Parution en 2001 d'une monographie "Philippe Gronon", dirigée par Jean François Taddei et coproduite par :
Le Frac des Pays de la Loire, Carquefou,
Le 19, Centre Régional d'Art Contemporain, Montbéliard,
Le Frac Franche-Comté, Dole.
On the stage, the actors set out a motley selection of objects which they take from a huge presentation device on wheels: plastic containers, pipes, streamers, sweets, household objects, etc. Their arrangements gradually turn into small installations and then, one by one, the actors freeze for a moment in some incongruous posture. This vaguely brings to mind the One-Minute Sculptures by ErwinWurm. It is as if we were watching the preparations for the Austrian artist's photo works. And, in the middle of all this, sitting on a chair, an astrophysician now launches into an intellectually strenuous if perfectly limpid dissertation on the transformation of the universe, covering such phenomena as the birth and death of a star or black hole, release speed, the evolution of masses and densities, etc. Then, on another part of the stage, while this discourse is in full spate, the dancers have gone into a series of huddles, their bodies continuously forming and reforming groups and chains like an endlessly mutating living organism. It is at this point that I am powerfully struck by the connection between these three activities, as if they were three poles of the same phenomenon, each with markedly different potentials, but all linked by an intense, circulating energy.1 If, a few moments ago, by a kind of cultural reflex, I thought fleetingly of Erwin Wurm, now, in the final part of this performance, as the rhythm of the huddles becomes dizzyingly fast, it is the thought of Philippe Gronon's work that comes to me, and with much greater force. But this association is not of an obviously referential kind (there is nothing in this show that in any way "resembles" Gronon's austere photographs). It is, I think, more a matter of an awareness of the distance between two poles which are nevertheless undeniably related: on the one hand, something highly literal that has to do with the presence or representation of things themselves and, at the same time, something very remote or very abstract, touching, for example, on corpuscular physics or computer science. For if Gronon's photographs are always photographs of a very specific object, they also open onto a rich field of speculation.
Some of his photographs – the blackboards, say, or the writing desks – are meticulous maps of surfaces of inscription, with all the different traces of use or production that these reveal. But they are also surfaces of attraction and accretion, as, more explicitly now, are the portholes and the engines. In their way, these are black holes, extremely dense spaces that, again, suck in the gaze.
And yet these photographs act on us like paradoxical attractors. The point is not for the gaze to lose itself in fascination or astonishment but, on the contrary, to become attentive, to observe the marks. An art of traces, then? Not really, even if the marks of use work in two ways: they in a sense "humanise" an object that is hardly seductive in itself by freighting it with history; and, more importantly, they prevent the drift towards abstraction, where the gaze would become absorbed in non-specific spaces. These marks – when there are marks – identify the object as an object in the world and not as an abstract or vacant form. This identification is obvious in the case of the share price boards or the doors of safes. It is less evident in the case of the blackboards, the desks and the portholes, whose function is not so immediately identifiable.
But either way, these photographs are not about getting us to name the referent so much as to ascertain that this referent exists, and that the object bears the marks or the signs of its use. Thus scarified, it becomes an object in time, a time-object, and not a simple abstract surface. It is even possible, as some have indeed done, to go into a kind of reverie about the different strata of memory laid down here, the slowly thickening deposit left by generations of users, the successive coverings and erasures. This fits neatly with the blackboard and the desks, and in a more indirect way with the fronts of the drawers of index cards.
In this last example, the surface does not immediately evoke the presence of man (the user) so much as its own content, which is itself an accumulation of references and addresses (numbers, shelf marks) that are used to locate books or manuscripts, those "genuine" objects of knowledge, in the labyrinthine archive that is the library. A powerful metonymic process is at work here, a system of condensation and reference that already represents an advanced phase in the techniques of memory (recent technologies essentially do no more than digitise these classifications, which have so far remained unsurpassed.) This is especially clear when it comes to the printer's trolleys, on which rows of typographic characters "represent" the contents of a book waiting to be (re)translated into "legible" format. Here the photographer is metonymically pointing to what is one of his own main functions, that of the archivist, insofar as this anticipates more recent data storage technologies (the intermediate phase, we may recall, was the microfiche, a simple photograph of the document on transparent film). Every photograph is thus a sketch of a possible archive, an archive that is non-functional and useless unless it comes to constitute a system.
Memory and representation
The series of library indexes in one sense anticipates the series of digital plaques that have now replaced the old sensitive film in radiography. The miniaturisation and industrialisation of components make it impossible to detect any traces of use in these hi-tech objects. All that remains is a smooth, inexpressive, honeycombed surface – apart from the fact that this denotes (indirectly, but this is not insignificant) profound changes in the representation and storage of data. These changes themselves evoke economic transformations of which they are indeed one of the consequences: mass production, the drive for constantly improved performance and economies of scale, the obsession with productivity and maximum profit, whose impact we are now gauging under the ambiguous term of "globalisation".
