Valerie von Sobel, 80, draped in Haute Couture and mystery. Locked up in California mountains during a global pandemic, a prodigal son tries to portray his spiritual mother.
As a child, Guillaume THOMAS wanted to be a magician. They told him "magic does not exist," so he armed himself with a still and move camera to prove the vitality of fairies. His research took him on the trail of those entities which he describes as "characters," those freedom-loving beings that express themselves in their multiplicity, their infinite self-recomposition. Trained in photography and video at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts décoratifs in Paris, as well as at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Thomas made his first film, Life Damages the Living, at Le Fresnoy - Studio national in 2021. With the visual and sound installation Ad Astra, he turns to the stars: how to go from fingerprint to starprint?
His second documentary Pinned into a dress, codirected with Gianluca Matarrese, opens the 37th Venice International Film Critics' Week 2022.
2014 – 2020
École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, France. Section Photo-Vidéo. Dernière année (master).
School of Visual Arts,
Échange d’un semestre en photographie, New-York, USA.
Production : Le Fresnoy, Studio national des arts contemporains
My first surprise is to see that most of the works in Panorama 23 do not present political discourses, at a time when ideological rhetoric is making a powerful comeback.
After this first surprise, I am also happy to ob-serve that this does not denote a lack of interest in society and the tragedies of our planet—immigration, dictatorship, ecological disasters, massacres, macho violence, to mention but the most recurrent—but that the artists here have chosen responses that are specifically artistic.
If my first reaction is surprise, the second is happiness at seeing that these artists are not de-serting their territory, their own language. They speak out, analyse and invent by recalling that their mode of expression, their method, engender other attitudes, other compositions, other formulations of meaning.
Seeing this, I thought back to the radicalism sented, at the Fondation Maeght, a life’s work on the archetypal form of the mastaba, based on the use of industrial forms such as tin cans, jerricans and barrels. Seeing these barrels, many commentators proffered considerations about oil, the economy and ecology in relation to this fossil fuel. If Christo naturally left journalists free to make their interpre-tations, he did point out that it was not the subject of his work and that having had the cruel experience of the destructive power of ideology in Bulgaria, he had no wish to discuss this issue in his work. Without wishing to offend anyone, if his questioner insisted on the theme, he broke off the exchange, asking them to understand his wariness of that way of thinking which, in his view, suffocated the singular space of art and its signifying process.
I believe, indeed, that an artist has no interest in letting himself be taken over, colonised by these reductive approaches. If there is a “general ethics” there is also an ethics of art which determines its own field.
I can remember a journalist asking him at the time, “But who are you militating for?” Christo an-swered with a smile: “As always, I am militating for art, quite simply.” He meant that with the forms he invented, that he chose, he was constructing an “art effect,” that is to say, an “encounter” with an artistic event. He added, somewhat provocatively: “I create artworks that are completely irrational, irresponsible, without justification.” It was up to each person to enter into a very free, very singular form of contact with this universe in order to understand it differ-ently. Whether it is nature, the city, social or personal ambits, this encounter occurs via art, which uses its own geographies and its own paths. This feeling is what I am experiencing now when I see or respond to the works in Panorama, which clearly state their disagreement with certain social structures, with their workings, their inadequacies, their injustices, their mistakes or absurdities, but that never yield their arms to politicians or to some authority in so-cial sciences.
This does not imply an absence of dialogue but emphasises that they do not have the same economy, or the same imaginary. It is no coincidence if the memory of that experience with Christo is coming back to me now, because the approaches I have observed at Le Fresnoy are deeply similar.
I am happy to see society being de-bated in this way and the position that art-ists assign themselves there, deliberately choosing to ensure that their language cannot be reduced to others, thereby pre-venting a confusion of reality and the real.
Which brings back another memory, that of Jean-Luc Godard at the Verger Urbain V in Avignon, in 1967, after the screening of La Chinoise. Mobbed with questions about current events and political theories, with demands for analyses, he replied that he was a filmmaker, that we must first watch the film, the assemblage of images, speeds and sounds in order to understand his ideas. The meaning was there and could not be reduced to any argument or rhetoric.
Or again, these words by Leos Carax in an in-terview with Jean Michel Frodon : “My projects never start with an original idea, an intention. Just two or three images, plus two or three feelings. If I find correspondences between these images and these feelings, I edit them together.” 7 And, “I don’t make overtly political films, but I still believe that cinema is here to change us and change our angles of vision.”
