A specially commissioned critical essay by senior curator Zoë Gray for " I Felt That I Coudn't Cope Any More with the Overgrowing Demands of Trades" Emmanuelle Lainé's show at Saint-Martin Bookshop, (2021)
To mark its creation and signal its commitment to contemporary art, the Saint-Martin Bookshop commissioned the artist Emmanuelle Lainé to create a new installation for its opening season. In this work, which occupies half the shop’s ground floor, Lainé draws upon its history as the first Martin Margiela boutique to open in Europe (in 2002), while also referring to its recent transformation into a bookshop specialising in rare catalogues, books which are the afterlife of exhibitions.
Lainé is the ideal artist to inhabit this loaded space at the time of its transformation. And, conversely, such a rich site of material is the perfect mine for Lainé’s extractions. Her layered work – which combines sculpture, photography and installation – challenges our perception of space to create a productive confusion between what is real and unreal, what remains and what is merely a trace of a former presence. Here, she evokes the creative ghost of this particular space: the enigmatic Belgian designer who deconstructed clothes to create a new vocabulary that mixed the recognisable with the unexpected, and who always evaded the spotlight, before disappearing entirely from fashion in 2018.
In her choice of subjects (and objects) for this installation, Lainé reflects upon the way in which capitalism consumes the creative effervescence of the underground. Maison Margiela provides the perfect case study: the founding designer whose artistic control of his own company was wrested away by the brutal, commercial logic of the fashion industry, to the point that his house no longer features his first name (restored and sanctified by the name of the bookshop itself). The installation’s title, "I felt that I could not cope any more with the overgrowing demands of trade" (2020), is a quote from Martin Margiela, which Lainé chose for its combination of desperation and comic effect. “I like this short phrase,” she says, “which mixes two very different registers: the intimate confession at the start, while the second part is a cold critique of capitalism.”
Mixed with elements created by Lainé, and objects from her own idiosyncratic archive, the new work features leftovers from the shop’s former life. Many of the latter are painted white or wrapped in white cotton, Margiela’s signature way of neutralising jarring visual elements: for example, the DVD player in the background with its soft white casing, the shrouded chairs, or the hangers laying abandoned on the floor like the bones of a collapsed skeleton. The trompe l’oeil wallpaper that remains from the shop’s Margiela days superimposes a Rococo interior complete with chandeliers and plaster mouldings (a gallery from Versailles, perhaps?) onto the modest interior. The black-on-white motif is created through a series of ones and zeros, taken from character encoding used in electronic communication and designed for early teleprinters. It thus suggests simultaneously the high tech and the highly dated, and connects to the designer’s habit of only communicating via fax machine. In Lainé’s installation, there is a further optical illusion: in the top right corner of the image, it looks as if the photographic paper has been badly stuck onto the metal structure, but in fact the photograph is printed directly onto the metal and the wrinkles are to be found in the actual wallpaper of the shop.
Such playful details, however, are discovered only upon closer inspection. What dominates Lainé’s photographic composition are the figures of a young woman and a large white dog. The former looks out directly at us, while the dog looks at the carved, wooden face held in her hand. The young woman is dressed in the intentionally neutral uniform of the service industry, the kind of outfit you might see on a receptionist or check-out girl. However, Lainé gives hints of how this character refuses to fit into the limitations of the standardized appearance required by either the fashion or the service industry, suggesting that this is a mere disguise: her legs are unshaven, her hair is pulled back into a simple ponytail and she wears no make-up. Most striking, however, is her facial expression: her stare is riveting, an intense gaze that meets our own in a dynamic of equality, far from the expressions of allure or submission usually adopted by fashion models. In this, she could be a Margiela model: he was one of the first designers to do street casting, choosing women to walk in his fashion shows who did not fit the beauty stereotypes of the day and asking them to engage directly with the public, as a way of underlining that he was creating clothes for free-thinking women.
For Lainé, the woman in her photograph symbolises the position of the artist, standing in for Lainé herself. She thus attempts to update and feminise a figure typical of the 1980s and ‘90s, when artists – and fashion designers – were playing with the codes of capitalism in an attempt to subvert them. In addition to thinking about Margiela, Lainé was triggered to consider this (recent) history in relation to photography, invisibility and fashion by a quirky piece written by General Idea in 1973, published in FILE magazine the following year. Titled “Are you truly invisible?” it begins: “Cross all borders. Sneak past the fashion guards and steal away the Glamour Myth! Counterfeit! Interphase! Camouflage! Throw away old disguises and give your overworked lighting man a holiday, ’cause the spotlight is not on you – it’s through you. You have broken the visibility barrier, way past Ultraviolet; all the images in the Image Bank lay scattered at your no mean feet.” Looking at the images scattered within this image – and installation – it looks as if Lainé has taken General Idea at their word.
Shifting registers again, the wooden form that the young woman holds in her hands is a craft object, originally used in the production of cheese and now in the collection of the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (Mucem), in Lainé’s adopted home town, Marseille. This artefact has never been to Brussels, in fact, it has not left the museum since entering its collection, but can become part of Lainé’s image through a process of digital manipulation. In addition to being attracted by its anthropomorphic quality, its connection to the human body and to bodily movement in its past use, Lainé is interested in this tool for the way it reveals how collections always create their own narratives. “By incorporating it in my work, I act like a museum,” she claims, “constructing my own narrative about its role, history and relevance.”
