Philippe Dubois : MICHEL COUTURIER
THE COUTURIER OF PARADOXES , Catalogue XLII Biennale of Venice, Belgian Pavillion.
Je parle des gens habitués à trouver de la pensée dans les marbres. . . (Honoré de Balzac, Théorie de la démarche )
Pick up any stone. Put it somewhere else. Look at it. It’s the most insignificant thing in the world. A pebble you can find on any dirt road or buried in any pocket. You can barely see it. It’s an object that’s banal, shapeless, multiple, without any particular value or history, indifferent and stubborn, opaque and stupid. It is (almost) nothing. Is it worth photographing? Or even observing?
And yet, this stone, this fragment of the universe is unique. To none other similar. Even better (or worse): it is, at the same time, itself, in its irreducible singularity and an infinity of other things. You can see the world in it. It is (almost) everything, just by itself. Such is the first paradox of the pebble: all and nothing.
Here’s another paradox: to look scrutinize, to stare at, to hang eye to this stone. It is linked experimentation of vertigo that Francis Ponge describes so well:
‘What is a man to do, who reaches the brink of the precipice, and who’s afraid of height? Instinctively, he is staring at the nearest object – you’ve done it, you’ve seen it done. It’s simple, it’s the simplest thing. One looks for the next step, or the next pillar, or the railing, Or any fixed object, so not to see the rest ( . . . ). One looks very carefully at the pebble, in order not to see the rest. Now, it might happen that the pebble itself opens up, and becomes another abyss. I (‘ Tentative orale’, in ‘ Methodes’ )
A fundamental experiment: to stare intensely at a stone; it is to resist the vertigo of the precipice, which is all that the stone isn’t; it is to resist the call of the exterior abyss, the aspiration of the dark hole , and at the same time, it is to slip and slide, to dive into another abyss, which isn’t the same but rather the negative of the original precipice: an interior precipice, open, through the focalisation and the intensity of the eye, at the heart itself of the point you thought you could hang on to; it is to lose yourself in this void, in the white hole of this excess that the pebble itself is. Here is the second paradox of the pebble: it allows you to resist the exterior vertigo in order to better immerse you in the inside precipice .
When you observe closer still – third paradox – you end up finding yourself further still . The more you scrutinize, the closer you get, the deeper you penetrate this pebble, the more you seem to withdraw from it, as if you were floating in a plane, miles a way. (It is well known that aerial photography – with its suspended point of view, its floating space, its textural effects through which hollows and projections are confounded – has always been a great source of inspiration for Abstraction, and this from Malevich’ s early suprematist works on, for example.). Here is anyway one of the most obviously paradoxical effects of these photos of stones: they are indeed small marble fragments, captured in close-ups and extremely magnified. (The viewer can only immerge himself in the minute grain of this stone). And at the same time, the feeling is there, very strong: we are looking at the aerial photographs , at geological landscapes very far away: mountain ranges, arid plains, deltas and rivers, valleys, forests, creviced limestone flats, craters, stars, stardust, etc.
Those images of small stone fragments I are also photographs of the world, of I Earth itself, of planets that appeal to an aerial eye. These are networks of signs that a geographer could understand. These are unintentional cartographies in which the infinitesimal small and the infinitesimal great meet and merge into each other, in a sidereal way.
In this confusion of the nearest and the farthest, in these back and forth movements between two infinities, in those effects of metamorphosis, of voids, of return into oneself, there is something that can be compared to the improbable shiftings dreamt up by Michel Butor:
‘The cerebral grotto:
When promenading on a mountain, choose a large rock whose parts you will identify to those of your own body. (Here, knowledge of the anatomy will come in handy; the future transparency depends on the precision of this operation.). Than take a knife to etch the location of the mouth, separate the lips of stone insert the blade between the teeth, while grinding the ones you keep in your old head. Retract your head, lower it between your shoulders, slide along the inside of your arm, go through the skin of the palm, disappear into the blade, follow its edge. As soon as the blade penetrates the cavern, it will light up to applaude it. The rest of the old body follows like a sock you’re turning inside out. Finally at ease in one’s own head, manipulating the crystals that each command an identified area; animating these, verifying, correcting their location; through slight vibrations, going from the projection to the bas-relief , making it rise like dough in the oven; then detach yourself , haut-relief , leaving a new skin of stone, that you can’t tell from the old one. Hit the trail again.’
