The possibles of sculpture

The possible of sculpture, or I shall suffocate!  1

The above epigraph, associated with the thought of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, can be traced back to Sören Kierkegaard.2 The initiator of existentialism, Kierkegaard envisaged the possible as an exit from a reality that has “become necessity or banality.” As a means of existence, inscribed in the subject’s heart, the possible is brought to life in religious experience. Deleuze and Guatarri, on the other hand, applied the possible to the field of aesthetics, especially the creation of art. To create, thus, is to create the possible. As a “being of sensation,” the artwork is a composite of percepts and affects that transpose new possibilities for existence into various materials. In this essay, I undertake a brief reflection on these transpositions as practised in the field of sculpture – specifically, in several recent works by three young artists: Chloé Desjardins, Dominic Papillon and Francis Arguin.

Before we get to that, though, it is important to remember that modern sculpture first made its appearance in sculpture workshops. It was in this space, devoted to artistic labour, that sculptors distanced themselves from artisans. This shift in status, however, entailed continued respect for a tradition involving the principle of imitating nature. In the view of Winckelmann, one of the first art historians, imitating the beauty of nature was an aesthetic requirement for any artist wishing to excel in his art.3 On the other hand, imitating, he emphasized, is not copying. To reproduce aesthetically comparable works, one must be inspired by the ideal beauty expressed in ancient Greek sculpture.

Contemporaneous with Winckelmann, Hegel also recognized the importance of classical sculpture.4 From the perspective of a phenomenology of the spirit, imitating nature, however, would be proscribed. As a sensory manifestation of the Absolute, art, including sculpture, is a creation of the spirit. Therefore, sculpture, the amalgamation of concept and material, does not express the freedom of a spiritual interiority as much as painting or poetry. As a skill subjected to an element of nature such as stone or marble, sculpture reached its apogee with Greek statuary. Hegel was the first philosopher to take the contribution of sculpture to the fine arts system seriously, but he also had to admit that it belonged to the past.

Kierkegaard’s work, as we know, went counter to speculative Hegelian thought. Kierkegaard opposed Hegel’s singularity of the creative subject in itself with a spirit understood as pneuma. By breathing new life into the concept, Kierkegaard opened up the possibility of repetition. And in fact, Deleuze built his thought on this notion.5 For him, as for Kierkegaard, to repeat is to allow for a power of being. And this power of being, on the aesthetic level, enables the infinite to be composed from the finite – for new variations to be produced through creativity. In the domain of possibles in sculpture, this should lead to new arrangements, new ways of being affected. It is, in effect, through the encounter of materials and sensations that compositions function.6

Desjardins’s most recent exhibition, L’atelier du sculpteur,7 had nothing to do with a didactic representation that could inform us about the studio as site for producing sculpture works. Nor did it have anything to do with commemorating a particular artist’s workspace or evoking what her studio would be like except, perhaps, as a fragmentary glimpse. Rather, Desjardins chose to present a confabulation, a very personal variation, of the sculptor’s studio. In other words, she staged a group of works that encourage reflection on artistic creation in the era of its repetition.

Like most of the works in the exhibition Quelque chose,8 those in L’atelier du sculpteur are mainly white and take the form of rocks in a raw state. This whiteness is somehow reminiscent of the nobility of classical sculptures – specifically, those of marble. Even though the ancient sculptures were originally colourfully painted, the reconstructed whiteness of this noble material accentuated, in Hegel’s terms, the formal purity of the ideal sculpture. However, this brief detour to the purity of ancient times rapidly gives way to the present when we become aware of Desjardins’s method of fabrication: she has used plaster casts to reproduce shapes that look like rocks.

Desjardins has been interested in casting since early in her career. For Quelque chose, she reproduced everyday objects, such as packaging, manila paper and cardboard boxes. The exhibition title refers to those unimportant, familiar things that are taken for granted in daily life. In this context, even the reproduced rock seems to be just one item among others. But in L’atelier du sculpteur, the rock emerges as the predominant subject. Natural stone thus served as a model, but on the tables in the exhibition only the moulds are arranged with titles such as Réflexion and Métamorphose, and one of the likely results called Apparition.

