In the objects assembled for Jean-Luc Moulène’s exhibition ‘Torture Concrete’, natural and industrial materials co-mingled, like hybrid specimens created by procedures as reminiscent of science as of art. Moulène has a tendency towards experimental dissection and re-combination. This was best exemplified in Tête-à-Cul (Paris, spring 2014) (literally: Head-to-Ass, 2014), wherein a synthetic and jaundiced skin strained through the cavities of an animal skull like a tumorous agglomeration. It was actually a party balloon fixed with resin, but showed an expansive force simultaneously being restricted by and assuming form through rigid encasement. Moulène uses bone as a way of coupling individual works and, at a signifying level, connecting them and us. With one exception, four photographs dispersed throughout the exhibition featured human heads: a woman’s gaze meeting ours, her cheek resting sideways; the crown of a blindfolded man’s veined and shaved head; and two pieces of cranium photographed in the manner of specimens.
In the gallery’s rearmost and biggest room lay several blue blankets (the type used by removals companies), each carefully folded and displayed in a large T-shaped formation. Nestled on them were many concrete ovoids, which quickly revealed themselves as the bloated heads of what looked like aliens and monsters. Pinched eyes, clenched fangs and tiny horns all strained against a resilient grey surface, while each title indexed the source creature (Tronche / Gills Alien (Paris, May 2014), 2014, for example). By filling dollar-store Halloween masks with wet cement, Moulène had stretched both rubber and character to the cusp of exhaustion, animating dumb matter and eliciting confused pity.
Knots function as a kind of brainstem for Moulène’s work. In one room, several bronze sculptures with chalky patinas – four green, one black – sat at eye level atop metal rods, calling up torn and twisted flower petals. To make each of these things, an electrical cable was tied in a knot before being embedded in clay. The cable was subsequently pulled free, cutting a torn and swirling hollow into which bronze was poured, using the lost-wax technique. Nearby, a chic wooden table with sharply bevelled edges held a striking blown-glass object (like a braid) in blue, red and yellow: Blown Knot 6 32 Borromean, Varia 03 (CIRVA, Marseille, 2012) (2012). With his inclination toward existential signage – skulls, bones, flowers, knots, heads – Moulène often seems to catch the transition between waking and dreaming. Meanwhile, his disregard for divisions of labour – between art and science – also facilitates a relaxed oscillation between taught intellectualism and aesthetic refinement.
The three-ringed Borromean knot was a favourite conceptual model of Jacques Lacan. In and of itself, Moulène’s repeated use of the knot as a mechanism for sculptural processes, combined with so many skulls and heads, would not signal a fascination with psychoanalysis. His decision to title the aforementioned glass work Blown Knot 6 32 Borromean, Varia 03, however, framed that combination as an abyss of theoretical interest. Impressively, these artworks tapped the gravitas of that dark space without disappearing into it. Moulène’s specific relationship to psychoanalysis seemed not simply referential but affective. Through his compounding of the psychological and haptic resonances of bone, bronze and concrete, an affective circuit was opened between the artwork, the viewer’s body, and their foreknowledge of that body’s dissolution: the balloon might fail, the glass could shatter, the skull will disintegrate. Although this is a recurrent theme within histories of art, Moulène’s methods are arresting in their specificity.
It was to the concrete heads that the show’s title seemed most closely, and problematically, tied. The word torture has immutable associations. While the show flirted with a wicked magic, ‘Torture Concrete’ never compelled ruminations on systemically meted agony: which is what torture is, precisely (concretely, even). As his punning titles suggest, Moulène is an artist who enjoys playing with the multivalence of language, but I wonder whether certain words shouldn’t be made an exception and given immunity from such easy slippages of meaning? This is a chilly note to end on. With the mishandling of a single word, the exhibition’s political orientation was diverted from the body to the artistic appropriation of misery; an unfortunate side effect of a group of works that, otherwise, continues to twist, bind and release in my own head.