'Merci'

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In collaboration with the municipality of Bordeaux, it was decided to bring back to life the Temple des Chartrons, an iconic place for the inhabitants of the French city. The exhibition “Merci” is a site-specific project developed during four month of residency.
The exhibition is an immersive proposal that questions our complex and contradictory relationship with nature, through a displacement of vegetal elements in contraposition with the symbolic architecture of a temple that has been closed to the public for more than thirty years.

Painting, sculpture, video, sounds and projections enliven the space. Through a series of juxtapositions of images using different media, perspective games and changes in spatial and temporal scales, a path both sensory and metaphysical prevents a single reading.

The installation is acquired by the CAPC Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.

A text by Juliette Pym

From March to June 2019, I had the chance to work with artist Gonzalo Borondo on the installation he had been commissioned to do by the City Council of Bordeaux in the abandoned protestant Temple des Chartrons. For four months, Gonzalo and his team turned the temple inside out, gathering material from construction sites in the city and the Landes forest, bringing together a vibrant installation that constituted a reaction to the site, its history, architecture and cultural surroundings.

The first impression is one of grandeur. As you walk through the mysterious veil that features a black circle, then through the antechamber that traces a horizontal line, the vertical space opens up at once like a silent invitation – an invitation to meditate, an invitation to surpass the self and dive into the sensation of sacredness. From the darkness of the forest painted on the walls emerges a glimpse of light. Among the various pieces that lie on the passage of the visitor, an architectural structure is wood burned on piled up logs. Fake candles shed a halo of light on glass pieces featuring botanical representations of plants, and a Frankenstein tree sits in the center of the temple, between two rows of columns and facing junky-looking rows of theater chairs. The dull sound of the century-old organ, surrounded by lawn, fills the space.

The first thought goes to religion and nature. Nature and religion, an ancestral story that begins with the genesis, the garden of Eden. A garden is a piece of domesticated nature, linked from its origins with the power of kings and emperors. It guards order against insupportable chaos, and in this realm, a snake has opened the breach, like the roots that push through the stones. Through the cracks of its solid walls, the temple breathes in an imperceptible rhythm, echoing the respiration of the light installations nested in its core. A marble plaque adds the words “It still breathes” to the felt impression. Evasive, these words are not here to explain. What is still breathing? Until when? Why? It doesn’t matter. The level on which they project the visitor’s experience is a poetic one, aiming first to an affective response rather than an intellectual one.

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Affective response

The exhibition calls for a fundamentally affective response. The concept of affect in contemporary art is generally used to rescue subjectivity from the cynical rationalization produced by the legacy of conceptual art. Reaffirming the power of affective response injects another form of intensity to the artwork. Indeed, intensities are assumed to be modes of signifying experiences severed from discursivity, placing the experience of art in an immanence that occurs on a level different from knowledge or meaning. But according to queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, affect has a strong transformative power, affirming mutually constitutive relations between meaning and being1. In this case what happens is a form of immanent experience of signifying sensation, a sort of aesthetic poetry, where the body is marked by impressions. Speakable, in the form of the poetic sentences engraved in marble plates throughout the installation, but unexplainable impressions that implement images on the mind. The physical response to the overwhelming stimulation of sight, smell and sound, as well poetry, speaks to the irrational mind, transporting it to an altered plane where discourse falls short. It brings together the senses of meaning and being in one affective response, severed from discursivity, but highly signifying and meaningful.

By creating a global experience, the exhibition addresses not only the visitor’s mind but the whole body. One is transformed by this experience, coming to embody a signifying sensation: becoming whatever crosses one’s mind during one’s own affective response. You experience for example a feeling of belonging, of being part of a world where humanity and nature are not opposite but connected. But this is possible on the basis of the knowledge that the wooden logs represent the domestication of the forest, bringing at some point into the equation a form of intuitive rationalization. Even if the visitor’s possible transformation is mediated through knowledge, which produces this intuitive rationalization, affect is the transformative vector that creates the impact, the imprint, the impression.

There is also a social and psychological parameter in the affective response created by the artwork. In Sara Ahmed’s view, “emotions can both institute and destabilize social boundaries between individuals and collectives”. They have constitutive effects precisely because they “mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social”, organizing the individual responses that bind subjects to regimes of power and knowledge.”2 According to this idea, the affective response that places the visitor in an internalized dialogue with the artwork – a dialogue made of both emotions and rationalizations -, has something to do with attachment to the place, to what the place implements physically and psychologically. The temple, for example, constitutes a bodily space that is also a social space, altering the reception of the artwork and embedding it in a sense of community where the individual psyche is transcended by the presence of a social heritage. Heritage as an ideological force to which the individual is bound through the very intensity of emotional attachment, producing a sense of psychological implication.

More than a transformative power that turns the spectator into an active agent in the relationship with what is presented, affect is thus the vector through which one can reflect on what really constitutes a psychological link to social and ideological environment. This second level of reception is made possible by a self-questioning of the spontaneous affective response: Why does this sensual environment make me feel calm, uncomfortable, or even scared? Each personal emotional response is the sign of an individually negotiated attachment to psychologically constructed ideas of nature and religion.

If affective response is therefore relational rather than a solid and autonomous sensation3, affective stimulation is particularly appropriate in an exhibition that places relationships and connections between nature and humans at its center, because this relationship is originally and fundamentally affective, blurred by centuries of trying to untangle it from being in communion to objectivation, rationalization, instrumentalization. Being or feeling comes first, then is amplified by meaning. The overwhelming sensual presence is echoed by artistic procedures that make sense in terms of what is at stake in the temple: procedures that signify first on an emotional level, but which can also be interpreted on a discursive level.