Such paradoxes, such dreams, such vital experiments are the foundation of the works of authors such as Michel Butor, Francis Ponge, Henri Michaux and Roger Caillois and so many others. It seems to me they are also to be found in the great stone alignments photographed by Michel, the Couturier of paradoxes .
What are they about? Metamorphosis, probably. Let’s follow their outline, let’s see the current work unfold. At the beginning (any beginning is a fable): stones. Pieces of Italian marble mostly. Found, bought, chosen. Nothing else. It doesn’t matter.
Then enters Photography. First scene: like bodies, the stones are set against dark backdrops for the ritual act. Dead bodies lying on tombstones. Captured. Photographed in 6/9, in black and white, with artificial lighting. Already you have to fiddle with the format, the dimensions, the distance, the focus and the grain. Already, you have to modulate, to model, to sculpt with light.
Then the processing. And mostly the printing. That’s primordial. Second scene, at different levels. A matter of medium, of format, of cropping. This is where paradoxical effects are generated.
The photographs are indeed always printed on photosensitive paper. (After a few tests, Michel Couturier gave up trying to print on canvas). Paper has particular qualities: it is smooth and matte, flat, a perfect surface, and at the same time, because it is not stretched or pasted on wood, it allows a certain relief, it can be ‘cast’ when dried. The edges curve in shrivels; tend to coil up like waves on the beach. The effects of materials and textures, between the photographed object and the paper, interact here: chiasms of the grains, smooth and rough, flat and dented, heavy and light, the slab and the fragment, etc. They merge and clash incessantly. I n a word, one could say we have here paradoxical paper stones.
Moreover, these photos have been printed by projecting the negative onto the wall, and not on a traditional horizontal table. This implies that the print is already in the same vertical position that it will occupy on the gallery wall, when it is finally exhibited.
The lying stone that it was when photographed will transform itself, erect itself in a standing position, as soon as it is revealed in the development process. And the observer’s position vis-à-vis the photo (the point of view) will be conditioned from the beginning. As soon as the image is elaborated, the observer can come close, stand back, try out different viewpoints, etc.). Once the printing is done, the only thing left to do will be to organize definitively the standing stones in the gallery. This becomes a matter of installation , the third and last scene for those monolithic alignments, as in Carnac.
Matters are subtler still: the format of the prints is of importance: 105/170 centimetres, vertical. They are of human proportions, and the fragments of stone really seem to be quite sizeable : magnified and extremely jagged, to the point that they release a quasi-abstract impression of objects that are of the uppermost materiality.
This is the – primordial – role of cropping . Almost all of Michel Couturier’s photos have been reframed in the studio. The principle that rules this operation is simple: it is to cut brutally in the shape (to photograph is to sculpt) in order to keep but one edge of the stone. This edge always divides horizontally the space of the picture into two large surfaces, in apposition (to photograph is to paint): on top, the black (the hole, the void, the precipice, the night, the sky, the ocean: Elsewhere, Absent) and on the bottom the white (the stone, the fullness, the ground, the day, the earth: the Here and Now).
In-between: a single jagged line, the improbable profile, the interval, the slice, the brink of the precipice: the horizon . Actually all that these photos are aware of is this horizon, a lone and strong demarcation line opposing, in variable outlines and proportions, two territories, two solid masses, firm and isolated, two flat surfaces.
This way of cropping the photos has multiple consequences, the first one being the overall abstractization of figuration: the point is here to remove any identifying marks from the pebble, particularly its outline, its shape, its general configuration. It is to keep only a fragment of the edge, in a way that makes it impossible for the observer to recognize, to grasp formally, by delimiting It, the object that has been presented t his examination.
He only gets s to see a little piece. What is outside of the frame remains infinite. It is an absolute (this is essential, all the effects derive from this). From that situation, the observer finds himself completely overwhelmed, lost in advance, robbed of himself . Cropping the photos allows at the same time the loss of identity of the object and the impossibility of recognition of the subject.
