At the Fondation Cartier, Alain Séchas installed five, human-size cartoon sculptures of white cats, skeletons, and balloon-headed figures all realised over the past three years and a 22 minute video made with his students at the École des Beaux Arts in Nîmes. The sculptures are like mock puppets and seem to be surrogates for the artist, aping the process of becoming one. His colours are those of blood, opposition and religion red, black and white; his themes are parenting, teaching and the absurdity of school days a time of life which H.L. Mencken described as 'the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence'.
Parenting is the subject of Las Papas (1995), in which five human skeletons sit at classroom easels, all working on a painting of 'Papa' the dead painters caricaturing a living subject. Someone seems to have cracked a joke, the effects of which have sent one of them floorward onto his rump. Similarly, in Le Chat (The Cat, 1996), a human-size, 18th-century cat writes a letter to his sister, with an eagle quill pen, about a portrait he has just completed, with great effort, of their father. Both works caricature portraiture and what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of a precursor's influence. There's no real ranting or complaining, but you do get the feeling that feathers have been ruffled and that his hip cats are not only commemorating culture's ubiquitous old boy but also putting him on.
In Professeur Suicide (1995), set in a dark room by itself, five smiling, balloon headed students sit cross-legged watching a video, shown by their professor, of about 40 balloon men having their heads popped with a pin. The Andante from Haydn's F Major Quartet plays against the more subdued sound of the pin-popping rising from the screen's speakers. At the very limit of black humour, the teacher presents an anti-redemption metaphor as a last resort.
Two other cat pieces complete the sculptural programme: Hugh (Chat Guitariste) (1997) a silent, dwarf-sized, pigeon-toed and knock-kneed electric guitarist and El Pacificador (1996) a giant cat dressed as a boxer, arms dangling at his side, with punch-drunk eyes that spin, abruptly stop, then spin again. Both seem caught in the throes of being silenced by an atavistic voice of authority.
Finally, the video, Animator (1996), synthesises Séchas' themes. Shot frame-by-frame in the style of a long rock video, hapless students moving in staccato fashion fend off devil profs to the sounds of New Wave rock. Electric guitars clang away and vocals offer laments with lines like, 'what else can you do if the kids don't like it?' The students vessels to be filled emerge like chrysalises from blue cloth ironed by devils, or are forced to eat black gruel in a constant struggle with their masters.
A stickler for detail, Séchas handles his themes with cartoon gloves. Aesthetically, what occurs is a crossing of sensory modalities between the proximity of touch, as seen in the tactile abruptness of slapstick and the hard-edge style of cartoon animation, and visual refinement and analysis, which is revealed in his meticulous rendering of the pieces themselves. When Haydn accompanies cartoon ghosts and popping heads, the eerie violence and a distorted sentimentality of A Clockwork Orange is brought to mind. But in this anxiety-ridden cartoon world, a regenerate, cabalistic reason in the guise of authority holds a whip over the heads of tyros.
Despite the fact that these sculptures and videos are entertainment vehicles, they possess an undeniable integrity and personality. Bruce Nauman is a notable comparison, particularly for his own highlighting of humour's dark side and questioning of authority. Like Nauman, Séchas doesn't bash you, or the archetypal patriarch, over the head with political rancour or complaint. He does, however, whack his self-surrogates while setting up a matter-of-fact representation of the classic double bind concerning the drudgery of self-becoming.
The creator of Disneyland was an arch-conservative who built an empire on the exaggerated pratfalls of cartoon animals in distress. His message was: Goodness prevails for those who are Good. Séchas creates an odd dichotomy in which resignation to the brunt of drudgery is wholly accepted. His form and style, and, above all, the underlying attitude are reminiscent of Disney, who, despite his pragmatic sensibility, relied on exaggeration and comic wit to voice civilisation's plight in the Modern age. Séchas portrays adolescent dilemma and the travails of self-becoming from the position of an observer. He lets the viewer decide which side to take, if there is one to be taken. So it's hard not to go away feeling somewhat anxious a bit like the punch drunk cat hanging on the horns of a dizzying human dilemma.