BY Dan Fox in Features | 10 OCT 04
Featured in
Issue 86

Close Watch

Marc Camille Chaimowicz' work is intoxicated by longing; yearning for a place never lived in but rather dreamt of or briefly tasted

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BY Dan Fox in Features | 10 OCT 04

I am standing in my living-room in east London, drinking coffee. It’s a modest-sized lounge in a row of identical Victorian terraced houses: crumbling cornices, bay windows, an old fireplace. Gazing out of the window (for it seems that an important proportion of creative time must be given over to staring into space, pottering around the house or strolling through the park), I consider my surroundings. I’m only a visitor, the temporary custodian of rented lodgings, although familiarity and routine make it feel like home. It provides the sanctuary of books and records, the company of pictures on the walls; shelter to mementoes. This lounge is one of a few provinces in the house, a collective group of states that legislate retreat, the balm of occasional solitude and the comfort of friends.

A David Bowie song plays in an adjacent room: ‘You, you can be you / and I, I’ll drink all the time …’. I consider the fact you know nothing about me. You possibly care little for writing giddy with anecdotal whimsy and first-person indulgence. (The critical trade traditionally favours asceticism.) It’s good we don’t know each other, though. Privacy is the daylight side of introspection and self-preservation. It’s a sovereign realm, my very own border-patrolled free state.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Bliss No. II,1989-90, oil, charcoal and collage on board and canvas, 183 × 110 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London; photograph: Mark Blower 

Stood, as I am, by the fireplace, an image comes to mind. It depicts the artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz leaning against a mantelpiece. Casual but dapper, he’s sipping tea (or, judging by the light, perhaps a preprandial pastis), and he too gazes out of the window in his room in east London. Propped against the window is what appears to be part of an arch, yet it doesn’t seem to serve any architectural purpose. Rather, its latent decorative and sculptural characteristics are emphasized. It’s more architectural performance than function, an elegant two-step of scale and proportion. At the artist’s feet is a triangular arrangement of miniature ziggurats. Slightly at an angle to the repeated horizontal spacing of the floorboards, they look as if they could be pieces in a game, markers in their starting positions, awaiting play. But most games require more than one person, and the artist appears to be too lost in reverie to join in. The arch, too, is in fact only half an arch. Another part is required for support. Perhaps this is what occupies him. Maybe nothing occupies him. This is an image firmly rooted in the first person and can only really be grasped and described in the same register.

It is 1978, and the interior forms part of a set of rooms in what was then the artist’s studio on Approach Road, an elegantly constructed environment in which ecstatic attention is paid to the minutiae of domesticity, the formalities of daily routine, of being a host, guest, loner, lover, friend. Every element – the hue of the curtain fabric, the play of light across an escritoire – was carefully designed, fabricated, found and placed. Approach Road was for living and thinking, writing letters or simply making tea. But making tea is not always that straightforward. An exquisitely designed cup and saucer may evoke an atmosphere or conjure a memory – a difficult exchange between friends, a chance meeting. Viewed as a whole, Chaimowicz’ work – which since the 1970s has comprised photography, writing, performance, installation, sculpture, furniture, fabric and wallpaper design – speaks of the basic units by which we trade private desires with social hopes. Even at its most formally restrained, as the artist’s recent work has become, it could be viewed as an extended performance, intoxicated by longing and yearning for a place never lived in but rather dreamt of, or briefly tasted.

‘Marc Camille Chaimowicz’, 2020, installation view, Cabinet, London. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London; photograph: Mark Blower 

Chaimowicz’ art is almost invisible, for it can only be described as a manner of living: the applied arts literally applied, or transversalisme, as the French put it. Critical traction on the work cannot really be gained other than through self-reflexivity. It is all in the details; the nuts and bolts of it are the process and method underpinning our daily lives, our phenomenological experience of the world; an experience that is dictated according to the inherited methodology of simply being a human embedded in a certain society at a certain point in history. Born in Paris, Chaimowicz moved with his parents to the suburban new town of Stevenage in 1954. This displacement and his dual British/French citizenship have informed his work ever since. As he said of his 2003 installation Jean Cocteau – a re-imagining of the French artist’s apartment, which included work by other artists alongside Chaimowicz’ own furniture and sculpture – it is ‘a sort of fantasy about that which is Parisian. This has to do with the reclaiming of what I felt had been taken from me in my formative years. If somebody in his early childhood is removed from a particular cultural environment and then has to process that relatively brutal displacement, that person is liable, is he not, to fantasize?’1

