BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 07 MAY 95
Featured in
Issue 22

Philippe Ramette

BY Carl Freedman in Reviews | 07 MAY 95

Philippe Ramette is perhaps best known for his off-beat inventions that combine a sense of futility with the absurd, and which often introduce an element of self-inflicted danger or punishment. Intolerable Object (1991), provides a good example: this simple contraption consists of a brass headset holding a powerful magnifying glass which concentrates the sun's rays into a single beam, slowly burning a hole into the wearer's head. In his solo show at the FRAC in Reims, Ramette showed several of these strange devices. Outside a window, high above the cobbled courtyard, was a short plank of wood with a bracket fixing it to the wall. Clearly resembling a crude diving board, it invited the viewer to make a bone-crushing leap into the void. Yet this invitation is only extended as a hypothetical gesture; the diving board lacks the physical properties to operate in any serious functional capacity. Its status is one of stylised representation - an object designed for contemplation rather than action.

Inside the main gallery space, originally a 17th century Jesuit mission, were a row of Reproduction Tables (1995) which, whilst still retaining an element of stylisation, did look as if they could be put to actual use. The tables were broad and factory-like, and attached at one end was a type of stocks mechanism, designed for rear entry. The reproducing couple are held by the stocks and locked into position - one stretched out face down on the table-top while the other works away behind. It's a bleak vision; the dehumanisation of the sexual act - and its reduction to a form of imprisoned labour - suggests a sinister scenario in which procreation becomes an industry, consumed by the pernicious and all-powerful forces of the capitalist mode of production. Ramette's sense of the futile and the absurd attains a tragic dimension in a forlorn pair of tiny wooden crutches, resting pathetically in a corner of the gallery. Made for a crippled baby, they have no practical use, except to provoke profound and uncontrollable feelings of pity and sadness.

Although Ramette's work is primarily fictive, it does have the property of potentiality - a latent ability to function in real time and space. In one video piece, Ramette carried out demonstrations of some of his less hazardous pieces. These included Time Travel Armchair (1993) - a chair with an L.E.D. clock-timer which determines the length of time the user will sit in the chair - and Object for Seeing Oneself Watching (1990), a brass headband with a small mirror attached at the front by a short, jointed arm. However, there is a certain degree of ambiguity involved in the functional nature of these works. Are they Ramette's personal property, to be used only by him and simply in the gallery for display?; or can the viewer participate and experiment with the works? This ambiguity caused some problems with Revolt Landmark (1994), a heavy, metal ball attached by strong elastic cord to an iron pole mounted on a spring base. When the metal ball is thrown it returns at some speed, destroying the operator and anyone else within ten feet. During my visit to the exhibition, one innocent elderly viewer tested this piece and was forced to dive to the floor in order to avoid an earlier than expected death.

Other works in the exhibition were less effective. A row of wooden shelves displayed a series of gilt-rimmed plates decorated with blurred silk-screened video stills. Showing festering wounds, amputations and other assorted injuries, apparently taken from news footage of a hospital ship from the Vietnam War, the plates are intended for domestic use, with the images lying hidden beneath food. As their gruesome subject matter is slowly revealed in the course of eating, it is expected that vomiting will be induced. Another row of similar shelves supported square lumps of concrete with holes bored out to contain a metal cylinder. These Foundation Stones (1995), modelled on those used to inaugurate the start of construction on a new building, filled two walls of the gallery, but, despite the repetitive insistence of their presence, any meaningful interpretation remained elusive.

This propensity to fill much of the gallery with rows of virtually identical works, (the servility of which seemed to have no other function than stretching single ideas to cover more wall space), coupled with a somewhat prosaic installation aesthetic, undermined the poignancy of the overall exhibition experience. But Ramette does show us a peculiarly individual imagination; one that discovers and creates a strange, quietly disturbing world in which desire, pain and knowledge are inextricably linked.