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Allegorical superposition of images

Each piece of the exhibition features a double image, a transparent superposition of images and objects. They are readings of themselves. More precisely, they carry their own readings: the projection of an animated plant on a corresponding drawing of the same plant will trigger the reading of this representation of nature as inanimate, thus giving rise to the contradiction of a nature morte. Indeed, the pieces do not represent, but add another meaning to each representation, a supplement that triggers reflection in depth, metaphorically and literally: repercussion that echoes endlessly like two mirrors facing each other. Then come superpositions of physical and illusionary screens. The flickering coincidence of a moving projected shadow of a branch and its painted shadow. The cracks of the walls streaking the surface where bended and aligned trees open mysterious perspectives. Each element can be excavated as a sedimentation in depth of layers of meaning. Multiple interpretations prevail on a singular reading. Shifts of vision replace frontal declarations. In a subtle way, the exhibition leads you to lose yourself around the different isles and trouvailles that you come across progressively, as you would in the winding paths of a forest.

Nothing is revealed at once in its entirety, as the installation unfolds gradually along the viewer’s movement. Even at the level of the whole exhibition, everything makes me think of the allegory of the ruin: the old temple invaded by vegetation, the painted caryatides and portals with their faded aspect, the broken pots. It is obvious that these images refer to something exterior to them, as the allegory is a borrowed image that speaks (agoreuei) of something other (allos). The portals do not represent portals but the ritual passage from profane to sacred. The caryatides do not represent women but a divinized connection between humans and architecture. A third meaning is added by the association of these images with the forest that is painted on the walls: it opens to yet another reading of the concept embedded in the image, the sacredness of nature that is based on artificial stagings, rituals. As a result, the representations are emptied of their original meaning and function (the religious iconography, the botanical engravings) and are transformed into a testimony of their own nature as symbols. Now they are also erased, as faded in time. According to Borges, allegories are a representation of the distance between the irrevocable past and the present, a distance that is part of the sensation of sacredness. We come back to the ruin, which Walter Benjamin described as the allegorical emblem par excellence.

The sensation produced by this temporal leap from ancestral reminiscences (the irrevocable past) to the present of the experience we are living as we visit the temple is an important component of the artwork. It is manifested in the loop that petrifies the process of life and death in a cycle. It is also implied in spectatorship, since it fixes the objects and images in a dialectical relationship with heritage. Yet this relationship is fragmentary, imperfect, incomplete, as the “works of men are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from origin.”2 The ruin reactivates the Romantic and nostalgic idea of human subjection to nature. But here, even though it is present, the forces are inverted as the elements are organized in different pieces, cut up and contained in glass boxes, bringing the human impact on nature to the fore as well as of the impact of nature on humans. It is a dialogue through time and space. By using procedures of allegorical superposition of representations and the emblem of the ruin, while basing the pieces in a contemporary account of the relation between humans and nature, Merci projects us in the connections between past and present paradigms, questioning our constructed relation to the idea of nature. More than just questioning, it overlaps both things, stating that the rational mind has forgotten that we are part of the same world, and that the architecture is the extension of our own nature.

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Displacement and site-specificity

All of this would have much less significant were it not for two other important aspects of the installation: its site-specificity combined with a simple gesture of displacement. Indeed, the key element that comes directly to our attention when we walk around in the temple is the central sculpture. As dramatic as a crucifix, sitting on a pile of debris, a Frankenstein tree occupies the choir, outlined by a vertical circle of light. The sculpture emerges from a specific reading of the place that refers to the Landes forest surrounding the city of Bordeaux, present in a strong collective imaginary made of legends and myths, with the religious setting induced by the temple.

Engaging in a reading of a site and its psychological resonances, the site-specific work is impermanent and circumstantial. It echoes the ephemerality of all phenomena. Moreover, in this case the site is extended from the temple to the forest, through the action of introducing elements from the forest in the temple. The term “open form of dialectical montage”, applied by Alexander Alberro to John Knight’s 1998 floral arrangement project Identity Capital at American Fine Arts (New York), can be used accurately to describe this operation of displacement. The strategy of “mounting an exhibition with double or parallel components” results in not one by two sites operating and “simultaneously referencing each other”. Dialectical montage, for Alberro, borrowed from cinematic practice, is readapted in the realm of the spatial through the performing of a montage of sites. The difference is that Knight invests two sites simultaneously while Borondo takes elements (wood, videos, images) from the site of the forest, to bring them into the site of the temple, once again superposing the two entities in a vertical, and not horizontal, referencing dialogue. If Alberro borrows Roland Barthes’ determination of a “third meaning” as not defining Knight’s intended effect, it resonates here with the intended tendency of all the elements towards abstraction, both formal (the circle) and conceptual (the idea of sacredness). In this abstraction, meaning escapes any fixation, unlike in communication or significance, echoing Barthes’ definition of signification. The tree can stand for the idea of nature, or the idea of religion, or the idea of decadence and ruin. But the important thing is that this access to the third meaning, that is made possible by the superposition of signs and sites, leads visitors to question their relation to the signs, because the significations escape them. Why does this combination, or montage, of circle of light and tree, with all its aesthetic aspects, both confuse me and impress me such that I cannot fix to it a rationalized meaning? Because it reminds me of things that are contained in my collective ancestral knowledge, my psychological constructions, an abstraction that I have to excavate from deep inside.

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V I D E O T E A S E R

Videos by Matteo Berardone
An special MERCI;
Silvia, Arturo, Gael, Gaetano, Fabrizio, Simone, Oriana, Edoardo, Carmelo, Juliette, Lucas, Claire, Anne helene, Jean Francois, the amazaing people from vivre dell’arte, Silvan, Tatiana and her ballet, Vinny, Max, Marta, Laurallan, Angela, Jaro, Javi, Benjamin and all the other people who made that possible and I maybe forgot in this list.Merci.