Liquidating Reality, by Olivier Grasser
“How did one view the earth on the paths one walked along? […]
To he who wandered the roads and had the time and the freedom to travel,
the ground was beautiful and never so beautiful as at the moment it encompassed the cities and the countryside
and in which space opened outward.”
in: Julien Gracq, Carnet du grand chemin, José Corti, Paris 1992
What is landscape? The question immediately calls numerous and obvious pictures to mind. But is it a list of vegetal, natural or artificial configurations (field, plain or forest)? a stereotype that has just as much to do with geography as with exoticism, with the close at hand even (the Amazon jungle, Normandy’s woodlands…)? Or only the effects of our memory of the environment in which we live that each of us cling to: clichés of our personal colors and accents? Today, whether physical or mental, the landscape is a generic space. Landscape is a truism of reality, as it is a truism within art where it has developed into a specific genre. It was art that invented it, beginning with 16th century painting, and over time it became a cultural factor, a consequence of our questioning the visible and the limits of space. It is as if the earth first became landscape from the moment we began to see it as a painting. As if the earth became landscape from the very moment when it presented itself to our eyes as the space inscribed within the frame of a window or a picture. How then do we experience the landscape? Surely as an event both banal and rare, a hodgepodge or a ritual, according to one’s vantage point when looking at it. You can traverse the countryside blind or “en passant”, with eyes almost closed. Or the reverse, living through a profound inspiration of nature, a moment of innermost consciousness, of belonging to the world. Onto landscape, man has projected his most profound metaphysical and philosophical interrogations enframed within a picture. Having become a picture, the landscape is thus also an aesthetic object, enriched by a long line of artistic contributions by Patinir, Lorrain, Friedrich, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Smithson, Long… In L’oeil écoute, Paul Claudel wrote that landscape in Dutch painting is the dramatization of the point where the sky meets the earth at the horizon, which contributes to a “liquidation of reality”.
Didier Marcel is a sculptor and, since the end of the 1980s, his work has managed to uniquely balance on a thread spanned between nature and culture. As a successor to all the “paysage” artists, and perhaps in particular to Robert Smithson, he in his journey across the landscape makes an aesthetic proposition, a mental and three-dimensional experience that inquires into art as well as into its territories. Art defines itself via its distance to the real, and Didier Marcel’s work is entirely based on landscape’s affiliation with the field of art as well as with that of reality. Landscape, with the experience of (in)sight as a point in common that it shares with art, is a storage chest of available images, a collection of icons—a readymade? whose neutrality Didier Marcel appropriates in order to enquire once again into the process of displacement, of presentation and representation or yet reinterpretation, namely the process by which art occurs. Whether natural or architectural, landscape to him is the point of departure as well as the endpoint of an aesthetical, conceptual and sensitive stroll.
Exhibition rooms are spaces in which Didier Marcel loves to stage landscapes that are neither bucolic nor romantic, totally artificial and easy to identify. In Dornbirn he has designed an impressive installation completely in situ. The work entitled Red Harvest takes up a part of his vocabulary of forms as well as the questions that he enquired into in former works. On entering the exhibition hall, the visitor is confronted with an empty room that has been reduced to a third of its length by an imposing wall set at an angle, of a whiteness and neutrality that contrasts with the industrial brutality of the site. This wall occupies almost the complete width of the Kunstraum, but without touching it; it is architecture within architecture, alluding to the site while simultaneously maintaining its own autonomy. It is punctuated by a door. From the beginning Red Harvest announces itself as a delay-effect, that is, the work refuses immediate visual understanding in order to allow proper time for dissociation to set in. Passing through the door, visitors discover, far from them, an improbable garland of four enormous rocks hung from the ceiling. They have a chalky texture and color, in accord with the surrounding tones. Finally at the back wall, a monumental red tableau hangs at a tilt, presenting a relief at once bare and bristly, but from a distance seems denser and velvety.
Didier Marcel’s works always have the concrete elements of a landscape as their point of departure. Here he has fabricated casts on a one-to-one scale of a piece of land out of resin and of blocks of stone out of papier maché. The piece of ground is a harvested field of corn after the stems have been cut and the stumps not yet ground and plowed into the soil. Only the lower stalks remain, whose naked roots seem to plunge and violently grip the scant and stony soil. The title of the installation, Red Harvest, was taken from a novel by the American, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote it in 1929 and who is considered the founding father of the roman noir. A few months before the economic depression of 1929—already then—Dashiell Hammet described an America where runaway capitalism was heading for a breakdown, where money was king and corruption had eroded society. In the novel, the “red harvest” affects humanity; it is a scarlet coating of blood that covers the dirty gray city. The irregularities on the skin of the sculptural cast—its red color and the natural impossibility of rocks in levitation—lend Red Harvest a certain dramatic suspense—a sense of the “liquidation of reality”?
