A specially commissioned critical essay by curator and writer Natasha Marie LlorensFor "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)", Emmanuelle Lainé show at Frac Champagne-Ardennes (2018)
Emmanuelle Lainé’s recent commissioned project at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.), tries to fold the entire building that houses the FRAC back onto itself, or, to stage an elegant semiotic disaster. Photographed scenes from a 17th-Century Jesuit college library and its refectory—part of the same complex of chambers as those occupied by the FRAC—are blown up to scale and used to resurface sections of the white gallery walls. By means of sophisticated architectural rendering software, Lainé produces photo-murals that break the otherwise frontal, two-dimensional logic of photography. The perspective internal to each photo-mural shifts as the viewer approaches it, morphing to accommodate multiple points of entry to its representational universe. The effect is that of light vertigo, a feeling only barely attenuated by the (Real) art objects from the FRAC collection that are placed throughout the gallery or captured in the photo-mural renderings.
The disorientation Lainé’s work produces is not entirely phenomenological, she also creates a conceptual double-bind for the viewer. The photo-murals reveal the gallery’s historically Jesuit architectural context, which was obscured through modern renovation of those chambers dedicated to showing art. In addition to folding the building in the historical sense, Lainé’s work is cross-hatched with the artist’s selection of other artists’ work from the FRAC collection. Her choices, which range from Allan McCollum to Lili Reynaud-Dewar, aren’t thematic. Rather, the photo-mural is interspersed with art that appears to have been chosen for its ability to complement the dual breach Lainé opens up between 17th Century and 21st Century spaces of culture, on the one hand, and between an encompassing organizational logic and the individual objects that exist within it (commission vs. collection), on the other. Thus, the works is a historical fold and an epistemological fold, intersecting in the gallery, breaking it open to the viewer.
For example: Pierre Joseph’s Oogie l’ectoplasm, an ominous hooded figure, is slumped in the corner of the room, inside the photomural. Joseph’s work is not a sculpture, but a character template that can be embodied and re-activated as a performance. Joseph gave his permission, exceptionally, for Oogie’s inclusion as both photo and performance. During the opening both figures could be seen in the space. The work of art monetarily existed on both sides of Lainé’s breach. Some of the collection works exist only in the photo-mural, some exist only In Real Life, others exist in both, and some flicker between them, like Joseph’s hooded figure.
The effect of Lainé’s double-fold is a profound insecurity about what guarantees the meaning of the works shown, or even the meaning of the space in which the works are viewed. Another example is the installation of 144 digitally printed abstract shapes framed simply with black wood that line one wall. Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project is installed over the photomural, protruding into the gallery, breaking the illusion that space is somehow receding into the refectory. How do I know that McCollum’s rows upon rows of abstract forms, which appear to bisect the refectory, are Real? Or more Real than the refectory, which has existed for centuries barely a few meters from the place I am standing? These abstract works are framed, but otherwise they would be as two dimensional as the photo-mural that is making me physically ill from its distortion of the perspective I am used to. The Real thing cannot touch my experience of space as profoundly as can the illusion, and also the illusion is the Commissioned Work, so perhaps it is more real than the Collected Work, which is the Real thing. And on, and on.
I think of this semiotic disaster as the production of an image without a center. An image the function of which is to call into question its own production, the conditions of its existence, and thus necessarily its relationship to the viewer. Lainé’s work is a production set for such an image, one which promises nothing except to lead the viewer into the breach and abandon her there, awash in the ambiguity of meaning, unsure of how to master the work at hand.
How to describe the philosophical stakes of such vertigo? Plotted along the lines of a system that they are trying to destabilize, Lainé’s installations intentionally disorient, and I am forced to reach for something utterly outside of them in order to stabilize my own understanding; some world in which a similar kind of disorientation is being described, a world that can be used as an anchor.
The daughter of a Russian oligarch sits in a makeshift video editing room that was hastily assembled by her uncle in a private Swiss medical clinic. Nora was brought to the clinic for a blood transfusion subsequent to a terrorist attack. The Claymore mine that killed her parents outright also lodged a fragment of its arming mechanism deep in the soft folds of Nora’s brain, too deep to ever be safely removed. She sits in front of the editing equipment, the use of which is meant keep her conscious, to keep her from listing into death. She begins to cut and fold footage from the clinic’s closed-circuit security camera.
