Three days for daring to steal a rose
I have previously had occasion to write about the work of Frédérique Nalbandian: about the nobility of its expression and the force which animates it; about the movements which inform it and the impressions that it leaves us with, faced with what I might call the sense of time and the way it confounds us. In continuing on this theme, I hope to guide readers towards the intimacy of the pieces that have been designed, created and renewed for the month of November 2016.
It will take several hours for the strange net strung between the pillars of the museum to dissolve completely. The time it takes for the water to travel through the mechanism designed by the artist to convey it, for it to reach the fourteen letters of the word “recommencement” (“renewal”) written in soap, for it to mix together with them and wash them away (Précipité VI). But what am I saying! It will take days to achieve this result, if one might dare to use such a term with regard to the work of Frédérique Nalbandian. Has she not devoted a large part of her energy to depriving this word of all prestige and, perhaps, invalidating any notion of significant progress? What I mean by this is that the artist does not like results; what she likes is consequences, as we might describe the colours in painting, for example; her essential desire is to prolong already tested durations, by applying additional touches or simply recycling what has already been subjected to the forces of wear and tear or – to use a more elegant expression – has acquired a patina. Thus it is with this ear, exposed for the second time to a set of liquid impacts and reactivated, using the same or almost the same protocol, in this museum dedicated to the memory of Cocteau (L’Oreille qui tombe); and these imposing tondi (Précipité 26-03-06, etc.) and other receptacles whose surface is made up of deposits which form landscapes; and with the artist’s pieces in general, assemblages, sculptures and even installations which will continue to transform by changing state, in the chemical sense of the word. “Life is short, art long,” wrote Seneca at the beginning of his reflection on the brevity of existence. And what might this pertain to, if not an unequal relationship between temporalities which only ever partially intersect? The small sculpture titled Les Ages could well be the same thing in three-dimensional form.
Accepting the idea of becoming. Frédérique Nalbandian applies this imperative to herself, readily leaving some of her pieces in slumber, to return to them again later. She suggests it to those who are transported, metaphysically speaking, by her works, with, nonetheless, the following indication in addition: if beauty can emerge with each encounter, it is through successive purging that it is most often achieved, through efforts and exertions that are perceptible to a greater or lesser degree. Here, I am thinking of these hands in prayer, almost ascetic, which the artist has opted to present to the public for the second time (Traversée, 26-09-2011, Bruay-la-Brussière). Although they are regularly watered by whoever chooses to take care of them, over the days these hands lose the excess which cluttered them. As for the linens (floorcloths, flannels and towels) used as the basis for the pieces in biscuit earthenware, might they not be interpreted as the prosaic version of this same principle, apart from the slight distinction that it is now clay that has been pressed and kept in tension?
So, while it is necessary to muster patience to follow the aesthetic accomplishment of the artist’s various works, I would suggest that it is unthinkable to be in a hurry if one wants to take anything at all from L’Oreille qui tombe. Already impressed by the size of the sculpture, the visitor will walk around it like a curious anatomist. In a desire to understand what this surrealist-inspired object might mean, or simply out of a sense of poetic obedience, he will examine it in detail. He will, perhaps, meditate on the transition from wax sculpture to the use of soap, in other words from a form of art which ends up producing all manner of hallucinations to a form which is at first sight less unnerving, even if a degree of insanity on the part of Frédérique Nalbandian was required to fashion, with bare hands, the intimidating mass of this anatomical element in the heart of a soap-making factory. The visitor may even be glad to see that wax, which usually obstructs the auditory canal, is transformed into a cleaning product, a substance which liberates hearing. He must be on his guard, however, and avoid falling into the trap that the artist might have set by playing on the idea that the organ is functioning correctly! For the evidence is there: it is, in fact, to the visitor that the hearing test falls. Concentrating on the sounds emitted by sources scattered throughout the installation, those of the piano and water here: this is his task, in addition to the attention he must pay to the masculine and feminine voices present. These include Pascal Quignard, in particular, who reads his own texts on the noise of the rain, and other stories which the ear suggests to him. And in order to do this – to draw everything of substance from the continuum of sound – the visitor is obliged to slow his pace. Once again, to decrease the tempo.
