« IN FRONT OF THE WALL », by Jean-Charles Agboton-Jumeau
The disconcerting, disquieting, dumbfounding or even “de-realising” qualities displayed – sometimes simultaneously and sometimes successively – by the work of Morgane Tschiember, are due quite simply to the fact that art always differs from the conjectures that arise from any definition of its essence, whether the form taken by this temptation to define be materialist, rhetorical or artistic. Whatever the case, the artist systematically sets out to foil attempts at reifying both art in general and her contemporary offerings in particular.
Indeed, like art itself, her body of work is at once polymorphous and protean and, as such, in perpetual expansion, as endlessly attested by the multiple techniques and protocols enrolled by Tschiember to conduct her visual experiments and/or to make her works.
Considering Le Mur by Morgane Tschiember, which at the exhibition curated by Olivier Mosset, Friends, blocked the window of the Galerie Loevenbruck in Paris, one could, if only indicatively, evoke two works in particular: by default, or so to speak in negative, one thinks of the partition that Michael Asher had knocked down in a gallery in Los Angeles in 1974; and then by excess, the Meat Piece with Warhol Brillo Box (1965) by Paul Thek.
Comprising rough or ready-made bond stones, piled up and cemented together with a mortar died pink that for some might evoke minced meat, the wall built in the gallery window deliberately perturbed the economy of visual and symbolic exchanges that define the artistic field. By temporarily reifying this threshold between the (commercial) back office and the (disinterested) stage of any gallery, Tschiember not only distinguishes public from private space, and production from presentation, but also need (the need for culture) from desire (for art). In so doing, like Michael Asher, the artist indexes the false, optical and tactile transparency of the window and, by extension, the false neutrality of the White Cube: for an art gallery is never anything but a stage delimited by partitions in bond stone or gypsum block, duly coated, smoothed and, generally, painted white.
But the kind of highly standardised architectonic elements epitomised by bond stones also bring to mind the – similarly normalised and serial – production and distribution of duly packed consumer goods: the Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes, for example, functioned as geometrical modules deliberately piled up and exhibited as such by Warhol at the Stable Gallery in 1964. But where Andy meant to go no further than the surface that is indeed evoked by the scouring and cleaning pads contained in the Brillo boxes, Paul Thek was bound to bring back (good or bad) memories of the Pope of Pop because of those same contents. He therefore exhibited the same box, but opened it on one side to reveal a piece of meat: this wax handmade was as parellelepipedal as its container. Why? “At that time there was such an enormous tendency towards the minimal, the non-emotional, the anti-emotional even, that I wanted to say something again about emotion, about the ugly side of things. I wanted to return the raw human fleshy characteristics to the art.”
Thus, just as Morgane Tschiember’s wall denotes the literality of Asher’s action without equalling its radicalism, so a number of her photographs and videos more or less obviously evoke Thek’s vision of the flesh, but without either the visual rawness or the ultimately metaphorical cruelty. Unlike her elders, Tschiember works as much by allusion as by visual elision. As everyone can see, the mortar overflowing at the joins between the bond stones does not reproduce “sausage meat”; the wall simply produces it, but, precisely, using non-resembling, or dissembling means. In doing so the artist takes care to distinguish and bring into relation resemblance and verisimilitude, or, if we prefer, representa- tion and simulation.
This is indeed attested by her photographs entitled Blasons or those of Série no 6, and even her recent volumetric paintings called Pop Up. The “breasts” in the Blasons series, for example, are in fact only images of rubber balls. And those eyes that we would be attempted to attribute to who knows what blind man or foetus, are never anything more than the image of a navel which, duplicated in the display, as in a Rorschach test, metamorphose into a gaze. Thus catching out those who thought themselves safe. What we might take as an abstract watercolour from Série no 6 is in fact only a photograph; in the same series, what we take to be a rotting piece of meat is in reality merely the image of some titbit that, photographed as it melted, quite simply gave the illusion of being a painting made by some unlikely Bram Van Velde …
The disturbing, dumbfounding or repulsive aspect of many of Tschiember’s images is due to the fact that they systematically hide the objects they reference. It is no different in her videos, where the framing, shot breakdown and editing sample bits of the real only to take the reality out of them, or even, make them unreal. That is why her works have nothing to do with a formalist and/or minimalist orthodoxy that is more or less indifferent to the question of form (or of the body) in art, or with the verism to which all those artists who insist on content (emotion or “the ugly side of things”) inevitably tend or succumb. Where many believe that the body can only be interrogated and experienced in terms of aggression, by chafing it and forcing it to open up and besetting it with scourges (Chris Burden, Bob Flanagan, Keith Boadwee, etc.), and where others insist on rouging it, aesetheticising it or draping it with the glad rags of some social, ethnic or sexual community folklore (Lyle Ashton Harris, Laura Aguilar, Vanessa Beecroft), Morgane Tschiember points to a third way. For in her work the body is always both extroverted and introverted, and it is this insistence on reciprocity – which is in itself inherently plastic – between form (body) and contents (flesh), between the visible and the invisible, or between trash and glamour, that her exemplary Chair(s) series emerged. These works do not show the flesh either from a unilateral external viewpoint, or from a exclusive, internal one. In these close-ups of human lips, the limits between meat and flesh, like those between intimacy and inhumanity, recede as far as the eye can see, like a horizon. As Sartre would have said, these lips “float between the shore of perception, that of the sign and that of the image, without accosting at any of them”. At once meat and flesh, they also situate the spectator before or beyond sexual difference.
Just as no representation of meat could ever exhaust the existential and plastic experience of flesh, in terms either of (emotional or subjective) content or of formal content (frigid or objective), so Tschiember’s Pop Ups manage to elicit a sense of and desire for food without being either real or false pastries. Again, here, the artist deliberately maintains doubt, and even cultivates it; here as elsewhere, ingestion and incorporation are not necessarily incarnation or carnification. And the limit of photography is not painting but plasticity as such.
And that is why, instead of someone like Peter Halley, who has illustrated walls rather than painted them, Tschiember is much, much closer to a Marcel Broodthaers – the creator, for example, of a Monument an X that was also made up of bricks and mortar (and a trowel). “I have discovered recently, he said, that to express the idea [or the con- tents] properly I necessarily had to play with plastic elements. In a way, one always comes back to the plastic element.” Mutatis mutandis, was it not exclusively from their visual resources that Piranesi’s series of engravings, the Carceri d’Invenzione, drew their torture chamber atmosphere – in other words, their contents?
Duly noted, then. The work of Morgane Tschiember always starts and finishes with plasticity. Hence the polymorphous, protean body of work that she feels free to make. And that is not doubt why, through the diversity of techniques and processes punctuating her artistic development over the last few years, she is never far from experiencing, plastically and in every working occasion, what Goethe said of himself: “I have always thought that everything was my due: had they put a crown on me, I would have thought: that goes without saying.”