Nora is the mysterious Maker, a character in Pattern Recognition, which is a novel by William Gibson published in 2003. She edits vernacular video into short and profoundly enigmatic clips, also known as the Footage. The Footage renders singular moments in time, yet the intention behind their layering is obscured, as in a dream. One senses in them a subcutaneous structure, but the transition between individual layers within a segment appears idiosyncratic.
Emmanuelle Lainé’s installations are composite representations in a similar sense, structured according to a logic that the artist keeps assiduously beneath the surface of her work, so that the viewer is drawn into them and disorientated by them simultaneously. Like Nora, Lainé edits ordinary images of work and interior spaces, and then minutely edits them. Her life-size, meticulously color-corrected photographs adhered directly to the gallery wall create immersive spaces that are tethered to the real, but not in a stable way. Spaces that are vertiginous yet still, like a fragment of the Footage. Spaces that produce an experience of representation that ripples around the body.
The body is a problem. How its knowing is related to, or distinct from, the way a photograph knows, for example. Lainé relates this problem, that of the body, to the problem of the machine today. She asks persistently, at some level of each of her installations, how a machine or a tool’s way of knowing is related to, or distinct from, the way a body knows, or the way a photograph knows.
To this point, I was struck simply by the co-extensive quality of production linking the body and the machine in both Gibson’s novel and Lainé’s work. The Claymore mine used against Nora and her family was produced by Americans during the Cold War: “Perhaps the workers who'd made that part, if they'd thought at all in terms of end-use, had imagined it being used to kill Russians,” muses another of the novel’s characters. The part in question had swerved violently, yet remained somehow within the arch of its intended trajectory. Rather than killing a Russian, the mine embedded itself in Nora’s mind to become an extension of her body, or she became an extension of it.
This notion of co-extensive production is especially relevant to Lainé’s installation at Bétonsalon Center for Art and Research in the Spring of 2017, entitled Incremental Self: les corps transparents. Incremental Self rendered the way humans conceptualize their relationship to the tools they use regularly: not only the way they consciously think about their tools, but also the way their tools come to be considered extensions of their body. The artist discussing a brush made of an exotic and now extremely rare kind of hair, the factory worker discussing the packaging machines he maintained and altered progressively as decades unwound. Lainé proposes that this ambiguity about where the body ends and the instrumental object begins is that which inaugurates the posthuman.
The posthuman, in Lainé’s imagination, is not the replacement of humans by machines. It is rather the gradual inability of humans to forgo the selves that have been made possible by the machine. The editing equipment, the artists’ brush, the closed-circuit camera, the factory machine—all enable those humans that encounter them to imagine themselves differently.
The recourse I have made to Pattern Recognition and to Nora’s plight also makes explicit something that Lainé leaves tacit: beneath each instance of an en-fleshed machine is the violence of capitalism. The fragment that is lodged in Nora’s brain that obliges her to dream for others or die; the factory worker who must somehow merge with his machine in order to safeguard his usefulness on the production line, Oogie l’ectopasme slumped uselessly on the floor, prisoner to the simulacrum at every level of his existence.
But the posthuman, in both Gibson and Lainé’s hands, is also defined by subjects that continue to evolve despite the conditions of labor, which are enforced through structural violence. They make strange, disorienting images—what I call images without a center. Images the function of which is to break the structuring perspective of capitalist representation and to turn the viewer away from visual consumption, though not away from aesthetics. An image without a center is an image that does not indicate where the viewer should stand in order to know it, and through this knowing master it.
Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American independent curator and writer.. She writes about North African and Middle Eastern contemporary art and film, feminist and queer politics in art, philosophies of violence, decolonial curatorial practice, and the work of her long-term collaborators. Her writing has appeared in ArtReview, Modern Painters, BOMB Magazine, Pastelegram, WdW Review, Contemporary Art Stavanger, Ibraaz, and many exhibition catalogs. She is a regular contributor to Art Agenda.