At first glance, these cast works create a romantic vision of the sculptor’s craft. Associated mainly with carving and its various tools – chisels, rasps, and riffler files – this vision is closely linked to the act of discovering in the material, which resists the imagined form. From this perspective, art, as Hegel said, has the function of revealing truth. Yet, even if Desjardins suggests this idea, the supposed rocks on display in the exhibition subvert this logic of form and material. One work in particular, Révélation, makes this point: the result of casting a rolled up chisel case sits on a pedestal. Like Apparition, Révélation is a form that gives only the illusion of containing something else, of concealing an artwork – or something – that is invisible to us for now.

As you will have realized, Desjardins’s version of L’atelier du sculpteur (the sculptor’s studio) is presented as a simulacrum. And a simulacrum is nothing like a copy of an original. Like in the technique of casting, duplication is just the beginning. It refers to no model or original – it is, as Deleuze reminds us, essentially devoid of any resemblance.9 The moulds accompanying Apparition indicate that the traditional aesthetic, based on imitating a model, is not in operation here. As it is based on the reproducible, the entire stratagem of the “fake” is organized within a play of differences, traces and imprints that defy the logic of the same, the identical and the ideal.

In any case, the presentation Desjardins has chosen offers a museum like ambience. Even though L’atelier de l’artiste challenges the cult of art, its staging nevertheless highlights its value as an exhibition. Nothing seems to have been left to chance. Seeing the immaculately lit arrangement of three groupings of artworks – each grouping also consisting of three artworks sitting on pedestals of varying heights – visitors may indeed feel like they are in a museum. Among these groupings, a trio of column-shaped pedestals initially makes one think about how some artworks are accorded a presence. Although the pedestal was abandoned in the 20th century in order to rethink sculpture, Desjardins has strived to bring it back. Here, the three pedestals have no function other than to be presented as artworks in themselves. Two of them are made in part with plaster; the third, called Allégorie, is made entirely of transparent sheets of acrylic.

Thus displayed, these pedestals seem to have been denied their power of elevation and to have been diverted from their function of presenting a statue. This is similar for a work called Origine, which is a heap of plaster powder placed on a pedestal and protected in a display case. This “origin” has no connection to a precise model; rather, it identifies the material that makes it possible to duplicate any object. In short, Desjardins’s L’atelier du sculpteur is less a theatre of representation symbolizing the creative activity of the demiurge artist than a theatre of repetition – a repetition that hides, or disguises, the meaning of what, in a certain vision of art, is considered the origin of the artwork.

Many of Papillon’s works, like Desjardins’s, have been cast – but that is where the resemblance ends. Although Papillon also refers to some aspects of art history in his sculpture, it is his perception of the spectacular in Baroque and Rococo styles – notably when manifested in 17th century religious art – that draws his attention.

In the history of Western art, religious iconography has been a prominent part of our visual culture – although today many artists engage with religion using irony and even humour.10 However in his references to religious culture, Papillon visually juxtaposes heterogeneous elements, making contrasts coinside. The title of the exhibition, Chair et vérité (Flesh and Truth) underlines this tension.11 For example, the word “chair” (flesh) involves sensation, or even desire, whereas for Catholics it is associated with sin. And its homonym, “chaire,” means “pulpit.” In Anathema, a previous exhibition, the relationship with the sacred was just as ambiguous.12 The etymological root of “anathema” means “offering,” but the meaning was quickly transformed into an act of condemnation identified with those who refuse to believe in the Church.

The central work of Chair et vérité, Mon Épiphanie, presents a vaguely human-shaped statue placed on a cruciform pedestal. The top half of the surreal-looking figure is pierced with wooden sticks. This brings to mind the halo around the head of a saint or of Christ, as portrayed in paintings, but it also refers to the ritual of enchantment, as if Christian spirituality could be intermingled with certain magical practices of “primitive” religions. Anathema featured a bust placed on a column;  on the slightly tilted head is an untidy arrangement of wooden pieces – in this case reminiscent of a crown of thorns. A replica of the same bust is found in a space that could be a nativity scene. Near this evangelical figure, associated with the collective imagination, other rather bizarre forms proliferate here and there on the column and the gallery walls. These strange – to say the least – outgrowths accentuate the intriguing aspect of this installation.

In Chair et vérité, at least three sculptures, including those called Psychomachie and Laudativement, are also of this register. Vertically cast and standing independently in the gallery space, these strange and unusual statues resemble nothing except, perhaps, fantastical creatures. Thus, these objects could be likened to the notion of formless developed by Georges Bataille.13 In contrast to Kierkegaard, Bataille constantly juxtaposed the issue of the religious and the sacred with the Hegelian conception of absolute knowledge. With the idea of the formless, he also challenged the classical aesthetic that is integral to a metaphysical vision of the world. What he called “low materialism” gave access to the abject, to that which is below the subject-object relationship and refers to things that are imprecise, indefinable – for example, a gob of spittle or any other thing outside the aesthetic that uses taste as a premise for judgment.