By photographing these hypersensitive membranes, Gronon is addressing all these questions, and doing so no doubt with the perplexity that we too feel about such objects, these now indispensable tools with their fascinating capacities whose implications for our future we find it hard to measure. The dominant figures here are no longer metonymy and metaphor – those familiar, founding tropes that, as we know, structure our thought, our psyche. These new figures have no name. Perhaps they are not even figures at all but simply measurements: so many bits, this or that frequency or amplitude, etc. Though relative, these measurements are not on a human scale. It is to them that we are increasingly delegating the function of memory, which has now become the storage of data rather than a structured progression. For if the colossal mass of information held by the Great Universal Library could be described as a kind of Babel, we should note that the original Babel was something very human – too human, even. As we may recall (Genesis 11), seeing that man was blinded by hubris and determined to build a tower reaching all the way to the heavens, the Lord decided to shatter the unity of language and scatter humanity across the face of the earth. The language of the computer is an attempt to de-Babelise humanity by creating a single tongue which is engendering the same thirst for grandeur as in the Good Book, the same dream of totality and unlimited architecture (who, this time, will put an end to this omnipotence?).
Every sign and language is now being translated into digital signals. Question: how is one to show what is becoming immaterial? How to figure it forth? The blackboards and desks now seem like witnesses to an almost archaic time when men wrote by hand, when they wrote and read at the same time. And yet, in Gronon's work they coexist with hi-tech objects. This is because in both instances we have a representation of something that has no apparent depth or duration – a surface, a hole, a grid or an operation. We are not talking about abstract photography here, though (a photograph of "nothing"), but photography that is very much realistic or materialistic, in the sense that it sets out to represent particular objects. We should also add that it does not seek to create simulacra of these objects, images that by virtue of their scale or degree of resemblance could be mistaken for the objects they represent. This point is worth making, since some of these works, notably the stock exchange boards and the strongbox doors, could be considered as coming fairly close to this trompe-l'œil effect, which in this case is reinforced by the fact that the works are presented sticking out slightly from the wall.
As the later series clearly show, Gronon's work is not about illusion but about representation and presence.2 If it does have a kind of "deceptive literalness" to it, this is not because we might be uncertain about the nature of what we can see (object or photograph?), but because the photographic representation captures something of the enigmatic quality, the muteness of these surfaces. They are neither spectacular nor voluble, and yet they are extremely rich. For they are interfaces on or through which all kinds of transactions take place: exchanges between interior and exterior, conversion of thoughts into words, of words into coded addresses, of words into value, of light flows into language, etc. They are also thin spaces in time, either because speed is a decisive factor, or because it is in their nature to be ephemeral, to make momentarily apparent a configuration that will soon be erased or covered over by another. They are the magic pads of our activities, layer cakes of time. No doubt the most perfect example of this is the work on the surfaces of lithographic stones, which have been rubbed and rubbed so often that their grain has become incredibly fine. These surfaces are real "stone skins", sensitive surfaces that redouble the grain of the photograph, thereby evoking the palimpsest of successive printings that they have borne.
But then, we may say, what about the strongbox doors, which seem to represent the solidity of lasting values? And the piles of manure that, for the first time, introduce outdoor space, the "landscape"? First, we should note that the two very logically constitute a dialectical pairing around the idea of value: gold and garbage, safe investment and dispersion, the armoured door and steaming heaps in the countryside, about to be spread and buried in the fields. Ultimately, the subject here is once again transit. In one case, passage is forbidden, repressive, or at least coded. In the other, it is open, generous and organic. Rubbish is matter displaced and transformed, whereas the strongbox holds fixed objects, set here out of the way of flux and contact. Both have something archaic about them, something that resists the dematerialized flows of hi-tech and the global economy. The strongboxes evoke ancient and secret patrimonial practices. The piles of dung remind us of traditional agriculture on a human scale, worlds away from agribusiness with its ratios and cost efficiency and (a kind of immanent justice) its host of viruses.
The space of the beholder
That said, what do these representations – the strongbox door, the steaming piles in a field – actually say? And where do they leave us? Facing the doors we are bit like Kafka's hero standing at the gates of the Law: we are on the threshold of an answer, of knowledge that will never be divulged. With the countryside and its ephemeral piles of manure, what is evoked is a cyclical economy. This is another economy of time, and also another photographic economy, since it is no longer a matter of objects framed tightly with no margins but of landscape. It is, admittedly, a landscape reduced to few minimal signs: a few trees, a field. What really matter here are the piles, insofar as they structure, or indeed construct, a space. Or, more accurately than a space, a spatialisation, as underscored by the modest size of these digital prints (in contrast with the other series).
