BY Dan Fox in Features | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

‘... In the Cherished Company of Others ...’ by Marc Camille Chaimowicz

A new work is a retrospective, of sorts

BY Dan Fox in Features | 01 OCT 08

How does ‘… In the Cherished Company of Others …’ relate to your earlier work?
That’s a big question, but the negotiation of an answer is a metaphor for my working method and that’s why it’s interesting. The choice I made from the early 1980s to tentatively establish a broad arena within which things might get made has enabled me to develop a wide vocabulary both in terms of issues and materials to work with. I’m working more closely to the way writers might in that they establish certain parameters of sensibility and then elaborate new work to look at different aspects of their central concern. Notably, someone like Gustave Flaubert, who entrusted his sensibility to that which he knew well, which therefore meant he wouldn’t really step outside of it. Some of his works may deal with the specificity of revolutionary France but he would still site his provincial bourgeoisie within that revolutionary moment, so there is continuity. Establishing my sensibility by questioning self-censorship was quite a radical gesture at the time because it was frowned upon and seen as dilletantism. It went against the morality of the period which was based on terms like ‘commitment’ and ‘rigour’ – which is such an ambiguous word and yet has been a key term for such a long time that it features in probably every art school report ever – but which can actually be tyrannical and constrictive. ‘… In the Cherished Company of Others …’ at de Appel is a retrospective of sorts but a very associative one that includes the work of other artists, such as Richard Artschwager, Tom Burr, Michael Krebber. When reconfigured for the Kunstmuseum aan Zee in Ostend it will also index the museum itself, designed by Gaston Eysselinck and built in the 1950s. Inevitably there may be misunderstandings and surprises arising. It’s seemingly the case with something like the de Appel show where the exhibition can become the work even though, in terms of its constituent parts, it might largely be a question of re-presenting any number of pre-existent pieces. What is specific, therefore, is the choreography between works. An implicitly slow time base exists within my work, so there’s a built-in, perpetual reassessment. There’s a term the French have, la boucle, which means ‘the belt’ but has more resonance in French, implying a circularity. To give a specific example, I’m thrilled to have been invited to do a solo show at the Vienna Secession next year. This gives me a 15 month lead-in time, but more to the point, beyond the august tradition the Secession has, it may also solicit a response that takes into account the fact that I was living there 20 years ago, and is likely to produce a project that will have, in all probability, a 20–25-year time base. In my book Café du reve (1985) there’s a chapter entitled ‘Letter from Vienna’, and I’m thinking that it might be interesting as a kind of solipsistic exercise to answer, two decades later, my own letter. Of course, whether I will actually show work from that period is still open to question.

Who, if anyone, commissioned the work, and how did the context it was to be exhibited in influence its creation?
The mechanics of the invitation came from the curator Alexis Vaillant, who I worked with on two previous occasions. I presume that the director of de Appel, Anne Demeester, prefers to invite guest curators – although I can’t be certain. Anyhow, Alexis contacted me. As a result of conversations I’d had with him, we first thought of doing the show in three parts, with each part probably being autonomous within each of the three floors of de Appel. We then thought it would be interesting to contextualize my work, which isn’t that well known in the Netherlands, with key pieces from the early to mid-20th century ‘golden age’ of Dutch architecture and design through furniture and architectural maquettes. Then we thought we’d bring in other artists, but the floor plan changed in that we chose not to use the top floor, which is awkward. This made the project more compact. From that we thought it would be more interesting for us and more vital for the viewer to integrate works by others throughout the project. We proposed a different route from de Appel’s problematic entranceway via a charming 18th-century spiral back staircase, which was colour-coded by painting in a soft peachy orange the hand-rail that led people upstairs. We gave ourselves two weeks and forfeited some possible space, which we preferred to hold in reserve, simply to store excess work that we may or may not have had the need to call upon.