Therefore the plasticity of this work: deprived of a visible limit, the photographed object remains only a white mass, a texture. A material, a formal structure, opposed to the black surface and texture, hollow and full, white and black, light and shadow, earth and sky, stone and night.
Of this titanic and ‘abstract’ fight, Michel Couturier reveals only a few views , glimpsed through the windows of these large vertical formats, that echo each other all along the gallery walls, that are aligned in infinite rows of repercussions and similitudes. We are but stupefied and stupid spectators, inquiring and fascinated.
From the room where we stand, thus transformed in a bomb shelter or in the cabin of an airplane, we can only glimpse at the world through the rectangular portholes of the photos; the outside landscape (close-ups of stones or cartographic territories) is perceived as a Whole .
Indeed, Michel Couturier’s prints are organized on the wall in such a way that, from one to the next, possible relations appear, impressions of continuity (planned, though unwanted at first) tend to emerge here and there: those alignments generate links between pictures (to show series of photographs is to make movies); this horizon line here is prolonged from one frame to the next, and so is this crevice, this configuration of spots, prolonged through the gallery. Michel is a couturier even in the arranging of his images.
In doing so, Michel Couturier is taking up against installation as an art form, that he had explored previously in 1980-81, from a ‘structural’ point of view, similar to that of Michael Snow or Dan Graham. For instance, one remembers the ‘storefront pictures’ he had shown at the Erg Gallery or at the Post-Scriptum bookstore in Brussels. One also remembers Couturier’s ‘spiral series’ exhibited at the Liege Architectural Museum: all those series were “abysmal” staged installations, in which the photographic series is conceived and organized while keeping in mind the topography of the exhibition space and a continuity in the almost cinematographical editing of the pictures.
About our friend Couturier’s artistic ‘past’: it probably is not without interest to remind the viewer that the stones series comes historically after several other series, all of which pertaining to the same spirit and technique (the same large vertical formats, the same medium: photo-sensitive paper, etc.), but dealing with objects of an almost opposite order: ‘rumpled sheets’ first, in 1983 , ‘shiny curtains’ in 1984, and finally ‘drifting feathers’ in 1985. Nothing there that is rough, nor heavy or staid like marble. The Couturier began thus to work with fabric . His work was about folds and undulations, about the flexible and the light, the fluid and the loose, the unstable and the moving. But it was also, as in the stones series, about white (sheets, feathers) and black (a series of black curtains, titled ‘serie noire’, and also some other feathers, negatives of the first ones). His work was about texture and material (veil and canvas, down and quills, cloth and weaving, the grain of the fabric and the grain of the paper). His work was about the plasticity and abstraction of these’ objects’ (interacting lights, chiaroscuro, gradation, draped composition, etc.). His work was about horizontality (the undone sheets of the bed, shot from above, as an aerial photograph would show a deserted battlefield or the sand dunes of a desert) and verticality (the floating curtains, suspended from their rods like oversized prints hanging from the gallery walls. The idea of ‘suspension’ is important here: it’s the image of drying laundry, like photographic paper in the lab, hung with clothes pins, also the suspension of drifting feathers, in mid air, etc.). The series were also a bout the metaphors of the window and the screen (the photographic window, the shutter, the white cloth backdrop, etc.). And finally, Couturier’s work is about cutting and framing .
(The Couturier’s cuttings describe a tangible evolution: the rumpled sheets fill the frame, they obstruct, they invade, they white out the whole field of vision; the black curtains, if massive, most of the time are ajar. They reveal in the corner of the frame a little slice of light, a little piece of the window; with the stones series, as we’ve seen before, black and white battle in a fair struggle of both masses). As to the feathers, their role is to be there for what they represent: a signature (this was the theme of the group show at the Gallery L’A in Liege, for which this series was created). The feather is the Couturier’s needle -which pieces together all the elements of the puzzle. To conclude, one single sentence:
Signed with a feather, his name: Couturier on the fabric of the sheets and on the stones of the desert. Curtain.
Philippe Dubois Liege, May 1986
(Translation: Marco Badot)