Memory, word games and puzzles; knots, conjuring tricks and cinema
Memory is an inexhaustible cultural goldmine. Sigmund Freud, W.G. Sebald, Barbra Streisand and Plato, amongst others, have offered words of wisdom about this elusive, intractable topic and its connections to knowledge, trauma, exile and love. Countless writers and artists use representations of memories – memoirs, souvenirs, photographs, memorials, albums, archives – as inspiration, material or form. By virtue of its omnipresence, memory is also as banal as it is universally resonant. So, to remark that French artist Aurélien Froment’s work traffics in memory is perhaps predictable. However, Froment approaches memory from the somewhat less conventional angle of its mechanics, which is both a refreshing and challenging aspect of his work. Memory runs through his cultivated maze of installations, photographs, videos, performances and publications like Ariadne’s red thread – which could also be a red herring, a diversion that provides a false sense of interpretative security in the midst of shifting associations, repetitions and slippages.
Mnemonics, puzzles, word play, hints and tricks all feature prominently in Froment’s work, but never as simple forms of entertainment. One might say that he binds conceptual acuity and playful dexterity as tightly as one of his mariner’s knots (the video Rabbit and the photograph Fisherman’s Knot, both 2009, provide demonstrations of these). ‘Froebel Suite’, his 2009 exhibition at Gasworks, London, paid homage to Friedrich Froebel, the German educator and founder of the kindergarten, who famously linked the acquisition of knowledge with recreation. Froment’s exhibitions are not quite playgrounds, though visitors frequently play, and therefore learn. Shapes and objects favoured by Froebel – cylinders, spheres, square blocks and string – recur throughout Froment’s projects. In Forms of Nature, Forms of Knowledge, Forms of Beauty (2009), these elements, along with paper, scissors, modelling clay and writing instruments, are sorted in a plywood box for visitors to play with, directly referencing games Froebel crafted for children. For In Order of Appearance (2009), Froment’s performance with actor Youri Dirkx at Centre Pompidou’s ‘Nouveau Festival’ and at PERFORMA 09 in New York, enlarged versions of them served as crucial props on a blank stage-set constructed out of curtains of white paper, hanging from suspended rolls.
Who Here Listens to BBC News on Friday Night? (2008) – the title of a mnemonic for the first few lines of Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table – comprises a set of white cards with various pairs of illustrations on their flip-sides, set out on a glass table printed with a grid, which visitors may use to play the common, card-matching memory game Concentration, or invent their own game. In exhibition after exhibition, playing cards, postcards, image flash-cards and reproductions are dealt, shuffled, traded, displayed and even tucked into the specially conceived lining of a black robe (present in the installation L’imagier/Image Seller, 2009), created in honour of 19th-century music-hall performer Arthur Lloyd, otherwise known as the ‘Human Card Index’.
Froment’s interest in the possible knowledge and meanings produced by the montage and permutations of images rather than their linear sequencing can be related to his early days as a projectionist in a Paris cinema. So can the freestanding wall/mock projection booth, Cinemeccanica (2009), and the artist’s fascination with Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo (1982). Froment’s Werner Herzog (2002) is a model of Fitzcarraldo’s folly – the steamer carried over the mountain – built from published blueprints the artist found at the cinema, while his publication, Like the Cow Jumped over the Moon (2009), includes an interview with the director, a reproduction of the blueprints and other related documents.
It is impossible not to draw a connection, at least a formal one, between works like Froment’s film Théâtre de poche (2007), which shows a magician against a black background, conjuring cards of images of all sorts – from artefacts to sportsmen, from nature to anatomical illustrations – and arranging them on an invisible screen, and the intellectual work of cultural historian Aby Warburg, whose fragmentary corpus was capped by his now only partially extant Mnemosyne Atlas – freestanding panels Warburg covered with some of the thousands of reproductions and press cuttings he collected to trace the survival of antique forms across the ages. That lineage is further emphasized in Froment’s The Fourth Wall (2009), an assemblage of images on four linen panels, which are accompanied by a publication reproducing silhouettes of those panels with the images blanked out. In their place, textual descriptions allow the reader to imagine the absent visual forms. If such a connection holds, Froment has replaced Warburg’s aim to demonstrate visual affinities across time and cultures with a focus on the infinite potential of the visual document to be handled, transferred and toyed with. Froment doesn’t want to pinpoint memory; he wants to keep it suspended in a game of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’.
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