How long did the work take to complete?
This relates to the earlier issue of how one defines a work and how it evolves over time. At de Appel we included Jean Cocteau, built into which is an implied protocol that changes and mutates with each showing, partly for logistical reasons but also because it makes it that much more vital to reconstruct. The piece was originally shown at Norwich Art Gallery in 2004, and came out of a very informal conversation with Lynda Morris. She reminded me that I’d talked of Cocteau with her many years ago. I’d actually taken her to see work by him and had then elaborated on my interest, which in retrospect was to do with how B-list people can be more interesting than A-list. Although Cocteau is a highly thought of figure I guess I’d been drawn to him in an intuitive way by the fact that he pre-dates great bricoleurs such as Andy Warhol, so I was more attracted to him as a symbol of a certain sensibility than by the actual work he produced; the fact that he was able to apparently effortlessly pop about from one practice to another seems like a commitment on his part that he would have been penalized for by the dominant figures around. He was socially very active and had the broadest address book, which I found intriguing. He was close to Jean Genet but also to Winston Churchill, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – that’s very Warholian. So from that Lynda and I picked up a conversation we’d had 20 years before and I suggested we might investigate the possibility of doing a kind of portrait in absence of any of the work by the person being portrayed. That was the point at which the work became more malleable. That is, of course, consciously recognized by the fourth showing of Jean Cocteau, at de Appel, now perhaps a microcosm of the whole show in that it is self-contained as ‘a work’ with its own guest-list of artists.

Did the work change during the making of it?
The principle of any given project is to establish that element of chance, to a certain extent, which happens when working with others. What was interesting in Amsterdam was not just bringing in the work of others but that I was co-curating a show with Alexis and there were times when decisions were made in my absence which I never would have thought of taking but was very happy about, so it set up a certain gamesmanship. There were instances when he would go off to lunch and by the time he’d come back I would have set up something else, a dynamic he’d never quite imagined. I find in the way I work there’ll be a delay, because there’s a distance in terms of concept, realization and geography. I’m entrusting things to someone else, there’s no chance of me validating its production, yet with all the risks that implies it does also enable me the significant pleasure of hopefully being pleasantly surprised by something I’ve probably generated in a small maquette or non-professional technical drawing. In a way it’s the very antithesis of studio practice whereby you often spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the work to the point that you know it too well, really.

How did the title of the work come about?
There’s something that increasingly worries me about major solo retrospectives. They seem kind of false because the implication is that the work emerged from a complete vacuum as if the external world does not exist. Take a distinguished show such as Cy Twombly at Tate Modern: imagine if there was just one little flag by his friend Jasper Johns in that exhibition, it would galvanize the show. I think in that sense the title ‘… In the Cherished Company of Others …’ hopefully implies that, although we might choose to court solitude to a high degree, we should never find ourselves fetishizing the sadness of isolation, conceptual or otherwise.

Is the finished work what you expected it to be before it was made?
Prior to the installation of Jean Cocteau at de Appel I got a great text message from Alexis which just said: ‘Electric Chair OK’. But until the piece was couriered in I didn’t know which Warhol it would be. It’s rare, is it not, to be literally surprised by one’s own work? Beyond that there’s also the people who have been consistent in Jean Cocteau: the guests, notably Warhol, Enrico David and Paulina Olowska. Both Enrico and Paulina have come up with quite different proposals which have an impact on what one sees. If the work was to eventually settle in a collection, one would have to build in a detailed protocol as to how that mutability can be recognized with the evolution of the piece. It’s also manifest in material terms; for instance, the lampstands by the Giacometti brothers which we were able to borrow from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts for the first two showings but are now no longer available. My solution was to theatricalize the visual by having full-size colour, actually very grainy, photo enlargements of them simply stuck onto plywood. A vindication of circumstance echoing Cocteau’s way with bricolage. I’ve heard a rumour that, for the showing in Ostend, we may get a Marie Laurencin drawing, actually of Jean Cocteau, which would be great! It’s true that there’s much time spent on negotiation but there are moments of delight. The fact that Jean Cocteau changes in each specific showing avoids boredom. In a sense it’s an ideal scenario in that there isn’t the anxiety associated with new work, given that it isn’t yet proven, but equally there is a degree of surprise. We should resist the tyranny of linear time for one which is much more elusive, labyrinthian, gracious and once understood, perhaps even kindly. Once we recognize that it can fold in on itself – wherein, for example, recent events can seem distant and more distant ones seem closer – we then have a greater fluidity of means. With For MvR (2008) at the 5th Berlin Biennial, although I responded specifically to the site of the Neue Nationalgalerie, and worked for the first time on sheets of polished granite and marble, I was nonetheless able to call upon a personal grammar of means – that of the provisional leaning of decorative panels, which I first developed in Vienna in 1982. That I’ve been invited to prepare a show for the Secession next year will imply the likelihood of extending that procedure of possibilities … and so the future will, in all probability, fold itself into the past, the better then to accommodate the present.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz spoke to Dan Fox.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).