In the more modest pieces, the artist continues her reflection on the separation of worlds. Through which images? Through, for example, this pair of dormant ears: they appear not to have heard the internal explosion experienced by the bottle in which they lie curled up, and leave us stunned (Cloche); or indeed the composition of roses cast in plaster (Roses) which present a reclusive world, in tune only with the corpuscular space which inhabits it. Unless, quite simply, in these more intimist works, it is a question of the artist’s studio. By being alone more often than not, is Frédérique Nalbandian perhaps giving herself over here to ‘intellectual grooming’ through ‘an art of conduct’? She devotes herself to repeating this when it comes to describing, as economically as possible, what forms the foundation for her discipline, her code of ethics.
A question of time again! And in the case of Au fil des heures, it is truly over a period of hours that these works have been created, in graphite or using other processes invented by the artist herself. But what are they about? Au fil des heures is the eloquent title given to a series of drawings. On a variety of mediums, from old-fashioned doilies to graph paper, only recently become obsolete, stand out figures which indicate, almost to the second, the time taken for her hand to complete the grid of tiny points which give the whole its heartbeat (Contrée). This confirms the artist’s affinity for everything which helps us to measure the progress of phenomena: grading systems, for example, or visible levels to employ another element of her visual vocabulary. With regard to the other motifs found in her drawings, these include a fragment of an ear, a hand, a wing and other body parts, as if the artist was attempting to appropriate the question of origins: in ancient cosmogonies, the world was created in bizarre fashion... Moreover, how can one fail to highlight her interest in ontogenesis, in light of the smudges she creates on different surfaces, and particularly the circles that she persists in producing? Perhaps I should rather refer to these as the round shapes that she draws forth from the paper itself, by yielding to the whims of the soapy water (Pourtours). But this does not mean that she rejects the existence of breath or the bubbles of soap to which it gives life. In 1734, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin seized upon this theme, by capturing a short vignette of a mischievous person spying on another, who is busy creating a large bubble. The setting has just moved to a master glassmaker, where Frédérique Nalbandian, in turn, now observes the creation of objects destined for her installations: the recipients onto which she has engraved oxymorons borrowed from Jean Cocteau: “Living is a horizontal fall” and “Hasten slowly”. With regard to horizontality, it is, moreover, sufficient to observe how she composes according to this principle, placing lines in the space which, depending on the position of the observer, separate or come together as one.
In his renowned essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin noted that the works of the past, unlike those of today, were often kept shielded from the view of lay people – the statue of a god in the cella of a temple, for example, or sculptures of Christian virgins, which were mostly covered with veils. In Frédérique Nalbandian’s work, gold often embellishes the things she constructs as relics, while angels, by virtue of their restless wings, occupy the positions of monstration (Nice, anges 27-07-08). More than that – must I insist on this point? – it is during periods where no one sees it – at an inopportune moment, after all – that the matter operates according to its own laws. Finally, how can we describe the processes used by the artist as mechanical, when we know that she grants only relative credit to moulds and other items associated with mass production? And how can we defend the argument that there would be some of the “the same” in her collection, in light of the two twisted columns, for example? Identical columns, in point of fact, but which the genius of the location has made different (Etreinte).
But let us not get carried away with Benjamin! A small, faulty neon light in the form of a halo in one of the mural pieces (Aura); other halos, in apparent disorder, in the drawings titled Pourtour – this is also what Frédérique Nalbandian is presenting. Thus, to conclude on Aura, the cultural value of the works of the past might indeed have disappeared from her view except, perhaps, for some new pieces into which she has thrown herself wholeheartedly. I am thinking of the performance designed by Pascal Quignard in February 2016, in which she plunged her own hair into the almost purifying water. A unique moment, which pertained to the idea that certain acts of art live but once. This would make it a sort of anomaly, a rarity, just like the enormous ear which hosted it.
By evoking the lives of certain legendary individuals while probing his own, Pascal Quignard produced a breathtaking book on thought (Mourir de penser), or rather on what his attachment to the field of physicality might be. As for Frédérique Nalbandian, she offers no comment on noesis, or the process of thought; she frenetically draws a shape criss-crossed by meandering lines which one cannot imagine coming from anyone but her: a cerebral mass, supplied by its own constantly active blood vessels (Encéphale). And, since the series of drawings does not speak, one creates a fiction as to its subject: what might the brain be thinking about, faced with the pieces presented next to it? About the prudent, even restrained movements executed by the artist in gloves to protect her hands from the melting soap, when she was creating the negatives of the twisted columns (Ritournelle)? Or perhaps about the delicate movements, almost caresses, gently gilding the upper surface of the sixteen wall-mounted pebbles which form the – celestial? – mechanism of the large mural (Enceinte)? About the ambivalent, hurried movements or, on the contrary, those which are stopped in their tracks? The first were at the roots of the fabrication of the pebbles cast inside a slightly leaning tank; the second accompanied the fresh roses, drenched – not too much, not too little – in the whiteness of the plaster. And this before the flowers in question are cut in two, dispossessed of their other halves.
