Taking advantage of a pause between exhibitions at FRAC Franche-Comté, Besançon last year, the artist Béatrice Balcou temporarily occupied two of the exhibition galleries to present a programme of works that shared her concerns with time and labour. ‘Chaque chose en son temps’ (‘One Thing at a Time’) took place on the afternoon of Saturday 7 September 2013, and included works by Balcou, Manon de Boer, Carole Douillard, Mark Geffriaud, Laura Lamiel and Marie Lund.01 If time has been a major preoccupation of contemporary art, it has also proved to be something that visitors of museums and other cultural institutions struggle to spare – speeding through exhibition rooms, sustaining the frenetic rhythm that their professional and social life dictates. The efficient management of time, the rationalisation of collective and individual uses of time and space, and the erosion of the boundaries between working time and leisure time are all concerns that, although not evoked explicitly by Balcou, came to mind while engaging with the transient situations set up by the artists.
The efficient management of time, the rationalisation of collective and individual uses of time and space, and the erosion of the boundaries between working time and leisure time … came to mind while engaging with the transient situations set up by the artists.
Spot-lit at her desk, Lamiel kept herself busy throughout the afternoon working on a series of ink drawings. In Trois ans, trois mois, trois jours (Three Years, Three Months, Three Days, 2012–ongoing), Lamiel repeats the same sequence of signs, which spiral in and out in concentric circles. As her hand distributes these signs, time and movement seem to unfold on the space of the drawing paper, constructing a new, fictive spatiality. A finished drawing, leant against the wall by her desk, allowed viewers to explore Lamiel’s labyrinthine motif while they continued to look over her shoulder. Across the room others were similarly absorbed – in different places across the two exhibition spaces, five people were seated quietly reading Homer’s Odyssey. Re-activating the work La Marée (The Tide, 2010) by Mark Geffriaud, the five volunteers first recalled museum invigilators and their patient guarding of valuable artworks. Instructed to read at their own pace, here, however, each reader proceeded as they would have done at home – coming and going as they wished for the duration of the exhibition. The only demand on the readers was that as they left they put the book down in the exhibition space, marked at the page where they had stopped reading. In this brief restaging of the piece, which normally entails a complete reading of the epic poem, the readers’ restless and repetitive patterns of movement materialised a private act of reading in the public space of the exhibition.
Meanwhile, for the entire afternoon Balcou performed one specific activity: wrapping and unwrapping three frames in bubble wrap. Placed upon trestle tables, their corners carefully protected with foam, the frames and Balcou’s actions referred to an everyday and usually hidden procedure, here executed as a precise loop that accentuated the delicate movements involved. Transforming the work of the art handler into a performance, Balcou gracefully moved from one end of the table to the other, rhythmically shifting the frames back and forth. Balcou’s Untitled Performance (2012) took place almost directly opposite the choreography of Cynthia Loemij as captured by Manon de Boer’s camera. In the 16mm film Dissonant (2010), de Boer observes Loemij as she listens to Eugène Ysaÿe’s ‘Three Sonatas for Violin Solo’, before attempting to dance to the music after it stops. Loemij’s ten-minute-long silent dance piece is captured in three-minute-long fragments of film – the duration of a 16mm roll – and is repeatedly interrupted by a black screen: cuts that invite the viewer to imagine his or her own version of the moves in response to the sound of the dancer’s feet.
In 2009, Yve-Alain Bois asked: ‘Can an artwork rebel against the fast flow of art tourism? Can an artwork force us to alter our viewing habits?’02 Exploring the ways works such as ‘a small genre scene by Edouard Vuillard, a still-life by Giorgio Morandi, a monochrome wax painting by Brice Marden, a pencilled grid by Agnes Martin, or certain Rothkos’ offer the possibility to ‘freeze time, to reach utter “repose”’,03 he suggested that these paintings may have the ability to decelerate the gaze. He argued that by incorporating ‘the duration of perception into their aesthetic structure’ through their use of colour contrasts, these works implicitly demand weak lighting, and so entreat us to move closer to the canvas to study the surface, the line, a texture.04 Bois also expanded his field of analysis to the moving image, and considered the approaches of film-makers who utilise slow motion and real-time observation to evoke a suspended temporality, as in Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), his five-hour-long take of John Giorno as he sleeps, or Empire (1964), in which the Empire State Building is shot for a duration of over six hours and then projected at a slower speed to make the passing of time almost imperceptible.