By means of transposition and displacement, Red Harvest functions at a double-barreled level. The work depicts a landscape, is three-dimensional and has simultaneously to do with the arts of architecture, painting and sculpture. Visitors, by moving around, are invited to experience a spatial and mental encounter, to approach the elements one by one so as to reassemble them, according to their vantage point, whether near or far, and by adapting their eyes. The background is formed by the perspectival effect of the vanishing point via the picture’s inclination from the wall. On their one-to-one scale, ground and rocks are actual signs of reality but, in tandem, struggle to construct a realistic and harmonious landscape. The landscape is in disorder; the stroll becomes an experience of estrangement. Red Harvest is quite definitely not a naturalist representation. Indeed, the materials and the colors were carefully chosen in anticipation of a subtle, sensually discerning viewer: raised above the ground, the massive volume of the rocks is perceived more like a sculpture; as to the ground’s imprint, it occupies the site of a picture where it can be seen as painting that is abstract and object-like. Didier Marcel reshuffles the landscape’s points of reference so as to inscribe in them the frontality that our way of seeing has chosen as preferred territory and which modernism has designated as the paradigmatic field of art. By revealing the flat planes and spaces, he indulges in a game of dialectic inversion between landscape signs and aesthetic signs. Red Harvest is, in the end, both a topographic space and an abstract composition, which in the words of Robert Smithson is made to sound familiar: “The old landscape of naturalism and realism is being replaced by the new landscape of abstraction and artifice. […] The landscape begins to look more like a three dimensional map than a rustic garden.” Indeed, Red Harvest borrows from maps the curious panoramic view that characterizes them. Just as a map is a schematic depiction of the earth’s surface, which is more a mental idea than a reflection of reality, this installation, via its sculptural and indexical language, stimulates us to look as well as to think.
By bridging the distance between institutional exhibition sites and the outdoor space that has no recognizable value, Robert Smithson, with the terms “nonplace” and “atopia”, established a new relationship of art to territory. Like him, Didier Marcel operates with visual cutouts; he “denaturalizes” and promotes an art that thoroughly announces its artificiality. But he nonetheless does not generate nonplaces. On the contrary, his landscapes stem from places he remembers, which he makes accessible to visitors by a particular experience. The cornfield and the rocks in Red Harvest go back to a familiar vicinity: the field is located in Burgundy; the rocks hinder itinerant traders from access to a close-by parking lot. In a memory that goes back even further, his works in general have recourse to the society of his childhood in the 1970s. At the time, French society still prided itself on a rich agricultural past, which was already fast disappearing. On the threshold to a globalized and post-capitalist world, it preserved and cherished the signs that became elements—or motifs, since we are speaking of landscapes—in Didier Marcel’s works. The terrain, the trees and the agricultural machines in his installations are picturesque ruins of his earlier landscapes. His use of casts is, incidentally, not without features common to the imprints and samples that archeologists make of the ground. We could think of his work as quasi landscape archeology. A ruin is an object of fascination, because it makes precariousness very clear while being perpetuated in memory. It brings very strong conceptual oppositions into play: between the visible and the invisible, decomposition and re-composition, reality and fiction. Ruins are often nonplaces or outer-places, which in a paradoxical way call our relationship to the site into question. They are the object of cultural nostalgia and of an aesthetic utopia to which Didier Marcel’s work, and especially the Red Harvest installation, quietly bear witness.
For if the ruin is a nonplace, it is also a site of the possible. Didier Marcel links the aesthetics of a preserved ruin with the aesthetics of a model, which has much to do with a preliminary draft. Models indeed often recur in his work. They have accompanied him through his whole career— emerging at the end of the 1980s and, in the form of small and ridiculous miniature models, inaugurating his artistic maturity—and have remained present up to today. In more general terms, they are commentary on modernism. But in contrast to the architect who plans a future building via his model, Didier Marcel derives his models of hangars and industrial spaces from reality. They are fabricated according to existing buildings that are part of the artist’s personal landscape. The exhibitions on display thus grow into installations in which the models—in an abstract association with images, objects and various kinds of elements—are the articulation keynotes in a game of scale and representation. Between model and imprint, Didier Marcel’s work constitutes a double state of affairs: projected plan and remembered object. In the present act of perception, it meets something from the past and something of the future that intersect here. By taking up an already existing vocabulary of forms, Red Harvest is both an installation and an exposition. The elements, between which the visitors move, exist within a tense relationship of scale that highlights their artificiality and sets the work in its totality in rapport with a model on a realistic scale… the representation of leftover relics from a ruin.
Red Harvest is an ambitious work by the fact of its monumentality and its formal vocabulary that is both elegant and radical. In its powerful appropriation of the room, it seems to be an incarnation of this complex factor in Didier Marcel’s work, where paradoxical, semantic and temporal fields are articulated. However, despite providing a reassuring sentiment of déja-vu, it emerges from its abstract environs with the allure of a fairly earnest agricultural landscape bringing with it a disturbing whiff of irreality. As if the relation to the world that art and landscape can together engage in were to be seriously called into question. As if, in this slowed-down present, the experiences of landscape and of art ceased to question themselves, perhaps each having already turned into staged theater for the other, ending up in a state of ornamentation and decoration. In this moment of the suspension and the interrogation of today’s world, Red Harvest provides food for the thought that it may not be so much the landscape that is the true subject of the work but landscape’s capacity to envisage art as a project? And the space to which the visitor is invited to enter evokes what Merleau-Ponty wrote on the subject of depth: “There is a primordial depth that exists in all relations to distance and that directly reveals the bond between the subject and space. The depth of space is an existential dimension; it is the possibility of a Being who is engaged in the terrestrial world. Depth expresses the fact that I am in the middle of space, that I live inside it, that I am encompassed by its volume. It is necessary to think of this space, that is, its voluminousness and depth, from one’s engagement with it, which envelopes me and that is summed up in the word horizon.” Could it not be that Didier Marcel’s work Red Harvest has become a horizon that liquidates the reality of the landscape but onto which the visitor seeks to direct his eyes, as does the wanderer peering above the fog in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer über den Nebelmeer?
Smithson, Robert, The Collected Writings ed. by Jack Flam, U. of California Press, 1996, p 116. in Discussion entre Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim et Robert Smithson, in Land Art, Gilles Thiberghien, Paris, Editions Carré, 1993.
Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l’invisible, Gallimard, Paris. Translated by JH.