Almost illicitly romantic, the work nevertheless also manages to retain a harder edge of inscrutable pragmatism, a reserve born of more formal concerns with the utility of objects, of architecture and sociability. Intangibly associative, it’s perhaps also quintessentially New Romantic, open to the sensibilities of a popular culture that plays with sexual ambivalence, theatrical atmospheres, vocabularies of historical nouns the extended meaning of which ‘belong beyond language’: Berlin, Paris, Vienna. Adolf Loos, Cocteau, Marcel Proust. Like much of his work from the 1970s and early 1980s, the rooms at Approach Road figured heavily in the iconography of Partial Eclipse, a 1980 performance piece reincarnated at Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Berlin, in the winter of 2004. It speaks of the tension between the need for solitude and that for company: my need to be me, your need to be you, and where those demands meet. In a room starkly illuminated by fluorescent strip lights is a free-standing projection screen, and facing it is a wooden chair. Kraftwerk’s icily metronomic ‘Metropolis’ plays. As the song comes to a close, the lights go down and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music gently begins to unfold its cyclical patterns with somnambulant warmth. A set of slides are projected, depicting the artist engaged in various tasks around his domestic environment, at first alone and then with an androgynous female companion. They are composed with extreme care and precision, razor-sharp as if to emphasize the importance of the tiniest gesture or moment. Flowers and cacti appear. Details of furniture, of a drinks table, suggest a guest about to arrive or depart. Details of recumbent bodies suggest a post-coital calm, perhaps regret. A figure paces around the screen and chair, interrupting the projected image as he circles the room. (When the piece was first conceived this was the artist himself.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Untitled, 1992, oil and ink on board. 67 × 51 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London; photograph: Mark Blower 

For most recent performances, a young man roughly the same age as Chaimowicz is in the photographs has taken his place.) A female voice describes the interior with an air of detachment, though not dispassion – ‘the room is silent save for the ticking of clock. The pale green wall has a hint both of dust and of peppermint … ’ – then the trajectory of a liaison: ‘of shared pleasures in silent dialogue …’. Eno discreetly fades, cold fluorescence kills the dark and Kraftwerk reassert the relentless indifference of the metropolis. Partial Eclipse is Proustian in the extreme, deep-focus concentration and elaboration on the orbits of memory. ‘He thought of the tyranny of words … the necessity and delight of reverie … of the aesthetics of solitude, of the symmetry of their liaison, once harmonious and classical in its proportions …’. Celebration? Real Life (1972– 2000) is more extrovert in character, almost garrulously convivial by contrast. Objects and trinkets scatter the gallery floor, some elements subtly modified or replaced each time the piece is shown: tacky beads, magazines, a bust of Beethoven, a photograph of Lenin, another of Janis Joplin, souvenirs, tat that keeps up with the times. A mirror ball hangs low near the floor, exploding and sprinkling dissolves of coloured light around the room.

For the original installation at Gallery House, London, in 1972, Chaimowicz offered visitors cups of tea and friendly conversation. Records played in the background: Bowie, The Who. Gustav Metzger, exhibiting upstairs in the same show (while Stuart Brisley lurked in the basement – what a snapshot of early 1970s British art that must have been …), remembered most of all the air, heavy with odours and heat from the lamps.2 Celebration? Real Life is formally casual, yet it is almost anything but that. Its theatrical lighting ensures each element has equal weight, precise and jewel-like, no matter how mundane or quotidian. Strewn as if in the aftermath of some kind of party, each particle of dust and glitter is like a madeleine, laced with narrative history and purpose. Yet this is not to say the work is sentimental. Rather, it serves as an inventory of devices enabling personal passage through social waters. In the book Café du Rêve (1985), a semi-diaristic confection of memoir and correspondence, Chaimowicz further contrasts the tensions between internal individual sovereignty and the external world. Against delicately patterned backgrounds, postcards and photographs, travel and idle moments of repose and contemplation in foreign cities are explored as ways of assessing one’s own transformation in light of personal liberty. The book describes the emotion rather than the motion of travel, a guide to using the acquired romance of place: how to drink architectural detail, the tranquillity of a park or a tree-lined avenue. Again he oscillates between microcosmic personal detail and macrocosms of universal experience: how simple hotel stationery can convey the bittersweet feelings of itinerancy, the idea of a couchette on the Trans-Europe Express to Venice in contrast with the thing itself.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Beyond Exchange, 1989-1990, oil and charcoal on board, 110 × 122 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London; photograph: Mark Blower 

‘Rare is the city in which we can both work and dream … happily, here in this complex and effervescent city I have been able to do both.’3 Standing in my living-room in east London, I lean against the mantelpiece and gaze from the window. The light is a dispassionately flat November grey. But now I enjoy the greys, ‘a reservoir of nuance and colour’4. Bowie is still singing, from Berlin in 1977: ‘Sometimes you get so lonely / sometimes you get nowhere / I’ve lived all over the world / I’ve left every place.’ I think again of Chaimowicz stood in his room on Approach Road in 1978, and how his work is so embedded within the daily exigencies of simply being human – here, now – as to seem evanescent. ‘Remembered … a classic Chinese side-table in the Victoria and Albert Museum, so fine that within the abundance of the collection it is hardly noticed or is mistaken for a museum fitting. Made of deep, subdued mahogany, the rightness of its proportions and the usage of material are such – its quality being so understated – that it becomes, in its perfection … invisible …’.5

1 Marc Camille Chaimowicz, ‘1000 words’, Artforum, February 2004, p.110–111 
2 Marc Camille Chaimowicz in conversation with the author, November 2004 
3 Café du Rêve (Editions du Regard, Galerie de France, Paris, 1985) p.109 
4 From Partial Eclipse, as reproduced in Café du Rêve, ibid, p.82 
5 Ibid, p. 57 The book Celebration? Real Life Revisited, 1972-2000, co-edited by FRAC Bourgogne; Cabinet, London and L’Office/ENSBA, Dijon, with the support of the Henry Moore Foundation, will be published in January 2005.

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

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