Writing in 1967, Maurice Merleau-Ponty described a similar state of absorption caused by viewing a short film depicting the hand of painter Henri Matisse in slow motion:
The impression was prodigious, so much so that Matisse himself was moved, they say. That same brush which, seen with the naked eye, leaped from one act to the other, was seen to mediate in a solemn and expanding time – in the imminence of a world’s creation – to try ten possible movements, dance in front of the canvas, brush lightly several times, and crush down finally like a lightning stroke upon the one necessary line.05
Merleau-Ponty’s remarks suggest that not only does slow motion change our vision of Matisse’s act of painting, it also appears to alter the act itself, giving form to minute movements and gestures unconscious even to the painter himself.
Twice over the course of the afternoon, Lund’s The Roof Holding the Walls Together (2010) was performed by a guide usually employed to give tours of architecture. Based on a talk given by a Danish architect about a museum he built more than twenty years ago, the guide describes the absent building, encouraging the audience to visualise it and embark on a virtual tour of the museum. This invitation to imagine one’s body in a narrativised space seemed to underscore Balcou’s desire for the audience to have a focused physical and mental engagement in this afternoon-long event.
In the other room at FRAC, and in parallel to Balcou’s own art-handling performance, an actual technician, preparing for the next exhibition, spent the afternoon constructing six white painted plinths. He shared the space with Carole Douillard, who was actively trying to fall asleep, rolling her body within a blanket and covering her eyes to protect them from the bright lights of the space. Douillard’s A Sleep (first performed in 2005) revealed a necessary unproductiveness, in contrast to the display of labour being shown next to her.
Sleep has become “an unreasonable, unacceptable affirmation that there might be limits and thresholds posed by living beings to the allegedly irresistible forces of modernisation.”
Douillard’s piece brought to mind Alex Cecchetti’s performance Seven Brothers:Choreography for Sleeping Dancers (2012), in which he instructed six dancers to lie on the floor and fall asleep before the audience was let in the space. The seventh dancer whispered a story to the spectators who were invited to remain in the space until the dancers woke up. In his 2007 essay ‘On the Ends of Sleep: Shadows in the Glare of a 24/7 World’, Jonathan Crary investigated the ways modern society appears to consider sleep a monstrous anomaly working against the grain of non-stop, global economic activity.06Crary reminds us that sleep connects with different aspects of the distribution of time in our society as well as the cyclical movements between light and darkness, and thus plays a central role in relation to the broader conditions of human perception and experience. Crary affirms that, under late capitalism, sleep has become ‘an unreasonable, unacceptable affirmation that there might be limits and thresholds posed by living beings to the allegedly irresistible forces of modernisation.’07
Douillard and Cecchetti appear to share a desire to expose the vulnerability inherent to sleep as well as to undermine simple oppositions between activity and passivity, playing on the double meaning of ‘performance’. Although Douillard’s A Sleepwas set in tension with the productive activity going on around her, her work nevertheless drew a parallel with the similarly relentless activities of Lamiel and Balcou, all of them embodying different figures of exhaustion, some moving towards it, others entirely succumbing to it.
Balcou’s programme orchestrated different relations between work and repose, art and labour, blurring conventional distinctions between them. A dizzying diversity of rhythms and compositional patterns overlapped within this curated situation: the mechanic humming of the film projector, the violin sonata, the dancer’s steps, the sleeper’s repetitive gestures, the oscillating rhythm of Geffriaud’s ‘tide’, the art handler’s working routine… The durational quality of the works tested a multitude of spatial and conceptual combinations.
Through the constellation of works choreographed in the vacated spaces of FRAC, Balcou invited the viewers to engage in a proposition that was more introspective than contemplative. Although slowness and silence dominated my initial sensual experience, incessant activity, extenuation and obsession soon appeared overriding themes. Perhaps one could have felt unsettled by this relentless choir of repetitive patterns and methodical gestures. Yet the beautiful thing about the certain madness that Balcou assembled was that it was quite short in the end.
Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Slow (fast) modern’, in Jeffrey T. Schnapp (ed.), SPEED limits, Milan: Skira Editore, 2009, p.123.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964, p.45. Merleau-Ponty refers to François Campaux’s film Henri Matisse (1946).
Jonathan Crary, ‘On the Ends of Sleep: Shadows in the Glare of a 24/7 World’, Quaderns portàtils, no.8, 2007, available at http://www.macba.cat/uploads/20070625/QP_08_Crary.pdf. Crary has recently published a book based upon this essay: J. Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London and New York: Verso, 2013.
J. Crary, ‘On the Ends of Sleep: Shadows in the Glare of a 24/7 World’, op. cit., p.7.