sébastien gouju    

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textes critiques

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Reaching for the Moon, an introduction

In the introduction to his study Art and Illusion, the historian E.H. Gombrich suggests that readers
try out an odd experiment – they are asked to get up on the spot and go and look at themselves
in a mirror! In doing so, they can observe that their faces appear ”as if they were on the other side”
and that “dimensions therefore seem larger than those of the reflection”. Optical illusions.
Traps for our visual perception. And also, by extension, a distancing of our certainties. Seeing
in new ways with every passing second: Sébastien Gouju is an observer. He takes note of the little
arrangements we have made with this “reality” that we can hardly see. He brings us face to face
with appearances that too often seem to have the weight of evidence behind them. He takes us off
in discovery of another way of seeing things. And in this quest for a kind of expanded consciousness
where every detail requires our full attention, drawing, sculpture and casting are the artist’s
preferred means of exploration.

A story of correlation and collection

It is by no means easy to explain what it is that holds our attention, why we are drawn to one image
rather than to another. Gouju takes visuals from newspapers, magazines, posters and handbills,
adds them to his collection of images, and then assembles them. In itself, there is nothing original
in this approach. From Dada to Pop art, from Max Ernst to Kurt Schwitters, and from Hamilton to Erró,
collage has been used to upset visual habits, to introduce simultaneity in perception, and to insert
words or slogans into images. But Gouju does not show this preliminary stage in his work.
He uses assemblages as a starting point for creation of works on paper that combine ink, gouache
and pencil. It would seem that he is very familiar with the photomontages of Alexandre Rodtchenko,
Pietr Zwart and, above all, László Moholy-Nagy, as his works are characterised by their constructivist
structure. Empty space plays a fundamental role: little figurative vignettes appear like pin-ups
on a vast white background. Isolated characters carry out an action – fire a rifle, do sport or make
music … And near them, inventions from the history of science and technology (aircraft, tanks,
Le Corbusier’s prefabricated domino system, satellites, and so on) become almost invasive.
There are numerous references to the cinema, with something of a preference for fantasy, science
fiction and comicbook heroes. One after the other, we recognise Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon,
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and George Lucas’ Star Wars… The play of references even encompasses
art history. The artist gives his reinterpretation of Francis Picabia’s “machinist” works. The portrait
of the poet De Zayas, whom Picabia depicted in the form of a mechanical lighting system,
is now complemented by gas pipes associated with a meter. Le Double Monde (“Dual World”),
which originally basically consisted of regulating lines in and around which half a dozen seemingly
unrelated captions are scattered, is embellished with a variety of figurative elements, including
palm trees, a pretzel, a satellite, and two or three lunatics in bizarre erotic poses. Beyond the formal
chromatic interplay, one cannot help but be intrigued by the visual correlations.

Observation and disordering of the senses

This is not simply a rebus for cultivated minds. Gouju works by analogies, leaving free rein to
associations of ideas, deconstructing logic and snubbing his nose at Cartesian reasoning. Making use
of small objects that seem to have no significance in themselves, he brings about a kind of disordering
of all five senses. A world almost as disturbing as Lewis Carroll’s takes shape before our eyes.
Childhood is not far off, but it is light years away from what we are today. Are we so sure that the reflection
that we scrutinise in the mirror is in the image of the child we once were? The reflection in the mirror
is as deceptive as our memory. It is just as imperfect as our perception of the five pairs of little girls’
legs that Gouju lines up on the floor alongside one another. One reads, “Plaster and polyester,
46 x 8 x 150 cm” and one tells oneself that this is really frightful – they look like real legs cut off
at the knee. Each one seems identical; the repetition seems mechanical: five pairs of white tights
and ten black sandals. Alice is not really in Wonderland. At first glance, everything is calm, clean
and restrained: these are not Paul Thek’s anatomical wax models with every vein and blood vessel
depicted in loving detail, nor are they the Chapman brothers’ “gore fest” anatomical montages.
More subtly, Gouju uses different models to create different moulds. In fact, not one of the legs
is identical.
In 2009, the artist used the lost wax casting technique to create a work with the emblematic title
Au Nom du Père
(“In the Name of the Father”). Once again, it is designed to be read in two stages.
First of all, one tells oneself that the content has a recognisable context, is familiar – two white
five-branch candlesticks each holding five candles. Looking more closely, however, one sees that
there are purses hanging from the branches of the paraffin-wax covered candlesticks... A strange
way to carry the family jewels! The object, whose usual function is to hold candles, is put to a far
more metaphorical use. At the same time, Gouju has simply observed the shapes brought into being
naturally when the wax melted to create its own masses of matter… Polysemic and humoristic,
the title is typical of the analogies, condensations and displacements that lie at the origin of
so many of his works. Once again, logical paradoxes lurk beneath bland appearances.
In this falsely ingenuous world, unseemliness is always on the lookout, ready to make a sudden
appearance between the lines or in empty spaces: those are real flies suspended in a decorative
mobile that might be hung in a child’s bedroom; those toy balloons are made of blown glass,
bursting them is not recommended; an aeroplane fashioned from bent metal leaf is stuck into the wall.
Sharp-edged. Disturbing. Even those cuddly mice so beloved by children are not soft toys at all
but heavy pebbles equipped with charming pink plastic tails. The rat-tailed pebbles in Saint Bernard
are made to “stand in the corner”, one on top of the other. These are restrained works. Nonetheless,
if you look closely, they bring to mind the objects of terror created by Victor Brauner or Meret
Oppenheim, who abolished the frontier between man and animal, the civilised and the savage.
At the time, Salvador Dali’s “objects of symbolic function” and critical paranoia concept left a great
impression on the young Jacques Lacan, who later went on to formulate the idea that
the unconscious is structured like a language.