Gronon thus keeps the viewer in a state of tension, of active uncertainty. However, for all the theoretical acuity that they imply, all the lucid awareness of what is at stake in photographic representation today, there is also something somnambulistic about these works. As precise as cross-sections, they also seem to hover inexplicably between two different states. This is no doubt the result of the oppositions suggested above, added to the "anachronism" of the black-and-white photographic technique that is applied here to the task of quasi-objectively representing objects that you would expect to elude it. In this work we thus sense a conceptual intention which, at the same time, refuses to compromise on the tool and its constraints – a curious restraint that the artist turns into a strict protocol.3
These remarks about the kind of representation at work in Gronon's œuvre and the construction of the connection between the object and the formal decisions, lead us to further questions, concerning in particular the nature of the space thus created for the viewer. When the object of representation is enigmatic, this affects the entire space of the relation with the spectator, the space "between" him and the image. How does the gaze meet these falsely simple, objective and frontal photos which are at the same time virtually abstract? For they require a degree of attention that is commensurate with their specific characteristics. We need, for example, to examine in detail these surfaces, their texture and subtle differences, but also the temporal and spatial cross-section that they embody, and the metonymic and projective reaction that they elicit. Each one is like a firm and clear-cut stamping, defining or imprinting a mark on a surface. Like any other photograph, you may say. Except that here there is also the nature of the objects that are photographed, which are themselves industrially produced – pre-formed and pre-formatted. The photograph consequently seems like an interface: something is transferred, converted into a different sign system.
No doubt it is the awareness of these transfers that charges these photographs, which are otherwise as placid as could be, with a powerful temporal dynamic. In the recent series of dung heaps, the feeling of duration, of a rhythm, is, as we have already seen, linked to the very nature of the material. Manure is displaced material that has become impure because taken out its habitual circuit. It has lost its identity and blurs the identity of the scene into which it irrupts.4 Manure has left one cycle (the organic cycle of animal feeding) and entered another (the fertilisation of plants grown to feed humans). It is captured in this short moment of transit, when something is about to be scattered. This precarious order is what interests Philippe Gronon. As in all his photographs, he examines the state of a configuration or a mechanism which is subject to the impact or anticipation of disruption. If his photographs are ultimately like contemporary vanitas works, this is because they simultaneously create and point up the illusion that we are dealing with objects here (or at least, the faithful representation of objects) and show themselves to be pure representations of a set of provisionally assembled signs. In his characteristically plain and discreet mode, Gronon is thus taking part in an enquiry now being conducted by philosophers, scientists and architects, among others; an enquiry into what Christine Buci-Glucksman has called the "effect of virtual duplication".5 Following on from Deleuze, attention is being focused, not on static dualities, but on what happens in between the virtual and the actual. The operations of inscription and transformation will themselves remain beyond our grasp, except for a few slight traces. It is the spectral aspect of this work, its element of absence, that gives what has been figured here all its weight.
1. This is an incomplete and very simplistic reference to Emmanuelle Huynh's dance piece, Sans titre, performed at the Pompidou Centre in December 2000 as part of the Festival d'Automne.
2. On this point, see Walter Benn Michaels' very rich analysis of James Welling's work in James Welling, Photographs 1977-90, (cat.), Kunsthalle Bern, 1990. To my mind, however, the author undermines his argument by insisting on the difference between the grain of the volumetric surfaces of the objects in the photographs and the smooth, flat surfaces of the photographs themselves. I would argue that at this stage there is very little risk of confusion anyway.
3. Valérie Mavridorakis ("Introduction", [cat.], Villa Medici, Rome, 1995) speaks of a "suspended meaning", with the objects being represented "in abstracto in a time and a space that they totally recast." Mavridorakis, too, uses the term "deceptive literalness" (op. cit.).
4. I am referring here to Gus Blaisdell's essay "Skeptical Landscapes", in Lewis Baltz, Park City (Artspace Press, Castelli Graphics, 1980). These mechanisms have been demonstrated to perfection in a museum context by Wim Delvoye's new piece, Cloaca, which is a machine that very precisely and exhaustively simulates the human digestive system, from intake of food to expulsion of excrement.
5. Christine Buci-Glucksman, L'Esthétique du temps au Japon – Du Zen au virtuel, (Paris: Galilée, 2001). See particularly books four and five.