Between the abolition of the guillotine as a mean of capital punishment and the opening of Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou, Etienne Chambaud develops and questions the concept of the "beheaded museum". The artist's thesis is to consider the vertigo as the very condition of the exhibition, the museum thus being seen as both a place to exhibit and to exclude. The exhibition Counter-History of the separation, held at Centre international d'art et du paysage on Vassivière island explores this idea of a permanent imbalance between the materiality of artworks and the language that is holding them together.
Text by Etienne Chambaud
The film which lends its name to the exhibition, co-written with Vincent Normand, is a documentary featuring the Museum and the Guillotine. The voice-over script, which underpins the film, is composed of lexicological entries and other fragments. The images that follow are filmed on a device inspired on the multiplane camera,
where hands, cut-off from their off-screen bodies, attempt to synchronize the handling of documents to a prerecorded voice.
The film begins in the Reign of Terror period, when the public museum and the guillotine were both invented and ends in 1977, when the last beheading took place in France and when the prototype of the transparent, postmodern museum opened: the Centre Pompidou. The film focuses on the moment of dissolution of the political
functions of the guillotine and the modern museum, which give way to what the authors define as the "Decapitated Museum". In the "Decapitated Museum", the gash (the guillotine) and the genealogical suture (the modern museum) dissolve, and what is exhibited is the separation or rift between the displayed objects and the narrative that attempts to link them (cultural heritage, politics, and so forth). The film analyzes its own operations —in addition to those of the guillotine and the museum— in terms of autonomy, the machine and auto-eroticism and settles on the "moment" of the Bachelor Machines as a figure of the film's methodology: images and text coexist in their relation of mutual exclusion and thus remain precisely as "bachelors".
The exhibition Counter-History of Separation takes up the contradictions, tensions and misunderstandings of the film and redeploys them on the Arts Center’s space itself. It explores the idea of vertigo as the very condition of its own functioning: a constant imbalance between the materiality of the works and the language that grounds them. The exhibition is therefore constructed around the Arts Center bookstore, where the film is projected and a certain number of books, chosen by the artist, are on display. The bookstore is its pivotal point: the first and last room of the exhibition. Thus, the exhibition begins with text and returns to it. The bookstore is both a library, where one can find the sources and the more or less distant, perhaps illusory or even lost origins of the exhibition, and a shop: its by-product, its remainder.
But, in fact, the exhibition begins even before one enters the building. On the meadow outside, a dead-weight made of concrete moors a taut steel cable leading to the top of the lighthouse where a cable goes through a window and hangs down vertically inside. It is as though the lighthouse were anchored to the island. The mobile is suspended to the island—a mobile with restricted movements, an (im)mobile: Model for Hospitality, i.e. Exclusion. After leaving the bookstore, we enter the nave with its Museum Visit. The space seems empty, except for marble captions and a plinth which expose—as negatives—some genre paintings and a classical sculpture.
In the workshop, we find hanging objects suspended from wires that disappear through the ceiling. In the study center, we see stones, which have been collected from the island, stacked one on top of the other, forming unstable columns supported by the weight of objects which can only be seen from the floor below.
A neon cross-out bars a window in the small theater. It marks the separation between the architectural forms and the landscape they frame.
At the theater, on occasion, Diderot would see a play several times; sometimes he would close his eyes, other times he would hold his hands over his ears.
Interrupt the flow of rivers! The island of Vassivière, an old hill, becomes an island, after a dam is built. This site is written by this rift, this punctuation on the landscape. The island stages the healing of this cut through the recreation, replantation and regulation of nature. The Arts Center, designed by Aldo Rossi and Xavier Fabre, is more sculpture than building. Through this staging, the island becomes a plinth. It is a written sculpture, whereby the sign of a lighthouse represents a lighthouse, a roof becomes an upturned boat and three steps are a theater. The architecture wears its writing, its relation to its pedestal on its very surface. It expresses what the island seeks to conceal, namely its artificiality. Hence the site's beauty –its strangeness, its unnatural nature— is confronted with the layers of texts that write it. These include: the region's energy requirements, in the name of which the hill first became an island; the gash of concrete; the planted forest; the construction of the bridge and the Arts Center. Its cultural programming seeks the reconciliation of opposites: there is no “sculpture park” here, but rather “sculpture woods”. Different ways of framing are played out on this stage in the shape of an island. Frame is superimposed upon frame—by turns including and excluding. The frames recall Martin Heidegger's concept of Ge-stell, meaning literally the enframing, the plinth, which he defines as modern technology's mode of revealing. To paraphrase roughly, it is the way a frame calls for another frame in order to secure its enframing. The exhibition Counter-History of Separation develops from a reflection on these superimposed mises-en-abîme. It brings a new frame into the frame, but is more interested in what the frame frames off-sight than in what is framed within the frame. Its focus is not on what the exhibition exposes but on what it excludes.