I referred to a fiction with regard to the brain. I would argue that it is at the moment the roses are drenched that it gets carried away, delighting in the sacrilege of the drooping, savouring the tribute that will need to be paid to repair the act of reification. Moreover, to return to the concept of time, it is a race against the clock that the offended Beast imposes on his thief in the well-known film. Recall that for having dared to steal a rose, Belle’s father must die, unless one of his daughters sacrifices herself for him within the following three days!
Half a rose reflected in a mirror – what does that say? And what about several rows of the same flower placed in transparent medals (Médailles)? An art historian would reply that it is a reference to Arte Povera; a philosopher would say it is a meditation on false pretences and the power of illusion; and a psychoanalyst would see it as a reflection on paucity, desire and death; a poet, finally, would claim much more than all of that. To what extent did Cocteau believe in the power of poetry even though he overused its effects? If Frédérique Nalbandian knows his work well, there is one phrase that she takes from him: “Poetry is a religion without hope. The poet exhausts himself in its service, knowing that, in the long run, a masterpiece is nothing but the performance of a trained dog on very shaky ground.” Perhaps it is what she, in turn, is expressing with these medals, which are at once intensely beautiful (“the rose is without why” can never be said enough) and lacking any heroic value.
When twoindependent facts collide, we talk about a coincidence. Of course, the images of Orphée will never come into contact with those the artist is producing more than sixty years later. And yet, everything invites one to believe, as the angel Heurtebise says at the moment of the famous passage of the world of the living into that of the dead: from the image of broken mirrored doors to the idea that the subject can liquefy (“with those gloves you'll pass through mirrors as through water”), hands in search of knowledge, in the phrase broadcast by the radio of hell: “a single glass of water lights up the world.”
The glass which Frédérique Nalbandian has chosen to stage must be understood as a tribute to Francis Ponge (Le Verre d’eau). Her work identifies with him from the first hours. It is pointless to go back over the importance which he accords to the principle of immanence and to objects as a means of privileged access to what the ancients called aisthesis. I think, however, that at certain moments, this work literally smashes the softness inherent in the world depicted by Ponge. The glass has, in effect, lost part of its formal perfection to the point of becoming unusable, good only for throwing away, at the end of the day. A metaphor for the Armenian genocide or, without going that far, a reminder of our own finitude. The artist will never say... As to Armenia, that wounded country to which she owes a part of her heritage, her allusion to it will be more subtle: in the small pieces created from items she has discovered on her way or that she has made, a Persian saddle pad, pomegranate coloured balls of soap and a cloud of wax, to cite just a few (Iprev ichadag).
Faced with what could serve as a reminder of inevitable destruction, there is something which might evoke a moment of triumph. I want to talk about the two twisted columns which, without rushing fully into the museum space – their trajectory reverses at the summit – stand royally in the middle of the exhibition hall (Etreinte). If their function is to create an optical illusion with the architecture of Rudy Ricciotti, their appearance in the artist’s output is a significant moment. A sign of rupture with what precedes them, in the sense that bronze is associated with stability rather than instability, and that Frédérique Nalbandian is perhaps, here, renouncing her former demons? A sign of continuity with what has formed the foundation of her work for more than twenty years now, in the sense that the medium used here is not only a malleable material, but one which is susceptible to changing its appearance on contact with ambient air? It is difficult to say... What I do know, with regard to the assumption of a change of course in her journey, is that when she talks of columns, she evokes two things: Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, more temperamental than stable, and the possibility that these artefacts, one day, may be submerged, in other words corroded by the sole act of her decision.
I began this text by raising the possibility of making the concept of Time the key to understanding the exhibition. If, indeed, Frédérique Nalbandian works with Time by playing on its plasticity, is there not a very simple reason behind this? Could there co-exist within the artist an irrepressible desire to create and a feeling that time is slipping between her fingers? Moreover, anyone who knows her well is aware of the boldness she brings to her battle against it. As a poetic strategy, the study of materials; in the conduct of operations, tact and derision: that is what we take away from this exhibition.