From the infinitesimal to the infinitely large

Gouju frequently obliges the spectator to change position and, consequently, point of view:
it is impossible to see the little Soldats ( “Soldiers” – 2006) hiding away beneath lead ivy leaves
without bending double and looking at them from an angle. The question of where the spectator
positions himself has often been debated by art historians. For E.H Gombrich, who posed
the problem of perspective, and for Michæl Fried, who questioned the modern works of Courbet
and Manet, the objective was to analyse ambiguities in the perception of Western painting.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, installation practices have somewhat shifted the terms
of the problem. Strangely enough, sculptors often adopt a point of view from ground level,
without pedestal or embellishment, obliging us to see things from down below as if we were children,
or insects rather. From there, it is only a single step (that Gouju does not take!) to imagining
the spectator transformed into Gregor Samsa crawling up the walls as he does in Kafka’s novel.
Moreover, the artist insists that he has no political or religious message to convey. Nonetheless,
a sarcastic work such as In God We Trust (2009) gives us an idea of his intentions: unburdened
of his crucifix, a brass Christ stands at the end of a promontory. The figure is leaning forward
and seems to be on the point of diving into the void. The spectator regards the little sculpture
that looks down on him from above, threatening to throw itself down on top of him...
The message is clear and simple. It would have delighted the Dadaists, who were ardent admirers
of Nietzsche’s writings…
With a title that crystallises several concepts, Décrocher la Lune (“Reaching for the Moon” - 2010)
is a rather more complex work. Made up of an ensemble of nails hammered into a painted wall,
the installation forces the spectator to move around if he is to judge its effect. What is more,
it requires a mnemonic effort (to make a mental comparison with satellite photographs of the moon)
alongside an effort of abstraction in order to see beyond the materiality of things (the nails in the wall).
Ambiguities. Dual senses imparted by the titles of his works. Décrocher la Lune, doing the impossible –
what artists would wish to do less? But Sébastien Gouju does his all to avoid falling into the trap
of storytelling. He has no wish to create a poetic or symbolic narrative in spite of himself –
still less a symptomatic story in illustration of the notion that the unconscious is structured
like a language. In his eyes, the fragility of materials, the possible alternative uses to which
they may be put, their restraint and their ephemeral nature are far more important facts.
With Gouju, everything is played out on the border between the natural and the artificial:
Le Château de Sable
(“The Sandcastle”) is indeed a pile of sand, but it is made up of little quadrilaterals
that imitate children’s building games. Les Papillons (“The Butterflies”) are not animals, but rather
little pieces of colouring crayons that have been shaped and pinned into collectors’ boxes.
La Grande Ourse
(“The Great Bear”) is a false constellation made up of electric portlights set up
on high on the arm of a construction site crane. All is metamorphosis and illusion.

At the end of this introduction, a hypothesis begins to take shape: what if Le Château de Sable were
a kind of paradigm that held true for the artist’s entire oeuvre? The piled-up sand, a material normally
utilised in foundry work, is put to another use. It is ephemeral. It disintegrates at the slightest touch.
Once again, one of our childhood practices (making sand pies) has been gently worked over by the artist.
And once again, condensations, displacements, and plays on words and points of view: the pile of
sand is set on the floor and has nothing whatsoever in common with a castle. Reality crumbles.
Perception becomes alogical. These games of (de)construction are not really for children at all.
Is it just by chance that they make us think of those unobtrusive yet strange “deviant” objects
encountered in fantasy films?

Carole Boulbès
Art critic and professor of art history at Nancy's National Art School