Moving away from these sculptures with imprecise and disturbing shapes that are nonetheless attractive, Papillon’s most recent exhibition, Drôlerie,14 features artworks that tend more toward surrealism. Two works, Monstration I and Monstration II, present what seemed to be a pair of legs made of porcelain with a hole in what might be considered the lower abdomen. This type of doll, with only the lower limbs presented, perhaps would not have displeased Bataille. Apart from Grande tête, a faceless bust made of plaster, there was Tête de faune. The title alludes, of course, to the forest divinities of Greco-Latin mythology; Papillon, however, made a grotesque figure based on an amalgam of two forms that do not correspond to the expected image. Whereas the mythical figure of the faun combines the human and the animal, allowing us to imagine the fantastic, at the same time it transgresses a limit beyond which it becomes impossible to idealize the beauty of the body in its humanness.

This confusion between human and animal is clearly shown in the work Faramine – a word, from old French that means fantastic beast. This stylized representation of a sphinx, resembling a toy, is rather out of the ordinary. In his Aesthetics, Hegel associates the ancient Egyptian sphinx with symbolism because it embodies the spirit still imprisoned by the animal’s brute strength better than anything else. However, in this exhibition, Papillon’s Faramine seems instead to underline, through the humorous repetition of a legend, the return of the sphinx that holds the answer to the enigma of what it is to be human, not to mention what is art.15

Since the 1960s, contemporary sculpture has been invaded by a sense of humour. It is found, notably, in Arguin’s whimsical world, which he deployed right when he began his performance practice in 2004. As body language active in a space to which the public is invited, the performance is a sort of sculpture of the self. From a strictly philosophical point of view, ancient thinkers saw sculpture as being on the order of subjectivity – of the attitude to take with regard to oneself and others. It was only in the 20th century that ethics as practice of the self would shift to the field of aesthetics specific to art.

Arguin has always taken the opportunity afforded by his performances to cobble together small objects that enable him to develop a narrative line. During his performances, notably in Sketches and Equivalences,16 he has used these objects, made from scratch on the spot, to introduce a sense of playfulness into his gestural actions. For the past few years, though, Arguin has turned mainly to sculpture. Unlike Desjardins or Papillon, he has little to do with traditional sculpture practices. His works, inspired by industrial design and new technical image-making processes, are produced from everyday materials such as paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, and wood. Instead of carving, casting or modelling, Arguin prefers to assemble, glue and construct.

For instance, an exhibition titled Mes économies 17 featured a monumental sculpture made of an assemblage of containers, most of them square or rectangular, sitting on trestles. Some of the boxes are made of plasterboard and piled up precariously, suggesting the fragile relationship that is exerted between balance and imbalance. On these white boxes, Arguin has drawn mostly geometric motifs. The other boxes are inspired by random objects and reproduced mainly with coloured cardboard. This arrangement of various elements is put together with limited means and resembles a makeshift concoction. Tinkering about is an activity that is basically associated with child’s play. In fact, Mes économies is sort of like a set of building blocks and suggests the idea of happiness, especially because it focuses solely on the pleasure of playing.

The same good-natured spirit is found in the exhibition Modèles à suivre.18 The slightly mischievous title may be seen as a nod to the miniature models that people make following exact directions. It could also be making fun of a tradition that advocates imitation as an educational process. And yet, most of the works in the exhibition are oversized objects. Among them is an arrangement of pastel-coloured, slightly tilted boxes that refer, image-wise, to the idea of a mattress. There is also an immense polyhedron placed on a wooden dolly, ready to be moved. On some of its Tyvek-covered surfaces, Arguin has drawn the features of a face in black, wearing what seem to be goggles over the eyes. On top of the object, an interlaced tangle of wood planks and pieces of painted polystyrene might bring to mind a tuft of hair. These rather amusing sculptures appear to have links to the world of comic strips. Their humorous aspect places them at a considerable distance from sculptor Giacometti’s mysterious polyhedron titled Cube, which he also identified with a head.

