Thomas More, because it summons up the idea of departure, travel and wandering. Thus, it rests on a double polarity: the goal one wants to reach and the place one leaves behind. At both extremities one finds isolation, enclosure and order. Thomas More, for example, transforms a land detached from any mass into a peninsula: his island is artificial and, like Plato’s, testifies to the possibilities of control: internally by stabilizing the population, externally by repulsing invasions. Nonetheless, anti-isolationists will see this isolation as negative, morbid, as containing the island’s doom in its very project. An idealized land of welcome or a deadly trap, it offers a double face that may well be the same face viewed from two different angles. This dichotomy is also apparent in the story of Odysseus. He represents the one who departs, while Penelope plays the role of she who stays behind.

… he wept for a way home […] but all the days he would sit upon the rocks, at the seaside, breaking his heart in tears and lamentation and sorrow as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water.2

The island is thus inscribed in the imagination as a place of return, a homeland, that plot of earth that marks the traveller with the ineffable hunger to return that accompanies him throughout his peregrinations. The one who stays behind, on the other hand, is tormented by the deep melancholy associated with the endless absence of the other. In fact, the greater the distance, the more profound the melancholy will be for one person, and the nostalgia for the other. This feeling, which is irrepressible, is meant to be inseparable from the sense of lack that stirs it up, from a hunger to fill it, and thus from an enthusiastic élan towards resolving said lack. The pain of nostalgia comes precisely from the profound feeling of mutability inhabiting it and the obstacles encountered in its resolution. The change begins with the departure, it asserts itself in the voyage and it is accomplished in the arrival. Whether one shrugs it off or not changes nothing in this pressure, the impulse towards some other place, towards difference, like the promised fruit that is nothing other than the other half of the self. Read through this dynamic, “absence is first an over fullness.”3 Because, more often than not, an effective resolution of the problem remains deferred, the dream is the topos most susceptible to the meeting between the other and the “I.” For the nostalgic person, meaning lies in a union of the self (Plato). He perceives the possibility in the return, even if it is always deferred. So, the pain, which can be unfathomable, is not without remedy. When the melancholic gazes on the sea, he sees only “a slow rain… infinite monotony;” while the nostalgic person grasps, through a fog, the diffuse but certain idea of his fold, his origin. Even if it is impossible for him, the voyage keeps its meaning, its destination. Thus, he must pour all his enthusiasm into the labour of return while implementing the means necessary to accomplish it. Poïésis?

The task is first and foremost memory work. One must remember the place of origin, the motherland, but also the road that leads there. Reconstructing the route with maps, notes and landmarks is an essential part of the journey.

The recent production of Gatineau artist Jean-Yves Vigneau contains— in its essence — something of this feeling, tugged between nostalgia and melancholy. In the Jean-Pierre-Latour Room of the artist-run centre AXENÉO7 rests the frame of a small boat, which is lit from an angle by the sun pouring through the panoramic windows. Nothing else is in the room, just the wooden strips of the floor, the white walls and the rays of the sun on the boat in its becoming. This is how Jean-Yves Vigneau’s exhibition, Autopsie du Corps-mort /Autopsy of Deadman’s Island (2012), is presented to the passerby, approaching the window and glancing in, like a prologue to a visit.

Inside the gallery, a long wall text announces that the exhibition is the memory of a child, discovering death when his grandfather passes away. “In the only memory I have of him, he lay on a high table, eyes closed and his body covered in a white sheet. Stretched out like that, my grandfather looked like Deadman’s Island, that strange and inhospitable island in the Magdelan Islands, which became the tomb for so many sailors.” The artist “maps out” this memory with various elements that he spreads out in the centre’s three rooms. He begins with a series of small drawings in red chalk, charcoal and graphite on the wall: geometric forms suggesting piles of wood, the sort of structures one finds on quays and in ports. A little further, a closed plywood crate, a ramp that leads to a window in the room and a hoist with a hook that seems to hang there amorphously form an initial corpus of works. Minimalist in their presentation, they are joined together by empty space, by lack. All these objects are life-size and suggest, as much by their facture as their wear, that they have been used and abandoned here. Through the window, no boat, only absence.

In another room, a large screen is constructed out of 180 squares each measuring 25 cm x 25 cm. A video is projected on it, a view of Deadman’s Island, by day and by night. The suggestion of a recumbent body on its back and wrapped in a shroud is compelling. The bit of land rises from the water like a prophecy of the dead it will create through drowning. The traces of the squares on the screen break up the image and heighten the pathos. The projection seems to be the heart of the exhibition and is, as well, its mid-point.

In a third room is the boat in its ray of sunlight before the window: a wooden structure that shows the craft’s skeleton — an unclad hull, like a carcass. Autopsy of Deadman’s Island echoes another of Jean-Yves Vigneau’s exhibitions, held in Montreal in 2009 and entitled Désir d’îles. Here one found, among other works, several pictograms of islands, Atlas d’un islomane, black on a white background that seemed to depict visited places, as in an itemized list. Some were real places, like Crete for example, others were imaginary. Next to it, on a drawing table, Archipel ou table de navigation, a relief rendition of an archipelago done by pantograph, spread on a surface composed of more than a hundred small canvases whose assemblage recalled the grid of a map. Further along was a set of three large wooden crates each 1.5 m per side. The first two were closed, a large oar rested on the first of them. The third case was open on one side and showed a large photo of Deadman’s Island at the back. It was taken from an angle and suggested a kind of rocky, triangular protuberance with a large crevice at the base, creating a hole in the rock face. In the exhibition Désir d’îles everything invited one to departures, whether dreamed or real. In Autopsy of Deadman’s Island, there is no voyage… only a person, left alone, facing a long absence.

Translated by Peter Dubé


François Chalifour has an art practice of painting, drawing and creating multidisciplinary installations, and he also pursues a career teaching at Cégep de l’Outaouais and Université du Québec en Outaouais. Holding a doctorate in semiology, he is the coauthor of three monographs, and has contributed to the cultural magazines Espace sculpture, Liaison and the international semiotics journal Visio. He is a member and President of the Board of AXENÉO7, an artist-run centre in Gatineau.


  1. Anne Barrère et Danilo Martucelli, “La modernité et l’imaginaire de la mobilité : inflexion contemporaine”, Presses universitaires de France | Cahiers internationaux de sociologie, 2005/1., no 118, p.58 (Trans. mine.)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey of Homer (Richard Latimore, trans.), New York: Harper & Row, 1965, Book 5, lines 153 – 158 (page 92).
  3. Pierre Fédida, L’absence (sans ad.), Gallimard, coll. “Folio essais”, 1978, p.10. (Trans mine.)