Lainé has been developing her signature trompe l’oeil installations for several years. Here, however, she slightly twists the space in what is a photographic reconfiguration rather than representation. This project takes her practice in a new direction in its final mise-en-scène. Rather than pasting photographic prints onto the wall (or onto temporary exhibition architecture), the image is printed directly onto aluminium sheets, which are integrated into two sculptures resembling a desk and an open-backed locker. When you look at the work from one particular point in front of the installation, both elements of “furniture” disappear, melting into the image. As you move, the image fractures and the materiality of the installation is revealed. If you stand between the two objects, their physical qualities dominate and the image recedes into secondary importance. It triggers something akin to the feeling of navigating through an image produced by 3D digital scan, always shifting and reconfiguring as the viewpoint turns. “I was curious to see in our increasingly digital world whether an image could still have a back,” says Lainé.
The back of the open locker functions like a backstage to the image, perhaps even the dressing room for the woman it depicts. Several items are placed on a metal bench: a pair of earrings, a clutch bag, a bracelet inside a lunch tin, a hairbrush and a bottle of water, suggesting that she has left them behind. Which is her “real” outfit and which is the uniform? Suspended from one of the white Margiela hangers is a dress from his Spring-Summer 1996 collection, for which he created trompe l’oeil pieces, printing – for example – the image of a sequinned evening gown onto a simple dress of viscose jersey. It is held in place by a chain and padlock, just as workers’ clothes can be secured in the locker rooms of a mine or a factory: an unceremonious, functional form of display.
Both sculptural elements cultivate a falsely functional feel; the desk even features an on-off switch, as if it could be activated. “I hope its design suggests possible articulation, the potential for movement. I want these sculptural elements to feel as if they are something between a machine and a piece of furniture,” explains Lainé. The surface of this desk – perhaps to be used for homeworking, the new model of flexible, corona-proof capitalism – features the photographic image stretched to the point of total abstraction when seen from above. However, when seen from the aforementioned ideal vantage point, the anamorphic image becomes readable once more, connecting the various fragments of the photograph. The obligatory art historical reference for such anamorphic images is Hans Holbein’s painting “The Ambassadors” (1533), in which he paints a skull that cuts diagonally across the otherwise frontal picture plane, in contrast to the realistically depicted ambassadors of the title and their various instruments of culture and influence. Here, Lainé – true to our post-internet era – works against the optical illusion she has created by placing various real objects on the desk’s printed surface. These include a computer mouse, to be used for working or gaming, resting on an ergonomically designed mouse pad, complete with lava pattern; an I-heart-my-job mug (which, like mouse pads, has featured in several recent installations); a framed photograph of the street sign for La Rue du Flandre/Vlaamsestwg, on which the Saint-Martin Bookshop is located; and a printed invitation to an event held there when it was still a Margiela shop.
The piece formally references Charles Ray’s 1985 sculpture “How a table works” with its absurdly complicated structure that holds in place a collection of banal objects such as a thermos flask, a metal lunchbox and a terracotta pot with an artificial plant. Lainé’s objects create a push-me-pull-you effect, drawing us in through their familiar appearance – the trinkets with which so many of us personalise our desks and humanise our work spaces – while also pushing us away from the photographic image with their enigmatic quality and melancholic detachment. The only object in this part of Lainé’s installation that has a nostalgic quality is the pair of high-heeled shoes, painted white by Margiela, that she discovered in an abandoned corner of the shop. They are tucked just under the desk as if the main character has taken them off while working (something which even the most dedicated followers of fashion have been known to do while homeworking).
With the sculptures’ formal references to the industrial and domestic work spheres, the artist explores the transition of economies, creating an artwork which can be installed in the site it depicts, while also being able to travel beyond it to have a life elsewhere (also a question of economy and industry). Until recently, Lainé was making site-specific installations that could not function anywhere but the space for which they were designed, an intensive artistic practice that is not sustainable in terms of time or resources. This is the first occasion that she has created sculptures as the support for the photographic elements within the installation, which allows her to dismantle the work and reconfigure it elsewhere. This development allows her to work faster and to escape the confines of the art venue, as she is no longer obliged to wait for an invitation to occupy a space for the duration of the set-up, photoshoot, installation and exhibition. This enables her to work in another way, to free her from her own earlier self-imposed system, without – we hope – obliging Lainé to vanish from the art scene entirely.
 In regards to Lainé’s archive of images and forms, followers of her work might recognize the red net that appears in several installations, or the photographic image taken from a microscopic view of motor neurones which has reoccurred several times over the past decade: clues to of underlying fascinations and symbols of her ability to net her viewers and worm her way into the very fibres our minds.
 In the documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, he describes how fashion interiors in the early 2000s were dominated by grey concrete and black designer furniture. So, he decided to paint everything in his shop white, or if it couldn’t be painted, to wrap it in white fabric.
 ASCII: American Standard Code for Information Interchange.
 In fact, Lainé’s model is Hagar Tenenbaum, an Israeli-born, Brussels-based dancer and choreographer.
 General Idea, “Are you truly visible?” in FILE, Volume 6, nos. 1 & 2, p. 70
Zoë Gray is senior curator at WIELS, Brussels. She contributed to Lainé’s online monography “Contagious Spaces” and curated her work in “Six Possibilities for a Sculpture”, La Loge, Brussels (2013) and in “Manufacture” at Centre d’Art Pasquart, Biel/Bienne; John Hansard Gallery, Southampton; and Parc Saint Leger, Pougues-les-Eaux (2011-2012).