Unlike abstract art, Arguin’s work brings us, through his choices and materials, into the everyday world. But, as in his performances, the everyday isn’t necessarily confined to a routine and models to follow. His most recent exhibition, Constructions discutables,19 inspired by tendentious architectural forms, gleaned on the Internet and in tune with our industrial era, is composed of sculptures that in fact were reproduced for their eccentricity. One structure is reminiscent of a covered bridge; another, a cupola with a top slightly ajar; and yet another, a huge scaffolding bearing some resemblance to an inverted Hydro-Québec pylon. If one refers to the exhibition title, “debatable structures,” these flatly absurd pieces, made of wood, fibreboard panels, mortar and modelling clay among other things, take us far from modern sculpture. Nevertheless, they deal with the sensations of an era in search of poetry.

“The possible, or I shall suffocate,” said Deleuze, taking up Kierkegaard’s idea. And yet, this possible at the core of an aesthetic of repetition is far from being an evasion, a means of escape, turning one’s back on the real world. For Deleuze and Guattari, the possible as an aesthetic category heralds a liberation. The possible in art reminds us that nothing is given or predetermined. In this sense, it is opposed to the virtual, which has begun to suffocate us.20 In contrast to the expanding empire of the virtual, the possible makes possible. It adds new variations to the world. And of course, this play of possibles occurs not only in the field of sculpture but also in all fields where, for better or worse, we must still talk about creation.

Translated by Käthe Roth

 

André-Louis Paré is an art critic and theoretician, who writes for various Quebec contemporary art magazines and is the author of a number of opuscules and catalogue essays. He was co-curator of the third edition of Manif d’art (Quebec City, 2005) and the exhibition Québec Gold in Reims, France, in 2008, and curator of Daniel Olson’s exhibition Hors de moi/Beside Myself. Since December 2013, he has been the editor of Espace.

 


  1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 177. Deleuze used this phrase several times, notably in Image-temps, Paris, Éd. de Minuit, 1985, p. 221.
  2. Sören Kierkegaard. Traité du désespoir, Paris, Gallimard, Folio essais, 2012, pp. 98..
  3. Johan Winckelmann. Réflexions. Sur l’imitation des oeuvres grecques en peinture et en sculpture, Paris, Éd. Aubier, coll. Bilingue, 1990.
  4. Hegel. Esthétique, vol. 2, Paris, Éd. Le livre de poche, 1997, p. 126.
  5. Gilles Deleuze. Différence et répétition, Paris, Éd. Presses universitaires de France, 1968.
  6. “Composition, composition is the sole definition of art.” Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, p. 191.
  7. The exhibition L’atelier du sculpteur was presented at the Maison de la culture du Plateau-Mont-Royal in Montreal from November 22, 2013 to January 12, 2014.
  8. The exhibition Quelque chose was presented at Galerie B-312 in Montreal from October 11 to November 10, 2012.
  9. Deleuze. Différence et répétition, p. 167.
  10. Catherine Grenier. L’art contemporain est-il chrétien?, Nîmes, Éd. Jacqueline Chambon, 2003.
  11. The exhibition Chair et vérité was presented at Sporobole, in Sherbrooke, from November 8 to December 9, 2012, and at Regart, centre d’artistes en art actuel, in Lévis, from March 22 to April 21, 2013.
  12. The exhibition Anathema was presented at Galerie Verticale, in Laval, from May 9 to June 19, 2010.
  13. Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, trans. by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985, p.31.
  14. The exhibition Drôleries was presented at CIRCA, in Montreal, from February 22 to March 29, 2014.
  15. Nicolas Bourriaud. Formes de vie. L’art moderne et l’invention de soi, Paris, Éd. Denoël, 1999.
  16. The performance Sketches and Equivalence was presented at Walden A.airs, in The Hague, on October 24, 2009.
  17. The exhibition Mes économies was presented at L’oeil de Poisson, in Quebec City, from November 5 to December 5, 2010.
  18. The exhibition Modèles à suivre was presented at Regart, centre d’artistes en art actuel, in Lévis, from January 28 to February 28, 2010.
  19. This exhibition was presented at Action Art Actuel, in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, from March 21 to April 27, 2013; at Galerie B-312, in Montreal, from May 30 to June 29, 2013; and at Vaste et Vague, in Carleton-Sur-Mer, from September 13 to October 18, 2013.
  20. Jean-Luc Marion. Le virtuel et le possible, lecture at the Académie française, October 25, 2012.