Christo, Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax—each his own way of saying that art, cinema and poetry each has its space, its own enigma in which to seek out the singularity and autonomy of their “languages.” Ideas, sensations and reasons have another weight here, another purpose, another form. That is the choice which the works in Panorama are constantly activating when they meld their voices with those of the times, and of time.
When it comes to expressing the pain inflicted by racism, its low-volume work, then fiction takes over, bringing back to life the Hottentot Venus, her fragmented body. It reverses the extreme alienation of those poor limbs to make them radiant with a won-derful “pink” through the slightest of those torn-up fragments. These become sacred forms raising up a shrine, preserving them from the manipulations that they were and still are subjected to.
Confronted with the confusion of feelings, stereotypes of the day, submission to the order of technologies, artists have recourse to the powers of surprise, of childhood, to the dreams and veils of the imaginary that swell and invite our lives, in a way sometimes unexpected, sometimes “twisted,” to sub-vert order and rules, to sound the voices of humour and irony which twist those straight lines obliging us to be “the follower of a follower.” “Next!” as Jacques Brel would have said. Pigeons; Eggheads after egg-heads. They are also veritable detonators against cer-tain figures on the #MeToo scene. Like the Pantalone of commedia dell’arte, they exist from Antiquity to the grotesques of the Renaissance. They have the sometimes pitiless features of art brut or wear the grimaces of digital morphing by Joan Fontcuberta. Their bodies buckle from the pleasures of power and the Other’s body.
Many role plays speak out to us here, from one scene to another. Some of the violence is inspired by mises en scène, war “games” parodying biographies of killers who have become B movie producers, re-placing the duels of valiant samurais.
From one fiction to another, figures aplenty emerge and are handled, not for their bodies now, but as abstract “composition-combinations” within allegories or lived experiences or experiences re-played in the theatre of installations.
Sometimes, too, whatever the mask or skin for the role, the figures, despite voluntary distancing, cannot be kept from mnemonic emotions that are often melancholy or tragic. “Persona—Person—Personage” all combine.
Dora García evokes the deception of women who are always hoping for a world to come that does not come, the impossible authentic recognition of their identity. The world, withdrawing into itself, offers only the dismal repetition of the same exits. “Getting out of the space” now becomes an adventure driven by dream.
EXIT, extricate, extract—that is what migrant peoples embody. These people who cross the land to reach the sea. They cross deserts, repair their sandals in order to go on walking, abandon their baggage, their clothes, and then their lives. They leave nothing, except perhaps, thanks to one or two who respect their dreams, a nameless tomb, in the hope that one day a family, a community will recognise them. Where are they, today, these ghosts and these possibilities of imaginary isles to be reached? A song says that this refuge is always alive for those who follow them and sign anew.
Most of these works have no formal narrations but “complex,” unexpected elaborations that keep us awake, seeking out a virtual egress from the maze. I think of John Cassavetes’ words about Love Streams: “Making a film has nothing to do with the action, the story, the continuity, it’s how you stick to the subject. Whenever someone thinks something is going to happen in the film, something else happens. Well, it could have had a better plot, but you are making a film and you say to yourself, this could be my last film. So why would I tie myself down with a plot?”
This is where oneiric thought takes flight. It projects us into a private diary or a legend, offering us the felicitous perspective of heading towards the “Elsewhere.”
Nothing is affirmed or stable. Art, music, friend-ship, the autonomous life of objects work together to neglect the exclusively material dimension of our lives. What I see is transcended by “another sight,” a new knowledge of genders and kingdoms. Nature incites us to wager on the presence of the invisible, on the uncertainty principle. The world is a suppo-sition, potentially verifiable, as quantum physics regularly tells us.
Rejection of a tyrannic system of perception and interpretation is the guarantor of this effec-tive liberty. It does not confront politics, it avoids, it neutralises it. The hypothesis is clearly to choose Elsewhere as analyser of our situation. Here, the works strive to reach that place by mixing dream, science, utopia, the displacements of thought, and movement, which is paradoxically more concrete than any foundation.
Imagine a city. It is not its buildings that make it alive, for the city is a fabric embroidered with in-habitants, with trees, with time, with memory, with circulations and tremors. Its network is a system of blood vessels. It is constantly making and unmaking the map. An epidermis dreaming a fiction between science and animism.